The idea that deities are out there, but are actually just highly advanced or super-powerful aliens is a relatively popular concept in science fiction. It manages to mesh religion with logical, scientific thought, running with the assumption that these two things are incompatible otherwise.
I think it shows up a lot in sci-fi, because it allows writers to draw on existing myths, legends, and beliefs without actually introducing a mythology into their world.
Marvel’s Thor (and his entire family, home, and backstory) is probably the best-known example of this trope. Everything about him is based on the figure from old Norse myth, but within the Marvel canon, he is part of a super-powerful alien race upon whose exploits the actual Norse mythology was based. Instead of being a god from a mystical realm, he is an extraterrestrial from a planet that can be reached with science, and whose powers can be explained with science.
We also see this in the Original Series Star Trek episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, when the Enterprise’s away team encounters an alien who claims to be the Greek god Apollo. It’s revealed that this character and a bunch of his homies, who are all analogous to a Greek god or goddess, visited Earth way back in the day and inspired the Greek mythological tradition that we’re familiar with.
And then, of course, there’s the biggest doozy, and the one that I tried so hard to forget that I actually succeeded (Lady Bacula had to remind me): Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In this, it turns out that aliens have influenced dozens of ancient civilizations over the years, posing as their deities, and they only really wake up and peace out of Earth’s business when Indy shows up. Or at least I think that’s what happened. Fuck that movie.
This is also a popular explanation for, well, all of human civilization if you want to believe the Ancient Aliens guy, so there’s that.
This concept is sort of strange to me, because it both acknowledges that a religious tradition is worshiping something that actually exists, while simultaneously renouncing the actual divinity of whatever that thing is. It also usually uses religions that society considers primitive, such as Norse or Greek-mythology-inspired paganism, which tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth because it has some cultural superiority attached to it—“We know these beings are just otherworldly, but these morons thought they were gods! Haha!”
What do you think of this idea, dearest readers? Are there any examples I’ve missed?