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?


Laugh Out

Is it safe to discuss this now, or are people going to laugh at me?  That’s the feeling that has attended any talk of UFOs until recent days.  Ironically, if the Ancient Astronaut people are right, we may’ve been visited from elsewhere ever since we’ve called this planet home.  In any case, now that UAPs are out of the bag, some are beginning to discuss how they might impact religion.  (Yes, “impact” can be a verb.)  Thus I came across a story titled “If UFOs are real, how would they impact our faith?” on Times NewsKingsport Times News, based in Tennessee, ran this as an opinion piece.  While not deeply probing, it did raise the question of how all the recent UFO news affects people’s religious outlooks.

Image credit: George Stock, via Wikimedia Commons

As a country we’re both deeply religious and in denial about the fact that we’re deeply religious.  I’m convinced that this is behind the political woes we face: the educated have become more secular and religious literalism is considered laughable.  Yet it’s clearly there.  Ironically, UFOs were considered laughable until the US Navy admitted that they were real and had no idea what was going on.  Laughing at something we don’t understand is hardly ever a step towards enlightenment.  So the article concludes that even if aliens are here, things will be fine if we continue to go to church as normal.  Any extra-terrestrial visitors change nothing.  Strangely, one of my earliest memories is of attending a rural church service one evening where the program was on flying saucers and Christianity.  This was entirely in earnest, and nobody in the congregation was laughing.

Others interested in the topic have discussed religion and UFOs over the years, but perhaps the answer is yet another of those unknowns.  Religion is a remarkably adaptive phenomenon.  Scientists suggest it’s hardwired into our brains, even as those same brains give us evidence that some of those beliefs are misplaced.  What we can’t do is stop thinking about it.  As I watch politics continue to tear this country apart, I realize it’s not really politics we’re talking about after all.  It’s religion.  Meanwhile people are learning that the government has been keeping secrets about what’s up there in the heavens.  There are elected and appointed officials who’ve gone on the record saying they believe UFOs are demonic.  While that hardly seems like a scientific approach to something truly unknown, it is a religious one.  Only those who laugh rather than listen will find this news at all. 


Is This Contact?

And speaking of the X-Files—but ah, I shouldn’t jest!  In fact, I strongly advocate avoiding the ridicule response when a claim seems outlandish.  A few weeks ago I posted on a review of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence, a book just out.  The review I’d seen made reference to the aspects of religion and paranormal in the book, and given the mainstream media’s treatment of the topic of UFOs lately, I thought I should see what was being said.  As you might expect for a collection of essays, the tome is a mixed bag.  While ridicule is excluded, a healthy skepticism is necessary.  Amid the contributors with known credentials are those who make claims that are difficult to verify.  Much like the rest of life, you’re left making choices.

Amid all of this, where does religion come in?  Books like this often reveal the deep biblical literalism of our society.  Amid the authors who haven’t held government (although that’s hardly a situation where critical thinking is necessary) or university posts, there is clearly the assumption that the Bible is literally true.  Cherry-picked verses are “explained” by the presence of UFOs or aliens, with the supposition that if it’s in the Good Book it must be true.  This kind of simple credulity is quite common, but it does make you wonder if all the homework’s been done.  I know, I know, biblical scholars spoil all the fun!  If one piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit, however, perhaps the picture hasn’t been put together correctly.

That’s not the extent of the religious—or better, spiritual side of the topic.  Many of the essays are written from a somewhat “New Age” perspective with vibrations, and energy, and universal guidance of spiritual beings.  Other essays deal with government whistle-blowers who seem to tell a coherent story of secrecy and deception on the part of those in power.  No matter how you slice it, reading this book without ridicule is a perception-bending experience.  It may not be the one book everyone needs to read to get up-to-date information on where things stand in public perception, but it will make you think.  Given how much the topic has been in the media lately, and how it has at last been treated without snide asides, may be cause for hope.  “No go” topics may be vanishing, if only because our military admits to taking this one seriously.  And there seem to be, as always, religious implications.


Who’s Upstairs?

