From Magonia 64, August 1998.
In issues 54, 56 and 63 of Magonia, that stalwart of ufological scepticism and scourge of the wooly-minded, Peter Brookesmith, presented his thesis that the imagery and symbolism of the UFO, and particularly the abduction phenomenon, had their roots in the semitic conception of god as mitigated by the ‘American Religion’, defined by Professor Harold Bloom as “a severely internalized Grail Quest whose goal is immortality
Brookesmith further adds that, “experience of that immortality is gained shamanistically – through direct revelation, without mediation, and in solitude. Immortality is already presumed or predicated in an underlying dualistic (Gnostic) belief that the individual harbours a remnant of divinity – the ‘divine spark’ within himself, which is older than creation; it is symbolized by the empty, post-Resurrection cross of American churches. Lying beyond this and informing it … is the motif of America as Eden.” (2)
Brookesmith is an elegant writer and possesses a singular, scathing wit which he has used to good effect against his opponents. His arguments are always pertinent and deserve attention, even if one does not accept them. In issue of 61 of this magazine I attempted to counter some of the more controversial of his statements in my essay, Crashed Cups. This was, however, before the last part of Brookesmith’s original essay appeared, which in turn raised several issues which merit closer examination.
The first is his definition of the American religion. There is much that is true in the above definition – Mormonism, as the quintessential American religion, in particular being replete in Gnostic ideas such as pre-existent souls – but these features are not confined solely to American Christianity. Shamanism itself predates Christianity, and although mysticism and charismatic phenomena – the gifts of the Holy Spirit – have formed a part of the Christian experience since the age of the early church, these phenomena have become less frequent, and often discouraged, except in the case of revivalist sects. We shall return to this theme later as it applies particularly to the Abductionists.
The most important thing to note here is that this shamanistic mystical faith which finds itself situated within a sacral landscape is not confined solely to America, but is also found thousands of miles away, at the eastern extremity of Europe in Russia. While America sees itself as an Eden, thanks to the frontier wilderness encountered by the first settlers, Russia views itself as the Third Rome, the successor to Byzantium through the marriage of Vladimir, the first Kievan Russian King, to Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor Basil II in the eleventh century, and the consequent conversion of Russia to Eastern Orthodoxy.
Although Russian Orthodoxy is strongly ritualistic, charismatic phenomena like those found in Mormonism and American Pentecostalism have their counterparts among indigenous Russian sects, such as the Old Believers and the Baptists. The glossalia of the Baptists in particular formed the basis of the ‘transrational’ language, Zaum, as invented by the Russian Futurist poet Alexei Kruchonykh. Similarly, Russian religious faith shows an intense discomfort with the physical body, especially sex. The celibacy of the Shakers has an even more extreme counterpart in the institutional castration of the Skoptzi. Even outside of this Christian milieu, ‘scientific’ cosmists such as the poet Aleksandr Gorsky could maintain that “death is not a law of life; it must be overcome. One must be chaste. Chastity is a precondition for the immortality of the flesh.” (3)
Gorsky himself remained chaste, even within his marriage, seeing the deaths of other people as an unworthy deed they had somehow committed. Paradoxically, this unease with reproduction can lead to libertinage. Its been alleged that the Gnostics of antiquity and the Albigensians of the Middle Ages held their orgies not to celebrate or indulge their sexuality, but to show their contempt for the flesh by giving it to the person next to them at the Sabbat, regardless of gender. Similarly, that quintessential epitome of Russian mysticism and sexual vice, Rasputin, whose very name means debauchee, came from a sect who believed their leader had a spark of the divinity within him, which his followers could only share through sexual union, a doctrine which Rasputin seems also to have applied to himself.
This discomfort with sexuality is not confined to Christianity, nor is Christianity alone in the Virgin birth of its central figure. The Dowayos of Cameroon, although leading healthily adulterous lives, are deeply prudish. They are therefore extremely careful to keep their reproductive organs covered, and sex takes place in the dark. Sex must not be indulged in before important activities like the hunt, while the firewalkers of Fiji had to abstain for about three weeks before walking lest they burned themselves. In recent times the pressures of commercial tourism has reduced this period of abstinence to three days, but the principle remains. Even Buddhism has its ascetic cast, and Buddhist monks are as abstinent as their counterparts in the West.
