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The new American religion of UFOs

Belief in aliens is like faith in religion — and may come to replace it.

Image of a UFO in the town of Roswell, New Mexico.
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It’s a great time to believe in aliens.

Last week, the New York Times published a viral article about reports of UFOs off the East Coast in 2014 and 2015. It included an interview with five Navy pilots who witnessed, and in some cases recorded, mysterious flying objects with “no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes” that appeared to “reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds.”

No one is quite sure what they saw, but the sightings are striking. And they’re part of a growing fascination with the possibility of intelligent alien life.

According to Diana Pasulka, a professor at the University of North Carolina and author of the new book American Cosmic, belief in UFOs and extraterrestrials is becoming a kind of religion — and it isn’t nearly as fringe as you might think.

More than half of American adults and over 60 percent of young Americans believe in intelligent extraterrestrial life. This tracks pretty closely with belief in God, and if Pasulka is right, that’s not an accident.

Her book isn’t so much about the truth of UFOs or aliens as it is about what the appeal of belief in those things says about our culture and the shifting roles of religion and technology in it. On the surface, it’s a book about the popularity of belief in aliens, but it’s really a deep look at how myths and religions are created in the first place and how human beings deal with unexplainable experiences.

A lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Pasulka follows.

Sean Illing

You describe belief in UFOs and aliens as the latest manifestation of a very old impulse: a religious impulse. What is it about extraterrestrials that captivates so many people?

Diana Pasulka

One way we can make sense of this by using a very old but functional definition of religion as simply the belief in nonhuman and supernatural intelligent beings that often descend from the sky. There are many definitions of religion, but this one is pretty standard.

There is another distinction about belief in nonhuman extraterrestrial intelligence, or UFO inhabitants, that makes it distinct from the types of religions with which we are most familiar. I’m a historian of Catholicism, for instance, and what I find when I interact with people in Catholic communities is that they have faith that Jesus walked on water and that the Virgin Mary apparitions were true.

But there’s something different about the UFO narrative. Here we have people who are actual scientists, like Ellen Stofan, the former chief scientist at NASA, who are willing to go on TV and basically make announcements like, “We are going to find extraterrestrial life.” Now, she’s not exactly talking about intelligent extraterrestrial life, but that’s not how many people interpret her.

She says we’re going to find life, we’re going to find habitable planets and things like that. So that gives this type of religiosity a far more powerful bite than the traditional religions, which are based on faith in things unseen and unprovable.

But the belief that UFOs and aliens are potentially true, and can potentially be proven, makes this a uniquely powerful narrative for the people who believe in it.

Is it fair to call this a new form of religion? I think so.

Sean Illing

We’ll definitely get into the religious parallels, but first I want to clear up some misconceptions about the nature of these beliefs and the people behind them. Tell me about the “Invisible College.” Who are these people, and what are they doing?

Diana Pasulka

The “Invisible College” is an old idea that comes from the 17th-century British philosopher Francis Bacon, and it was meant to describe the work of scientists that challenged contemporary beliefs of the church.

There were two incredible modern scientists, Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée, who revived the idea. Hynek passed away in 1986, but he’s actually the star character in the History Channel’s show Project Blue Book. Vallée is still here, and he’s an astronomer and a computer scientist who worked on ARPANET, which was the military precursor to the internet.

Basically, Hynek and Vallée called themselves the “Invisible College” once they started to believe the things they were investigating were somehow either extraterrestrial or interdimensional. They were part of a group of scientists that were known to each other but were not known to the general public, and who quietly pursued this research on their own time.

Sean Illing

That sounds ... weird.

Diana Pasulka

Well, it is weird. I didn’t expect to confront this when I started my book. In fact, I almost stopped my book a number of times because I thought it was so odd. I started this project as an atheist who was never really interested in UFOs or aliens.

So once I started engaging with the scientists who were doing this work, who believed in the reality of extraterrestrial intelligence, who believed they were reverse-engineering technology from what they insisted was alien aircraft, I was stunned.

