When D. W. Pasulka published American Cosmic earlier this year, not much came of it. Her book provided a portrait of UFO belief among a small group of scientists and government contractors, and it received the most publicity for a passage in which Pasulka reported on the results of tests a supposed alien artifact that believers said had unearthly properties. In a review of the book published on The Outline this week, writer Clare Coffey picks up on the book’s most important theme, that UFO belief has become a secular religion, and Coffey analyzes what it means that this quasi-religious belief has invaded the halls of American power where a small but influential minority of officials profess to believe in extraterrestrial creatures that act with basically demonic power.
Coffey notes that this creates obvious absurdities, as in the scene Pasulka describes in which one wealthy NASA contractor is paid simply to be present at equipment tests, while doing nothing, because some of the people in power believe that his presence spreads positive energy that leads to success. On the other extreme, it also creates disturbing situations where some beliefs, without evidence, become articles of faith, and a sort of dogma of the sacred forms around particular ideas about UFOs and interdimensional space poltergeists. “The Phenomenon,” as the constellation of pseudo- and quasi-scientific claims about UFOs, parallel worlds, supernatural powers, and the occult is collectively known, is itself a religious belief system, full of holy writ, sacred sites, dogma, and even a salvation narrative whereby the aliens take the place of angels.
To that end, both Paulka and Coffey recognize that the narrative governing The Phenomenon bears a close resemblance to Christianity, particularly in its apocalyptic Evangelical forms. For example, the aliens are often said to be raising humans up to the heavens to provide supernatural revelations about the sins and failures of humanity, and their curiosity about human foibles, interest in nuclear weapons, and warning about climate change and war parallel the revelations of Christian prophets and angels and faith in the coming Tribulation before the Millennium and Christ’s return. Coffey says that The Phenomenon is a parasitic religion:
To the degree that alien religion is parasitic on established scriptures and traditions, it resembles what sociologist Daniel O’Keefe calls a magical protest sect. These sects arise when dominant organized religion feels too restrictive or lifeless. They expropriate aspects of the religions they protest, and repurpose them in ways that allow participants to directly manipulate the sacred.
Hence all the interest in going out to hunt UFOs or to touch lumps of industrial waste that are pretended to be relics of holy flying saucers.
But what I found most interesting was Coffey’s suggestion that space aliens, with their advanced technology, exploitation of rural working class people for inscrutable purposes, and general attitude of entitlement are symbolic of the technocratic elite. In this, Coffey builds on the observation that traditional European fairy myths have the fairies symbolize the power and perceived frivolity of the Early Modern aristocracy: tall and thin, partying and dancing, and wholly consumed with land rights and keeping the peasants off their lawns.
These days, the nearest most of us peasants get to wealth and power is using the technology that makes billionaires of the people who own it. Accounts of immensely powerful visitors with technology beyond the comprehension of ordinary humanity, whose inventions do strange things to the mind, who collect human tissue for their own purposes: These could certainly describe ex[tra]terrestrial visitors. But you need go no farther than Palo Alto to find an equally plausible referent. If alien beliefs are an emerging religion, they may be an attempt to propitiate and manage anxiety around the strange new gods venture capital has created. The fact that Pasulka’s book heavily features the tech elite as prime examples of alien belief does not detract from this hypothesis; it would be surprising if Silicon Valley ever found something more worthy of worship than itself.
It's an interesting perspective, and one that accords well with what we know about the development of the UFO movement. It might well explain why it is that UFO shows like Ancient Aliens—which Coffey singles out for criticism—are in equal awe of space aliens and cutting edge technology, as though the two were intimately and logically connected. Indeed, if your knowledge of ufology came entirely from the History Channel, you would probably agree that that the real god their fake religion worships is the genius of technology, wielded by aliens and humans alike to absolve us of our sins.
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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