Chinese religion too has its Virgin births. The great hero Monkey was born from a rock, as old as creation, though one fertilised by the elements. As for supernatural abductions, like our fairies the Japanese oni carry off attractive members of the opposite sex. The Japanese heroes Momotaro, Yoshitsune and Benkei rescued young women who had been abducted by these demons. More recently, the Polish anthropologist Dionysiusz Czubala, has collected a number of contemporary legends in Mongolia in which the tradition of abducting wildmen, like the Yeti, is still very much alive. One of the offspring of such a union between a human woman and these apes is allegedly one of the country’s greatest actors at the national theatre. These countries did not, however, produce the UFO myth. Why not?
In the case of Africa, Polynesia and much of Asia, the answer is simple. The UFO is essentially a technological myth, and these parts of the planet are still largely traditional societies lacking the technological and industrial advances of the West. When anomalous flying objects are sighted, as Cynthia Hind in Zimbabwe has complained, they are likely to be subsumed into indigenous African beliefs concerning their gods or ancestors, and it can be assumed that this is, or has been, much the case with pre-industrial societies outside Africa as well. This does not explain why the UFO myth should not have appeared first in Europe, Russia or Japan besides America. All these areas were as developed scientifically as America, and shared the same scientistic preoccupations. Germany and Russia produced two of the first films dealing with spaceflight – Aelita, 1924, and Die Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon), 1929. Outside of America, Italy produced one of the very first SF comic strips, a space opera entitled Saturno Contra La Terra (Saturn Against Earth), which ran in the comic L’Awenturoso between 1937 and 1943.
Although Italy and Russia lagged behind the rest of Europe in industrialisation, the Futurist movements in both countries presented a vociferously and rabidly technophile artistic culture. Japan’s tastes in SF seem less preoccupied with space travel and more oriented towards cybernetics, as shown in the long tradition of films and comics featuring robot heroes, beginning with Masaki Sakamoto’s Tanku Tankuro strip of 1934. This seems as much the legacy of oriental fascination with the automata introduced to the East by European merchants as a continuation of Western literary exploration of such artificial creatures as Frankenstein’s monster. It would appear that while Western technological yearnings sought an additional symbol in space travel, the Japanese primarily concentrated on robotics, at least until very recently when it, too, took up the international trends towards space adventure.
Brookesmith partially qualifies his statement of the essentially Semitic religious nature of the UFO religion by stating that its successful export “may, for instance, be a symptom and a sign that a deracinated and relativistic Western culture has had to generate a new religious perspective to accomodate and resolve its own disturbing and destructive characteristics and their consequences.” (4)
This is essentially true, especially when one takes notes of the powerful fascination many of the earliest contactees had with Eastern philosophy. Adamski and George King are two such examples, not to mention the essentially Theosophical religious views permeating the ideas of William Dudley Pelley’s and Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant. Western moral relativism, although widely perceived as a recent phenomenon, actually began in the 19th century and has its roots in the 18th, when Europeans became impressed with the religious traditions of their subject peoples.
It was this fascination with oriental religions which was successfully exported back to the West in the form of Theosophy. It was Theosophy in turn which seems to have permeated the Cosmist ideas promulgated by the Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovskii in the 1920s. Tsiolkovskii spent much of his life in the Russian provincial town of Kaluga, then one of the major centres of Russian Theosophy, and his idea that matter is permeated with a “conscious energy … striving for further development, perfection and happiness” represents “a peculiar synthesis of vitalism and monadology with Theosophical, Buddhist and pan-psychic thought”. (5) This synthesis of visionary science and an occultism tinged with oriental beliefs first appeared in Tsiolkovsky’s 1914 book, Nirvana, 33 years before Kenneth Arnold’s sighting over the Rockies. Other rocket scientists with a pronounced interest in occultism included the German pioneers Hermann Ganswindt and Hermann Oberth, and Max Valier.
This term ‘visionary’ is important. In science it tends to be applied to the great pioneering theorists of space travel and the colonisation of the cosmos. The planetary scientist, John S. Lewis, uses it in his book Mining the Sky to describe such thinkers, especially the great scientists, philosophers and writers J.D. Bernal, Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke. (6) The term, with its mystical overtones, encapsulates the almost religious fervour felt by the supporters of space exploration. Tsiolkovkii and the other cosmists, as we have seen, subscribed to a set of beliefs which saw the task of humanity as perfecting itself, conquering death, and resurrecting the dead as well as the colonization of the universe.
