“I wonder if other dogs think poodles are members of a weird religious cult” – Rita Rudner
That darned Enlightenment. It screwed up our whole relationship with divinity in the West. All manner of free thinking hipsters started asking pointed questions about the existence of god. Not that you didn’t have a lot of conflict before then, religiously speaking, it’s just that the argument tended to center on apostasy and heresy (the sort of stuff that got you excommunicated, burned at the stake, or exiled to some inhospitable piece of real estate), rather than the transcendental meaning of existence without intelligent design. We’ve been fishing around for appropriate goals and motivations ever since, and that whole “brotherhood of man” thing rings a little hollow. I mean, have you met man? He’s kind of insufferable in the aggregate. This is undoubtedly how we ended up with a veritable cornucopia of religions, denominations, sects, and cults or “new religious movements”, if you want to use the current inoffensive term like an academic social scientist.
Along comes World War II, where among other things, we invented our own version of smiting in the atomic bomb. The celestial critters we’d long populated the heavens with started looking less impressive in the grand scheme of things (flooding the world seems so 6000 B.C. when we can blow our planet to oblivion if we just apply ourselves). Fast forward in time to 1947, and aviator Kenneth Arnold famously reported what amounted to the first widely-publicized modern UFO sighting that ushered in ufology as we know it today, making “flying saucers” a household word. Yes, people have been seeing strange stuff in the skies for millennia, but when you combine mass media, extraterrestrials, and a burgeoning awareness that technology could kill us all, you end up posing some rather pointed theological questions. Now, I have no dog in this race apart from the fact that if aliens exist it vastly expands the probability that I can eventually get a date, having apparently exhausted my terrestrial options. What does seem curiously clear is that the various denominations of belief or disbelief that we have extraterrestrials visiting us closely mirror typologies of new religious movements vis a vis their relationship to mainstream religious belief.
Basically, I’m suggesting the notion that the variations in beliefs regarding extraterrestrials are analogous to the ways in which new religious movements arise in response to a perceived degeneration of orthodoxy, resulting from the increasing valuation of rationality and physicalism, and its inevitable consequence of emptying the universe of meaning; unless of course we are not alone, in which case, go us! Basically, we declared that we were existentially alone and started looking for new friends.
Your average sociologist (easy to spot – overcaffeinated, underemployed, and madly referencing back and forth between copies of Durkheim and Bruno Latour) will tell you that religious sects/new religious movements generally arise in response to a perceived liberal trend in a parent religion, seeking a return to the “true” religion. But what if there is no “true religion” to return to? Freaking Enightment again. When we started making humans the measure of all things, it really threw a wrench in the divine machinery. The individual became weirdly important. Good for individuals. Bad for civilized society. It’s like Libertarianism. It sounds good if you’re well-armed and living off the grid, otherwise it tends to ruin your day (pollute your water, irradiate your children, and descend into anarchy).
Given my day job as a Taxonomist/Ontologist, which amounts to a weird and possibly psychopathological compulsion towards classification and typology, I’m fascinated with categorization. It’s a good thing I’m already married with children, as I’m clearly not a catch (although you would end up with an extremely organized closet. Ladies? Anyone? Bueller? Is this thing on?). Most social scientists agree that one of the defining characteristics of a new religious movement is an “epistemological individualism”, that is, no clear locus of authority beyond the individual. Now, we can get into the weeds here, but the essence of the argument is that a new theological perspective initially differentiates itself from traditional orthodoxy by lauding individual consciousness as the wellspring of truth over the institutionalized notions of accepted fact. In point of fact, the orthodoxy we now can differentiate ourselves from is that of the overwhelmingly naturalist and empiricist “Science”, which has all these perplexingly rationalist and physicalist overtones, but supports itself through its undeniable success at making shit happen. Microwaves work. Cars drive themselves. Good stuff. Of course, still no widespread use of flying cars or robot servants. Bastards. Still, I’m a big fan of not contracting polio, so keep up the good work.
Still, since we’ve come to make man the measure of all things and laud the importance of the individual, this begs the question of how we might reasonably regard the differences in opinion as to the existence of extraterrestrials and their relationship to mankind. Consequently, I decided to examine the variations in our perspectives towards extraterrestrials, and found that they largely correspond to a typology of new religious movements i.e. the various perspectives in ufology regarding aliens break down into more or less the same ideas that differentiate the rise of new religious movements and their relationship to orthodoxies.
