Religion and Its Objects

UFO religions—or should they now be called UAP religions?—have long been of interest to scholars of religion.  A recent piece on Religion Dispatches titled “With Release of Pentagon Report, UFO Narrative Belief System Is Suddenly Supported by Military Witness Testimonies,” by Diana Pasulka, explores this.  Anyone following mainstream media is perhaps experiencing a bit of whiplash on the topic since, prior to admission of interest by the government, the official stance was to ridicule the entire topic.  That’s the reason what were long known as Unidentified Flying Objects now have to be called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.  Since a government can never admit it made mistakes, it simply changes the terminology.  My interest here, however, is in the connection with religion.

I’ve explored the connection between horror and religion from time to time—ahem—and so it is natural enough to wonder about the relationship between religion and UAPs.  (Or should I stick with UFOs?)  The two have some commonalities.  Initially, both deal with the unknown.  Indeed, the word monster comes from a root denoting an omen, or a revelation.  Something isn’t a revelation unless it’s been keep hidden.  So with UFOs.  The government’s long interest, which had been somewhat successfully hidden, allowed for a reveal.  Religions, however, tend to thrive on hidden things.  The monotheistic religions, for example, claim to inform us about what God has chosen to reveal about (generally) himself.  Even today when pushed into a theological corner, believers will appeal to mystery.  Both monsters and UFOs live in mystery.

Science prefers things out in the light.  Is it any wonder that scientists are reluctant to apply themselves and their hard-earned credentials to the UAP problem?  Those of us in religious studies generally have little to lose.  It’s not like we’ve got prestige on our side, or some billion-dollar grant riding on our reputation.  We can afford to take a look and monsters and other unknowns and see how they trigger the religious impulse.  Pasulka’s article has more to do with credibility.  UFO religions have long struggled with being considered outsider belief systems.  UFOs were publicly ridiculed, so any religion that focused on them was, by extension, laughable.  I’ve long believed that ridicule serves little purpose when it comes to belief systems.  Making fun of a mystery is less common than shaming those who believe in what we’ve been told definitely isn’t real.  Until suddenly it becomes real.  Is there any question why religions develop when mysteries remain?


Altared States

Religion Dispatches is a great website.  I used to write for them from time to time, and according to Google they were probably the most read of my internet publications.  I’m not sure what happened, but a few years back time simply evaporated.  These days literally the only time I have to get things done is on the weekend.  A simple thing like taking the car in for inspection takes advance planning and can throw off my entire schedule for the week.  I have difficulty finding time to write for Horror Homeroom these days.  That’s a long preamble to saying I saw an interesting article by Hollis Phelps on Religion Dispatches titled “Hulu’s ‘Hamilton’s  Pharmacopeia’ Shows that We Can No Longer Ignore Connections between Religion and Drugs.”  There have been a number of suggestions that drugs and religion are related over the years, but our “Christian” culture has declared the former taboo.  (Except wine, of course, and even that’s suspect.)

Photo by Alex Kondratiev on Unsplash

This article has me thinking about chemistry.  Not that I ever did very well in it.  Still, I recall hearing one high school teacher or another saying life is organic chemistry.  I’ve come do doubt the standard definition of life as I’ve aged, but there’s no doubt chemical reactions are a large part of the somatic existence we all experience.  Eating leads to chemical reactions to break down the chemicals in food.  Some of them are good for us, others are not.  Some (but not all) of the really dangerous ones we outlaw.  Drugs are a good example.  I don’t use drugs, but I’m aware that many religions do.  I don’t doubt the altered states of consciousness that reportedly arise from the responsible use of such drugs.

I haven’t watched “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia” (I have no time).  Still, I have to wonder why Christianity, in particular, came to declare its own war on drugs.  A large part of it, I expect, was the belief in the imminent return of Jesus.  You didn’t want to be caught unawares.  Then there was also the sad fact of abuse of controlled substances.  Alcoholism and the opioid crisis are reminders that these unfortunate aspects can still cause serious problems.  At the same time, research is demonstrating that religious experience and the use of some drugs are related.  American Indians, at least some of the tribes, found religious significance in peyote.  There are present-day religions devoted to cannabis.  Does it all just come down to chemistry?  I don’t know, but if there’s a drug to increase the number of hours in a day that might be a real revelation.


Hereby Resolved

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing.  Having had a good Calvinistic upbringing, I’m a natural self-corrector.  If I’m aware I’m doing something wrong, I attempt to change my behavior right away.  This makes annual reviews at work exceptionally uncomfortable for me.  I’d much rather have my boss point out foibles as they happen so that I can stop doing them right away.  I realize my mindset here may be weird to those who were raised in more normal ways, and employers love process.  So I sit here in Ithaca on New Year’s day, preparing to drive home to face all kinds of unfinished business from 2019.  I’m still doing research for Nightmares with the Bible, thus it’s not ready to go back to the publisher or series editors yet.  I’ve started a new round of queries to agents about one of my novels, but I haven’t sent them yet.  And don’t even mention projects that need to be done to the house.

