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4/18/2004 3:35:12 PM

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Why UFOs are ideal for new religions, and why they fail Ryan J. Cook • Anthropology • University of Chicago

Paper presented at the Twelfth Annual Conference on Science and Culture

Institute for Liberal Studies, Kentucky State University

Capital Plaza Hotel • Frankfort, KY • 6 April 2001

DO NOT CITE WITHOUT PERMISSION OF AUTHOR

Brief abstract: This paper examines why UFOs are highly suitable symbols for some

creators of new religions. I suggest this is because these creators desire a spiritual

system that is also scientifically credible. I then offer some reasons why UFOs fail in that

reconciliatory role: first, that UFOs must be as malleable as spirit yet more physically real;

and second, that mainstream scientific and religious stigma against UFOs undermines

UFO religions’ credibility in a wider cultural arena.

Key terms: new religious movements, UFOs, anthropology

Of the small but growing number of scholars who study UFO phenomena sociologically,

many agree that UFOs have great religious importance and potential. Where some,

such as noted religion scholar Steven O’Leary, are concerned with how the selfprofessed

scientific study of UFOs is infiltrated by spiritual concerns, I am more

concerned with how religious movements make UFOs and aliens integral parts of their

belief systems.

Specifically, I will draw on the textual productions of these religious groups and their

sociological investigators to consider the utility of UFOs for certain kinds of religious

creativity. That same body of texts also, I suggest, offers hints that UFOs can and do fail

in the roles they are asked to fulfill. Based on works in the sociology of new religious

movements, in the study of UFOs, and on my own research on several UFO

movements, I will examine these successes and failures.

UFO religions in c cco oon nnt tte eex xxt tt

The religious use of UFOs and aliens does not have a very extensive history when

compared to the religious use of other technological symbols.1 But it has a history

nonetheless, one that must be taken into account if we are to understand the usage and

its successes and failures.

Sociologist of religion J. Gordon Melton (1995) traces the idea of extraterrestrial beings

in a religious system back to the “Ascended Masters” of Theosophy, benevolent, highly

evolved souls somewhere else in our physical and spiritual cosmos. For the purposes of

this paper, however, I will begin with what is widely considered the modern era of

unidentified flying objects, that is, from the immediate post-war years on. This takes us

back to the so-called “contactees”—those who reported meeting extraterrestrials

psychically or face-to-face in their spaceships. People making these claims emerged

1 See Noble 1996 for a broadly historical, and Lieb 1998 for a more restricted, treatment of the

technologizing of the divine.

2

throughout Europe and the Americas, and still continue to appear, though not with the

initial prominence that those of the early- and mid-Fifties enjoyed.

The question of why some contactees succeed in creating religious movements and

others did not (or do not make the attempt) is worth looking into.2 Also, the matter of

why abductees – that is, those who claim to have been taken against their will and

manipulated by aliens – channel their energies into individual or group psychotherapy

rather than into religious movements3 deserves study. Unfortunately, both are beyond

the scope of this paper.

It is crucial to remember that the cultural and political environment for the contactees

was that of the early years of the Cold War, with its well-documented combination of

international tensions, intrigue, paranoia, and fear (cf. Peebles 1994; Saler, Ziegler,

Moore 1997). These were also years of exponential technical and technological

innovation, especially for the superpowers and their respective allies, innovations which

received wider and faster dissemination to the general public through those blossoming

technologies of the mass electronic media. By the 1950s science fiction, that curious

literary form that came into its own in the pulp magazines and movie serials of the

Twenties and Thirties, was gaining popularity especially in filmed and televised forms.

While they are not causally sufficient by themselves, these factors helped shape why

UFO religions emerged when they did and in the forms they did.

In the messages of the contactees we feel the perceived imminence of both annihilation

and utopia that many connected to human technical accomplishments, especially

nuclear power. Their alien contacts, our cosmic elders and betters, offered us help with

or escape from the problems of modernity that we - or those we thought worked on our

behalf (e.g., political, scientific, and technical elites) - had created. The first groups to

feature extraterrestrials and their craft in a religious setting came to prominence in this

period. The Aetherius Society emerged in Britain, the Unarius Academy of Science in

California began, and the short-lived group featured in the enormously influential study

When prophecy fails (Festinger et al. 1956) came and went.