Sometimes people look around, and conclude that things are so messed up that there simply can’t be any grand design, and consequently no grand designer. This spurs a certain vein of nihilism that rejects all pretenses at a celestial guiding hand. In a universe where divinity is absent, we pretty much have to go with the philosophy of “dig us”, and depopulate the universe of all the sacred mojo, supernatural critters, and raise ourselves to the standard by which all morality and advancement are measured. Of course, if there are pesky extraterrestrials lurking about there in the universe it complicates things. When we want to center notions of meaningful existence on ourselves, and celebrate our own logic and rationality, the presence of other creatures, particularly those who operate under a different or incomprehensible logic compromises the system. Thus, in a rejection of religion, a recognition of our technological savvy, and an over-valuation of the human brain as something unique and cool, some descend into “alien atheism”, or rather the idea that aliens don’t exist, have never been here, nor are they ever coming (either because the distances involved in interstellar travel are prohibitive, or due to the fact that they simply don’t exist). Much as some new religious movements define themselves as “separatist”, that is reject all institutionalized orthodoxy and seek to differentiate themselves through complete withdrawal from the conversation, so to do those who reject the very notion of extraterrestrials suggest that alien visitations, unidentified flying objects, and all manner of little green men are a function of the corruption of mainstream yearnings for greater universal significance, which they would maintain is illusory beyond our own consciousness.
A more familiar strain of thought, which can largely be attributed to the Ancient Aliens folks is what we can think of as hardcore “Alien Monotheism”, that is, aliens have always been here, always been involved, and use their benevolent or malevolent guiding hand to manipulate us. This no doubt stems for our unabashed desire to believe that somebody has a plan, either beneficent or malevolent that can account for all the weirdness in the universe. It’s a strain of “returning to the source”, and much as the ultra-orthodox can attribute everything good in the world that happens to the positive regard in which a deity holds us, similarly all the cool stuff we’ve build, all the advancements the human race has made, and even the funky way in which our DNA evolved are part of a grand scheme to increase our awesomeness. In the same way that some new religious movements (take the origins of the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism), this re-centers the locus of divine authority in humanity, precisely because we are regarded as the product of divinity, that is God (or Aliens) are in you from the get go.
In another analog, you better not pout. You better not cry. You better not shout. I’m telling you why. The extraterrestrials are coming back to town. This is akin to messianic and millenarian movements, that is, theologies concerned with the expectation of the imminent return of a messiah to guide us out of the darkness, depressions, and sub-prime mortgage crisis. This is a variation that tells you to get your act together or the aliens are going to be pissed, lock us in an interstellar zoo, ignore us completely in some space-age quarantine, or eradicate us when they see what horrible creatures we’ve turned into. You’ve got to get right with E.T. before the final judgement or you lose your space on the Hale-Bopp express.
There is of course, an apocalyptic version of extraterrestrial expectations, and that’s that they were already here, and ultimately gave up on us as too smelly, violent, and otherwise unsuitable for polite company, and we’re left alone in our misery to quietly work ourselves into a much deserved extinction. Essentially, I’m sorry to inform you that you are living in the End Times. Aliens came. They didn’t like what they saw, and they decided we weren’t worth the trouble.
Then we have what I like to think of as “alien agnosticism”, that is, aliens have never been here, but they’re coming to us or we’re going to them. SETI, Voyager, mucking about on Mars looking for bacteria, and keeping an eye on possible alien megastructures feature heavily in such thinking. This is the “Pascal’s Wager” of extraterrestrial theologies. Statistically, the chances of life elsewhere in the universe seem pretty good, so it seems sensible to hedge one’s bets, go to church every now and again, say the occasional prayer, throw out the odd Hail Mary, and hope for the best.
Now, this isn’t to say that ufology and xenoanthropology are cults, rather they simply recapitulate patterns of thought that are commonly found whenever humans start hemming and hawing around the great existential questions, but most especially when we face realities of whether any sort of transcendent life is possible once we’ve centered meaning on ourselves. While there is a certain element of “worship” involved in our alien expectations, it is more discreetly a worship that strains for transcendence, a desire to understand our place in a universe that we are quickly emptying of a meaning beyond ourselves, a reintroduction of wonder into a philosophy that casts aspersions at mystery, but after all is said done, as Thomas Carlyle observed, “Worship is transcendent wonder”.