Diana Walsh Pasulka is back with a new article in Tank magazine following her unceremonious exit from social media a few weeks ago. That’s when she said that a hacker had infiltrated her social media accounts and posted wild conspiracy theories in her name, some of which she conceded had been taken from her private emails. In her new piece, Pasulka returns to the subject of her expertise, religious belief, and outlines the many ways that Americans have dealt with the decline of traditional religion by creating an alternative spirituality mediated through technology and centered on “improbable coincidence” as signs from the divine.
The majority of the article is devoted to the “nones,” the reductive name assigned to a growing grab-bag of people who do not identify with either traditional faiths or New Age-style spiritual groups—people who are detached from group worship in its many forms. These include atheists, agnostics, and the “spiritual but not religious” category. Pasulka runs these groups together and suggests that they share a spirituality in which focuses on the unity of mind and matter:
The answer to the question of how the spirituality of the nones might assuage their fears and anxieties comes in the form of nothing less than a revolution in the metaphysics of their cosmology. At the basis of their ideas of spirituality, which are varied, is a monism, a rejection of the dualistic frameworks of the more traditional Abrahamic religions.
Let’s put a cork in that one. While some New Age types might well be monists who believe in a supernatural dimension of mind and matter, I’d be willing to bet that many of the “nones” are actually materialists and don’t see spirituality as an essential function of life, or see the need for any spiritual element of matter, whether infused, oppositional, or otherwise. Her evidence, such as it is, comes from James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), whose milquetoast pantheism she sees as a key element of American belief. She even identifies Avatar and its ilk as a form of neo-animist sacred text: “In this sense, this new form of secular theology derives themes from a variety of Indigenous cultures that also posit the world as alive and sentient.” It’s worth noticing that Pasulka doesn’t provide data to support her claims about the spirituality of the “nones,” and she speaks only anecdotally about their supposed obsession with coincidences and synchronicities. I’d further guess that many “nones” who do see value in simplistic, moralizing movies think about them symbolically rather than literally—in other words, the notion in Avatar that a planet might be alive (the so-called Gaia hypothesis, which is not new but was popular in the New Age, contra Pasulka) doesn’t translate into a literal belief that the Earth has conscious thoughts but rather that it is a metaphor for the biosphere and its delicate balance.
Her other evidence comes from a U.S. Navy sailor who witnessed one of the so-called “tic tac” UFOs reported on in the New York Times who said that “thoughts are things.” I can’t really see that as proof of an inherent American monism new to civilization. It’s a direct quote from 1952’s The Power of Positive Thinking, and the New York Times even wrote an editorial about the same idea in 1896, quoting the same phrase from a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. I wasn’t able to find Pasulka’s source for the “thoughts are things” quote since it doesn’t appear in any media coverage of the “tic tac” incidents, nor does it appear in Pasulka’s book American Cosmic.
I discuss this, though, because it builds toward Pasulka’s conclusion, where she can’t help but bring in UFOs. Because Avatar’s plot involves using technology to enter the lived experiences of another, she compares this to the techno-futurism of UFO believers. Here things get sticky. I think she is half-right, perhaps. Her argument is that UFO “experiencers” are common believers who have touched the divine without the need for a Judeo-Christian style prophet to do it for them:
These prophets were spokesmen for God, but today’s UFO experiencers have direct communication, without the mediation of a prophet or guru, with these alleged beings. The difference between this form of direct communication and the communication with God described by figures such as Joan of Arc, is that anyone can access it. One does not need prerequisite credentials, like a saintly nature. It is a spirituality of the people and for the people.
Here, I think Pasulka has made a fundamental error. The prophets were, largely, everyday people chosen by God, sometimes against their will. The saints were not connected to God because they were perfect but were declared saints because they had been called by God. St. Augustine, for example, wrote a whole book about his wild sex life and rampant sinning before he reformed. UFO “experiencers” aren’t the rank-and-file believers. They are themselves those who take on the role of UFO prophet or saint. They become the gurus—like George Adamski, Raël, the Applewhites, Betty Hill, etc. Becoming an abductee gives one status in the UFO community, and abductees, like the prophets of old, present themselves as mediators to the masses, delivering the aliens’ warnings for humanity to shape up or face annihilation.
When Pasulka presents them not as a small subset of UFO believers but rather as the whole of the community to be considered, she skews her analysis as fully as if she restricted her understanding of Catholicism only to those individuals declared saints.
Her conclusion, though, is probably right but also overblown:
UFO spirituality borrows, through entertainment media, from a multitude of religious traditions. Television shows like Ancient Aliens propose that UFOs are the gods and goddesses of the past, and they choose from a variety of global traditions to make their case. This characterisation makes UFO spirituality international and transhistorical. Because it is watched in so many households – it is one of the most popular and longest running series on the History Channel – its spiritual cosmology is available to anyone with a television or computer. In this sense, screen culture has replaced the sacred books of the past as the new medium of the divine.
Granted, I’ve been saying for almost a decade now that the ancient astronaut theory has become a surrogate faith, and Ancient Aliens executive producer Kevin Burns even told the New York Times two years ago that the show is really just a “search for God.” But it’s also important not to overstate its power. Only 950,000 people watch Ancient Aliens in a country of 320 million. It might be a lodestar for a certain, vocal community and it certainly misinforms many times its core audience through online and TV exposure, but it doesn’t evangelize to hundreds of millions. It’s a niche show appealing primarily to people who already believe. To that extent it is a symptom and an exacerbator, but not a cause.
And none of this is anything that wasn’t already present in the 1960s when Chariots of the Gods was popular. One might argue that Erich von Däniken served the role of guru then, but what does that make Giorgio Tsoukalos or Linda Moulton Howe today?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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