Television Review

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YOU MAY have come across reports over the weekend that more young people believe in aliens than believe in God. At first sight, this is encouraging news. There are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, and hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe: an elementary grasp of probability, and a modicum of humility, leads you swiftly to the conclusion that there are quite likely to be other planets capable of supporting intelligent life. There aren't any such reasonable arguments for God's existence, so you could see this as a triumph for rationality.

The irritating truth, though, is surely that belief in aliens and belief in God are closely related, and not just in an Erich von Daniken, advanced- star-beings kind of way. As evidence for this view, note that the opinion poll in question asked about belief in "aliens and UFOs" - which implies not just the understand-able notion that they're out there somewhere, but the wholly irrational view that they're already spending some time buzzing airliners and impregnating our women with alien sperm. And while we're at it, the headlines didn't all mention that believers in UFOs are outnumbered by people who believe in ghosts. So it surely has more to do with faith than reason.

The idea that aliens are the new religion gained some credence with Alien Night (C4), which might otherwise have seemed a decidedly unseasonal bit of scheduling. The two programmes in this slot both had a veneer of rationality, especially the first, Equinox: Talking with Aliens. This was a largely sober look at the problems we might encounter when trying to communicate with extraterrestrials, who may not speak anything that we could even begin to describe as a language, and would quite likely have a different set of sensory apparatus.

The project got rather distracted by dolphins - the thinking behind this was that lessons learned from attempts to communicate with our flippered friends would come in handy when meeting aliens, but that didn't excuse handing half the programme over to them. This left no room for contemplation of, say, the sorts of aliens we might encounter: perhaps physics and chemistry place tight constraints on the way complex brains can be constructed, and any species capable of developing tech- nology would inevitably be similar to us in a number of ways. Not that this would necessarily make communication easier - after all, we can't understand most members of our own species - heck, most of the time we don't even understand members of our own families. Or is that just me?

After that, Alien Contact was a surprisingly convincing mock-documentary about the aftermath of earth's contact with alien intelligence in 2001. But the persuasiveness lay more in the style than the substance. Beneath the clever verite surface lay a core of silliness: a new twist on the old Roswell conspiracy theories, and a line about the knowledge that we are not alone putting an end to bickering among nations. The combination of paranoia and idealism was awfully like what you get if you take all the good bits out of religion: ritual, decent music, codes of morality.

Even taking a secular view, the replacement of God by aliens starts to look rather depressing.