By Kenny Smith
In “The Good News of Star Visitors, Part I,” we looked at the loose, largely online spiritual community that has coalesced around the person and teachings of Dr. Richard Boylan, a former psychotherapist and university lecturer from Diamond Springs, California. Last autumn (2010), Boylan predicted that “Dec. 31, 2010, 11:59 pm, EST… is the official Deadline for the U.S. Government to make a formal Official Public Acknowledgment that Star Visitor Contact and Communication has occurred.” To make certain that the American government would in fact go through with it, Boylan further explained,
Star Nations [a federation of highly advanced and spiritually enlightened extraterrestrial peoples] will begin a series of massive, dramatic, unmistakable set of displays-of-presence by large flotillas of starcraft presenting themselves low enough in the sky overhead as to be quite visible to people. These massive displays will be focused on the skies over the United States because the U.S. is the major one hold-out country to have not yet come clean with its people about UFO reality and Star Visitors contact.
Boylan understands human civilization as on the threshold of its most crucial transition yet, one in which the human world must shift from a basis of greed, domination, violence, and ecological self-destruction, to one of cooperation, peacefulness, and ecological health. Because this shift is said to be absolutely necessary to avoid global catastrophe (e.g., earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, ecological, economic, and social collapse), but also thoroughly resisted by a plutocratic Cabal capable of influencing world events in key ways (e.g., by controlling much of the world’s wealth, orchestrating world wars, maintaining a UFO-cover-up, etc.), Star Nations have had to work along multiple lines simultaneously: “genetically upgrading” humankind in ways that awaken latent spiritual potentials; negotiating with national governments to disclose the Star Visitor reality; waiting patiently while an new version of humankind, Homo Alterios Spatialis, emerges.
With the arrival of 2012 looming, which Boylan sees not as an end-time but as a point by which human civilization had better be well on its way toward positive transformation, Star Nations decided to nudge the American government more forcefully still. Hence, the December 31, 2010 “deadline” and the predicted “massive display of presence.”
Outside observers, one suspects, would regard this prediction as obviously mistaken: there have been no “unmistakable displays-of-presence” involving fleets of starcraft. Boylan, however, perceives the situation otherwise. There are numerous UFO sightings each day the world over, he argues. Some of these are authentic Star Visitor craft doing what they can to wake up and shake up the status quo. Given the power of the Cabal (who apparently possess beam weaponry capable of shooting down Star Visitor craft, and also control the mainstream media and are thus able to manipulate public perceptions), Star Visitors dare not appear en masse. Still, they do at times appear to human beings, and YouTube videos of genuine Star Visitor visitations (see below), as well as Cabal imitators, are posted on Boylan’s website, as well as intuitive methods for discerning between the two.
Such a state of affairs obviously invites comparisons (and contrasts) with the now infamous Family Radio president and preacher Harold Camping, currently fielding his third predicted date for the apocalypse/rapture/global destruction. His first, after many years of Bible study and complex mathematical calculations, was offered in 1992 and set the date for September 1994. When this did not come to pass, Camping recalculated, drawing from sections of the Bible he had not included previously, and set a new date, May 2011.
When this date came and went in a manner that seemed to everyone else as unremarkable, he reinterpreted his prediction: Jesus did return and judge the world on the predicted date, but it was an invisible return and a spiritual judgment, to be made good five months later on October 21, 2011, when finally the small remnant of true Christians (about 3% of humanity) will be swept up into heaven, and the remaining 97% of humankind destroyed.
Given the ramping up of apocalyptic expectations for the year 2012, a broader discussion of this particular kind of cultural production seems timely, most especially if it helps us to see the ordinariness of these grand “palaces of the imagination” that so stubbornly resist evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, I hope to show that, despite the fact that we tend to privilege whatever falls within the categories of “religion” or “spirituality,” and especially the dramatic, magical images and narratives associated with apocalyptic scenarios, these modes of thought share much with mundane forms of social production.
Boylan & Camping: A Brief Comparative Study
Clearly, there are important differences separating Camping and Boylan. Camping self-identifies as a non-denominational evangelical whose sole guide is the Bible. Boylan strenuously rejects a “religious” identity of any sort, and presents an eclectic set of “spiritual” teachings and practices drawn from a plethora of religious cultures, variously Native American, Advaita Vedanta, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, among others.
This is not to suggest that Camping does not work eclectically in a kind of religious bricolage, assembling diverse bits and pieces of his cultural background into a more or less coherent whole; he clearly does, blending, for instance, biblical prophecy, Predestinationist and Premillennial theology, and numerology.