From this peak in the Fifties, UFO religious activity experienced a recession in the

Sixties, another peak in the Seventies, another slow-down in the Eighties, and then

several spikes of activity in the Nineties. Fairly early on, the idea of the “UFO cult” (apart

from the cultishness imputed to UFO aficionados) was firmly established, spreading by

now well beyond its cultural and geographic points of origin. Today, there are plenty of

on-going religious movements with UFOs and aliens in prominent positions.4

2 Perhaps the most famous contactee in the US, George Adamski of Palomar, CA, was frustrated in

several attempts to start religious groups (Melton 1995). Others of his contemporaries were content to

travel, give lectures, or just have a flash of public exposure through their reported experiences.

3 Though many observers portray them as modern-day shamans; cf. Mack 1994.

4 A week before this paper was presented the leader of the International Raëlian Movement got a modest

amount of publicity for testifying before a Congressional committee about his group’s efforts to clone

humans.

3

The role of the e eex xxt ttr rra aat tte eer rrr rre ees sst ttr rri iia aal ll

Drawing on examples from the brief but colorful history of UFO religions, our first

question ought to be: What roles do aliens and their vehicles play for such groups?

Foremost is the role of intermediary between human and divine. They serve as

messengers, as spiritual guides, as examples for our emulation, and as means of

conveyance to other realms. Aliens and their devices are also, in terms used by Max

Weber and his sociological descendants, the bestowers of the contactee-leaders’

charisma—gifts of prophecy, heightened perception, magical powers. They provide not

only sources of prophetic information but the grounds upon which the leaders base their

authority. As Carl Jung pointed out in his writings on the symbolic value of flying

saucers, aliens serve as messiahs for a technological age (Jung 1991). But they can

also be malevolent forces, as theologians from various mainstream denominations -

especially Evangelicals and Fundamentalists - assert.5 We find this “technological

angel” or “technological devil” aspect well beyond UFO religion—we see it in the

colonizing aliens and the gentle, magical ETs of science fiction, in the New Age

rehabilitation of aliens as angels or shamanic initiators, and in conspiracy theories about

the government’s Faustian bargain with reptilian aliens who now hide in underground

bases (cf. Thompson 1991).

Despite broad similarities between groups called “UFO cults” even in some scholarly

literature (a catch-all category I, too, am guilty of employing), there is still considerable

variance among these groups in the exact use of UFOs and aliens. For some aliens are

superhuman but de-supernaturalized deities; we see this in the Elohim of the

International Raëlian Movement and in the representatives of “The Evolutionary Level

Above Human” spoken of by the former Heaven’s Gate (Raël 1986; How and when…

1998). For other groups more directly influenced by Theosophy aliens are discarnate

spiritual beings on another planet or level of existence. This is true of the “Interplanetary

Parliament” of the Aetherius Society and the various Ascended Masters, including

Jesus/Sananda, with whom Mrs. Keech claimed to communicate in When prophecy fails

(Wallis 1975; Festinger et al. 1956). Yet another mode of existence for aliens is a

mixture of the spiritual and the physical, such as the multiplicity of beings considered by

the Unarius Academy of Science, many of whom communicate telepathically and some

of whom are to land their saucers near San Diego this year (Unarius website). And

some “UFO cults” disavow aliens altogether, focusing instead on the saucers. This is

the case with the Taiwanese group Chen Tao, also known as God’s Salvation Church.

Its leader and principal theologian Hon-ming Chen is adamant that neither God nor

Jesus nor the Buddha are aliens, but he maintains that Jesus will come to pick up

faithful practitioners of the “true way” (an English rendering of Chen Tao) in what he

calls “God’s space aircrafts” (Chen 1998).

