Thursday, July 06, 2006


Religious Aspects of UFO Belief and Scepticism

Last year, Peter Rogerson wrote an interesting piece in which he compared different interpretations of ufology and UFO reports to different varieties of religious belief. This article appeared in Magonia 87, February 2005, and I think it deserves a wider readership. So here it is:


It's been a while now since I last wrote a Northern Echoes, 1 September 2001 to be exact, and that one was a sort of elegy on childhood innocence lost and warm, safe summers in which flying saucers flew in the evening sunshine over small mid-western towns promising the ecstatic "freedom of flight". Too spooky for comfort in light of what happened 10 days later!

These sorts of odd, spooky experiences seem to lie at the heart of ufology and the paranormal, and underlie much of the passion in the subject. So much activity in these fields is aimed not at looking for evidence to find out what happened, but at finding what theologians call 'evidences' to provide proof of the existence of a transcendental realm. In the 17th century writers like Joseph Glanville, Henry Moore, and the Cottons collected tales of ghosts, witches and remarkable occurrences to provide illustrations of the "certainty of the world of spirits", and to marshal arguments to traduce 'sadducees' and atheists.

Ufological collections like Richard Hall's UFO Evidence perform the same function today, marshalling evidences of the "certainty of the world of extraterrestrials". UFO experiences join the 'wondrous experiences' which provide hints of a transcendental realm beyond the boundaries of the ordinary, and are therefore seen as ineffable, spiritual experiences, which would be profaned if they could be explained by waht the historian Walter Stephens calls nature and the imagination.

Though many ufologists profess that UFO experiences are generated by mortal extraterrestrials flying secular machines, their language and emotions suggest otherwise. If their dreams came true and the saucers landed on the White House lawn, they would become yet more parts of the mundane world. Ufologists would smirk for a while and sneer at sceptics, but it would only be a few years, possibly only months, before they started arguing that explaining this or that wondrous experience in terms of the 6.15 flying saucer flight to Zeta Reticuli was to reduce it to the prosaic and human. The ETs would have been demystified.

It is not the solution which attracts but the mystery, and arguments about the rrality of UFOs and psychical phenomena look as though they are coded God-talk. It's not about ETs and ectoplasm but about the existence of a sacred realm over and above what is seen as the world of the prosaic whichj crashes into our world transforming lives.

Ufology and related topics therefore have many of the properties of religions based on immediate personal experience, where all criticism is heresy, which devalues the meaning of the experience and denies the existence of an extramundane realm. But there is another religious tradition which has a surprisingly modern incarnation: the Protestant Puritan tradition which emphasises the primacy of God-given reason, sobriety and hard work. The Protestant work ethic places a strong opposition between reason and 'animal passion', hence its opposition to a set of human activities such as sex, drink, laziness etc. which are seen as disturbing this reason.

This movement led much of 19th-century reform, including temperance, rational recreation, anti-vice leagues, opposition to animal cruelty etc. One of its current incarnations is CSICOP. But most members of CSICOP are atheists and humanists; how can they be a religious body? There is no reason why religious traditions cannot survive in the absence of belief in an anthropomorphic god, and CSICOP shows many features of the Puritan tradition. It emphasises reason, hard work and application, it fights against perceived dangerous social ills, and appeals to a scientific natural theology, which, though clearly not of a traditional theistic nature, nevertheless holds at its heart a sense of the 'divine' harmony and beauty of the universe. CSICOP sees occult and paranormal beliefs as a kind of intellectual hard liquor threatening divine reason.

It has other attributes of a religion, offering conversion narratives from people who profess to have been mired in the sink of paranormalist sin until they were converted by attending a lecture or reading a book by James Randi, Paul Kurtz, etc., revealing the power of reason and setting them on the path of truth.

The current fear of occultism is rather new: there was no CSICOP up until the mid 1970s. For many years cultural elites in the West saw 'wondrous experiences' in eactly the way that Glanville, Baxter and Moore dis; as providing 'evidences' against atheism and materialism, and especially 'godless atheistic communism'. Puritans who might have been suspicious of ecstatic relgious experience were much more afraid of what might happen if the working class lost its fear of God and belief in the afterlife. They might want their goodies now and revolt. Furthermore, 'unbelief' was seen as subversive of Puritan standards across class lines and conducive to wild antinomian behaviour.Psychical researchers and parapsychologists pandered to the mood of upper-class fear, and presented their topics as defences against communism and as a defence of traditional values.

But by the late 1960s things began to change. With the rise of the permissive society, student revolt, new religious movements and the drug culture, the paranormal seemed less of a defence against antinomian wildness, than part of it, no longer a bulwark against atheistic communism and materialism but part of a wider irrationalist revolt, which threatened divine reason. Many scientists began to fear that having fought their way up the cultural ladder against traditional elites they might be dethrined almost at once.

CSICOP took up cudgels against these threats to reason, in particular the paranormal's apparent promise of something for nothing. Defence of the Puritan values of hard work and hard study became quite a major theme. Some, like Carl Sagan, saw science as the candle of reason in a darkness of irrational, dare one say, animal passions.

Thus two religious traditions, which we might identify as the Dionysian and the Apollonian battle on with their opposed views of the sacred. For the Dionysian the sacred lies in a transcendental realm crashing into the safe, rational world from some wilderness outside consensus reality, producing shattering spiritual experiences, affirmed by personal experience which must not be challenged by others.

For the Apollonian the sacred lies in the habitat of reason and responsible behaviour on the one hand, and the order and harmony of the universe conceived of as a mathematical habitat on the other.

And as the two lock horns they forget to notice the rise of a third religious tradition, that of the Holy One True Book interpreted as an office memo from God the Chief Executive or Village Elder.

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