Taking the UFO Phenomenon Seriously — Religion, Narrative, Media and the Flying Saucer

Posted in > ANALYSIS by David on May 5, 2018

It’s been a strange opening to the Spring season spent thinking about questions that Diana Pasulka (UNC Wilmington) and Jeffrey Kripal (Rice University) will tackle today at the Ohio State University Center for the Study of Religion’s 4th Symposium on Religion, Narrative, and Media — Taking the UFO Phenomenon Seriously, that is, Religiously

According to the synopsis of Pasulka’s upcoming book, American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology — more than half of adults and more than 75% of young Americans believe in intelligent extraterrestrial life — a level rivaling belief in God!

What happens (is happening) to world religions and deeply embedded social infrastructures as they face increasing pressure to adapt to new scientific understanding of consciousness and intelligence — understandings forced through technological innovation in areas of machine learning and artificial intelligence, advances in neuroscience, increased integration of psychical research and practical occultism in mainstream discourse, and most recently by the mainstream media’s heightened focus on the physical aspects of the UFO phenomenon…

These are complicated questions that kind of hurt the brain — for myself I simplified it down to thinking about the rural area that I live in and wondering:

What do local Christian congregations do with flying saucers on Sunday morning?

“Hasn’t the Catholic Church taken a noncommittal position on UFOs? That seems to me a healthy response.” – Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (Bantam Books, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, 2014)

One of the things that struck me when I started considering these areas is the level to which the hard questions about the UFO phenomenon are so easily side stepped until the UFO object is brought to the forefront of the conversation.

This is brought out in Pasulka’s presentation for the symposium, The Incarnational Technological Self: The Case of the Crashed UFO Artifact, where she discusses how the presence of a ‘UFO artifact’ during her research for American Cosmic drastically changed the ways in which she considers not only the UFO question, but also the very development and integration of technology within society — the UFO object is a powerful game changer when it comes to thinking about this question.

As the presentation’s abstract explains,

“Over the course of a six-year ethnographic study, Dr. Pasulka interviewed successful and influential scientists in Silicon Valley, professionals, and entrepreneurs who believe in extraterrestrial intelligence, thereby disproving the common misconception that only fringe members of society believe in UFOs. She argues that 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. This discussion explores the intriguing question of how people interpret unexplainable experiences, and argues that the media technologies have helped create new religious forms, among which the belief in non-human intelligent life is one example”

So what do we mean by UFO object?

UFO for most is merely a vague term associated with a vague set of phenomenon with unverifiable objective existence — the “UFO” for many is nothing more than a word read in a book or an image given to them through whatever other media they are exposed to, a purely psychologized symbolic object. The ‘flying saucer’ is a mediated object, a pop-culture trope that rarely represents eye witness or experiencer accounts.

The process of psychologizing these phenomenon is given free reign by their subjective status in the cultural narrative. As long as we talk about “belief in UFOs” we are left with the ability to take a ‘noncommittal position’ — however the really interesting questions come up when we face the objective reality associated with some of the phenomenon.

So far religious organizations can fit any number of narratives or avoidance mechanisms within the culture’s subjective status for the UFO — but a UFO object or contact with NHI changes that. It has to be faced directly, it completely alters the conversation.

This is what is so important when considering the current mainstream media interest in the UFO topic within the United States. Regardless of the factual nature of the videos themselves or their particular level of detail, where they came from, and so on — it changes the way that these topics are weighted — moving the dial from subjective “belief” to objective phenomenon — again regardless of the nature of the object in question.

What we are talking about is the way that the media acts as a measure of consensus reality — an authorized voice that speaks to a baseline of shared experience from which the culture can adapt and grow. When we start to address the “UFO object” something surprising happens, suddenly a lot of questions start to come up that unmoor standard positions across the spectrum of human experience.

Even if this object remains in the Mystery Box — its presence changes the way that we think about ourselves and our position in the world — as Remote Viewing pioneer, Ingo Swann said in his book The Super Powers of the Human Biomind:

“If one begins to hypothesize the possibility of ET intelligences, one necessarily sets into motion, without realizing it, subtle changes having to do with how we think of ourselves. We will ultimately have to wonder if and how the formats of our own Earth-based intelligence stack up against ET formats which might be encountered elsewhere, or FROM elsewhere.

A number of unfamiliar, and rather complicated, problem-like situations would download from this kind of hypothetical inquiry.

Among the first of these is that our own Earth-based ideas and/or knowledge regarding MIND and INTELLIGENCE would have to be studied more objectively, and examined in the larger contexts of our species as a whole.”