These ideas seem to have entered the speculation of other leading scientific prophets independently of Tsiolkovskii’s influence. Thus, scientists and SF writers like David Langford and Brian Stableford in their book The Third Millenium, can forecast a genetically modified humanity with a vastly extended lifespan which expands out into the cosmos. Ian McDonald in his novel Necroville saw the route to immortality as submicroscopic nanorobots which restructured a person’s cells to resurrect them after death, which has its parallels in the belief of many Russians that Lenin’s body was preserved so that scientists could one day raise him from the dead. Even established reproductive technologies such as cloning have this mystical aspect, the religious desire to preserve and resurrect a lost loved one. Rael, remember, is trying to establish Clonaid, a charity which will offer parents the opportunity to clone their dead children. A Russian scientist has also declared that he now has the ability to raise Lenin from the grave using such techniques.
As for discomfort with the human body and its drives and limitations, this is also reflected in the hubristic theorizing of the Extropians and Downloaders, who wish to see human personalities transferred to computers and the human race eventually become a society of civilised machines. One of the leading theorists of the movement, Hans Moravec, sincerely wanted to be a machine at one point, and his predecessor in such strange ideas, Bob Truax, who was also active building his own, DIY passenger-carrying spacerocket, expressed his own dissatisfaction with the engineering limitations of the human body when he said, “What right-minded engineer would try to build any machine out of lime and jelly? Bone and protoplasm are extremely poor structural materials”. (7) Truax himself was utterly convinced that “the core of the human personality was not matter, but mind: ‘It has been called the `soul’, the ‘id’, or simply the ‘self or’identity.’ Certainly it is not the body.” (8)
This technological yearning for a superior, cybernetic man eventually threw up the bush robot, Moravec’s ultimate brain child, which looked like nothing so much as the offspring of a blighted union between a tree and a TV aerial. Nevertheless, its creator loved it, hailing it as a “marvel of surrealism to behold,” (9) and declaring that it would be “an almost omnipotent being … There’d be virtually no task, mental or physical, that it would be unable to accomplish … the laws of physics will seem to melt in the face of intention and will. As with no magician that ever was, impossible things will simply happen around a robot bush. Imagine inhabiting such a body”. (10) The ultimate modification of the human body would be an electron-positron plasma, created billions of years hence to survive the Heat Death of the Universe and the collapse of any survivingg protons.
This proposal is strikingly reminiscent of Tsiolkovskii’s proposal that the human body be adapted to life in space, and that the eventual, final form of the human species would be a kind of radiation, “immortal in time and infinite in space”. (11) Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke have both suggested that advanced civilisations, including our own, may evolve into robotic beings. Baxter expressed this idea in an article for the popular magazine Focus, while the clearest exposition of it in Clarke’s work is the novel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. These writers diverge, however, in their extrapolation of the next evolutionary stage. To Clarke, this is disembodied minds embossed directly onto the fabric of space itself, such as the entity which transforms the hero of 2001 into the Starchild, while Baxter merely suggests that human beings would subsume into programmes run on vast, planet-sized computers.
The imagery of 2001 is replete with religious metaphors of fall, redemption and rebirth. The paintings in the hotel bedroom created by the extraterrestrial supermind in the final scenes are all of the Madonna and Child, while the creature’s remodelling of the hero into the superhuman Starchild could be seen very much as an alien god sending out his spirit on a favourite son, with whom he is well-pleased. Clarke himself was certainly not unaware of the religious symbolism in the movie, and went about sniggering that it was “the greatest religious film ever made”, sentiments echoed in the Soviet film maker Tarkovsky’s statement that “we don’t have religious films any more. We have Science Fiction.”
There are even angels in SF and hard scientific speculation too. Tsiolkovskii believed there existed a class of ethereal, incorporeal sentient beings more perfect than humans who imparted messages to humanity using atmospheric and heavenly phenomena. Carl Sagan’s book, Contact, has an underlying subtext in which the universe is the product of intelligent design, and the aliens with whom humanity make contact hint at the hallmarks of this design contained in the structure of the universe itself. “Thus the aliens play the traditional role of angels, acting as intermediaries between mankind and God, cryptically indicating the way towards occult knowledge of the universe and human existence.” (12)
Furthermore, that long-standing scientific controversialist, Fred Hoyle, has suggested in his book The Intelligent Universe that the special conditions found in our cosmic neighbourhood for the creation of life are the conscious product of advanced intelligent beings. Indeed, he goes further and suggests that the universe is itself the product of a much more powerful superintelligence from the timeless vantage point of the infinite future. Like the ultimate observer in Baxter’s Timelike Infinity, this superintelligence is clearly fulfilling a role ascribed traditionally to God. Davies concludes from these and other examples that the search for alien beings can thus be seen as part of a long-standing religious quest as well as a scientific project.
