Losing My UFOlogy? On Faith, Strange Beliefs & Quasi-Religions

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[Featured image by Dave van Patten]

Last week on the Daily Grail News Feed I posted this interesting op-ed from The New York Times, which discusses both the topics of Religion and… UFOs! It’s always important to keep tabs with whenever mainstream journalism visits our favorite topics IMO; it gives us a sense in the ‘pulse of the culture’ –from a top-down perspective, at least.

“Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try UFOs”, written by Clay Routledge (professor of psychology at North Dakota State University) is a piece intended to take a look at the dwindling numbers of church-going Americans, not as an indication in a decrease in religious thinking in the United States, but as evidence on how said religious thinking is ‘morphing’ and making people abandon institutionalized churches in favor of ‘New Age’ groups, which might show an interest in topics like UFOs or other type of paranormal phenomena.

That the author bluntly categorizes UFOlogy as a quasi-religion doesn’t really bother me. My own friend and colleague Robbie Graham did as much is his introduction to our anthology book UFOs: Reframing the Debate. Ditto with a few other contributors in the same volume –You can listen to Robbie and I, along with Micah Hanks and MJ Banias, talk about the book in this episode of the Mysterious Universe podcast.

I myself, once a very devout Catholic –who even toyed with the idea of joining the priesthood, I might add!– confess to have gone through a difficult inner process of transformation, renouncing the doctrines of the Church which became irreconcilable with my new ways of thinking, as I gradually turned more secular and skeptic of traditional dogma. That my life-long interest in UFOs played a pivotal role in this spiritual metamorphosis is an understatement.

It is also true that there are MANY things in the contemporary UFOlogical discourse which have attained such unquestioned acceptance, they have been almost encumbered to the position of COMMANDMENTS —“Thou shalt faithfully await Disclosure” being but a mere example…

But I’m sure Robbie and those other authors (myself included) might not agree with the way Routledge seems to regard the UFO question, as expressed for example in this paragraph:

It is important to note that thus far, research indicates only that the need for meaning inspires these types of paranormal beliefs, not that such beliefs actually do a good job of providing meaning. There are reasons to suspect they are poor substitutes for religion: They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.

I feel that what the author is saying here, is that people with an interest in UFOs and paranormal phenomena are merely swapping one set of irrational beliefs for another; only one with a more modern, ‘pseudo-scientific’ veneer, more palatable to a contemporary audience.

And I think that leaves out of the discussion one tiny, little detail: The possibility of spiritual mutation being driven by personal experience.

Because the fact of the matter is that everyday people witness extraordinary events all the time. Events which defy both traditional belief systems, like established religions, as well as our modern scientific paradigm –which some people might also equate to a religion, inasmuch as scientists have turned into the new arbiters of what ‘can’ and ‘cant’ be’…

And if Routledge and his colleagues have a hard time in finding evidence to such a claim outside of ‘reputable’ news outlets, may I suggest this article, printed also by the NYT in April of this year, titled “People Are Seeing UFOs Everywhere, and This Book Proves It.”

Yes, there can absolutely be disenchanted parishioners seeking for answers to their metaphysical questions in the New Age section of the bookstore, instead of their old Bible. But what if that search is driven by a direct encounter with the Transcendent? In those cases Religions and their ministers have shown to be poor counselors, simply because they act on the basis that such experiences happened a long time ago –and only to a chosen few worthy of them. They are the appointed mediators between the Supernatural and the common people, and not the other way around!

By all means, DO believe that Ezekiel had a mystical experience with a flaming chariot of wheels within wheels; but if you think your cousin Bob saw a giant orange orb following his truck, well now! That’s just silly, my son…

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Religions are too ingrained in tradition to easily accommodate new discoveries and information –with the possible exception of Buddhism… although that’s a topic for another time– and furthermore, as I tried to state in my essay ‘Anarchy in the UFO!’, the people who tend to gravitate toward UFO circles also show a general distaste for centralized authority –like the Clergy. Hence they would be bound to abandon institutionalized religion sooner or later. Witnessing something not addressed in the Sunday sermon might just be the final push to it.

I feel Clay Routledge could have done well in considering this when writing his op-ed. Or perhaps he just needs to venture into his own ‘road to Damascus’ at least once. If he dares…

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Illustration by Reedicus (iamreedicus.com)
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3 comments

  1. Just read the original paper. I think what he is saying is ETI magical thinking beliefs provide less meaning in a person’s life than religious magical beliefs, and offer no additional feeling of general well being at all.
    Don’t even bring up the term spiritual, because from what I read it gets lumped together with religiosity.
    As for personal experience? Because it is a subjective personal experience, it would fall into the “well-established social and institutional support system which lacks a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning” category which would make it a type of magical thinking.

    Not that I agree with him. OK? As usual, I find your response brilliant. Which is why I like to read your articles and listen to you on podcasts, especially Seriah’s round tables.

    Like

    • Thanks, Miriam. I agree with you, and also find interesting how religion is a collective activity, yet spirituality is both deeply personal and therefore subjective. Maybe some folks need their subjective experience to be sanctioned and validated by the collective, but braver souls dare to follow untreaded paths on their own 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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