When Synchronicity Fails

In a recent podcast, Diane W. Pasulka and host Ezra Klein discuss UFOs in the context of both Pasulka’s book American Cosmic:  UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) and recent developments, mainly the U.S. Navy videos made (more) famous by To The Stars Academy and the History series Unidentified:  Inside America’s UFO Investigation.

Among the many topics they explore are “book events” and the UFO and technology-as-religion. A book event is a synchronicitious discovery of a book that uncannily answers a need or question of the reader; said need can be answered, too, by other artifacts, as well, and even, imaginably, by a person:  one thinks of the proverb, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.”

Around the 1:17 mark, Pasulka begins to expound on how technology might be thought of in religious terms. Her words leave me with the impression that in the research for her book a “book event” that failed to materialize was one that might have presented her with any number of versions of the paper on the Raelian Movement International my collaborator Susan Palmer and I presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Montreal in 1999, published in the journal Nova Religio the following year, then reprinted in the religious studies textbook edited by Diana Tumminia Alien Worlds (2007), and, finally, included in an updated version in Hammer’s and Rothstein’s The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements (2012).

Our paper concludes:

…the advent of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions ushers in today’s dominant discourse and practices within which religions orthodox and otherwise must define themselves. The present stands within the horizon of the death of God, understood as the domination of the assumption of the immanence of the world and the consequent disappearance of the meta-physical, the super-natural, and the supersensuous (at least overtly) or their fall into the merely paranormal. The paranormal or paraphysical is that realm of nature yet to be understood (and so ultimately controlled) by science. This assumption, that science will continue along the path of discovery, knowledge, and power, naturalizes or [reifies] science and technology. When our science and technology poison the biosphere, split the atom to release potentially species-suicidal energies, and manipulate the genetic code of living organisms, humanity has taken upon itself powers and potentialities hitherto exclusively the domain of superhuman deities. That science and technology, whose worldview determines how things are, bring us to an unprecedented impasse demands they must in some way be transcended (i.e., survived). The flying saucer appears within this horizon as a symbol of just such transcendence, promising that precisely the causes of our quandary will be our means of salvation.

Readers of the posts here at Skunkworks will recognize the nascent themes explored in that early paper cultured at this site from the start.

We find it gratifying our insights are making their way into the wider world, by whatever mysterious, obscure channels.

“UFO ‘Cults'”: Seriously? A Public Service Announcement

In various comment threads unwound from postings of M. J. Banias‘ article for Vice, “UFO Conspiracy Theorists Offer ‘Ascension’ From Our Hell World for $333“, I noticed a disturbing trend when it came to the matter of UFO New Religious Movements (NRMs). The only term used to refer to them was “cult”, and the only examples folks seem to have at their finger tips were Heaven’s Gate or the International Raëlian Movement.

As someone who came of age in a Roman Catholic school in the 1970s, “cults” (most notoriously “the Moonies” and sometimes the “Hare Krishna“) “brainwashing“, and “deprogramming” were very much front and centre, especially following the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. Popular thinking seems stalled in this era.

Anyone whose done more than cursory reading on the topic (a good starting point is the locus classicus anthology of scholarly papers, The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds) will quickly understand among UFO NRMs Heaven’s Gate, for example, is an outlier. The most well-known UFO NRMs (the Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, or the Raëlians) are benignly amusing if not uninteresting from a sociological perspective. Indeed, among those who study New Religious Movements, the expression ‘cult’ has been culled as vulgarly dismissive.

Interested (i.e. serious) parties are invited to listen to a recent interview with my friend and collaborator, Dr. Susan J. Palmer, “What’s the difference between a religion and a cult?”. Dr. Palmer is the author and editor of eight books on NRMs, including two book-length studies of UFO NRMs, The Nuwaubian Nation : Black Spirituality and State Control and Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion.

Thank you for your attention.

Revelation, Enlightenment, and the Flying Saucer

Things at UFO Conjectures have taken a markedly spiritual turn. First, some thoughts on UFOs in the cosmos of Jesuit thinker Teihard de Chardin, then speculations about possible UFO sightings and extraterrestrial encounters in the Koran, and, finally, most interestingly, reflections on the failed promise of the flying saucers:  namely, that they have yet to prove to be spaceships piloted by highly advanced beings with answers to our pressing material, and, most importantly, spiritual questions, e.g., “Why do we exist; what is the meaning of life? Why does evil exist?” etc.

