The Arrival of Extraterrestrials on the American Religious Landscape

By Kenny Smith  

In November 2009, some thirty world-class scientists gathered in Rome to attend a week-long conference on astrobiology. The conference was sponsored by the Vatican Observatory and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. It’s goal: to assess the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, a possibility, attending scientists maintained, that seems increasingly likely in light of recent discoveries. As Carol Glatz, writing for the Catholic News Service, explains, 

Vatican Observatory

Until 1995, no one knew whether there were planets circling some of the billions of stars in the universe. Advancements in planet detection have since led scientists to discover more than 400 planets outside of the solar system and dozens more are found each year… [At the same time,] discoveries of life in very inhospitable conditions on Earth, such as rock-eating microbes living deep beneath the ocean floor, show that different life forms may exist on other worlds. (1) 

Consequently, Glatz notes, although the conference looked only at scientific evidence and hypotheses, it is “very important that the church is involved in this type of research looking at life in the cosmos.” 

Of course, Christian philosophers and theologians have been speculating about the possibility, and religious significance, of extraterrestrial life for many centuries, a tradition which continues into the present day. Writing for Beliefnet.com in an essay enticingly entitled, “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?,” Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno argues that, although it is commonly assumed that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would signal “the death of religion, most religious people don’t see it that way at all… God created the whole universe. There’s nothing that makes one place more special than another. Religious people have been able to think in these ‘cosmic’ terms all along, and happily speculated about ‘other worlds’ long before the science fiction crowd had adopted the concept.”(2) At the same time, he concedes, much like the encounter with non-Western religious cultures, we may find that extraterrestrials have very different experiences and understandings of the divine, resulting in spiritual teachings and traditions we might fail to recognize as religious at all. In the event of such contact, “we would clearly want to tell ETs what we have learned [about the nature of God]; we also want to listen to them, to hear what they have learned.” On this view, importantly, ETs may even have something to teach us about the spiritual life! 

Other Christian thinkers, however, are far less sanguine about the prospects of contact. The website, Hearken the Watchmen (.com), for instance, features an essay menacingly entitled, “Demons (Extraterrestrials) Tremble at the Name of Christ.” This essay argues that the notion of off-world intelligence cannot be understood without reference to the biblical idea of “fallen angels.”(3)  In at least some respects, such anti-ET theologizing represents a clear continuation of Pat Robertson’s religious efforts from the late 1990’s. In a famously controversial July 8, 1997 broadcast of his 700 Club, Robertson warned that if ETs do in fact exist, they are best understood as demonic beings working to lure us away from faith in Christ (e.g., through modern-day UFO sightings). As such, he concluded, those found to be in league with such beings (e.g., UFO researchers) deserve, under biblical law, execution by stoning! 

We need not, however, remain within the worldspace of speculative Christian theology to discern religious appropriations and re-contextualizations of the idea of ETs. Indeed, since the mid-20th century, a number of religious movements have emerged for whom interaction with extraterrestrials is central to the modern-day spiritual quest.   

Kenneth Arnold

The widespread belief that unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are spaceships from more spiritually advanced civilizations located elsewhere in the galaxy is typically thought to have emerged in the wake of Kenneth Arnold’s reported sighting of nine large, metallic, crescent-shaped objects flying at very high speeds (some 1,600 mph) over the Cascade Mountain range in western Washington on June 24, 1947. Arnold, a civilian pilot from Boise, Idaho, was searching for a lost Marine C-46 transport plane when he spotted the UFOs. They flew, he said, “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.”(4) The national news media quickly picked up the story, and in the days, weeks, months, and even years that followed, thousands of new sightings were reported from across the country. Saucers and cigar-shaped ships were reported hovering in the skies, darting across suburban landscapes, and at times were said to swoop in low to the ground and cause automobiles to stall. Numerous private secular organizations were formed, and government investigations initiated, in an attempt to account for what appeared to be a widespread and disconcerting phenomena. Indeed, in 1948 an Air Force Pilot was killed in a plane crash while pursuing a reported UFO over Louisville. In 1952 a fleet of UFOs were said to have invaded U.S. airspace over Washington D.C.

Beginning in the early 1950s, the first “contactees” (i.e., persons claiming to have communicated with the occupants of the UFOs) began to speak publicly about their experiences, and the urgent messages they had for humanity. Around such persons distinct communities soon gathered, some of which became formal religious institutions. At one point 150 such groups existed, each dedicated to a different contactee and his/her received teachings. 

Some contactees reported face-to-face meetings with extraterrestrials. In the early 1950s, for instance, George Adamsky (1891-1965), a Polish immigrant who worked in a hamburger stand in southern California, claimed to have travelled by spaceship to some of the other inhabited planets in our own solar system with an extraterrestrial by the name of Orthon. The people of Orthon’s home planet, Adamsky reported, lived in peace and harmony, and were visiting Earth to warn human beings about the dangers of atomic weapons and energy. In the mid-1950s, Orfeo Angelucci (d. 1993) claimed to have spent several days aboard an extraterrestrial spacecraft where he was asked to bring back teachings of peace, love, and of an ancient kinship linking humans and extraterrestrials. 