What’s strange today is that these scientists don’t really talk to each other the way they did in, say, the 1970s. Now they’re much more compartmentalized and worried about attracting too much attention or having their research distorted, so they work in the shadows and mostly independently.

I met with five or six of them, each of whom are working on different things. And these are all extremely educated people who have prestigious positions at credible agencies or research institutions.

Sean Illing

Can you give me a sense of the kind of people you’re talking about and the kinds of positions they occupy?

Diana Pasulka

One of the scientists I met with, who I call Tyler in the book, has worked on most of the space shuttle missions, and he’s founded biotechnology companies worth several million dollars. Another scientist, who I call James, is an endowed chair of science at one of the nation’s top universities, and he has at least two laboratories under his control.

So these are the sorts of people I interacted with — and say what you will of their beliefs and their research, they can’t be dismissed as unserious or ignorant.

Sean Illing

You admit in the book to experiencing an “epistemological shock” to your understanding of the world after reading this literature and engaging with the scientists and believers behind the movement. Did they convince you that there’s something here?

Diana Pasulka

I wouldn’t call myself an atheist any longer, but I also wouldn’t say that I’m a believer. I don’t quite believe that there are extraterrestrials. I would say, though, that these scientists have discovered something that is truly anomalous, but I’m not in a position to say what it is or where it came from.

All I can say is that I was shocked to discover the level of scientific inquiry into extraterrestrial life. I thought I was going to interview people who just saw these things and I was going to basically say, well, you know, this is the new structure for belief in aliens and UFOs.

I had no clue that there were actually people at top universities that were studying these things on their own, that there was a whole underground network of people doing the same work, and that there was much more to this than most people imagine.

Since journalists Helene Cooper, Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal have published two articles in the New York Times, one in December 2017, and the second one last week, focusing on the military’s involvement in programs associated with UFOs and materials of UFOs, there has been a lot of public interest in the subject, even among my colleagues who used to scoff at the notion.

Sean Illing

What shocked you, exactly?

Diana Pasulka

Shortly after I started working on this book, I began to get inquiries from scientists who were interested in talking with me specifically, in person, about what I was writing. Frankly, I was very suspicious of them at first and didn’t want to engage.

But one of the scientists I mentioned a minute ago, Tyler, asked me if I’d go to a place in New Mexico with him. Tyler is a materials scientist and was involved in the space shuttle program almost his entire life. The location he wanted to bring me to is a kind of ground zero for the UFO religion. I said I’d go if I could bring somebody, so I brought a colleague of mine who is a molecular scientist.

So we travel to New Mexico and Tyler brings us to this site blindfolded, which was very weird but part of our agreement. He didn’t want us to know where we were exactly. But we get out there and we actually find some things that are quite odd, and we take them and study them more closely.

Now, the backstory here dates to the 1940s and the mythology of Roswell, New Mexico, as the alleged site of various UFO crashes. The place we went to wasn’t Roswell, but it was nearby. Anyway, what we found was undeniably strange, and I still don’t really understand what it was or how it got there.

I have to say, though, it gave me serious pause.

Sean Illing

Can you describe what you found? What did it look like? Why was it so strange?

Diana Pasulka

It’s very hard to describe. One of the materials, a kind of metal alloy, looked like metallic frog skin. There was another material we found, but I was asked by Tyler not to describe it publicly or in the book. But if you’re looking for more context about the sort of materials we found, you can read the New York Times story that ran in 2017.

Sean Illing

One explanation is that this piece of supposed alien wreckage was planted there by Tyler.

Diana Pasulka

No question. I open the book with this story and I never conclude whether it’s true or not, whether it was planted or not. My job as a scholar of religion isn’t to determine whether religious beliefs are true; I’m interested in the effects of the belief itself.

But as for the evidence we found, I hate to be equivocal about it, but I honestly still don’t know what it was. I just can’t explain it. The material we discovered, and the other pieces of evidence that have emerged, are genuinely anomalous, and that’s about the most we can say about it.

Do aliens actually exist? I don’t know. But my book is more about this new form of religiosity and how it’s becoming more influential among scientists and people in Silicon Valley and Americans more generally.

