This episode will cover Diana Pasulka’s (2019) book “American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology” from Oxford University Press. I will break down the book’s main argument and then critique the book. In a nutshell, this book argues that belief in UFOs has become very much like a religion, at least in the U.S. But it also contains the personal stories of three high-achieving scientsts whose personal encounters with, what they believe to be extraterrestrials, have compelled them to do professional research on the UFO phenomenon. Stay tuned because this episode mixes classified research into saucer crash sites with hierophanies, and the origins of Christianity.
American Cosmic contains a sneak peek into a secretive community of UFO researchers centered in the United States. This comunity, known as the Invisible College, is composed of high-achieving scientsts, NASA engineers, and scholars. They turn their unique skillset to the study of UFOs. They have choosen to work in secrecy, in part to avoid harming their professional reputations, and in part because their work overlaps with classified U.S. Military programs. These individuals seem to be working, not always for, but largely in cooperation with, elements of the U.S. government. They are believers in the reality of an alien presence here on Earth, and many of them have directly encountered, not just UFOs, but alien intelligences.
Dr. Pasulka was invited into the invisible college, less as a participant, and more just to observe and report. Her book contains some tantaliizing nuggets of information about UFOs – discussion of a UFO crash site under scrutiny by the Invisible College, as well as first-person reports of alien encounters by high-functioning professionals. But, this is not a book about aliens or UFOs. The book is about UFO belief, with the Invisible College as a case study. Pasulka likens the Invisible College to the early Christian chuch, describing their relationship to evidence of alien visitation as paralelling the relationship that the Church leaders had to Christ’s miracles. She also likens the dissemination of UFO beliefs through mass media to the preaching of the gospel in the Roman empire.
Dr. Pasulka is herself a scholar of religion with a specialization in Catholicism. Her first book was ttitled “Heaven Can Wait – Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture.” In this book, she argues that the Catholic doctrine of purgatory originated with the Catholic belief that there were actual physical locations – caves – scattered throughout Europe that would purge your sins if you could bear to stay in them overnight. So, she has a deep background in doing original research on religious beliefs.
Now on to her newest book, “American Cosmic” (2019) – to prepare this report, I read the book twice and took notes. I also listened to two interviews that Dr. Pasulka gave on the Lex Fridman podcast and the Michael Shermer podcast.
To clarify: Dr. Pasulka does not directly assert “belief in UFOs is now a religon” Instead she says:
“This book is about contemporary religion using as a case study the phenomenon known as the UFO. It is also about technology. These may seem like completely unrelated topics, but they are intimately connected. They are connected because social and economic infrastructure shape the ways in which people practice religions. A historical and uncontroversal example is the impact of the printing press on the christian tradition. The mass production of Bibles in the common languages of the people soon gave rise to the doctine of Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone, according to which scripture is the only reliable and neccesary guide for Christian faith and practice – a foundational principle of the Protestant Reformation. As Technologies shfit infrastructures, religious practices and habits change.” (page 2)
and then on the next page she says:
“This book is about how technology informs a widespread and growing religiousity focused on UFOs” (page 3).
In the interviews she gives, Dr. Pasulka says that she sees UFO belief as a kind of religiousity. So she’s hedging on whether it is literally, a RELIGION, or whether it’s just very religion-like.
In any event, Dr. Pasulka is advancing two theses in American Cosmic.
- UFO-IDENTITY THESIS: “Belief in UFOs is an example of a contemporary religion, or at least is sufficiently LIKE a religion that it is interesting.”
- TECHNOLOGY THESIS ” Technology influences the new UFO movement, just as technology influences religion.”
in an effort to be charitable to Dr. Pasulka, we can interpret her book as arguing that there are features of contemporary UFO belief that are LIKE a religion, and, that technology is influencing the new UFO movement in interesting ways.
And, that’s an interesting thesis because, if it turns out that UFO belief is sufficiently LIKE religion, then it means we can potentially take what we know about religions, and how religious believers think, act, and organize, and use it to predict how UFO believers will behave in the future. We can also take what we know about technology, and how technology effects how people act and behave, and use it to predict how the UFO movement will change.