It is only in this century that discussion of extraterrestrial beings has taken place in a context where a clear separation has been made between the scientific and religious aspects of the topic. But this separation is really only skin deep
This should not surprise us. Science began as an out-growth of theology, and all scientists, whether atheists or theists, and whether or not they believe in the existence of alien beings, accept an essentially theological worldview. It is only in this century that discussion of extraterrestrial beings has taken place in a context where a clear separation has been made between the scientific and religious aspects of the topic. But this separation is really only skin deep. (13)
Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality. attacked by CSICOP, among others, as pseudoscience, was merely an attempt to unite science with its ideological parent. Possibly that’s what angered Tipler’s critics: at some level, at least, he’d given the game away. Sometimes this close connection between science and religion proved particularly uncomfortable for the former. The first scientist to propose the Big Bang theory was a Belgian priest, Joseph Lemaitre, who published it in a 1929 paper. This seemed too close to Judaeo-Christian ideas of creation ex nihilo for Fred Hoyle, who scathingly asked what kind of scientific theory it was, “that had been proposed by a priest and endorsed by the Pope?” (14) Religion may stand dumb in the face of science, but science is itself rapidly taking on a religious, even mystical dimension. If religion is the opium of humanity, then science fiction, as C.S. Lewis once observed, is the only mind-expanding drug.
Does this mean that the ufological religion is based in the Semitic and American religions? Certainly, in some specific instances. Both Maxim Gorky and Nikolai Rozhkov, two of the Soviet state’s most prominent cosmists, had been adherents of God-building, which was an attempt by some Marxists to draw the peasants and workers to their beliefs through their religious piety. It declared that the creation of a Communist world order, a worker’s paradise, was the divine task of all true Christian people to build the body of Christ here on Earth. Tsiolkovsky himself published a positivistic exegesis of the canonical Gospels.
Quazgaa introduced Betty Andreasson to the voice of God, who exhorted her to turn to His son, Jesus Christ, after, significantly, accepting a Bible from her. Bill Ellis has convincingly demon-strated the roots of the Heaven’s Gate cult – some of whose members also castrated themselves – in peculiarly American forms of Christian evangelicalism. (15) This is really not surprising, considering that the sect’s leader, Marshall Applewhite, was the son of a Presbyterian minister. More recent ufological imports to America, such as Hon-Ming Chen’s True Way, have a more Buddhist religious orientation, although the Christian element in their beliefs is still prominent. (16)Apart from this, is the conception of an organising superintelligence permeating the works of certain visionary scientists and SF writers essentially Semitic in origin? Not necessarily. Davies draws a comparison between the aliens and superintelligence in Hoyle’s book The Intelligent Universe with Plato’s Demiurge and The Good, or God, and points out that Hoyle is “quick to concede the inspiration he has drawn from Greek, rather than Judaic, theology.” (17)
That ufology draws upon popular SF for its symbolism seems to me to be well-established. Ufology, however, seems to be remarkable for what it leaves out of its conceptual building blocks, as well as what it includes. Brookesmith notes that although the UFOs and their occupants have acquired some of the aspects of gods, they do not seem to have completely taken over the godlike technology of some of the entities in science fiction. Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe contains an entire artificial cosmos constructed specifically for Zaphod Beeblebrox. Beverley Crusher, one of Star Trek’s heroines, accidentally creates an entire personal universe for herself from a warp bubble created by her son during an experiment in the episode Remember Me? The Sidhe in Greg Bear’s Infinity Concerto are able to create artificial universes, like Sidhedark, through their sorcery, but Bear states in the sequel, The Serpent Mage, that in two centuries’ time humans will be capable of doing the same, though this time through natural science.
Clearly, ufology is lagging behind not only hard scientific speculation, but also its sources in SF. The human mind may conceive of the Visitors as angels and godlings, or at least as gnostic gods positioned halfway between humanity and the unknown God, but they shrink from portraying the aliens as full-scale creator gods them-selves. The Greys may have created humanity, but they are not the cosmos’ ultimate architects.
Scandinavia and Greece were the favoured locations of numerous reports of ghost rockets shortly after the War, and the first reported sexual encounter with an abducting alien was the Villas-Boas case in Brazil. Yet it’s true that “the UFO phenomenon was, at birth, exclusively American”. (18) Why, given that other European countries, including Russia, shared the same Semitic religious heritage, scientific and scientistic preoccupations with a occult subculture tinged with orientalism? The answer probably lies in the innately democratic nature of American society, and the peculiar complex of fears and neuroses surrounding it.