The other day the New York Times ran yet another article on UFOs.  This topic, which has been maligned since the 1940s, is now being discussed without mockery in the mainstream media.  Perhaps following the Trump presidency nothing’s impossible to believe.  There are, interestingly enough, many writers who connect UFOs with religion.  And these aren’t all writing about UFO religions, of which there are many.  Exploring the Outer Edges of Society and Mind ran a piece on biblical UFOs earlier this month.  The topic was taboo, of course, when I was teaching (I remember a colleague laughing when I told him I covered it in a course called Myth and Mystery) but it too is now becoming mainstream.  I don’t need to summarize the Outer Edges piece here since it’s easy enough to follow the link and read, but I would point out that a longstanding connection exists between UFOs and religion.

A spate of books on UFOs came out in the seventies and eighties.  Some of those more or less overlooked by the media focused on religion—often the Bible—and how UFOs play into it.  Quite often the biblicist writers identified these unknown objects in the skies as either angels or demons.  This continues to this day with some congressional leaders (many of whom are too religious for the good of the nation) averring that UFOs are “demonic.”  Frankly, if demons are incorporeal, I wonder why they need to fly around in saucers.  Perhaps they too grew up eating too much Quisp for breakfast.  In any case, the connection was made early and it remains.  When we see something in the sky we used to give it a religious explanation.  Now we chant “drones.”

In his article David Metcalfe begins by noting the forthcoming publication of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Contact with the mainstream publisher St. Martin’s Press.  The difference between yesteryear with its Quisp and its flying saucer houses, and today is that people are starting to be serious about the topic.  This, I expect, is one of the benefits of increasing technology.  People are seldom without a camera in their pocket these days and although there are plenty of drones and other strange things flying around, the classic UFO hasn’t gone away.  A generation of people endured ridicule and scorn for being gullible.  Now the gray lady herself is asking questions with nary a smile.  Perhaps we’re becoming more tolerant and perhaps we’re more willing to believe we’re not alone in the universe.  Some would claim that even the Bible got in on the act millennia ago.

Image credit: George Stock, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking Up

A few days ago—maybe weeks—I posted on discovering David J. Halperin’s website.  His book, Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO, had been on my reading list since it came out.  Like Diana Pasulka and Jeffrey Kripal, Halperin is a religion scholar exploring UFOs.  “In its essence,” he writes, “the UFO is a religious phenomenon.”  I would tend to agree although Halperin holds a somewhat different interpretation than many ufologists do.  Noting the deep, Jungian connections with such archetypes as quaternaries, and the profound experiences of death and sex, Halperin builds a case for UFOs as a modern myth.  Myth in the sense that we religion scholars use it, that is.  Myth is not a falsehood, but its exact opposite.  Myth is truth expressed in ways that aren’t, and can’t be, literal.

Using this impressive interpretive matrix he considers some of the classic—and a few novel—cases such as the Socorro, New Mexico case and Roswell.  He traces the phenomenon to its modern beginnings in 1947, but interestingly for a biblical scholar, considers seriously what Ezekiel might have seen.  Here the quaternaries come in quite helpful.  He spends considerable time on the abduction phenomenon, exploring what needs such stories might meet.  Many of them involve individuals in unusual social circumstances and that adds credence to his interpretative model.  He also considers the adjunct Men in Black.  I had been unaware of the Shaver Mystery until reading this book.  He ends by considering John Lennon’s famous New York UFO sighting.

Halperin offers a non-dismissive paradigm that allows for a high degree of rationalism.  Since I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog that the paranormal is kin to religious studies, I’m always glad to see some validation of this when someone publishes a successful book on the subject.  Outrè topics, if they’re to be considered at all, fall within the open borders of religious studies.  Ironically perhaps the most human of the humanities, it is a field rife with unusual experiences that sometimes lie beyond the reach of empirical measure.  UFOs represent the problem of occasional phenomena.  You can’t get them into the laboratory and they aren’t repeatable.  How are we to study them?  Since several military organizations, including the US Navy, are now taking the subject seriously, it would seem that academic fields should follow.  Most don’t, or won’t.  Religious studies is braver, it seems to me, than many disciplines.  It takes on the unusual and tries to find respectful ways to understand what it finds.