This tradition of contactees claiming face-to-face, physical contact with benevolent extraterrestrials continues into the present day. Phillip Krapf, who worked as a reporter and then copy and managing editor at the Los Angeles Times for twenty-five years, earning Pulitzer Prize for his work covering the L.A. riots of 1992, reports many extended encounters with a highly advanced extraterrestrial people known as the Verdants. Apparently, Krapf was chosen by the Verdants to serve as an ambassador between human and Verdant civilizations. In the coming years, Krapf teaches, Earth will be ushered into a galactic federation, and it will be the job of ambassadors such as himself to ease this transition. (5)

Other contactees have claimed telepathic, rather than physical, contact with extraterrestrial visitors. George van Tassel (1910-1978), an aeronautical engineer, claimed to have conversed telepathically with “extraterrestrial beings who circled the earth in their UFOs on a mission to raise the planet’s ‘vibratory level’ and thus improve the human race.”(6) Van Tassel ultimately hoped to reconcile his experiences with the biblical text. In so doing, he came to believe that humankind was itself an extraterrestrial race that had been placed upon the earth in order to develop spiritually. Due, however, to the interference of a group of negative extraterrestrials in this process, an enlightened female space being named Mary came to earth and gave birth to Jesus of Nazareth, whose role was to assist humankind in their development. Along with a fleet of UFOs, van Tassel predicted, Jesus would return to earth in the 1950s to save humankind from the continued influence of the negative entities and the threat of atomic weapons. (7)

The tradition of telepathic contact has likewise continued into contemporary times. Through her many books, workshops, and seminars given around the world, Barbara Marciniak transmits teachings from an extraterrestrial civilization located in the constellation of seven stars we know as the Pleiades. As her website explains: 

The Pleiadians are a collective of multidimensional spirit beings from the Pleiades star system, and have been speaking through Barbara Marciniak since May of 1988. [They] are here to assist humanity with the process of spiritual transformation in the years leading up to December 2012. Their distinctive style blends wit and wisdom, common sense, and cosmic knowledge in teachings that encourage expansive thinking and personal empowerment, and which have been compared to native shamanism. (8) 

A growing number of religious innovators have claimed both telepathic and physical contact with spiritually advanced ETs. One particularly striking example is that of Prophet Yahweh, Seer of YAHWEH. In May 2005, Prophet was interviewed by a reporter from a local ABC-affiliate in Las Vegas, Nevada. Prophet, it seems, claimed to have received telepathically (e.g., in prayer and dreams) from YAHWEH, the creator-deity described in the Hebrew Bible, detailed instructions for summoning the angels of Yahweh (superhuman spiritual beings piloting UFOS) and also claimed to have summoned thousands of UFOs in this way over the past twenty-five years. Local reporter, Mike Delastruto, was dispatched to investigate Prophet’s claims, and the resulting interview is interesting to be sure. (9) 

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObD_ujS0t9E

While critics of UFO-based movements are often quick to attribute the blending of religion (or spirituality, if you like) and extraterrestrials to a lack of sanity, intelligence, or education, this claim is increasingly difficult to sustain. One strong example is the loose, largely on-line spiritual community that has formed around the person and teachings of Dr. Richard Boylan. A practicing psychotherapist and university lecturer for many years, Boylan teaches that a federation of ET cultures (whom he prefers to refer to as “Star Visitors” or “Star Nations”) is currently at work in numerous ways for the betterment of humankind. One of these is the subtle “upgrading” of the human genetic code (through entirely benign and non-invasive methods), which in turn will help to transform our troubled world into a much more evolved civilization. Applying his clinical skills to questions of ET upgrades, Boylan’s website offers a questionnaire intended to help ascertain whether, and to what degree, one has already been “upgraded,” (http://www.drboylan.com/starkididqstnr.html) and workshops held around the country for parents and children struggling with the emergence of psychic abilities said to result therefrom.

Some Concluding Thoughts  

It may well be the case that, at some future point, Earth will be visited by one or more ET civilizations. Within the wider scientific community, one finds varied opinions as to the likelihood of such a scenario. Isaac Asimov famously argued that, while the universe is indeed vast, it is also very old, and civilizations such as ours may not last especially long. Hence, while the universe may have given rise to many different civilizations capable of detecting one another, there is no reason to think that they overlap chronologically. Others insist that, even if they did, the distances between stars is far to wide to make journeys to other stars truly feasible. Of course, these arguments implicitly assume that ET civilizations would suffer from the same limitations as our currently does. If such assumptions prove false, and contact happens, scholars who study religion will surely have their hands full, and I would surely like to be one of them! 

We need not, however, await that day. The idea of ETs, whether conceptualized as the angels or demons of the Western theistic traditions, or as largely secularized and spiritualized elder brothers and sisters with sagely advice for our troubled world, have been here for quite some time. More, one wonders as to the ways in which this presence will expand and modulate in future years, taking the American religious landscape where no one has gone before.

Sources:

  1. http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0905002.htm
  2. http://www.beliefnet.com/News/Science-Religion/2000/08/Would-You-Baptize-An-Extraterrestrial.aspx?p=1
  3. http://www.hearkenthewatchmen.com/article.asp?id=9
  4. Robert Ellwood, “UFO Religious Movements,” in Timothy Miller, ed., America’s Alternative Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), p. 393.
  5. Phillip Krapf, The Contact Has Begun: The True Story of a Journalist’s Encounter with Alien Beings (New York: Hay House, 1998); Phillip Krapf, The Challenge of Contact: A Mainstream Journalist’s Report on Interplanetary Diplomacy (New York: Origin house, 2002).
  6. Brenda Denzler, “UFOs and Religion,” in Eugene V. Alexander, W. Michael Ashcraft, eds., Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America, Vol. II (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006), p. 216.
  7. Brenda Denzler, “UFOs and Religion,” in Eugene V. Alexander, W. Michael Ashcraft, eds., Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America, Vol. II (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006), p. 216.
  8. Barbara Marciniak’s website: http://www.pleiadians.com/#header
  9. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1562039690219561839#docid=-80565937579011473
  10. http://www.drboylan.com/starkididqstnr.html

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