For example, I just read an article in Foreign Policy Magazine that argues that social media has shifted global democratic politics away from loyalty to parties and increased loyalty to charismatic political leaders. So, if our technologies are pushing us humans towards increased loyalty to charismatic individuals, then perhaps we can expect the next UFO religion to be led by a charismatic individual, perhaps operating through social media.
Pasulka’s promise to show how UFO belief is a religion is fascinating, but this is not why American Cosmic is enjoying the immense popularity it is today. Th book is enjoying immense popularity right now because Dr. Pasulka documents her own personal experiences with UFO believers, including an incident in which she says a former-NASA engineer and succesful biomedical entrepeneur blindfolded her and took her out into the American Southwest and they hunted for, and uncovered, a piece of UFO debris together. She says that this book QUOTE
“is partly the story of my own participation in a group of scientists and academics who study the phenomenon anonymously (except for me, of course). The participants are anonymous because of the stigma that is often associted with UFOs and belief in them, but also because there are classified government programs in which the phenomenon was studied, neccesitating secrecy among the participants.”
so, this book has two theses to advane
(1) contemporary UFO belief is like a religion.
(2) contemporary UFO belief is influenced by technology, just as religion has been influenced by technology
and on top of those theses, the book is also documenting what Pasulka calls
“a paralell research tradition within the field of the study of the phenomenon…There are public UFOlogists who are known for their work, there are a few academics who write about the topic, and then there is an “Invisible College” – a group of scientists, academics, and others who will never make their work public, or at least not for a long time.”
Dr. Pasulka notes that the term “invisible college” was coined by Allen Hynek, and often used by French UFOlogist Jacques Vallee.
So, Dr. Pasulka calls her book a “case study” because she explores the relationship between UFO belief, technology, and religion, using her own personal experiences with the invisible college as a source of evidence and hence insight.
WRAP UP THE INTRODUCTION
Wow. So we’re now on page 4 of the book, and already we’ve been promised two fascinating theses, plus a special sneak peek into the inner working of the Invisible College. The audience today may be interested by this third aspect of the book, because you may not be aware of the level of interest in UFOs among high-functioning scientsts and academics. Learning that there is a secret cabal of highly talented and accomplished people who take UFOs seriously certainly lends credence to the phenomena, as a kind of direct evidence. It also gives us an important piece of the puzzle to understanding UFO secrecy and the barriers to disclosure.
Let’s unpack Dr. Pasulka’s arguments and evidence for her first thesis:
(1) Contemporary UFO belief is like a religion.
She describes several ways in which UFO belief is like a religion. I’ll mention three that I found in her book before elaborating:
(A) Both the Early Christian Chuch and the Invisible College were a loosely knit and geographically dispersed group of believers, unified by their fascination with certain extraordinary events that took place in the recent past.
(B) The process of disseminating information about extraordinary events is a process of socially-mediated interpretation, for both the Early Church and the Invisible College. It’s a process through which reports about encounters are transformed into group-sanctioned beliefs.
(C) There is a distinct spiritual element to UFO and alien encounters.
Now, to talk about (A) – Both the Early Christian Chuch and the Invisible College were a loosely knit and geographically dispersed group of believers, unified by their fascination with certain extraordinary events that took place in the recent past.
For the Christians, the events in question were the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as miraculous occurences associated with the Apostles and certain holy men and women. For the Invisible College they are UFO crashes, disc retrievals, as well as close encounters of the 2nd kind. A close encounter of the 2nd kind is where a human being sees a UFO, and a physical effect is alleged; this can be interference in the functioning of a vehicle or electronic device, animals reacting, a physiological effect such as paralysis or heat and discomfort in the witness, or some physical trace like impressions in the ground, scorched or otherwise affected vegetation, or a chemical trace.
Close encounters of the 2nd kind can be distinguished from close encounters of the first kind – where people merely see a flying saucer close up, but there are no physical effects. And close encounters of the thrd kind are where a person encounter agents of the UFO – humanoide, human, or robotic – that present themselves as being pilots or crew of the flying object.
The argument here is straightforward – Early Christians were organized around people who reported Jesus Christ doing and saying amazing things. The people who had been personally closest to Jesus constituted the organizational core, the early top-tier of the Church hierarchy. Similarly, when it comes to UFO belief today – this Invisible Colllege is a group of people who are organized around UFO events, especially crashes and retrievals. They come together to collaborate on researching the recovered debris, or to revisit the crash sites.