No Go Subjects

The problem with being eclectic is that you never catch up with everything.  Although I was once a professor of Hebrew Bible—not technically the field in which I’d studied—I read (both past and present tenses) widely.  Anyone who’s brave enough to follow this blog for any length of time must know that.  I tend to think the element that ties them all together is religion, or a curiosity about religion.  I have read material on science, art, psychology, history, geology, astronomy, literary theory, mythology, the paranormal, religious traditions, monster theory, to name just a few.  Because of my interests across standard disciplinary lines, I often wonder about “no go” subjects.  No go subjects are interests that will likely ruin your prospects of getting either a job or basic human respect.  Although the government is taking serious interest in the topic, one of those subjects is UFOs.

For historians of religion such as myself, the study of UFO religions is sometimes acceptable.  Indeed, there is a correlation between some evangelical sects and the UFO phenomenon.  I experienced that firsthand as a child when my mother drove us to a church meeting where a guest preacher was discussing UFOs and God.  I have only the vaguest recollections of that event in my then young mind, but it did leave me with the question of why respectable people aren’t allowed to look at certain subjects.  Why does taboo even exist in an academic setting?  I recently ran across David Halperin’s website.  I’d known of him because his recent book, Intimate Alien, had gotten a lot of press.  What I didn’t know was that he was formerly a professor of religious studies.

It seems to me that many of the interesting, outré topics fall into the baskets of religion scholars.  We touch the taboo objects that nobody else will.  Why?  Because there should be no “no go” categories.  Sex?  Religion scholars study it.  Politics?  We’ve got it covered.  Paranormal?  We go there too.  Perhaps it’s because religion scholars have so little to lose.  We’re not high on the prestige list.  I tend to think, however, it is because people who go into religious studies are innately curious.  (Not all, of course, but many.)  We’re drawn to that which doesn’t fit into the everyday, the ordinary.  Transcendence, seeking that outside of which we daily operate, haunts us.  Why do people scoff at what they don’t understand?  Doesn’t it make more sense to look at it and try to increase our comprehension?  To me it seems to be basic human nature, even if the interest is literally out of this world.


Looking to the Stars

American Indian culture fascinates me.  As my usual readers know, so does the unusual.  A few years back I read Ardy Sixkiller Clarke’s Encounters with Star People.  Clarke is an American Indian who holds a Ph.D. and had several years of university teaching and administration to her credit.  She has degrees in psychology and education.  In other words, she’s credible.  Being American Indian she’s also aware of the cultural belief in star people.  Those of European descent, often expressing their self-supposed superiority, deny such things exist.  Interestingly the mainstream media seems to have taken an interest in the subject of UFOs lately, and that is also the phenomenon that Clarke investigates in her books.  Her follow-up More Encounters with Star People: Urban American Indians Tell Their Stories is another compelling glimpse into a different way of looking at the world.

The book consists of contextualized interviews with people of American Indian ancestry, and, as Clarke points out, with nothing to gain by telling their stories.  They don’t want their names or locations to be revealed.  They don’t want money.  Many of them don’t even want to be mentioned in a book.  These stories will take you into very strange places.  Places without the filters most of Anglo culture puts before anything that might hint at the paranormal.  I’m intrigued by the nearly universal (outside a narrow European outlook) belief that the world is not as it seems.  Because European-based cultures developed the most sophisticated weaponry and an economic system that takes no prisoners, its view, by default is considered the accurate one.  Time may tell on that.

I read quite frequently about indigenous cultures.  Often widely separated and not in any direct contact, such groups often drew very similar conclusions about the world.  These views are actually shared by those of European stock, but only when carefully labeled as fiction: fantasy, science fiction, speculative stories of any sort.  All of these are widely consumed.  They are also safely considered “not real.”  I’ve been rewatching The X-Files over the past several months.  Its success and its continuing fan base show that as long as we can agree that we’re watching something not true, we enjoy monsters and aliens.  And besides, Halloween wasn’t that long ago.  Still, I wonder if we’re missing out on things we might learn if we’d be willing to consider what the original inhabitants of this continent have believed.  It would take us to some strange places, but we might just emerge wiser.


Too Close?