The demonological status of the UFO in fundamentalist discourse is framed by its subjective status in the wider cultural discourse. It can be psychologized and therefore is easily inserted as a placeholder for similarly psychologized frameworks that have already developed as Christianity has mutated under secular and alternative spiritual influences. Exorcism’s marginalization comes in part from the inability of institutionalized Christian culture to integrate some of the more extreme implications of a demonic physical manifestation.

Anecdotal accounts of believers seeking the services of an exorcist often begin with their failure to find an adequate solution in their own church/denomination. This is true in all religious traditions where there are enough adherents and devotees to allow for a spectrum of beliefs and spiritual service offerings. One of the driving forces behind the Vatican’s current push to train/promote exorcists is due to the services popularity and the market share being taken by alternative (ie. non-Catholic) service providers.

Once the demonic is given an objective status things change drastically in how a religious institution needs to frame it. With the UFO there is a very real question as to how religious institutions would be able to adapt to an objective confirmation of non-human intelligence.

“It’s hard to tell whether most people will accept the new ideas, or they will cause suspicion because they don’t conform with the experience of our normal waking consciousness.” — Greg Bishop, host of Radio Misterioso

The beginning of this process of integration starts with the narrative of the UFO object gaining more credibility in the culture through changes in the media’s framing of the topic — and it will be interesting to see how this plays out when/if this re-position of the media continues.

As writer and illustrator Miguel Romero pointed out on Twitter — the Mexican media hasn’t had the same fervor for the topic — and I’m sure folks in other countries may be seeing something similar.

In terms of the U.S. media there are a number of parallel narratives that the UFO topic can be aligned with — giving it a weighty bit of secondary use potential and driving some of the enthusiasm. Fitting into the wider narrative of political instability the UFO has become a complex signifier for everything from government over-reach, government under development, government hyper-sophistication, government’s total lack of sophistication — as in the religious domain its status as an unknown acts as a wild card whose malleable narrative elements can be fit to provide support for a wide range of innuendo, accusation and insinuation.

“For the first time in my life I dreamt of a flying saucer. The feeling was exactly the same as a demonic attack in the dream but oddly I felt the sense that I had been teleported to the flying saucer and sent back in a flash with only the slightest millisecond of a sense that something had happened…and without being able to do anything else I just blurted: “Thank you…” – Gabriel Dean Roberts, founder of Eris Films


While certain segments of the religious landscape label the UFO phenomenon as the ‘Ultimate End Times Deception’ — the concept of any long term interaction with non-human intelligence challenges doctrinal, dogmantic and underlying mythological structures in the world’s faith traditions. Apocalyptic frenzy can only last so long before the less reactionary elements of tradition reformulate around the new environmental realities.

Considering the implications of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning alone , beyond the additional question raised by research still in the margins, we must take seriously the question that Jacques Vallee asks in his introductory blurb for American Cosmic:

“How will religious traditions be reframed when they collide with the long-suppressed evidence of non-human consciousness in our environment?”

Over the past week of engaging with these topics on social media I’ve realized that the state of fragmentation within the religious landscape is such that the concrete nature of the question can be obscured by the central role of identity politics in the current discourse. The integral nature of religious life for many of the world’s people is overshadowed by the vocal concerns of an educated few whose understanding of spirituality is strongly affected by their exposure to the massive interconnected dialogue happening through global digital communications.

This is an area that Jeffrey Kripal addresses in his symposium presentation, Biological Gods: Science (Fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies, which focuses on,

“ three texts: Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981), Whitley Strieber’s COMMUNION (1987) and Barbara Ehrenreich’s LIVING WITH A WILD GOD (2014). In each case, we will see how the author describes a deeply personal, life-changing encounter with what any earlier culture would have recognized as a deity or demon. Each author engages these earlier religious interpretations but finally moves outside of them to posit actual invisible species in the environment that interact with human beings at their own whims and for their own interests, perhaps, the authors speculate, to “feed off” of human emotion or to tame, domesticate or evolve us via sexual communion and interspecies symbiosis. 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.”

And there it is, the UFO just sitting there, hanging out in all its strange and ubiquitous glory at the center of concerns over globalization, cultural integration, and the long term stability of our shared cultural systems —and the long term stability of our shared concept of self identity — as the old religious infrastructure transitions further into the decentralized and destabilized environment of the future.

In the end we come back to the important question — how can these traditions that provide a center point in our culture compete or integrate with the very visible, tangible and operative miracles of applied science — and what happens when the day comes that contact with a non-human intelligence, whether it’s from the stars or from some sub-net AI, supersedes what we know of science itself…

Note: This article was originally published on Medium.com 

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