BTW – as an aside, I want to mention, according to Dr. Pasulka, there ARE multiple UFO crash sites just inside the United States alone.
In her book, Dr. Pasulka describes visiting one of these sites, with a couple members of the Invisible College, and she declares it to be an obviously sacred site, the location of a hierophany, which is a religious studies term for an event in which the divine reveals itself to man. One of the reasons why they revisit this decades-old crash site is to search for more saucer debris. So, the site brings believers together, much like a holy site, or a person with direct experience of Jesus, might have broughr believers together in the early Christian church. We’ll get to the story of their visit to this crash site in a few minutes.
Later on in the book, Dr. Pasulka talks to two members of the Invisible College about a piece of a crashed disc that they’ve been studying. They both tell her that the artifact is not of this world. She concedes that her training does not allow her to evaluate the veracity of their claims or even interrogate the reliability of their methods, but then goes on to compare their triparte relationship to the evidence as analagous to the experience of early Christians and prospective converts, she says:
Having studied religion for many years, I can offer the following observations. First, here are two eminently credible people – scientists no less – claiming that there are artifacts whose provenance is truly unexplainable. This amounts to having the testimony of credible witnesses, which is pretty much what one finds in the first written documents of Christianity and Buddhism. The Christian Gospels are the testaments, or testimonies, of credible witnesses – the apostles, which is a Greek word that literally translates as “those who are sent,” or “messengers.” Second, the credible witnesses are attesting to something truly unexplainabale, truly anomalous. In religious studies, this would be a miracle, either a miraculous object or a miraculous event such as a healing.” (76)
Let’s move on to the next way in which belief in UFOs is like a religion:
B) The process of disseminating information about extraordinary events is a process of socially-mediated interpretation, for both the Early Church and the Invisible College. It’s a process through which reports about encounters are transformed into group-sanctioned beliefs.
Dr. Pasulka says that as she began studying UFOs, she encountered an unexpected cast of characters – television producers, experiencers, scientists, agents affiliated with the government, and well-known actors. She quickly began to see them as
QUOTE “the same cast of characters who appear at the birth of every major religious tradition…in the first century CE they woulod be called scribes and redactors, but today they are agents of information, like screenwriters, television producers, and authors. I observed the dynamic genesis of a global belief system.” (11)
Historically when venerable christians reported extraordinary experiences, their reports of what happened to them would be reorganized by the Church community. Dr. Pasulka is a little bit elusive here, but she seems to be referencing, for example the gospels. The gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are four biographies of the life of Jesus, including his teachings, miracles, death and resurrection. As I understand it, only one Gospel is believed to have possibly been written by someone who actually knew Jesus. And Biblical scholars have long argued that the different gospels were pieced together, probably from oral tradition. The four Gospels have markedly different styles, and tones, and they differ in some details about Jesus and also differ in which details they include. It’s thought that the gospels were written for different audiences. Matthew emphasises Christ’s judaism more, and is thought to have been written for a Jewish audience. Luke potrays the Romans in a better light, and is thought to have been written for a gentile Roman audience.
The idea here is that the raw reports of encounters with Jesus went through a process of being edited, or cleaned-up, in order to be presentable to a mass audience.
According to Dr. Pasulka the same thing happens when people encounter UFOs, as Pasulka says “even as some respected scientists believe in the phenomenon associated with UFOs and make discoveries about it, what is ultimately marketed to the public about the phenomenon barely resembles these scientists findings” (6)
Here is what’s going on with UFO experiences: People are encountering UFOs and making raw reports. Or they’re finding pieces of what they believe are crashed UFOs, and studying them. Various bureacracies and institutions mediate the raw data of the UFO encounter. When the government is involved, often people are allowed to have experiences – to directly see and scrutiinze pieces of recovered UFO debris – only under legally binding oaths of secrecy, the violation of which would expose them to civil or criminal penalties. Dr. Pasulka does not mention, but I will add, the many stories of “Men in Black” who show up after a UFO encounter and attempt to strong-arm witnessses into secrecy. Adn then there are the documentarians, movie producers, writers, who look at reports, much later in time, and turn the reports into content for public consumtpion. Dr. Pasulka points out that what gets reported in the news or in documentaries to the public often deviates dramatically from the raw report.
