Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Ufology and Imagination

In many ways the study of UFOs has exemplified modernity’s conflicted relationship with the “Other.” In a transcendent sense, this alone qualifies ufology as having religious valences. But even in a more mundane sense, religion and ufology have been intertwined, because religious motives have so often been imputed to UFO witnesses, UFO investigators, and those who believe them. Yet although many in the UFO community struggled with mainstream science, they nevertheless tended (or intended) to use a scientific framework for understanding UFO phenomena. There was almost no room in the organized study of aerial anomalies for religion, which one theologically oriented ufologist candidly described as a “‘wart’ on what [ufology] hoped was a scientific hog.” 1 Indeed, at the 1992 abduction conference held at M.I.T., participants were very unwilling to “deal with the spiritual and religious issues” surrounding encounters. In part this rejection of religion stemmed from the contactee phenomenon, with its salvific pronouncements about the beneficent space brothers. To most people in the UFO movement, the contactees sounded like pathetic purveyors of a quasi-religious message clad in space-age garb. 

Indeed, most contactees were students of spiritualism and Theosophy who had adopted a mantle that was (at the very least) quasi-scientific and modern— the UFO phenomenon. The apparently hard-edged reality of UFOs, and the superior levels of technological achievement (and presumably of moral development) of the UFO operators, dovetailed nicely with preexisting worldviews that included infinitely wise spirit guides and Ascended Masters. The larger UFO myth did not originate in the teachings of Theosophy or spiritualism, however; it entered American consciousness as spontaneous personal experiences whose apparently real-world tangibility caused them to be reported as fact, retold as story, and eventually embraced as a veritable cultural myth. Its emergence as a modern myth, combined with the psychological and spiritual impact reported by many who had a UFO experience, helped to nudge the entire subject toward the realm of religion. But if you wanted to understand a real-world event, you turned to science, not to religion, because religion in the West was no longer the Great Legitimator, the arbiter of Truth and determiner of Reality. Being reported first as factual, real-world encounters, UFO phenomena were predisposed to being studied first from a materialistic rather than a metaphysical point of view. Thus the status of UFO reports as factual claims also accounts in part for the early rejection of religion as an interpretive framework for UFO studies. Nevertheless, religion continually intersected with UFO phenomena and those who were interested in them in a variety of ways. Donald Menzel, ufology’s first official scientific debunker, was frequently vexed by correspondents who wrote to him to report sightings but who refused to accept his prosaic explanations. Sometimes these correspondents would attempt to bolster their case by pointing out UFO-like phenomena described in the Bible. At other times they would simply offer biblically based barbs, as in the case of the man who, after some months’ correspondence with Menzel, wrote that he could “understand better now just why Jesus Christ gathered about him relatively unschooled men, instead of trying to convince the ‘learned’ of his day.”

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