Sean Illing

I’m curious why you call this a new form of religion. Traditional religions have dogmas and rituals, and they function as an anchor for the individual and a community. I guess I don’t quite see the parallels in the case of UFOs and aliens. Am I missing something?

Diana Pasulka

The problem is that we tend to think of our own religions when we think of religiosity. And in the United States, most people are Christian or Jewish or Muslim. These are the traditional “religions of the book” that shape most of our Western understanding of history.

But there are many different religions, and some don’t involve things like gods or even dogmas. Zen Buddhism, for instance, eschews the idea of a god. It also tries to cure its practitioners of dogmas. Today, there are religions based on movies like Star Wars. So we do have to understand that religion is not exactly what we think it is.

Part of what I want to say in this book is that religion can take many forms, and the same religion can take different shapes in different places. What we’re seeing now are new forms of religion emerging from our infrastructure of digital technology and technology in general. Religions are shaped by their environments, just like most things.

And think about what many religions consist of: Often, a religion begins with contact from something divine, something beyond the normal plane of human experience, and that thing communicates with a person on earth. And then there’s a story told about it. And then from that story, we get a larger narrative that erupts into what we call religious traditions.

Something very similar is happening right now around belief in extraterrestrial life. What fascinates me about this new form of religion is that scientists and people who generally distance themselves from things like miracles seem to embrace this new religious form.

Sean Illing

Maybe the fascination with aliens springs from some deep need for wonder or awe in a world increasingly stripped of it and in which some of the traditional religions have lost their emotional power.

Diana Pasulka

I absolutely agree with that. I also think that we’re doing more space exploration. We have different types of satellites now that we’re using, satellites that connect with our technology and personal devices. So there’s that element of this, but there’s much more going on.

We’re in a kind of planetary crisis at the moment, and there’s an increase in apocalyptic beliefs about our capacity to survive on earth. A lot of people see disaster on the horizon, and there’s a deep fear that we won’t be able to save ourselves.

So what will save us? Well, for some, it will be these advanced beings who come to us and tell us what we can do or how we can escape. Maybe they will help us find another planetary home, or maybe they’ll bring some lifesaving technology. Who knows? But these sorts of beliefs are lurking beneath a lot of the popular fascination with alien life.

Sean Illing

Do you see the obsession with alien life as a byproduct of our worship of technology?

Diana Pasulka

That’s a great question that isn’t easy to answer. Surely a lot of it has to do with technology. Technology defines our world and culture; it’s our new god, the new thing we have to reckon with one way or the other.

There’s the idea that technology like artificial intelligence is going to kill us, but then there’s this idea that technology will be our savior, which is a very religious idea. So there’s already a kind of dichotomy around technology. But the point is that no matter what you think about technology and its impact on human life, there’s no denying its importance.

Whether we’re worried about technology destroying us or whether we’re hoping it will save us, we’re all more or less convinced that it will be at the center of our future, and aliens in so many ways play the role of technological angels.

Sean Illing

I’m curious how religious authorities you interacted with regard this belief in extraterrestrial life. If we were to learn that alien life exists, it would completely upend the religious worldview. Do they see it as a threat?

Diana Pasulka

It’s a fascinating question. There are definitely people who believe that the revelation of alien life would completely change religions, but I don’t see it that way. If you look at a lot of religions, they already incorporate ideas of UFOs.

If you look at different forms of Buddhism, for example, you have types of Bodhisattvas that appear to be floating on discs and things like that. I spend a lot of time at the Vatican, and there are people there like astronomer Guy Consolmagno (author of the book Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?) who wouldn’t blink an eye if alien life suddenly appeared.

I actually think secularists and atheists would be more troubled. Because of popular depictions of aliens and movies like Independence Day, people are primed to see aliens as an existential threat, some superior invading force. But religious people, at least the ones I interact with, would regard aliens as just another being created by God.

But there’s no doubt that the discovery of a nonhuman intelligence would be profound, and it’s impossible to know how much it would alter our perception of ourselves and our place in the universe.