One of the ways in which UFO encounters get edited for public consumption, as Dr. Pasulka points out, is that elements that are incongruous or could make the public uncomfortable are often removed:
A great example, according to Dr. Pasulka, is that many 20th century UFO encounters have a religious element. Dr. Pasulka discusses one case in which woman who was praying for her dog. Her dog had cancer and she was praying for it to heal. And a tiny flying saucer flew into her house and zapped her dog with a beam of light. Later the woman took her dog to the vet. And the vet said the dog no longer had cancer. Adding to the complexity of this story, the woman’s husband is not religious and yet he also witnessed the tiny flying saucer.
According to Pasulka, when the media reported this story, they left out any reference of the woman praying for a cure to her dog’s cancer. They also left out the woman’s speculation that the tiny saucer may have been an angel. The spiritual dimension to the story was excluded, in order to make the story more palatable to public consumption.
This perfectly paralells what religious institutions have been doing for centuries, Dr. Pasulka maintains that historically, when people would repeat stories of miracles, various authorities would redact them or edit them to make the story fit into the Catholic Church’s framework.
She gives one excellent example, of a famous holy nun: Sister Maria of Agreda, who is on wikipedia as “María de Jesús de Ágreda” or Maria of Jesus of Agrda”. Maria lived in the 17th century in Spain. And she kept a sort of holy diary, about her spiritual experiences. Among other things, she experienced herself as teleporting to far-away places while praying. There she would talk to people. One of the places she teleported to was South America. In her visions, she would tell the American peoples about Jesus Christ. But she also reported teleporting to other planets. She would meet aliens and she would tell THEM about Jesus Christ also.
year later, spanish missionaries in New Mexico were talking to people about Jesus, and the locals said, according to the stories, “oh we already know about Jesus. A lady in blue came by, and she told us.” and the missionaries reported this back to Spain, and people were dumbfounded because the locals were describing Teresa.
So Church hierarchy decided that she had BILOCATED to South America. but here’s the thing: the Church attempted to eliminate any record of Maria going to other planets. They decided all the stuff about her encountering ALIENS as TOO WEIRD. So they cut it out. In fact, Maria was threatened by the Spanish Inquisition and forced to confess to having been under the influence of evil spirits. And her superiors burned her diaries. Years later, Maria would recant her confession, declare that it was made under duress, and rewrite her diary from memory.
With respect to American Cosmic, The point of this story is NOT that St. Teresa encountered aliens, the point of the story is that St. Teresa’s raw encounter – as recorded by her – underwent a process of editing to make it socially acceptable. Just as we saw with the earlier example of the 20th century woman who encountered a flying saucer – the MEDIA leaves out all the parts that are confusing.
Taken together, these stories suggest that modern stories about UFOs develop in a way that is structurally similar to historical reports of miraculous events – in both cases there is a raw encounter that is sort of rough, and weird – it’s not quite what everyone is comfortable accepting – and then you have institutions that mediate that raw encounter. They decide how the story gets represented. They manipulate, repackage, or reinvent the story in ways that ensure the story fits into an acceptable narrative.
The information is not always merely excluded, sometimes it’s included, but in strange ways. For example, Pasulka describes how a scientist offered to transport her to a UFO crash site in the American Southwest, to search for UFO debris. According to him, there was so much debris at the site, that the government had failed to recover it all. At some point the U.S. Military had just given up, and had scattered tin cans everywhere in order to obscure the site and make it harder for others to recover debris. He claimed to have a specially configured metal detector. His offer to trransport Pasulka to the site was contingent on her agreeing to be transported under blindfold. She balked at this, and they negotiated a compromise – she would go blindfolded, but she would bring along a male college. He agreed to that, and when they got at the site, he unblindfolded her. She looked around and
“There were tumbleweeds, rocks, and rust-colored cans strewn as far as I could see. The landscape was eerier yet beautiful. I was drawn to one place in particular, as it looked familiar to me. It was a small mesa. Tyler noticed I looked in that direction several times.
“Do you recognize that area?”
“What?” I wasn’t sure I knew where he was going with the question. He knew I’d never been there.
