A scholar investigates alien phenomena as an example of religion.
Pasulka (Religious Studies/Univ. of North Carolina, Wilmington; Heaven Can Wait: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture, 2014, etc.) begins by pointing out that religions do not depend on objective reality, so belief in aliens is independent of proof that they exist. The story traditionally begins with the first flying saucer sightings in the 1940s, but other manifestations—e.g., “orbs of light, flames that penetrated walls, luminous beings, forms of conscious light, spinning suns, and disclike aerial objects”—have appeared in writings since ancient times, including, some UFOlogists maintain, the Bible. “Many religious practitioners,” writes the author, “view the strange spinning aerial contraption witnessed by the biblical prophet Ezekiel as a UFO.” Pasulka’s description of the famous 1917 Our Lady of Fátima apparitions in Portugal reads unnervingly like a modern supernatural encounter. “Different people reported seeing different things,” she writes, “yet all were convinced that they had witnessed something entirely supernatural. The church, after thirteen years of investigation, approved the event as worthy of belief, albeit under the category of ‘private revelation,’ as distinguished from ‘public revelation,’ which is something Catholics are obligated to believe.” As the author documents, about one-third of Americans believe in UFOs. Enthusiasts hold conventions, and their websites pepper the internet, but Pasulka discovers a subculture of scientist believers who keep their research secret for fear of ruining their reputations. There is also an entirely public subculture of entrepreneurs that supports studies and serious amateurs working to document sightings, many of whom work equally hard to detect the ever present hoaxes. Many believers seem rational, and the fact that physical evidence remains steady at zero does not change matters.
Pasulka makes a reasonable case that the spirits, angels, divine messengers, manifestations of God, aliens or their spaceships that humans have been reporting since the dawn of history are too numerous to be entirely delusional, so they deserve serious investigation.