Life is busy.  I’ve taken on some new duties at the church I attend, exemplifying that old saw “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”  As the pressures from that obligation mount, I start to think that most people don’t have any idea just how all-consuming writing a book can be.  I work long days and although I don’t commute much any more, most of the rest of each day is taken up with writing and reading so as to write some more.  I hesitate to call myself a writer since I make laughably little lucre from it.  I can’t stop myself from doing it, though.  And although it’s the season for resolutions, I don’t plan to stop.  I know from work that graphomaniacs can be a problem.  Anything can be overdone.  On days when I don’t have to work I have to be pried away from my computer.  Otherwise I’ll write all day long.  It’s an issue, I know.

Perhaps because life on the national scale is so depressing, writing about things like horror movies is a great release.  I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had the chance to write pieces for venues like the excellent Horror Homeroom.  I used to contribute to Religion Dispatches.  That time has been sucked into getting my books that nobody will read finished.  Having written that self-disparaging remark I have to remind myself that one of my alumni magazines published a notice about Holy Horror without me having to send said notice personally.  That self-disparaging thing requires some fixing, I guess.  And were I not too busy already in 2020, I’d start on it right now.


Headliners

I sometimes wish I was a journalist. Just this past week a couple of people questioned my journalistic skills for an opinion piece I wrote for Religion Dispatches. I’m fully capable of professional research, but who has the time? Still, being a journalist might be fun. Thinking up clever headlines would be challenging day after day, but nevertheless, it might be enjoyable. Editors who lay the articles next to each other on the page must have a sense of irony. This past week in the New Jersey Star Ledger the central headline read “Killer tightens its grip on N.J.” The column to the right began “Christie to mingle with the uber-rich.” Having lived in New Jersey under Christie’s entire reign, I’m no fan. I’ve despised bullies since I was a kid, and rich bullies are worse than the working class variety. New Jersey certainly seems no better off to me. Now he wants to be President.

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The real headline, however, about the killer in New Jersey is not yet another prison-break story. It deals with heroin overdose deaths. According to the article, per 100,000 people in the U.S. 2.6 deaths are from heroin overdose. In New Jersey the figure is 8.3. New Jersey, as the most densely populated state (1200 people per square mile, I once read) has its share of problems. Most of us like to pretend that drugs are somebody else’s issue, but I’ve known addicts and they are not evil. When life offers you unrelenting recession after recession and all attempts to better yourself run up against the 1 percent, frustration is inevitable. Even earning a doctorate will only lead to jobless misery. What more can you do than get an education? Heroin is dangerously addictive and it makes the user feel great, I’m told. Society doesn’t offer many other options. At least in Rome they had bread and circuses.

He who would be President, however, can’t be concerned about that. The uber-rich must be fed. And fed. And fed. Those whose ambition to high public office is naked power would be foolish to ignore their fellow plutocrats. Down here on the streets, things look a little dicier. Although I think I understand why many turn to chemical relief, I’ve never been tempted by drugs myself. One of the reasons I turned to religion was the prevalence of drug use in the town where I grew up. There seemed to be no future in substance abuse. I may not have chosen the most promising of ways to move ahead either, in retrospect. Now I find myself living with a governor who represents all that’s wrong with government. And if you’re going to die of drug-related despair, it seems like his particular state is the place it’s most likely to happen. Long live the king!


P. T. Mammon

Phineas Taylor Barnum is frequently treated as a figure of cynicism personified. As the founder of what would eventually become the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, P. T. was a noted hoaxer and scam artist. He capitalized on the fact that people will pay to see anything they are gullible enough to believe. Unfortunately, many human beings were exploited for their unusual characteristics, but he was also known as a philanthropist with an eye for reform. Most people don’t realize that Barnum’s early career involved being a salesman for the Sears’ Pictorial Illustrations of the Bible. From Bible salesman to huckster extraordinaire. The great American success story.

In what I see as a related article on Religion Dispatches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, has taken legal action to move Occupy London protestors from its property. As religions go, it is difficult to conceive of a more established, conformist church than the C of E. (Well, maybe the Roman Catholic Church could vie.) St. Paul’s Cathedral actually charges an admission fee (not a cheap one either), perhaps cashing in on Mary Poppins; Feed the Bishops, I believe it’s called. The reason that the Cathedral is seeking to remove the undesirables (the cathedral is next door to the London Stock Exchange) is that they interference in business. Hard to charge admission to people who can’t come in. It’s not so much to save souls as it is to horde pounds. Problem is, the message of ancient Christianity more closely matches that of the Occupy movement than it does the Church of England. Barnum knew the selling power of religion. So do bishops and countless priests. How long do you suppose the clergy would remain if Christianity went back to the “tent making” model of the first century? I suspect there would be quite a few more prelates at Occupy London.

Somehow money and religion have become all tangled together. Not that I would begrudge any clergy of a fair salary—I’ve been on the receiving end of not receiving adequate pay myself, and I wish it on no one. When money, however, is the sine qua non of the religious establishment, where has compassion gone? One would like to think that clergy would be among the first to stand in solidarity with those protesting unfair business practices. But ah, the church is very establishment-oriented. Not just the C of E, either. Most churches have fallen into the comfortable zone of supporting the system and teaching their adherents that this is all in the divine plan. A kind of cosmic quid pro quo. According to the Gospel writers Jesus chased the money-changers out of the temple. Phineas Taylor knew that giving people what they wanted often trumped the honest truth. “The noblest art is that of making others happy,” he once stated. Somewhere along the line, the admission price shifted from the circus to the cathedral. There is one born every minute, indeed.