“This scene was probably recreated in the first episode of the last season of The X-files” he said.
“Yes, he continued. “Someone from their production team had either been here or knew someone who had. It makes me wonder if they had an insider on their team.”
” END QUOTE
Dr. Pasulka says she initially responded with incredulity, but this melted into acceptance as she decided:
“Of course this place was mythologized in one of the most popular television shows in history, Of course, it would be taken upo, interpreted and spun, and then projected to millions, perhaps even billions, of people through the various screens of television, film, computer and phone. It was only now that I felt the momentousness of the occasion. My belief in the ultimate truth of the site didn’t matter. It had already become true for millions of people, through media…I was standing on the ground zero of a new religion.” (21)
(C) Religious people have been encountering UFOs for years. As Pasulka says, while working on Catholic beliefs about purgatory, focusing on sources dated from 1300 to 1880, she found a lot of reports of “orbs of light, flames that penetrated walls, luminous beings, forms of conscious light, spinning suns and disclike aerial objects” ( 7)
And she says
“Could the orbs of the past, once interpreted as souls from purgatory, still be around? Are they currently being interpreted as UFOs?” (8)
To give you another example, Dr. Pasulka talks about a member of the invisible college named Tyler. Tyler is a long-time NASA engineer, he worked for mission control, and now he’s a succesful biomedical entrepeneur. Dr. Pasulka notes that Tyler believes he is in contact with alien intelligences.
Tyler told her that he was on a secret research project and he was working next to a shielded room where, he believes, an alien artifact was being housed. After working next to that room, he began to receive messages and experience synchronicities that have advanced his work.
Tyler describes an almost religious ritual, he uses to commune with the alien intelligences: he avoid alchol, and shuns coffee. He gets 8 hours of sleep, plus an extra nap that he takes immediately after waking up. Then he sits in the sun and drinks water. And when he lives in this way, he receives thoughts – ideas – that don’t feel like they belong to him, but these ideas often turn into patents that have made Tyler a very wealthy person.
So, here we have what Pasulka calls an ascetic practice, that is being used to contact higher intelligences. It is very similar to the spiritual practices used by Catholic monks to develop their spirituality.
And Dr. Pasulka also describes another member of the invisible college who has been having terrifying encounters with aliens – outright alien abduction type experiences – through his life, and she describes how this man, she calls James, converts to Catholicism after she and him travel to the Vatican Secret Archives to look into stories of bilocation
To summarize, Dr. Pasulka argues that modern belief in UFOs is like religion, because there is a complex social network around UFO-experiencers that puts a degree of seperation between the rest of us and the core phenomnon, and this is similar to how Christianty, especially Catholicism, has historically involved a tightly knit network that promulgates the Church’s teachings, while regulating and reinterpretating or at least attemtping to regulate and reinterpret, the public’s access to information about spiritual encounters.
So, let’s summarize the argument for belief in UFOs being like a religion:
(A) Both the Early Christian Chuch and the Invisible College were a loosely knit and geographically dispersed group of believers, unified by their fascination with certain extraordinary events that took place in the recent past.
(B) For Both the Early Christian Chuch and the larger UFO community, The process of disseminating information about extraordinary events is a process of socially-mediated interpretation. Raw Reports about encounters are edited, manipulated, into forms that are acceptable for dissemination to the larger community.
(C) There is a distinct spiritual element to UFO and alien encounters.
there’s a lot more to this book. Dr. Pasulka includes a lot of critical media analysis, discussing paralells between how religion, especially Catholicism, is reresented in popular culture, and how aliens and flying saucers are presented. She’s uniquely positioned to that because she is a scholar who works on Catholicism and also was an advisor on the set of the movie “The Conjuring” – an excellent horror film that I recommend to the audience.
Now, I haven’t touched on the thesis about technology shaping how we think about UFOs. And there is also Dr. Pasulka’s speculation that she may be a pawn herself in the creation of the new UFO religion. After all, the Invisible College was bringing a scholar of religion – someone who could not directly contribute to their research – out to the desert. As part of getting her out there, Tyler flatters Dr. Pasulka telling her that one of his “mentors” at NASA had told HIM that the next big step forward in UFO research would come from her area of research – that is religious studies.