Even in strictly pop-cultural guise, UFOs and aliens suggest a compatibility between the

spiritual and the technological, something Arthur C. Clarke arrived at from a different

5 According to David Cook (personal communication) even some contemporary Muslim apocalyptic

writers make use of UFOs.

4

direction with his axiom, “Any sufficiently advanced technology would appear

indistinguishable from magic.” UFO religions make the most of this compatibility. They

say that divine science and technology exist, and that humans can work to gain the use

or even possession of such knowledge and instruments. Some scholars (e.g.,

Grünschloss 1998) say that this shades over into a kind of cargo cultism where UFO

religionists are in it for material rather than spiritual rewards. I would temper this charge

by noting that frequently the changes that get the goods – individual and societal,

spiritual and physical – are considered by most of these groups as ends in themselves

and the material benefits as important but secondary to them.

Successes and failures 1: s ssu uuc ccc cce ees sss sse ees ss

Granted that the specific topic of this paper lies at the fringes of a number of disciplines

and social phenomena, I would argue that UFO religions are not as isolated or as

bizarre as they seem.6 They are part of a tradition of thought dealing with the interface

between the spiritual and the technological which has a long history, especially in the

West (cf. Noble 1996). In this sense UFOs are not simply hi-tech updates of God’s

chariots (Peters 1977), nor aliens simply sci-fi angels (Thompson 1991), because both

partake of and add to this tradition of conceptualizing the divine in technological terms.

But beyond the attempt to technologize divinity or to spiritualize modernity, neither of

which specifically demands UFOs, what do UFOs bring to a religious system? Here we

will turn to the textual output of both UFO religionists and of their analysts, remembering

the historical and cultural context we have already established.

Because of a number of intertwined processes (secularization, rationalization of political

and economic spheres, increasing specialization and expertise in all areas—in short,

those processes considered central to defining and debating “modernity”)

technoscientific experts and institutions have gained increasing autonomy from, and

influence over, other groups and social institutions, especially in the past century.

Religious experts have felt this influence and have responded to it by retreat, by

demarcating separate spheres of expertise for themselves, or by direct attack on the

authority of scientists or technocrats. A focus on scientists’ growing influence rather

than the processes behind it causes some, including social scientists, to reify science

and religion and to see a struggle between these reified entities.7 A similar reification

causes many other social actors to struggle with the relation between cultural forces

that demand belief in things unseen (forces we could call “religious”) and forces that

undermine such belief (among them, the aforementioned influence of scientific experts).

6 This is a common rhetorical strategy of anthropologists, but highly appropriate here.

7 Following Appadurai (1996) and McCutcheon (1997), I suggest that there is no “science” or “religion” or

“culture” but there are scientific hypotheses and religious experts and cultural capital—that is, local,

historically specific social forms that we lump together under categories which, through use, come to be

as real as the forms they represent. The nominal forms of these terms uncritically sustain reifications and

generalizations that could profitably be critiqued, perhaps transcended, by the use of adjectival forms.

5

UFO religionists do not explicitly say they engage in this sort of cognitive struggle. But I

think the evidence, especially that gleaned from texts of theirs, suggests so. For

instance, contactee-leaders frequently preserve traditional cosmologies but with

technological interpretations: flying saucers facilitate the Rapture or usher in the

Millennium; Jesus walks on water supported by the Elohim’s gravitation beams, in

Raël’s vision (Raël 1986); the hosts of Heaven are the crew of a spaceship, as

Heaven’s Gate claimed (How and why… 1998); and karma becomes analogous to data

stored on a computer’s hard disk, an image common in Teacher Chen’s writing.