First of all, Germany and Russia were under the heel of totalitarian ideologies jealous of the grip other myths could exert on the minds of their citizens. Religion was severely repressed in Russia, and documents relating to pseudoscience or occultism were either suppressed or destroyed. The influence of pan-German occultism on Hitler was profound, yet he banned the neo-pagan sects when he came to power, fearing that they were sent by ‘dark forces’ to divide Germany. The V2 team at Peenemunde may have harboured secret hopes of space travel and a better use for their rockets, but these enthusiasms were not shared by their Nazi superiors. Von Braun himself was twice interrogated by the Gestapo because it was felt he was too interested in space travel, rather than his patriotic duty of destroying the Allies.
In Russia, many of the earlier rocket pioneers like Sergei Korolev found themselves in Stalin’s gulags, until the necessity of the War years forced the authorities to release them in order to channel their skills into the task of fighting the Germans. Even in the freer climate after Stalin’s death, those scientists in the Soviet Union interested in ufology had to tread extremely carefully, and official disfavour with its attendant penalties was always a major peril. In Italy and Russia the Futurists were effectively sidelined by the authorities, who sought an art with more obvious appeal to the masses. Marinetti did not shoot himself like Mayakovsky, but his influence was severely circumscribed. Besides, the Futurists’ main enthusiasm in both countries seems to have been conventional aviation, rather than spaceflight. After the War, continental Europe was chiefly preoccupied with the task of reconstruction, rather than inventing new myths of its own.
The chief difference between Russia and America, though, seems to have been in the availability of science fiction and occult literature. Before the massive industrialization of the Stalin era, 95 per cent of the Russian population were peasants and the country had an extremely high rate of illiteracy. America was far more advanced industrially, and possessed a large reading public. The readership of the pulps ran into millions. Martin Gardner and John Keel have convincingly proved that the development of the ETH was heavily dependent on the support given to the new phenomenon by Ray Palmer, who bequeathed to it the manichean dualism of the Shaver mystery. Fate, when it appeared, was a national news stand magazine, of a type unknown and impossible in Russia. The American public were primed to accept the ETH because for over half a century previously mass-circulation magazines had carried tales of extra-terrestrial derring-do.
Only one problem remains in this examination of the American origins of the saucer myth. That is the question of why the myth, with its attendant fears and paranoia, occurred at precisely the time when American international influence was at its strongest this century, and when confidence in the government was at its highest? The FBI and other government organizations received many letters from ordinary citizens denouncing ufologists as ‘communistic’ because they were vociferously sceptical of the government. Again, the key seems to be the external threat posed by Communism to democracy and the American way of life.
1947 saw the Communists take power in eastern Europe, and subsequent years saw the transformation of those countries into Soviet satellites. Democracy, and by identification, America, was threatened. Faced with the sudden expansion of a competing ideology vying with America for global influence, 1947 “found many Americans questioning the meaning of their nation and of life itself”. (19)
Sects are primarily protest movements, and the UFO myth has undoubtedly acted as a vehicle for the articulation of intense dissatisfaction with the government, first through a violent revolt against its perceived impotence in the face of the saucer threat, which was seen as deliberate disinformation, and then to its alleged conspiratorial nature as the myth darkened after the Kennedy assassination and Watergate. Many of the SF movies of the 50s use alien invasion as a metaphor for Communist infiltration, an idea that certainly has its counterpart in ufology, especially in early fears that the saucers were some new Soviet craft. Arguably, anti-Communism has been as powerful a force shaping ufology as its origins in formal religion, though perhaps more in the form of a prevailing sense of threat rather than in any expressed doctrines.
Then there is the problem of the alleged Gnosticism of the phenomenon. One of the first things that needs stating is that gnosticism was never an exclusively Christian movement. The ideological ingredients in Gnosticism were taken from Semitic, Platonic, and Zoroastrian and even Ancient Egyptian religious concepts. Although many of the sects were Christian, certain forms should be seen as separate religions in their own right, such as that of Mani of Babylon. Other non-Christian religions with a gnostic basis included the Druzes of Lebanon, whose origins in Shi’ah Islam have been extensively modified by the admixture of Gnostic ideas. Some sects were and are prechristian. These include the Mandaeans, the so-called ‘Christians of St. John’. They, however, are nothing of the sort. The central salvefic figure in their religion is St. John the Baptist, and they revile Christ as a false prophet. Some Gnostic texts, like the Poimandres of Hermes Trismegistus, owe little or nothing to influences from the Semitic world. The Hermetic writings, which include gnostic material such as the above Poimandres, “not only are purely pagan but even lack polemical reference to either Judaism or Christianity”. (20)
The rejection of the material world in Gnosticism is essentially a reaction to the suffering inherent in material existence, and represents a Hellenized monotheism struggling to develop an effective theodicy to deal with the problem of evil. Western, and a very large part of Islamic, philosophy has its origins in ancient Greek thought, and although modern technological civilisation has superceded ancient ideas, philosophy as an intellectual culture still remains saturated with their influence. Some of this may simply be that the ancients were the first to frame many of the perennial problems of philosophy. A number of modern texts on cosmology, for example, refer to St Augustine, who wondered what God did before the Creation, a question raised still now when the universe’s origins are under discussion. It is entirely likely that even if the Roman Empire had not converted to Christianity, and bequeathed its Semitic heritage to the West, Western thought would still have had a gnostic cast through the asceticism in Hellenic philosophy.
