Due to a series of upcoming life events, including upcoming book deadlines as well as personal responsibilities, I’m going to have much less time for writing blog posts between now and the end of summer. As a result, there will be days when I will not be able to post and many days where posts will be significantly shorter than normal. Today is going to be a mid-length day, but I hope not less interesting for it.
Our subject today concerns an interview that Peter Levenda, the writer on occult subjects, gave to Punk Rock and UFOs yesterday. You will remember that Levenda dipped his toes into the field of ancient astronaut theory two years ago when he joined Tom DeLonge to write the first volume of DeLonge’s Sekret Machines nonfiction UFO trilogy. (My review: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.) In that volume, Levenda—who was the primary author—ludicrously related standard ancient astronaut theory claims while asserting that ancient astronaut theorists had not considered them before. Even though both I and others pointed out that his supposedly original approach closely mirrored 1970s-era ancient astronaut hypotheses, including those offered in the widely seen 1973 TV special In Search of Ancient Astronauts.
In the new interview, Levenda shows that he hasn’t learned anything even as he prepares for the second volume in the series. Let’s take a look at a few of his incorrect assertions.
To claim that ancient peoples could not have built the pyramids, for instance, is a tad racist and a little chauvinistic, at the very least, but it also ignores scientific evidence. Every time a claim is made that the ancient peoples could not have built something or designed something, there is always the possibility that more evidence will prove the claim wrong, and if it does it will serve to delegitimize the whole field.
This is a standard claim against ancient astronaut theorists, but it hasn’t really been the case for a long time. For the past two decades or so, ancient astronaut theorists have argued (with rare exceptions) that the pyramids were built by human beings, just from plans or with techniques inspired by space aliens. It might be a distinction without much of a difference, but the current ancient astronaut party line (in response to allegations of racism), as seen on Ancient Aliens, is that ancient sites except for Puma Punku in Bolivia, were the work of human beings.
I believe it is better to focus on the fact that homo sapiens was around for hundreds of thousands of years and then just started to develop what we think of as civilization in the last twenty thousand years or less, all over the world, and with remarkably similar ideas concerning the gods, the heavens, life after death, etc. I write about this contact as a kind of traumatic event that imprinted itself on human beings: an event that we re-live in every culture in an effort to find some sense to it, some positive way of dealing with the knowledge that we are not alone and indeed may not be the smartest kids on the block.
As we might imagine, we can only guess roughly at ancient spiritual beliefs, so we cannot declare them remarkably similar around the world. In fact, beliefs tend to be dominated by diversity and difference rather than similarity. Those similarities that do exist can better be explained by similar human brains acting on similar challenges rather than PTSD from space aliens. Given that we now know (and, indeed, have known for more than a century) that Homo sapiens was not the only species of hominin alive for much of its existence, the idea of humans being traumatized by the idea that there were other intelligent species is especially silly. Levenda’s ideas would be behind the curve in the Victorian era, let alone in the modern one.
Hence the ‘cargo cult’ theory. In my case, I have expanded the theory to include not only religion but science as well, and the organizing principle behind societies that focus on the heavens. In ancient times those for which we have written records, such as Egypt and Sumer religion and science were inseparable. They were part of a single worldview, a unitary approach to understanding reality.
Here, Levenda refers to an idea that he presented as an original take on the ancient astronaut theory in Sekret Machines: a comparison between World War II-era cargo cults and the imagined effects of human beings attempting to imitate and appease alien astronauts from space. I don’t have the space to get into the details of cargo cults but for our purposes, all you really need to know is that the idea was already part of the ancient astronaut theory in the 1970s, when it appeared in the In Search of Ancient Astronauts documentary broadcast on NBC. He still thinks that he is saying something new.
Levenda devoted much of the interview to singing the praises of To the Stars and Tom DeLonge, and he delivered a lengthy monologue on his belief that a story of neo-pagan shamanic religion is a force for good because connects people to “something” that lies beyond the self via altered states of consciousness. This is the same argument made by Graham Hancock and Ancient Aliens and the rest of the neo-pagan pseudo-gnostic advocates of shamanism and ’shrooms. This semi-pagan occult seems to be where the New Age has led spirituality in the hope of countering the success of science and the methodological naturalism that underpins it. Levenda, indeed, specifically claims that science should not be divorced from religious beliefs and he wrongly asserts that atheists are amoral forces of destruction:
The atheists have presented the fanatics with the tools they need to slaughter millions and keep the globe in a perpetual state of violent chaos ,but since they don’t believe in God or religion they wash their hands of any responsibility. Like all religious fanatics, atheists believe that if just everyone were like them there would be no more wars and no injustice in the world.
It may be true that many atheists imagine, well, John Lennon’s “Imagine” as the result of universal atheism, but it’s certainly not the case that atheists are amoral. Regular readers of this blog know that I have routinely taken to task New Atheists and skeptics alike for attempting to argue that science can produce objective morality, a key element of the secular humanist agenda for several decades, ever since Paul Kurtz set his sights on a “scientific” morality and universal ethics. Levenda’s view, once again, are those of another century.
Basically, he’s stuck around 1970 and still thinks it’s mod.
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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