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James R Lewis (editor). Encyclopedic Sourcebook of UFO Religions. Prometheus Books, 2003.
Reviewed by Peter Rogerson
Worthy but rather dull would, I think, summarize this collection of scholarly and semi-scholarly articles and collections of primary materials about ‘UFO religions’. Despite the obvious ‘religious’ significance of much UFO lore, the concentration, with the exception of a couple of rather weak pieces, is on the usual suspects: the Aetherius Society, the Raelians, Heaven’s Gate, the Unarius cult (surely the only religion which looks as though it was inspired by Liberace), and a couple of recent additions; ‘The True Way’ and ‘The Ground Crew’. Perhaps these organizations are just the ones close enough to accepted notions of what a religion looks like to be the subject of academic study. The suicide of the Heaven’s Gate members clearly makes them a prime object of study. After all everyone is intrigued by something whose membership behaves in such a bizarre and extreme fashion.
The other movements discussed here are rather more tame, though I suspect that the Raelians might have the capacity to produce some very sinister splinter groups given time. There are detailed studies of their theology and practices, yet there seem to be missing insights. For example the Aetherius society clearly reflects a kind of fossilization of the 1950′s English class system and its anxieties, its members looking like suburban train spotters even when performing occult rituals on mountains, and surely George King’s compulsive collection of grandiose but meaningless titles and degrees reflects the insecurity of someone from the very lowest strata of the English petit bourgeoisie. Contrast them with the high camp Unarius cult for example.
The reader may get the feeling that these groups are just so weird and different that they can be safely made the subject of sociological study without too many students feeling that it is their beliefs and practices that are being put under the microscope. Material which resonates much more with popular culture, for example studies of abductees, Roswell enthusiasts and general New Agers is not so safely contained on the other side of the zoo fence, with an ‘us’ on the outside studying ‘them’ on the inside.