While Camping’s apocalypse is marked by the rapture of the few and the brutal destruction of the many, Boylan sees the vast majority of humankind as fundamentally good, not only “upgradable” but in the process of actually being “upgraded.” For Boylan, only those thoroughly committed to Cabal agendas of control and domination (probably less than 1% of humankind) are so unlikely to change as to be effectively doomed, and even these, as they are subject to continued reincarnation, will eventually get their cosmic act together, as it were.
Lastly, whereas Camping has attained the status of a Christian radio mogul, whose Family Radio possess considerable assets and wealth, Boylan’s online community displays none of this, but rather operates on an exceedingly marginal, shoe-string budget.
The similarities linking Camping and Boylan are likewise intriguing. Both offer dramatic, magical worldviews envisioning a new and improved human condition, whether in heaven (far from the screams of the damned) or upon a renewed earth and a galactic civilization. As such, both instantiate a stream of millennial thinking with a long history in American culture and by no means limited to institutional religion. Americans have been eager to export their styles of government, economics, science, technology, language, philosophy, medicine, entertainment, and social customs of all kinds, as well as religion, in an effort to lead the world into a new and better age.
More personally, both Camping and Boylan are highly educated and experienced professionals, and their skill sets have helped to constitute their worldviews. Camping, a Berkeley-trained civil engineer, has spent decades studying the Bible and crunching the biblical numbers to arrive at his various predictions. As a psychotherapist, Boylan came to work with clients who demonstrated signs of Star Visitor contact, and later developed diagnostic tools (e.g., a questionnaire) for discerning the degree to which adults and their children have been upgraded by behind-the-scenes Star Visitor assistance.
While popular culture tends to imagine participants in such movements as pathological, typically they are (like Camping and Boylan themselves) rather ordinary folk who happen to think they have some answers. This leads us to an important question: if we set aside the dramatic, magical ideas and imagery associated with apocalyptic thinking, is it really that different from more ordinary forms of social production? While this question deserves a good bit of thoughtful discussion, there are some compelling reasons to think that it is not.
The Ordinariness of Irrefutability
Most broadly, the worldviews of Camping and Boylan represent what the French philosopher Paul Veyne describes as “palaces of the imagination”: somewhat-integrated and somewhat-contradictory composites of the various and sundry ideas, images, stories, starting assumptions, knowledge-gathering practices, world-picture-fragments, moral convictions, conclusions, sentiments, and so forth, that we have come to rely upon in our thinking, feeling, acting in, and reacting to, “the world out there” (or whatever we imagine the larger context in which we exist to be).
These palaces are not built in space,” Veyne tells us, “they are the only space available.” They do not correspond to the external world; nor are they necessarily helpful, though they do “have at least one value, all too rarely mentioned, which we bring up only when we do not know quite what the interest of something is: they are interesting. For they are complicated.
And because they are complicated, they offer numerous intellectual resources and possibilities for remaining immune to falsification. It is difficult to see what would disprove the starting assumptions of Camping or Boylan (e.g., that by properly decoding the Bible we can know God’s plan for the future; that Star Nations are working as best they can to upgrade humankind). But this hardly distinguishes such commitments from ordinary ways of thinking and speaking.
This is perhaps most easily observed in other peoples’ commitments. Writing for the Religion Bulletin earlier this year, for instance, Jay Livingston claims that, when the evidence linking vaccines to instances of childhood autism was found to be fraudulent, adherents of the vaccine-autism theory became even more “determined to fight for its truth.” If we are not personally invested in a debate, such devotion may be easily perceived as perversely irrational.
Somewhat closer to my own commitments, in 2008, virtually everyone believed that Barack Obama represented a significant change of direction from the policies of the Bush administration, so much so that progressives and independents turned out to vote for him in droves, while conservatives fretted that Obama was so far outside the American mainstream as to be beyond comprehension. Over the last two years, as Obama has affirmed and extended key Bush policies, the margin of difference between them has gown increasingly difficult to discern. Given my own commitment to the notion of progressive change embodied by Obama, it has been difficult to acknowledge such ideological continuities.
Finally, and more intimately still, after several years of studying and writing academically about Wiccan and Neopagan traditions, I find they have shaped my thinking and experience of the world in some profound ways. In my morning walks at our home in the semi-rural suburbs of Atlanta, it seems to me that the trees I pass, the streams over which I walk, the sunlight and wind, are not unlike “spiritual presences, fields of energy, beings of a kind.” However vague and mysterious such terms may seem to others, this practice is quite satisfying to me, and thus I am not at all interested in examining evidence or arguments concerning it. In the end, when it comes to those foundational structures that have become intertwined with who and what we take ourselves to be, and that help us to walk through the world in a manner we find satisfying, we may all prefer our imaginative castles unassailable.