The truth is potentially ‘out there,’ but it’s unlikely to be found in media productions.
– Diana Walsh Pasulka, in American Cosmic
In recent years, ‘the paranormal’ has become a hot topic for exploration by scholars of religion, some of which has resulted in popular books – most notably seen in the work of Jeff Kripal (Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred in 2010; Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained).
The latest entry to the field is from a colleague of Kripal, Professor of Religious Studies Diana Walsh Pasulka, with the recent release of her book American Cosmic: UFOS, Religion and Technology. Advisors to Pasulka include a laundry list of people who we have covered here on the Grail, or have even contributed material to our website or books – Jacques Vallee, Jeffrey Kripal, Greg Bishop, Dean Radin, George Hansen and David Metcalfe, among others – so I’m sure readers will find much of interest in American Cosmic.
The book is written almost as two intertwined works – the first, a ‘ufological road trip’, where Pasulka travels about with a number of people involved in the UFO field – members of an ‘Invisible College’ (the term first used by Vallee and J.Allen Hynek in the 1960s to describe a group of scientists studying the UFO phenomenon, mostly in private). Most notably, a pseudonymous scientist titled ‘Tyler D’ (I’m guessing a reference to the Fight Club antagonist, though I’d think that’s perhaps not the best person to associate with when it comes to discussing beliefs and trust), whose brilliance in his scientific endeavours has made him wealthy and successful. But beyond his successful life in scientific orthodoxy, ‘Tyler D’ is also an ‘experiencer’ who has some rather out-there beliefs about UFOs and aliens (grounded in his own experiences).
The second part of the book that weaves its way in and out of the road trip is devoted more to deep thinking about UFOs, religion, technology, synchronicities and various other fascinating topics – and how they interact with each other.
This book is about contemporary religion, using as a case study the phenomenon known as the UFO. It is also about technology. These may seem like completely unrelated topics, but they are intimately connected. They are connected because social and economic infrastructures shape the ways in which people practice religions… This book is about how technology informs a widespread and growing religiosity focused on UFOs, but it is also a story. It is partly the story of my own participation in a group of scientists and academics who study the phneomenon anonymously.
It is the first part of the book, the ‘ufological road trip’, that I expect will be most popular with regular readers in this day and age of paranormal reality TV shows out in the field searching for evidence. For me, however, it was the most tiresome. Call me jaded, but I’m a bit over trips to UFO crash sites looking for artifacts, especially when it’s being led by an anonymous individual whose credentials I can’t verify.
To be fair, though, there’s an argument to be made that the account is more about tracking the parallels in how religions are born. “I called this the sacred place because it marked the location where it is believed that nonhuman intelligence revealed itself to humans”, Pasulka writes. “In my field the word that describes this kind of event is hierophany.”
And after finding ‘artifacts’, and having them analysed, Pasulka notes:
Having studied religion for many years, I can offer the following observations. First, here are two eminently credible people – scientists no less – claiming that there are artifacts whose provenance is truly unexplainable. This amounts to having the testimony of credible witnesses, which is pretty much what one finds in the first written documents of Christianity and Buddhism.
At times, however, Pasulka goes into full overdriven hype when it comes to considering the importance of this ‘UFO crash site’. After being told by ‘Tyler’ that the crash site “was probably recreated in the first episode of the last season of The X-Files“, Pasulka is moved to write: “It was only now that I felt the momentousness of the occasion. My belief in the objective truth of this site didn’t matter. It had already become true for millions of people, through media. Tyler and James were right. This place was a big deal. I was standing on ground zero of the new religion.” C’mon, really?
And while Pasulka is clear in mentioning her early skepticism about ‘Tyler D’ and the site they visited, as the book progresses she seems ever more in his thrall. In fact, while the book explicitly recounts Tyler D’s own religious conversion, the hidden narrative is almost one of Pasulka herself being ‘converted’ by a charismatic individual making mystical claims about paranormal encounters (thus proving the central point of the book at least, I guess).
The ‘other’ part of the book, however, makes for fascinating reading. Pasulka provides a number of great insights into how we should look at the UFO phenomenon, regardless of its ‘reality’. In particular, her discussion of how media and technology interact with the UFO topic:
I am not throwing out or discounting the reality of the UFO. I suggest that it should cause us to rethink our own constructions of what we consider to be real, because things we commonly take to be unreal in a materialist sense, like movies and video games, have real physiological and cognitive effects. Media technologies have as much an impact on human bodies as biotechnologies, and perhaps even more.
Pasulka cites her work as a consultant on the paranormal-themed horror movie The Conjuring as an experience that helped her identify how certain media techniques influence religious belief and belief in the supernatural: “This type of movie produces real physiological effects, including practices and belief in things – even supernatural things. They can also create and mimic real memories. In a very real sense, we incorporate these films into our minds and bodies. They become us.”
She then compares this media-driven belief to how large numbers of people are suckered into fake UFO videos, created with the latest media technologies to be almost indistinguishable from reality: “A new era is upon us, the era of the fabricated UFO, which is also the object of near-universal belief,” she writes. “The fabricated UFO is the best example of how the mechanisms of belief…work together to create belief.”
(Would it be facetious of me to note that her book with its account of the discovery of UFO artifacts might fit neatly into the same box?)
Other explorations are similarly fascinating. There is an excellent discussion of Jacques Vallee’s framing of synchronicities as evidence of an information-based universe (which I have discussed previously here on the Grail – interestingly, I experienced a synchronicity while exploring the topic of synchronicities!).
Overall, American Cosmic is a high quality addition to the corpus of literature about UFOs. Truth be told, I did not get much out of the sections describing her personal encounters and journeys with experiencers and believers (I sighed audibly at the passage where an experiencer explains that the UFOs she sees mimic conventional airplane lights…). However it is worth noting that Pasulka herself states clearly that her task “was to document the formation of a new religious form – not to reach ultimate conclusions about the ontological status of its mystery”.
Scholars of religion do not assess the truth claims of religious practitioners. The metaphysical truth and the objective truth of the phenomena are bracketed so that one can focus on the social effects, which are incontestably very real.
My impression was that Pasulka came across very much as the ‘anthropologist gone native’ – and it must be said, there’s some argument for doing that when investigating the paranormal – to the point of her almost ‘selling’ a belief in UFOs, in a book about how UFOs might become a belief system. So much so, that when she noted that she researched “the ways in which virtual and digital media were being used for political purposes under the auspices of information operations” and that “all of these media have played major roles in the creation of global belief in UFOs and extraterrestrials”, I wondered whether American Cosmic might be part of just such an operation.
Nevertheless, overall American Cosmic is a worthy purchase for anybody interested in examining the impact of UFOs as a social, cultural and (possibly religious) force.