The spiritual significance of the UFO has long been with us and is well-studied (interested parties might consult The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds, ed. Lewis (1995)). The first contactee was arguably Emanuel Swedenborg, whose The Earths In Our Solar System:  Which Are Called Planets, And The Earths In The Starry Heavens, Their Inhabitants And The Spirits And Angels There From Things Heard And Seen (1758) recounts his astral travels and meetings with the inhabitants of other planets. Some of Madame Blavatsky’s Ascended Masters hailed from Venus, the same who met with Guy Ballard beneath Mount Shasta in 1930, one of whom, who called himself Orthon, stepped from a Venusian scout ship in 1952 and shook George Adamski’s hand. Since, numerous New Religious Movements (NRMs) have been founded whose gods are extraterrestrial rather than supernatural (among them, The Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, perhaps most famously the International Raelian Movement or most disturbingly Heaven’s Gate). Nevertheless, these NRMs seem only to pour old wine into new bottles, their gods the old deities in space suits instead of robes, at least as far as their revelatory function goes.

The more secular version of this sentiment is one as complex as it is occluded. In the first place, it blends technological with moral if not spiritual sophistication. Any creature capable of inventing ways to travel to earth from a distant planet (or dimension or time) is thought as having to possess a philosophical knowledge equal to its technical know-how. This technological optimism is offered as grounds for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI):  any more advanced civilization we might contact will have likely encountered and solved the dire threats to the continued existence of our civilization if not species that that technological development itself entailed. The same notion inspires the utopian future depicted in the Star Trek franchise, where technology has solved the problems it led to, science and technology advancing hand in hand with social and moral enlightenment. Just why being “advanced” in this way should also entail an even further philosophical or spiritual enlightenment, one capable of answering “The Big Questions” (Why do we exist? What is the meaning of life? Why does evil exist?, etc.), is an interesting question itself, but what is telling is how it seems to assume a concept of enlightenment that is all encompassing, failing to differentiate between the scientific, moral, philosophical, spiritual, and so on, and, most importantly, harnessing all development in the first place to the technoscientific.

The history of the past century or so has disabused many of this idea of progress. The carnage of The Great War resulted from the collision of technical ingenuity and industry with quaintly outmoded ideas of how to conduct warfare. The resulting shock was in part expressed by Dadaism, which inferred that if what Progress had led to was the dead end of No Man’s Land, then radically other ways forward had to be found, ways which left behind the “Reason” or rationality that invented the machine-gun and poison gas and the values of the “West” that had inspired millions to march singing patriotic songs to their grisly mutilation and death. Such misgivings were only more gravely deepened by the use of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the revelations of the organized mass murder in Europe that led to the coining of the expression ‘genocide’ and the juridical concept of “crimes against humanity.” In this latter context, two anecdotes illuminate the relation of technology to culture and morality. One famous concentration camp commandant would retire home in the evenings to relish playing Schubert on the piano in the warm bosom of his family, while a German philosopher laconically but not less perceptively summed up the Holocaust as the application of industrial agriculture to mass murder. Even the realms of science fiction and ufology, despite their ideological commitments, betray an awareness of how technological power and morality are uncoupled. The “invasion from Mars” is an old cliché, wherein the ruthless rapaciousness of the extraterrestrial invader is made all the more threatening by its technological superiourity. Likewise, the experiences of alien abductees at the hands (or claws) of their vastly more advanced abductors are famously cruel, both physically and emotionally, lacking empathy and compassion.

In the Conclusion to his Revelations (1991), Jacques Vallée sums up the situation:

…Technology offers us some breakthroughs the best scientists of thirty years ago could not imagine. Better health, plentiful leisure, longer life, more varied pleasures are beckoning.

Yet the hopeful vistas come with a darker, more disquieting side. There is more danger, crime, environmental damage, misery, and hunger around us than ever before. It will take a superhuman effort to reconcile the glittering promises of technology with the utterly disheartening dilemma, the wretched reality, of human despair.

But wait! Perhaps there is such a superhuman agency, a magical and easy solution to our problems:  those unidentified flying objects that people have glimpsed in increasing numbers since World War II may be ready to help…. (254)

Even if UFOs are spaceships from more advanced civilizations, the technical prowess they evidence hardly entails high morality let alone philosophical insight into perennial, metaphysical questions. And even if they descended as teachers, rapt and pious acceptance of their revelations would be a kind of spiritual suicide. For, over against revelation is enlightenment, whose watch word is sapere aude, dare to think…for yourself.