The striking similarity between ancient Christian Gnosticism and later Jewish cabbalism is an interesting question which has never been satisfactorily explained. Brookesmith cites Karen Armstrong, saying that the Safed cabbalism of Isaac Luria “can fairly be described as Gnosticism without Christ”. (21) Earlier cabbalists also produced passages strikingly reminiscent of ancient esoteric Christian texts. Joseph Gikatila, a contemporary of the great 13th cabbalist and author of the Zohar, Moses de Leon, wrote an important text, The Mystery of the Serpent, which is strongly reminiscent of the beliefs of the Ophites, a Christian gnostic sect which venerated snakes. (22) The book Bahir which circulated in twelfth century Provence was strongly influenced by the vanished Raza Rabba, or Great Mystery, which itself held much gnostic speculation on the aeons or inferior demiurges. Much Gnostic speculation can, however, be reasonably traced to the same Jewish sources that inspired the cabbalah. The description of the divine throne in the Hypostasis of the Archons or the Book of Norea originated in Jewish speculation about the Merkaba or divine chariot, which was itself developed from the vision of Ezekiel.
It’s possible to conclude from this that Jewish mysticism was developed from Christian gnostic teaching, though it’s more likely that later Jewish mysticism was “so much in accord with other features of authentically Jewish thought which the Gnostics did not know – thought which, for its own part, is almost totally ignorant of any dualistic conception of the universe – that one is tempted to believe that it was the Gnostic sects who received a great part of their theories from Judaism.” (23) This is interesting, for it states that essentially monistic Jewish ideas, taken by ideologues and theologians widely separated in space and time, were independently elaborated into dualistic religious systems.
Inherent in this is the idea of the transvaluation of values, of different value systems superseding each other as society changes. One example of the impact of societal change on religious thought is the shift in emphasis from the preparation for death and the afterlife to the quest for the meaning of life. In the ancient world and Middle Ages, life was indeed, to use Thomas Hobbs’ phrase, ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Most people could expect to live only until the age of 30. The high rate of early mortality meant that death was an omnipresent companion, and so religion acquired a morbid cast, even producing manuals to enable the faithful to breath their last in a suitable manner. The Art of Dying Well was a real book widely read in the 17th century. In the present century the standard of health care in the West has improved immeasurably, and individuals can now look forward to a long life of at least the three score years and ten promised by the Bible. The result has been that religion has increasingly turned away from the rewards of the afterlife, to concentrate on the existential condition of humanity here on Earth.
This existential despair has been an important part of the post-war intellectual climate, largely because of the horrors of the Second World War, such as the Holocaust and bombing of Nagasaki, among others. The other major factor has been the retreat of hu-manity’s place in the universe as mod-em science has revealed a vast cos-mos of immense spaces and nearly infinite time, quite heedless of the may-fly lives of the intelligent beings thrown up by evolution on the surface of an insignificant world. This intense pessimism over humanity’s now meaningless place in the cosmos has undoubtedly drawn certain Western scholars to Gnosticism.
Hans Jonas clearly states that he was drawn to the study of Gnosticism because of its parallels with modern existentialism. This existentialism can itself be broken down into two types – Christian existentialism, the intellectual product of Soren Kierkegaard, and the atheist existentialism of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s philosophical mentor, however, was Schopenhauer, and although he turned Schopenhauer on his head by stressing the joy in life, rather than despair, Schopenhauer’s influence may still be discerned.