Also, hi-tech symbols allow UFO religious innovators to critique our civilization within the

terms of its most powerful institutions. We find an insistence among many new religions

including UFO religions that their system is a science that replaces outmoded religions.8

By invoking an alien point of view, UFO religionists tackle contradictions in our

technology and the social system that produced it, like the potential for liberation and

the equally strong potential for total destruction that the contactees’ aliens saw in our

fledgling nuclear capabilities. Teacher Chen of Chen Tao critiqued the supposedly

misleading nature of materialist human science and the failings of human technology,

while still leaving open the possibility of a truly liberating science and technology,

because he claimed access to the science and technology of the gods, which all others

following his instruction could also obtain (Chen 1998). Raël refigured the Christian

search for immortality as a completely de-supernaturalized pursuit of the technical

mastery he attributes to the Elohim; we will truly become like these “gods,” he says,

when we can do the things they do, among them harnessing the powers of the atom

and the gene (Raël 1986).

Successes and failures 2: f ffa aai iil llu uur rre ees ss

Yet in working elements of current scientific debates into spiritual belief systems, UFO

religionists run into what I have termed “failures,” though they could perhaps be more

accurately considered internal contradictions of UFOs in a religious mode. One of these

contradictions comes from the complications of using a technological object as a

multivalent religious symbol. The other has to do with the hazards of employing a

stigmatized symbol in what anthropologist David Hess has called a charged “ideological

arena” (Hess 1993). 9

Failure 1: Materiality

The materiality and solidity of flying saucers, and of magical but physical aliens, are

arguably what attracts many people to UFO religions. People enter these groups

already believing the UFO, as a technological object, to be more credible than spirits or

gods. This is borne out by how many UFO religionists seize on the “ancient astronaut”

8 This is a common idea among those championing science from the eighteenth century on; see Comte’s

idea that Western society would progress from mysticism to religion to science.

9 I also noticed a third contradiction, which I have not had time to develop but nevertheless offer as food

for thought. In using the terms of scientific discourse, while often upholding religious traditions and their

assumptions, UFO religionists are able to critique both in some very interesting ways. But they are at the

same time unable to alter either in the revolutionary way they claim to.

6

interpretation popularized by Erich von Däniken (e.g. 1969), which makes the

mythologies of all peoples into mystical descriptions of historical contact with aliens and

their technology. This credence is also manifested in how the story of a flying saucer

crash near Roswell, NM, formed the basis of Heaven’s Gate’s otherwise basically

biblical myth of their group’s appearance on Earth (cf. How and when… 1998).

But such a materialist insistence simultaneously undermines the spiritual uses to which

UFOs are put. This is especially true when saucers are prominent parts of prophecy. My

first example will be the group at the center of the classic When prophecy fails, followed

by the more recent example of Heaven’s Gate, followed by the even more recent case

of Chen Tao. I contend that in these cases the involvement of UFOs raised the stakes

(and the disillusionment) for the failure of prophecy precisely because UFOs brought a

credibility that more traditional spiritual symbols did not because of their believed

material existence.

Case 1: Mrs. Keech

Mrs. Keech was able to gather around her a small and unevenly credulous group –

including a proportionally large number of undercover sociologist observers – by virtue

of her claims to channel the words of several extraterrestrial beings. She soon began to

pass along warnings of an imminent, humanly instigated cataclysm, and the aliens’ offer

to save the faithful among them by means of a flying saucer. Social psychologist Leon

Festinger and his co-authors based their famous and much-critiqued idea of cognitive

dissonance and its resolution on the reactions of Mrs. Keech and her group to repeated

failures of her prophecies (Festinger et al. 1956). What made the failures (and nonmembers’

reactions to them) so disconcerting was their insistence on the empirically

verifiable appearance of the saucer for which no amount of portents and

reinterpretations could make up when it failed to occur.

Case 2: Heaven’s Gate

It is widely known how Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite fixed on the report of

a spaceship companion to the Hale-Bopp comet as the sign that he and his group

should leave their earthly “classroom” in 1997. It is less well known that the salvationby-

UFO prophecy was by then two decades old and had undergone several revisions.