And this really gave me PAUSE. We respect religious belief and spirituality on the show, but the idea of major progress coming from academic scholars of religion, does not seem likely to me. What instead I thought, was that bringing a scholar of religion out to write a book about how interest in UFOs is becoming a religion, is exactly the kind of thing that a government agent might want. They might want this because they themselves are hoping to turn UFO devotion into a religion – a state sponsored and controlled religion.
Dr. Pasulka says that Jacques Vallee, a seasoned veteran of UFOlogy warned HER, that in working on her book she should “trust no one, no even your own senses.”
Let me make a few other critical remarks about this book.
The content of the book is fascinating, but it wanders a great deal. Dr. Pasulka shifts from comparing the invisible college to the early chuch, to comparing it to Buddhism, sometimes she brings in UFO cults as evidence that UFOlogy is becoming a religion. At other times she broadens the topic from the Invisible College itself to UFOlogy writ large.
This all makes it hard to critically asess her claim that UFOlogy is now a religion. So, I’d like to make some objections.
- Early Christianity and even Early Buddhism were organized, not just around extraordinary events, but also ethical injunctions. Jesus did a lot of miracles, but he ALSO told people what they needed to do to live forever – it was believe in Him, follow him, take care of the poor and people in dificult situations. Similarly, the Buddha had a lot of practical advice about how to escape from suffering. But, the UFO community does not, generally, have a morality. And I think that’s important to a religion – people need something TO DO and PRACTICE in order for it to be a religion.
- The Invisible College has organized themselves around these extroardinary events, but I think it matters that they are trying to be impartial scientists about what they’re studying and witnessing. The culture of science today and the norms that scientists follow, have to be fairly different from the norms of the ancient world. Dr. Pasulka describes one of the members of the Invisible College who she was doing research with as converting to Catholicism during their research, and that’s interesting but it almost seemed to contradict her thesis – because devoted members of one religion don’t usually suddenly switch to a new one. I saw Tyler’s conversion to Catholicism, described at the end of the book, as evidence that Tyler’s involvement in the Invisible College was NOT meeting his spiritual needs. It’s very clear that Tyler’s personal encounters with what he believed to be aliens helped ignite his drive for meaning, but that drive doesn’t take him into UFO spirituality, but ultimately to a mainstream religion.
- The part of the book I found most compelling, was Dr. Pasulka’s juxtaposition of the censorship of Maria of Agreda by the Spanish inquisition with contemporary media’s excision of spiirituality from contemporary reports about UFOs. I agree with Dr. Pasulka there are fascinating paralells here. But what I found myself thinking was less that interest in UFOs is becoming a new religion, and more that religions and media are more alike than I had realized. I found myself drawing paralells between the information-management protocols used by the 17th century Catholic Chuch, and the way that political discourse is managed on American social media today. And I don’t think that American social media is a new religiois inquisition. Rather, I think that there’s a general lesson here that communities attempt to control narratives as a form of self-regulation. Ideology is the consensus-reality that emerges when a group of people commit to taking certain ideas as incontestable assumptions – be those assumptions the divinity of Jesus Christ, the reality of UFOs, or the sacredness of the interests of the American ruling class. And this leads me to my final point, I agree most strongly with Dr. Pasulka that at least one, if not multiple powerful institutions, are aiming to control the UFO narrative. This is what I hope the audience will take most from today’s episode. Just as people in ancient times rehashed stoies spiritual encounters to serve the ruling ideology, today people are rehashing UFO stories for the same reason. Their agenda probabl;y goes far beyond merely removing the spiritual elements from UFO encounters, although even that is shocking enough by itself. On previous episodes of this show, Chris and I have speculated that the Pentagon may have a plan to create a new religion around UFOs, for the purpose of unifying the country. That is just a possibility, but it’s in the ballpark of the kind of nefariousness that I want our audience to be forwarned, dareIsay, cognitively vaccinated against. Since we’ve already mentioned the X-files once on this episode, let’s finish by recalling the two most popular slogans that appeared in that show’s opening credits:
- The truth is out there.
- Trust no one.
Taken together, these two premises limn the framework for that small-s skepticism that best suits the student of occult knowledge.
Until next time, this is Dane signign off.