Schopenhauer, however, was certainly no fan of the Semitic religions, and took his philosophical pessimism from Indian religious thought. The basis of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the Will was elaborated from his reading of Plato and Kant, to which he added Anquetil Duperron’s Latin translation of a Persian version of the Upanishads and perhaps something from the great oriental scholar Friedrich Majer, the author of Brahma, or the Religion of the Hindus, whom he met in 1819. The effect of the Upanishads was to increase his pessimistic reading of Kant, so that it became “possible for him to employ the metaphysic of Kant in a sense remote from that in which Kant had employed it”. (24)
A good example of his promotion of a pessimistic orientalism over the Semitic religions can be found in Aphorism 9 in the above translation: “Brahma is supposed to have created the world by a kind of fall into sin, or by an error, and has to atone for this sin or error by remaining in it himself until he has redeemed himself out of it. Very good! … But that a god like Jehovah should create this world of want and misery animi causa and de gaiete de coeur and then go so far as to applaud himself for it, saying it is all very good: that is quite unacceptable.” (25)
Schopenhauer’s orientalism is important. Hollingdale considered that it was an important part of his eventual success, even though he met with a conspicuous lack of it in his own life time. While other German philosophers had used philosophy to justify Christianity’s fundamental assumptions, Shopenhauer recast Christianity “in a pessimistic sense, and then assimilated it to the religions of the East”. (26) It’s also important that Schopenhauer’s philosophy was fundamentally atheist. There’s no God in Schopenhauer, and so the problem of evil does not have to be reconciled to the existence of a benevolent deity. Most important, however, is Schopenhauer’s intense pessimism. In an age which has thrown off the optimism of the 19th century, and become increasingly sceptical of the benefits of modern technological civilisation, Schopenhauer’s pessimism is very attractive.
Modern ufological religions like the Aetherians, UNARIUS and the Church Universal and Triumphant are strongly permeated by Eastern religious conceptions, and it is by no means impossible that the antimaterial, ascetic, pessimistic streak in Buddhism and Hinduism has been exaggerated and more pronounced in the climate of Post-War existential despair. There are, of course, elements in Buddhism which undoubtedly have a gnostic cast, such as the belief that every being, or at least every human, has ‘Buddha nature’ – the capacity to gain enlightenment and enter nirvana like Gautama Buddha. There are a number of oriental religious festivals which celebrate this facet of human religious potential. In Nepal it is the festival of Mha Puja, when one greets one’s fellows with ‘I salute the god within you.’ (26) Something like this entered Science Fiction with the ‘grokking’ ceremonies in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Although all this certainly has links to the gnostic elements in the American religion, such as the pre-existent souls of Mormonism, within mainstream Christianity, at least, it remains an heretical doctrine.
There’s also a class aspect to the ufological religion to which is paid scant attention. In the typical analysis of class-related forms of worship, middle-class piety stresses discipline, reading and the quiet, bourgeois values. Working-class religion is orgiastic, the worshippers compensating for the harshness of their lives with a form of religious expression which stresses excitement. This is used to explain the charismaticism of Black Pentecostalism and various working-class White sects like the snake-handling cults of Alabama. At the top of the social ladder, aristocratic religious devotion emphasized mysticism, although this has largely vanished since the gentry have largely been absorbed into the upper middle-classes. Nevertheless, it is interesting how many leaders of ufological mysticism had pretensions to nobility. William Dudley Pelley tried to pass himself off as the Prince of Sumadjia, while George King enjoyed numerous chivalrous honours bestowed by the Venusians.
Many of these mystics came from background which, if not exactly bluecollar, were not glamorously middleclass either. Adamski, for all his pretensions of being an astronomer, ran a hamburger stall. George King was, before his sudden elevation to interplanetary parliament, a taxi driver. The popular joke that everyone in the American deep south is married to their sister and has seen a UFO, and that the most frequent victims of alien abduction are bored mid-Western housewives, take on a significance when one realises that the deep south is the most economically backward part of the USA. Clearly, working-class and upper-class spirituality are merging in the new ufological faith which compensates for frustrations and poverty in the here-and-now.
At the same time conventional society is being stripped of anything smacking of spontaneity – and remember, Weber believed that religion was one way society could try to recapture that spontaneity – religion itself is trying to strip itself of the mystical, or at least archaic, in order to appear relevant. The degradation of religious language, and Margaret Thatcher’s omission of the heroic, or human element in praising the soldiers of the Falkland’s War, is all part of the same process. The reaction to this new disenchantment could very well be the trance culture of the underground raves and burgeoning New Age mysticism.
In this analysis, therefore, the new religion of the UFO arises from the pressures and contradictions of modern scientific and industrial society acting on a primarily Semitic religious base, but one that is strongly alloyed with oriental esoterism as an integral part of it.
