American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology
By D. W. Pasulka
Oxford University Press, 2019
Outlandish supernatural claims offered purely on personal anecdotes; an enormous superstructure of claims and counter-claims about cosmology and the nature of reality; a closed-ranks organizational system organized along levels of ideological commitment … on the broader conceptual level, it’s an entirely logical jump to connect organized religion with the growing American phenomenon of belief in UFOs. As D. W. Pasulka, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, points out in her book American Cosmic, recent polls show that well more than half of all Americans believe in the extraterrestrial origins of Unidentified Flying Objects. Huge percentages of Americans believe that aliens have been on Earth in the past and may still be here today, and in the field studies, as it were, that inform American Cosmic, Pasulka deals with two general groups of such people: the ones who “interpret, spin, produce, and market the story of UFO events to the general public,” and the ones Pasulka describes as “scientists,” who “are silent about their research.”
And as Pasulka learns more about both of these groups, the resonances grow more obvious. “When I began to focus on modern reports of UFO sightings and events,” she writes, “I was immediately immersed in a world where the religious impulse was alive and the formation of a new, unique form of religion was in process.” Much of American Cosmic deals in fascinating detail with that formation.
The author attempts to walk a very fine line in this book, trying to write an account that will be interesting to the author’s fellow students of religious history but will also be palatable to the many various members of that new religion, even if those members don’t entirely view it that way:
The closer one gets to those engaged in the study of the phenomenon, the more one begins to fathom the complex nature of these events that come to be interpreted as religious, mystical, sacred, or pertaining to UFOs, and the deep commitments of the people who experience them. Each of the scientists with whom I engaged was passionately obsessed with his research, but none of them would ever offer conclusions as to what the phenomenon was or where it came from. The suggestion that the phenomenon is the basis for a new form of religion elicited sneers and disgust. To them, the phenomenon was too sacred to become religious dogma.
The main problem with such a diplomatic double approach is that only one half of it is based in reality, and that fact is often blurry in American Cosmic. Pasulka in these pages seems to be a genial and diplomatic interviewer, but the differentiation between the two groups she describes strains that diplomacy well past the snapping point. People who venerate relics and “artifacts” rather than (or even in addition to) studying them are not scientists; people who close ranks against the inquiries of the outside world for fear of what Pasulka calls ridicule are not scientists; clandestine activity conducted exclusively by “believers” is not “research.” When Pasulka talks about the wary procedures with which these acolytes “study” the “artifacts” in their possession, she is quietly burying the presumption that such artifacts actually exist, which in turn buries the presumption that these things, whatever they are, are technological objects originating from alien civilizations, which in turn buries the presumption that such alien civilizations have visited Earth, which in turn buries the presumption that such alien civilizations exist.
There is not one shred of actual scientific evidence for any of those presumptions. Pasulka is being friendly and diplomatic in her field research, yes, but she’s being friendly and diplomatic about people who are deeply, ingrainedly delusional. When she writes “At the end of my research, I am an outsider to the community of scientists who are also believers,” she’s wittingly or unwittingly tempting her readers to forget a crucial fact: no part of science relies on belief. Most of American Cosmic deals with this conceptual fuzziness directly, along the lines Pasulka knows well as an expert on religious studies - book is clearly documenting the formation of a new religion. It’s only the occasional feints that this particular religion happens to be true that strike tinny notes of a very Earthbound nature.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.