What with the US Navy admitting that UFOs are real and all, it seemed like a good idea to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind over the holiday weekend.  Like many of my generation I saw it in a theater—itself kind of a distant memory—back in 1977.  I’m not sure why it’s been on my mind lately, but since it’s a long movie it takes a long weekend to accomodate it.  As we settled down to classic Spielberg scenes—lots of khaki and crowds and desert locations—it was a reminder of how silly we all looked in the seventies.  (What were we thinking?)  Other than that the film has aged pretty well.  The plot, although not action-packed, is probing and has several moments that seem to have inspired Poltergeist.  What made the film blog-worthy at this time, however, was the wearing of masks.

When Roy Neary and Jillian Guiler arrive at Devil’s Tower the governmental cover-up is in full play.  A nerve-gas leak—and who can check out whether such a thing really happened?—has a mask-wearing restriction in place.  I wondered where one could get a gas mask today when the crowd scenes of the pandemic won’t even leave a roll of toilet paper behind.  Checking for rubbing alcohol to make homemade hand sanitizer I found it selling for $300 per gallon on Amazon.  Where are we going to get a gas mask in circumstances such as these?  That particular scenario never really stood out to me before although I’ve seen the movie many times over the years.  Back when I was a student at Boston University the school tee-shirt worn by Barry Guiler was the interesting cultural context.

Films that survive the years take on different aspects over time.  Some suggest that a branch of the military admitting to the reality of UFOs during a pandemic was intended to underplay the event.  Others have argued that a similar release of information many months ago received similar lackluster interest.  If there are aliens out there, I have trouble imagining that they’d travel all this way for a synthesizer concert at a national monument that received a major uptick in visitors due to the movie’s release.  Maybe we love our fictional aliens more than the possibility of meeting those that seem to be vexing our navy?  The movie was the right choice for the circumstances, it seems to me.  Some things about the seventies are worth revisiting from time to time.  Strangely, in retrospect, life seemed simpler then.


Still Evolving

Evolution, the 2001 movie, I mean, is good escapism.  Thinking back on 2001, instead of a space oddessy, another piece of news—another national crisis, in fact, dominated.  The film kind of slumbered in the background until we could sort out what it meant to live in, ironically, an unsafe world.  That’s precisely what the movie was about.  I wasn’t thinking that when I recently pulled it off the shelf.  I was simply wanting some fantasy to relieve the daily pressure of living in stress mode.  Besides, it has some of the best alien monsters you could hope for in a comedic setting.  Soon, however, the parallels began to appear.  A source of contamination from outside.  A growing threat.  A government that doesn’t know what to do and that can’t admit its mistakes.  It all seemed eerily familiar.  Dr. Allison Reed is even from the CDC.

Life isn’t constant crisis.  Funnily enough, when Democrats are in office there seem to be far fewer of these large-scale troubles.  “There will be signs,” I guess, “in the sun, moon, and stars.”  The thing about signs is that we’ve left the reading of them up to Fundamentalists.  And Fundamentalists don’t believe in evolution.  Or science.  Or modernity.  Idealizing medieval thinking does come with a price tag.  So I reach for the remote.  While the government has lots of money that it spends on its own volition, the crisis grows.  The alien menace is set to spread across the country.  Although beginning in a different geographical location, all that red on the map sure looked familiar to me.  How little has changed in the last two decades.  Evolution came out before smartphones even evolved.

Meanwhile, practically unnoticed, the U.S. Navy has been saying UFOs are real.  The story, muted and subdued—we’ve got more immediate concerns, such as getting reelected—has been on major reputable media.  When they land on the White House lawn we’ll ask the aliens if they have respirators and masks aboard.  Preferably the kind with face-shields.  In the movie the monsters are aliens.  They’re like an infection, and even hazmat suits can’t keep you safe.  The solution, of course, isn’t fire-power, but a good shampooing.  Now I know you still can’t go to the salon in lots of places, but washing up at home seems to be pretty good advice.  We put the movie on for simple escapism, but there’s no escaping the fact that we now live in an alien environment.


