A few days ago, the Ohio State University Center for the Study of Religion held its 4th Symposium on Religion, Narrative, and Media, and the topic was “Taking the UFO Phenomenon Seriously, that is, Religiously.” The symposium was made up of two presentations, one on aliens as gods by Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University and the other on the use of UFO mythology to replace traditional religion by Diana Walsh Pasulka, a professor at UNC Wilmington. The symposium is built around the forthcoming release of Pasulka’s new book American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, due out in December or January from Oxford University Press. It’s sure to be an interesting book, reflecting as it does themes we often discuss here about the use of aliens as substitute gods, but I have reservations about the author and her approach to ufology.
Both presenters are noted scholars of religion who also have credulous views about the supernatural. Pasulka is a consultant for the Conjuring series of horror movies based on the heavily disputed paranormal investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Jeffrey Kripal investigates psychic phenomena and accepts credulous accounts of paranormal events. Regular readers will remember him as the scholar who concocted an elaborate but flawed argument that Renaissance artists depicted flying saucers in their paintings.
Kripal’s presentation is the lesser of the two. He credulously assumes that when modern authors describe encounters with various supernatural entities (variously called aliens, interdimensional beings, etc.), their similarity to demons is due to a real supernatural presence rather than common human mental imagery and mythical themes manifesting in modern interpretations of ambiguous events—usually derived from altered states of consciousness. In other words, when people see things, they tend to have similar fantasies, but contrary to Kripal’s view, that doesn’t make the fantasies real. Nevertheless, Kripal proposes that demons seen in altered states of consciousness should be classified as a new species, at least if I read his description of sex dreams people have about demons correctly. “The result is a new set of evolutionary panpsychisms, erotic vitalisms and biological polytheisms that pose a challenge to the reigning materialisms and projection theories of conventional science and the humanities,” Kripal says. It does not. Conventional science can easily explain these experiences as mentally induced, so it’s really up to Kripal to find evidence that demon aliens have an objective reality.
According to the conference promotional materials, Pasulka has an interesting view about space aliens:
Widespread belief in aliens is due to a number of factors including their ubiquity in modern media like The X-Files, which can influence memory, and the realist effect produced by the search for planets that might support life, as well as alleged alien artifacts that have recently made news in outlets such as the New York Times.
I find that sentence fascinating because it suggests that belief in aliens is a type of faith. I wonder if the book itself will be more nuanced, but this is just not right. There are different kinds of belief in the existence of space aliens. One level is certainly a type of faith, where aliens are simple substitutes for gods, angels, demons, and devils. In this level of belief, aliens are semi-supernatural beings and faith in them exists in the same realm where evidence merely supports a preexisting belief. But there is another level of belief in aliens, which is a theoretical belief that other planets harbor alien life. This is not faith but rather is the logical deduction from scientific principles about the conditions that yield the emergence of life. While there is no physical evidence to support the existence of alien life on other planets, it is nevertheless a logical conclusion from accepted scientific principles. I suspect Pasulka knows this, and I also suspect from the wording that when she refers to a “belief in aliens” she actually means “visiting this planet.” That certainly has nothing to recommend it.
But Pasulka’s overarching thesis is a more interesting, but probably less defensible, one. Her book “argues that TV shows and movies have become a means of answering questions formerly answered by traditional religions.” More specifically, “American Cosmic explores the intriguing question of how people interpret unexplainable experiences, and argues that the media is replacing religion as a cultural authority that offers believers answers about non-human intelligent life.”
I agree with this idea, at least in part. While TV and movies might have been the dominant pop culture paradigm in the middle and late twentieth centuries, I don’t think we can clearly separate them from the broader pop culture milieu, especially the internet. For example, Ancient Aliens would theoretically be a great example of TV taking over the role of religion, but it reaches fewer than two million weekly viewers in a country of 320 million people. That’s 0.6% of the population. Instead, while TV shows might lead the conversation, it is the broader popular culture, including print, broadcast, and especially online discussions that creates the reinforcement effect. After all, aliens have been on TV since the 1950s, and in the movies since the early 1900s, and yet belief in aliens visiting Earth only became a plurality (or even majority) belief in recent decades. The bigger problem is that the culture industry—the “media” as synecdoche—has collectively elevated certain narratives, and the repetition of these narratives in tabloids and novels, in movies and TV, on the news and in music, and on the lecture circuit creates a cultural belief and expectation. It’s classic propaganda, but here developed out of opportunism and the profit motive, often with the active participation of the audience, rather than from a coherent ideological program.
It probably should say something that the draft preface to American Cosmic lovingly profiles Jacques Vallée and describes his deeply flawed and frequently incorrect Passport to Magonia (later repeated in Wonders in the Sky) as “scholarly” and a “masterpiece,” and it incorrectly describes him as the inspiration for the French ufologist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a claim not supported by the historical record. If nothing else, it is strange to open a book about “America” with rapturous praise of a Frenchman. Worse, the preface accepts at face value the idea that humans can psychically explore other planets. I am also a bit baffled by Paluska’s claim that the book is really about how imagining how UFOs work inspires Silicon Valley “geniuses” to invent hot new computer tech. That doesn’t match the thesis given in the Oxford table of contents suggests, which implies that the book has been heavily reimagined since its draft form, or else is being marketed as something different than the author intended.
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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