Christian Apologist Attacks "Ancient Aliens" for Believing in Unearthly Entities Based on Ancient Texts
The History Channel gets attacked for a lot of reasons, from its promotion of fake history to its emphasis on extremist perspectives to recent claims by UNESCO that one of its productions actively damaged archaeological research in Madagascar. Yesterday, it also came under fire from Christian talk radio for subverting the Christian worldview. The criticism came on Lutheran Public Radio’s Issues, Etc. program, a show more likely to discuss Biblical interpretation, porn addiction, and current events than space aliens. On the other hand, the same show has a penchant for Hitler and trying to link Nazis to secularism and “Darwinism,” so I guess space aliens fit right in to their areas of concern.
This Issues, Etc. covers Christian reflections on ancient astronauts. It opens with clips from Ancient Aliens discussing “misunderstood technology” and space gods. I disagree, however, with the host Todd Wilken’s claim that Ancient Aliens has “better” narration than Rod Serling’s 1970s narration of In Search of Ancient Astronauts and its sequels. The show’s guest, Kenneth Samples, an evangelical Christian apologist with Reasons to Believe, explains that he is obsessed with watching the History Channel, and both men explain that they disagree with Ancient Aliens and consider it a retread of Chariots of the Gods. Samples says that he considers the ancient astronaut theory to be “an attempt to find salvation from above,” and that the theory is essentially a religious claim competing with Christianity.
Samples places the ancient astronaut theory in the context of religion and philosophy, and he is undoubtedly correct that the hypothesis is a substitute for traditional religion. How many times have we seen ancient astronaut theorists rhapsodizing about the spiritual qualities of aliens? Or even encouraging us to treat them as deities? He says that the claim is also a rejection of secularism, though here is perhaps in more debatable territory. The midcentury ancient astronaut theory of Erich von Däniken, a Catholic, was very much an attempt to fit religion into a secular worldview by making the miraculous and the divine compatible with science. (Von Däniken frequently has discussed his crisis of faith.) I think that Samples errs just a bit in suggesting that the idea is a “rejection” of religion. Insofar as the ancient astronaut theory actually attempts to take ancient religious texts literally and explain them scientifically, it seems not to reject religion so much as to transform and modernize it. Von Däniken has specified that Jesus wasn’t a space alien, so one could be both Christian and a believer in his claims. Modern ancient astronaut theorists like William Henry are explicit in their claim that ancient astronaut theories provide spiritual guidance.
Samples next discusses Christian engagement with the many worlds hypothesis and the question of whether aliens on other worlds were or could be saved by Christ, and he is again correct in noting how difficult it is to make a scientific case that the aliens arrived here. However, he has uses some motivated reasoning in that he admits that looking to aliens for “redemptive power” is a threat to traditional Christianity, and thus his own worldview. He would seemingly prefer aliens not exist since this makes it easier to support the Bible, but this is not a recipe for objective analysis. He agrees with secular criticism of the ancient astronaut theory’s idea that prehistoric people were too stupid to have developed their own cultures, but he does so only because he believes that God would not have given some peoples different sets of abilities than others since Genesis says we are all made in His image.
After the break, Wilken asks Samples about the theory of panspermia—that the building blocks of life arrived on earth via asteroid from another planet—and asserts that atheists support the hypothesis. They purposely conflate directed panspermia (space aliens intentionally seeding earth with molecules) and accidental panspermia (organic compounds or bacteria hitching a ride due to a chance cosmic collision) in order to lump ancient astronaut theorists and “atheists” (equated with scientists) together in opposition to Biblical creationism. Thus, Samples calls panspermia “alien creationism” and says that it is ironic that the “atheist of atheists” Richard Dawkins concedes that we cannot explain the origins of life on earth and therefore has to appeal to an extraterrestrial intervention. Samples says that science has conceded that there is no natural explanation for life on earth, which excites him because it suggests the reality of God, even as they grasp for space aliens to save them from such a conclusion.
Apparently in 2008, Richard Dawkins was asked about panspermia and said that there was a possibility that aliens could have seeded our planet with life, but that they would in turn have needed to evolve. An out of context clip of this was used in Ben Stein’s creationism movie Expelled. Creationists jumped on this as Dawkins admitting that life on earth could not have evolved on its own. He clarified that directed panspermia was a “highly unlikely event” and that “design can never be an ultimate explanation for organized complexity.” Creationists omit this, and the claim returns here in this interview.
Anyway, Samples criticizes the History Channel repeatedly, but he doesn’t seem to recognize that Ancient Aliens isn’t a rip-off of Chariots of the Gods but rather directly based upon it. He also seems unaware that ancient astronaut ideas predate Chariots.
Sample notes the parallels between space aliens and Christian ideas of angels and demons. Sample is careful not to “draw a hard and fast connection” but heavily implies that he believes that UFOs and space aliens are in fact demons. He is less certain that any UFO activity could be angelic. He cites Jacques Vallée to support his connection between UFOs and the occult. While there is much to commend this connection, beginning with the assumption that demons are real probably isn’t an effective way to prove demons are real and piloting flying saucers.
Wilken ends the show by asking Samples how he would answer a Christian who is losing his faith due to the ancient astronaut theory. Samples claims that Christianity is true because it can be verified by historical texts, and we know God is real because the universe if “fine-tuned” for humans. Thus science and history work together to prove Christianity. He concludes by claiming that the History Channel, which he refers to as the “Alien Channel,” is entertaining “but there’s very little history” on it.
Overall, Samples made a good case that the History Channel is bad news and that Ancient Aliens is a pack of lies, but he did not address the underlying problem that if ancient astronaut theories are wrong for using ancient texts and scientific data in service of an ideology, would that not mean that his brand of “reason-based” Christian fundamentalism is on equally shaky ground for doing the same thing? In essence, Samples and Ancient Aliens are making the same claims but differing only in how to define the word god.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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