First, in 1974-5, Applewhite and then co-leader Bonnie Lou Nettles went on a speaking

tour around the country promising a secular salvation in a flying saucer. By 1976, the

Two put off this event indefinitely, instituted a rigorous, almost monastic, discipline to

prepare for the arrival, and disappeared from public view for nearly 20 years while

awaiting it (Balch 1995). The group, minus the deceased Nettles, re-emerged in the

early Nineties, once again looking for signs of the End Times, which Applewhite found in

Hale-Bopp. By tying the long-postponed UFO salvation to the newly-visible comet,

Applewhite and his followers committed to a fairly immediate action lest prophecy be

rescinded again, though even close friends and former members were shocked when

that action turned out to be the termination of their physical bodies.10

10 I use that phrasing to convey that this act did not meet their theological definition of “suicide” (in that it

did not separate their immortal souls from God) but that it nevertheless resulted in the end of their lives.

7

Case 3: Chen Tao

In southern Taiwan in 1996, Hon-ming Chen prophesied that our three-dimensional

world was about to collapse under the weight of our collective bad karma. He said that

he and his followers should move to North America because the continent was by divine

grace the safest from destruction and because they could there board flying saucers

commanded by Jesus that would take them to the next dimensional world (Chen 1998).

In San Dimas, CA, and then in Garland, TX, Chen issued further prophecies that God

would appear on television and then in person to tell everyone of these events,

prophecies that he had to reinterpret when things did not turn out exactly like he said

(Cook et al. 1998). His decidedly spiritual reinterpretation (i.e., God is actually at work in

a dimension above unaided human perception) conflicted with the group’s hopes for a

dramatic physical event, including hopes for the flying saucer rapture. Many members

decided shortly afterwards to leave the group when their visas expired, despite their

professed greater investment in the efficacy of Chen’s spiritual regimen, because of the

strong influence of these dashed hopes.11

Failure 2 - Stigma

A second point where UFOs can “fail” their religious users lies in the social stigma

heaped on UFOs, despite wide credence across many societies, and despite a certain

amount of academic and theological interest. Heterodox groups from both scientific and

religious fields fear perpetuating or increasing their marginality and stigma by engaging

UFO religions. On the one hand, the groups’ religious orientation keeps them from

working with the only other significant body of people concerned with UFOs: the socalled

ufologists. These experts are especially sensitive about the respectability of their

marginalized science of aerial anomalies, as they are routinely accused by ideologues

for orthodox science of a quasireligious devotion to an empirically shaky field. Any

association with religious organizations, especially ones considered deviant,

undermines their already controversial claims to be doing science, so an outright

alignment with UFO religions, no matter how much either side has to gain from it, is next

to impossible. On the other side, UFO religions’ insistence on technologizing the

spiritual alienates them (if I may be allowed to use the term without irony) from other

religious groups, even ones similarly stigmatized as “cults.”

Wrap-up

From the time I first started writing this paper, I had intended it to be descriptive, rather

than prescriptive. Which is to say that I am not about to offer advice to anyone seeking

to build a spiritual system with UFOs on how to do so successfully. Nor will I make this a

proscriptive paper, because I doubt if I could support any claims I might make about

why UFOs cannot or should not be used religiously. Both tasks would require extensive

ethnographic and historical work, which is not likely to be funded given the present and

foreseeable constitution of social scientific research in the academy.

11 This failure was compounded by the fact that many members had sold off all they owned in Taiwan in

order to afford group membership and an extended stay in the US.

8

Instead I set myself the more modest task of pointing out, first, that such religious

creativity goes on in many societies and in many varieties, perhaps more than even

researchers who study sciences or religions might realize. This particular way of

bringing together the spiritual and the technoscientific has gone on for a half-century

and will, I think it is safe to say, continue on for some time to come. But following from

this descriptive task I wanted to point out that the religious use of UFOs in these

contemporary and historical manifestations is not altogether unproblematic. If the

evidence provided by the UFO religions themselves is any indication, there appear to be

internal contradictions in this project. What implications this may have generally for

attempts to create spiritual belief systems that are also technologically and scientifically

credible I leave for other investigators. I sincerely hope there will continue to be

opportunities such as this conference for such work to be presented.

Bibliography

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9

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______________________________________________________

Paper posted at http://home.uchicago.edu/~ryancook/cook_kysu.pdf

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