As for the similarities of Roswell to the quest for the Holy Grail, this seems more like an exercise in literary criticism than a sociological analysis, though it is intriguing
The defining elements are, however, modern science, which is slowly taking over religious discourses of eschatology and language, and post-industrial society which will develop any monistic thought, regardless of origin, into a form of dualism. As for the similarities of Roswell to the quest for the Holy Grail, this seems more like an exercise in literary criticism than a sociological analysis, though it is intriguing. The first thing to note is that many of the parallels with the Grail that Brookesmith cites are those taken from extra-Semitic sources, like the turning wheel of Buddha and Ixion. (28)
Brookesmith doubts that there will ever be a real Sir Perceval to find the ufological Holy Grail. Perhaps so, but there are no end of pretenders. Bob Lazar is one such, and the similarity between him and Perceval is striking. Perceval was blighted by his guilty love for Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, while good ol’ Bob is similarly blighted with sexual misdeeds – like working at an illegal brothel in Nevada.
As for the location of the Grail in a desert or wasteland, that has parallels in a number of non-Westem faiths. In the traditional tribal cultures of Africa, boys are sent into the bush before initiation (which often takes the form of circumcision, another form of genital mutilation) to isolate them from civilised society. Their liminal geographical location – a physical wilderness – is matched by their role in the social wilderness – neither child nor adult, boy nor man. Quite often this is done to protect society, especially women, from the potent mystical powers generated by this indeterminate state. That is why so many tribal cultures cover their boys in wickerwork ‘spaceman’ suits, of the type cited by Von Daniken. To this may be added that the Plains Indians also sent their young men out on vision quests, to seek their identity through a unique personal vision.
The aliens are dangerous beings, and so, like the gods and visions of pre-industrial cultures, are found only in the wilderness. If the abduction experience is a kind of cosmic initiation, a true coming of age in the Milky Way, then the pursuit of the Roswell Grail is not just a quest for a relic to prove the material existence of the entities, but a search of all ufological society for maturity and identity. Without this, and its ‘true name’, ufology will truly remain locked in its age of infantilism.
- Brookesmith, P., ‘Communion Cups and Crashed Saucers, Part Three, Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch’, Magonia 63, p.3.
- Brookesmith, P., ibid, p. 3.
- Antsiferov, N.,’Iz Dum o Bylom: Vospominaniia’, quoted in Hagemeister, M., Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and Today, in Rosenthal, B.G., ed., The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture, Cornell University Press, 1997, p. 193.
- Brookesmith, P., op. cit., p. 3.
- Hagemeister, M., Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and Today, in Rosenthal, B.G., ed., The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture, p. 198.
- Lewis, J.S., Mining the Sky, Addison-Wesley, 1997, p. 26.
- Quoted in Regis, E., Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, Penguin, 1990, p. 153.
- Regis, E., ibid, p. 154.
- Regis, E., ibid, p. 170.
- Regis, E., p. 172.
- Chizhevsky, A.L., ‘Stranitsy Vospominanii o K.E. Tsiolkovskom, in Khimia i Zhizn’, 1977, quoted in Hagemeister, M., op. cit., p. 198.
- Davies, P., Are We Alone? Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life, Penguin, 1995, p. 89.
- Davies, P., ibid, pp. 90-91.
- Boslough, J., Masters of Time, J.M. Dent, 1992, p. 88.
- Ellis, B., ‘American Gothic’, in Fortean Times, no. 100, pp. 35-36.
- For a discussion of the beliefs of this particular ufological new religion, see Perkins, R., and Jackson, F., ‘Spirit in the Sky’, in Fortean Times no. 109, pp. 24-26.
- Davies, P., op. cit., p. 90.
- Spencer, J. and A., Fifty Years of UFOs, Boxtree, 1997, p. 14.
- Sounders, D.R., and Harkins, R.R., UFOs? Yes!, quoted in Spencer, J. and A., ibid., p. 16.
- Jonas, H. The Gnostic Religion, Routledge, p. 147.
- Brookesmith, P., op. cit., p. 4.
- See Doresse, J., The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, Hollis and Carter, 1960, pp. 292-293.
- Doresse, J., ibid, p. 295.
- Hollingdale, R.J., introduction to his translation of Schopenhauer, A., Essays and Aphorisms, Penguin, 1970, p. 31.
- Schopenhauer, A., and Hollingdale, R.J., trans., Essays and Aphorisms, p. 48.
- Hollingdale, R.J., op.cit., p. 34.
- Chadwick, D.H., ‘At the Crossroad of Kathmandu’, in National Geographic, vol. 172, no. 1, July 1987, p. 64.
- Brookesmith, P., op. cit., p. 10.