UFO Belief

Even when it’s not explicitly religious, belief in alien visitors resembles our oldest ways of making sense of the world

Francesco Dimitri at Psyche: The Raëlians are not the only UFO religion born in the 20th century. They are the most laid-back, with their dancing nights and their ‘sensual meditation’, a far cry from the nihilism of another, Heaven’s Gate, whose members died in a mass suicide in 1997. The Aetherius Society is an early example, Scientology is another, more famous one, and the list could go on. It is a busy field.

Claude Vorilhon is the spiritual leader of the Raëlians, whose members believe that aliens cloned themselves to create humans. Seen here at the former Raëlian headquarters in Valcourt, Quebec. August 1988. Photo by Christopher Morris/Corbis/Getty

That UFOs would give rise to new forms of spirituality is not strange. Analysing the author Whitley Strieber’s reports from 1987 of a long series of extremely bizarre meetings with alien creatures, the scholar Jeffrey Kripal wrote in Secret Body (2017) that ‘the history of religions is the broadest context and grammar’ of such experiences. Ever since the dawn of our species, religions have been helping us make sense of ourselves and the world, especially at times when our certainties crumble. Narratives about extraterrestrials help satisfy that same need. Interest in UFOs – which has been showing signs of resurgence in recent years – has more to do with the soul than with the stars.

Once upon a time, people sent prayers to an invisible sky-god; today, with the SETI project, we send radio signals to invisible aliens. We are doing what we always have: we raise our heads, shout our questions to the stars, and wish for an answer.

Ufology is a child of the same post-Second World War reality that gave us microwave ovens and contraceptive pills. In June 1947, the aviator Kenneth Arnold, flying past a volcano not far from Seattle, spotted nine aircraft the likes of which he had never seen. They had an impossible shape and manoeuvred in unusual ways. They were literal UFOs, unidentified flying objects. After the comparatively quiet years since the end of the war, a new drama was on the horizon. Some speculated that the objects might have come from another planet. Less than a month later, the public information officer of the Roswell Army Airfield announced that one had crashed in their county. ‘The many rumours regarding the flying disk became a reality yesterday,’ the public was told. The press release was soon corrected (a new release stated that the crashed object was in fact a military balloon), but the cat was out of the bag, and UFOs firmly in the sky.

The world was fresh out of the biggest crisis it had ever faced. The century hadn’t reached the halfway mark yet and it had already taught people two lessons: firstly, that planetary crisis could happen, and secondly, that the next one would probably be the last. The recent war had ended with the deployment of the atomic bomb, a technology that was numinous in the sense that the theologian Rudolf Otto gave to the word – a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery frightening and compelling at once. Technology had the godlike powers of levelling cities in a moment and killing survivors with invisible rays. Laypeople couldn’t comprehend it, scientists couldn’t restrain it. Reality had gone out of hand.

And people saw strange things in the sky. Lights that shouldn’t be there, or whole spacecraft. Sometimes they met the pilots. In a matter of decades, a byzantine mythology developed – or, really, a number of interlocking, sometimes contradictory, mythologies. In the 1950s, as the threat of nuclear annihilation became familiar, aliens visited consistently, often bringing messages of peace. But in 1961 they abducted Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple, to experiment on them. Many more people from all over the world would report alien abductions and, by the end of the millennium, our visitors had their hands full: they were plotting with terrestrial governments, having sex with humans, mutilating cattle, and contacting prophets.

Some of humanity’s concerns have changed, but the fundamental feeling that we are part of a larger whole, of a cosmos much bigger than us, remains the same.

Then they dialled it down. The interest in alien spaceships seemed to wane, to the point that in 2018 the cultural historian Stuart Walton was telling The Guardian that ‘Belief in UFOs is definitely in a state of decline…’ UFO folklore never completely died out but, for many of us in the 21st century, it came to feel as if stories about humanity’s space siblings were not fit for the cynical realities of post-9/11 Earth. Until, in 2023, a US Congressional hearing disabused us of this notion.

Three whistleblowers from military circles spoke to members of Congress: the gist of what they declared under oath was that sectors of the US government had covered up information about unexplainable objects in the sky. The government had retrieved alien technology, and with that, nonhuman ‘biologics’. The whistleblowers could not give any proof, but they all had solid credentials and were putting their reputations on the line. It was a peculiar moment.

The hearing, and the public interest in it, highlighted the fact that people continue to believe in UFOs. A Pew Research Center survey from 2021 found that 40 per cent of the US public thought that military sightings were probably proof of the existence of alien life, and a further 11 per cent thought they were definitely proof. A YouGov poll from the same year showed that roughly one in five Britons believe aliens have been visiting our planet. And 20 per cent say they have either seen a UFO or know someone who has…

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Francesco Dimitriis a novelist and nonfiction writer living between London and southern Italy. He has written about new religious movements, belief systems, and the interplay of magic and political power. His latest novel, exploring cults and modern spirituality, is The Dark Side of the Sky (2024).