White Rabbit

There are books that make you feel as if everything you know is uncertain.  D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is such a book.  Its subtitle, UFOs, Religion, Technology, only pauses at the brink of the rabbit hole down which this study will take you.  Over the years I admit to having been jealous of colleagues who’ve been able to make an academic career stick.  The credentials of a university post open doors for you, even if you’re a professor of religion.  Pasulka has opened some doors here that I suspect many would prefer to have kept closed.  This is a compelling book, threading together many themes tied to religious studies.  There are things we might see, if only we’ll open our eyes.

Although immediately and automatically subjected to the ridicule response, UFOs are a fascinating subject.  This book isn’t about UFO religions—of which there are many—but rather it connects this phenomenon to the study of religion itself.  In Pasulka’s related field of Catholic studies, there are those anomalous accounts of saints who did the impossible.  Like UFOs, they are subjected to the ridicule response, making serious discussion of them difficult.  Might the two be related?  As you feel yourself spinning deeper and deeper down that hole, technology comes into the picture and complicates it even further.  Pasulka was a consultant on The Conjuring.  I’ve written about the movie myself, but what I hadn’t realized is how media connects with perceptions of reality.  Yes, it has a religious freight too.

Every once in a while I reflect that my decision—if it was a decision; sometimes I feel certain my field chose me—to study religion might not have been misplaced.  Perhaps all of this does tie together in some way.  American Cosmic is a mind-expanding book that assures me all those years and dollars learning about religion weren’t wasted after all.  I had a discussion recently with another doctoral holder who’s been relegated to the role of editor.  We both lamented that our training was in some sense being wasted on a job that hardly requires this level of training.  Still, if it weren’t for my day job I probably wouldn’t have known about this book, and that is perhaps a synchronicity as well.  Life is a puzzle with many thousands—millions—of pieces.  Some books are like finding a match, but others are like informing you that you’ve got the wrong box top in hand as you try to construct the puzzle with the pieces you have.  If you read this book be prepared to come close to finding the white rabbit.


Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.


Headline News

Some headlines just can’t be resisted.  George Knapp: Christian Fundamentalists in the Pentagon Shut Down Government Paranormal and UFO Probes Due to Demon Fears” is one such headline.  It appears on the blog of Jason Colavito, a name I recognized from the book The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture that I read several years back.  Skeptical of many strange claims made, Colavito criticizes journalist George Knapp for some sloppy reporting.  If you go all the way down the rabbit hole, you will end up in some very weird places indeed!  What caught my attention here, however, is the connection between demons and UFOs.  More than that, the claim that government funding was deep-sixed for fear of the Devil.  (Has anyone else noticed that it’s October?)

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about this.  Having grown up Fundamentalist, I often heard talk of the Devil’s wiles.  One of the things he had his demons do, I was told, was fly around in UFOs to deceive people into thinking demons were aliens.  If this sounds far-fetched to you, remember that God made dinosaur bones to plant in the ground to test people’s faith in Genesis 1.  That’s just the kind of universe we live in.  Better get used to it.  The real problem, and one with which Colavito concurs, is that high ranking military officers (and other government officials) believe the Fundamentalist screed.  This is a matter of documented truth—much of our government policy is dictated by the evangelical agenda.  Stranger than fiction.

In 1952 there was a UFO flap in Washington DC.  No matter how you choose to explain it, this is an incident on the public record, and the Air Force responded with its famous temperature inversion explanation.  At the same time, some Fundamentalists were thinking that demons had improved on the bat-wings they’d been using for millennia.  They now zipped around in silvery discs with the same object as they’ve always had—to dis the Almighty.  As entertaining as such a story may be, it becomes scary when it might indeed be the motivation for government action.  I don’t know about you, but when I look at just how much of my meager paycheck goes to the powers that be, I want to know that rational people are spending it wisely.  Wait.  Well, I thought some of them were rational until a couple of years ago, about this time.  In any case, we do get some entertainment value for our cash, which is some comfort I suppose.  Keep watching the swamp!


Paranormal Pilgrimages

Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations.  Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York.  Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles.  One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York.  It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries.  What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.

A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock.  Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion.  People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them.  Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events.  Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece.  But what has it to do with Pine Bush?

Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America.  Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary.  By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded.  There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims.  I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it.  Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder.  I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened.  This is the dynamic of pilgrimage.  Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice.  It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures.  They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world.  And for that we should be grateful.   Even if it’s a little strange.


Unidentified Angelic Phenomena

Few topics have to be approached as gently as space aliens. Those who’ve seen UFOs are subject to an immediate ridicule response partly generated by the belief that galactic neighbors, if any, are simply too far away to get here. So when the Washington Post runs not one, but two stories in the same week about the subject of UFOs, without a hint of snark, it’s newsworthy. I’m in no position to analyze the journalistic findings, but I do consider the idea that other species might be more advanced than we are not at all unlikely. Look at what’s going on in Washington DC and dare to differ about that. Human beings, now that we’ve rid ourselves of deities, have the tendency to think we’re the hottest stuff in the universe.

I’ve admitted to being a childhood fan of science fiction. Space stories were always among my favorites in that genre. When I learned in physics class that travel faster than the speed of light was impossible, I was sorely disappointed. I also learned about the posited particles known as tachyons that do travel at such speeds. This to me seemed a contradiction. Or at least short-sighted. If our primitive physics suggests that some things can travel faster than light, why limit our ET visitors to our technological limitations? This wasn’t naivety, it seemed to me, but an honest admission that we Homo sapiens don’t know as much as we think we do. The universe, I’m told, is very, very old. Our species has been on this planet for less than half-a-million years. And we only discovered the windshield wiper in 1903.

Around about the holiday season people’s thoughts turn to heavenly visitors. What would the Christmas story be without angels? (For the record, some evangelical groups have historically claimed UFOs were indeed angels, while others have called them demons.) The idea was championed by Erich von Däniken, if I recall correctly from my childhood reading. Where angels might come from in a post-Copernican universe is a bit of a mystery. As is how they’d fly. Those wings aren’t enough to bear a hominid frame aloft, otherwise we’d see flying folks everywhere, without a two-hour wait at the airport. Then again, belief in angels almost certainly will lead to ridicule among the cognoscente of physicalism. The presents have been unwrapped, and angels have been forgotten for another year. And who could know better what’s possible in this infinite yet expanding universe than “man the wise,” Homo sapiens?


Meaning What?

An occasional reader will contact me to say that something I’ve been writing about for years has appeared in a major media source. Not the story I wrote, mind you, but in an episode of convergent explication somebody better connected has drawn the same conclusions I’ve been muddling over since the 1980s. So it goes. One such story appeared recently in the New York Times. Despite the title “Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s,” the piece is really about finding meaning. According to the Times, and I’ve been saying this for years, meaning is something that the facts don’t always give. Religion gives purpose to life. Most academics, naturally, ignore it.

The use of UFOs in this story is clearly an attempt at demonstrating the irrational. Those who see such things are the laughingstocks of the “sophisticated” crowd. Anyone who’s attended an editorial board meeting where a book mentioning UFOs is raised will know immediately what I mean. Laughter all around, no matter how serious the treatment may be. After all, only crazy people see them, right? That having been said, the Times article is quite correct that UFO religions are on the rise. Increasing numbers of earthlings are looking offsite for meaning. And who can blame them? Traditional religions often suggest that the beyond, however defined, is much more interesting than the mundane we find laying around all over here. Ironically, this can be a one way street.

What is that?

“Believers” in UFOs often resist the association with religion. After all, isn’t it the religious who are really crazy? As long as people see things in the sky they can’t explain (and this has happened for millennia) there have been Unidentified Flying Objects. Despite Project Blue Book they’ve never been studied in a serious way by science. The few bona fide scientists who’ve dared admit an interest have put their academic or industry jobs at risk. If you wonder why all you have to do is attend an editorial board meeting. We like to laugh at those more gullible than ourselves. As someone once said, indignation feels good. Nothing raises indignation like feeling superior to others. And we feel superior when their intellects are obviously so feeble as to believe in things like religion. Oh, I’m sorry! Were you expecting me to write “UFOs”? Well, go ahead and make the substitution. I won’t be offended. After all, I’ve been saying this stuff for years.