When it comes to UFOs, secrecy seems inescapable, so it may help to start with some facts that are not secrets and do not wear tinfoil hats.
First, this book is published by Oxford University Press, one of the oldest, most respected academic presses; it went through a rigorous peer-review process and stands as an excellent work of scholarship. This is not some self-published conspiracy theory: it is top-notch thinking and research. What’s more, D. W. Pasulka, the author, is a tenured professor of religion and an outstanding writer, and her book reads more like a novel in most places than a plodding treatise that might be inflicted on undergrads. A mature and respected scholar, she has done exactly what scholars are supposed to do: help us better understand ourselves and the world.
Second, American Cosmic is not about whether UFOs are “really out there,” but it will probably change how you think about that question. Rather, it is a profound and original exploration of how UFO culture can usefully be thought of as religion — one centered on science and technology, though. These may seem unconnected, as Pasulka realizes, but she makes a compelling case for the interconnections of religious modes of life and technology. In the case of UFOs, she notes, the relation is deeper: “[T]he UFO is considered by believers to be advanced technology.” As a result, “technology itself is a sacred medium, as well as the sacred object, of this new religiosity.”
Third, and perhaps most important, the people Pasulka studies and writes about are an unusual group in that they probably could not care less what most of us think about them. Her focus is the “Invisible College” (a term coined by J. Allen Hynek, scientist and ufologist): “[A] group of scientists, academics, and others who will never make their work public, or at least not for a long time, although the results of their investigations impact society in many ways.” This group has something that has always been rare: a thirst for truth at all costs, even if it means being regarded as odd or crazy, and a willingness to seek truth as the horizon of their lives’ meaning. In order to think about these people and UFOs seriously, it’s worth briefly considering our relationship to truth.
Truth is a strange word on the tongue today. We are like Pilate in Francis Bacon’s essay on truth: ‘“What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” We complain about fake news, then say that no culture is better than any other — raising the obvious question: what if some culture of fascists decides to rewrite all of history to support their ideology (as in fact happened in the 20th century)? Would not the first and obvious weapon we would reach for be the following protestation: But that isn’t true! It is not just that the facts are wrong; such a culture is in revolt against truth, which is more than facts. Facts are at best the words and lines; truth is the poem. We believe in the truth, and we do not believe in it. We want truth when it serves our interest, but fight it when it threatens our comfort.
Clearly, confusion has somewhere crept into current thinking about truth and left chaos behind, so let me be as clear as a philosopher can be about a hard subject: if we do not really believe the truth is out there — even if we don’t know what that means fully — then you can forget about UFOs and this essay, neglect education, abandon the university, spit on science, and surrender to whatever is left in the world when the search for truth has died away: pure, naked, iron-fisted power.
There is a world full of growing corporations only too happy to let marketing algorithms tell you and your children what the world is like, what you should see and think and buy, and eventually what you should believe is real. We do not need Stalins or Maos to rewrite the maps of the mind and the earth: we need only stay connected to all the powers invested in our own confusion, who prey on our fears and desires, and stay comfortable in our easy dismissal of anything that seems wrong. Fake news is popular, we ought to remember, because everyone likes the news that fits their own prejudices. If you think you are immune, you suffer from the malady that makes current social media what it is: a maelstrom of ignorance and arrogance. Truth checks coercive power, or it is violence versus violence, all the way down. If the idea of truth as a power arouses skepticism, it might be worth recalling two names: Socrates and Jesus, whose living and dying for truth changed the world.
The first power of the truth is its unpleasant confounding force. “Oh, I thought this was this case, but it’s not.” The shock of confrontation, of the flower of error blossoming into the recognition that we did not know what we thought we did — that is only possible because of our sense that we could actually make a meaningful distinction between better or worse, true or false, in at least some contexts. Truth, in this sense, becomes tragedy when the stakes are high. Truth is Oedipus seeing Jocasta for who she really was, and then unseeing the whole physical world as the price of his prior blindness.
Next comes its surprising power, one that motivates, delights, and disturbs both children and scientists alike. Who knew our DNA was shaped like a double helix, or that we would one day use background radiation to confirm the theory of the Big Bang? Or how many of us knew that the US Air Force ran a top-secret program tracking UFOs for over 20 years? It’s because that is true that, if you did not know it, you are now surprised, just as I was when I learned that the United States, and other governments, had programs studying UFOs.
Perhaps truth’s greatest power must remain a secret. I mean, we can use words to talk about it, of course, but those words are like an alien who has never seen Earth mouthing a poem describing the English countryside: a voice speaking unmeaning sounds, waiting for personal experience to give them life. Those words would be the usual suspects in this case: conversion, transformation, revolution, renewal, rebirth, death and resurrection, life beyond the body. In short, mystery, absurdity, and all humans’ anguished desire for a sense of meaning.
Anyone considering reading American Cosmic should be ready for what the truth can do, and I would be remiss, as a reviewer, if I did not say that serious scholarly study of strange things can have strange effects. This fact may be because, as an ancient adage puts it, we become what we behold. The study of UFOs is the study of contemporary humanity’s upward gaze to the heavens in shock, awe, terror, and, for some, reverence and piety. The believer’s gaze is directed toward phenomena that seems as real as our cars and planes, but far greater. The oddest thing about UFOs — and this is a fact of which we, no matter how skeptical, most remind ourselves — concerns their physicality: these phenomena are captured on radar and can be photographed. Whatever they are, they cannot be dismissed as immaterial phantasy.
The old religions supposedly made meaning something we seek beyond the world: an immaterial, invisible, heaven full of bored harp players. The religion of UFOs is different precisely because of its technological focus. Instead of heaven, think the Holy Grail: a physical object, somewhere, somehow, accessible, though unreliably and mysteriously, in our very space-time world. If found, its very existence would confirm the hope and faith of those questing for the Grail, and that is not to speak of its famous powers. The Grail, if genuine, would be material, made of real stuff, yet somehow unlike anything in this world.
Pasulka’s journey to understand the culture of UFO believers takes her on a kind of Grail quest by proxy, living among the remarkable people she gets to know, observe, and learn from. At the risk of spoiling some of the story, you should probably know that she does witness the discovery of an apparently extraterrestrial artifact: something rigorously studied that utterly confounds all current scientific knowledge, and seems like it could not possibly originate from Earth. Pasulka’s companions in that particular quest, the aforementioned “Invisible College,” are respected scientists who, like everyone she deals with, make up a group of dedicated, serious, and intentionally secret UFO researchers.
Why the secrecy? Having been ignored, mocked, or ridiculed for trying to make their data and research public, they realized that operating quietly was the best way to accomplish their work. American Cosmic is the first academic book to bring some of these people to light. But the light it shines casts its own shadow. Pasulka’s main character, for example, is a man she calls Tyler. A fascinating enigma, he reads like a blend of Elon Musk, Indiana Jones, and a genuine philosopher-magician. Tyler looks much younger than his age, has numerous patents, founded innovative biotech companies based on extra-terrestrial revelations (as he understood them), possesses high-level security clearance, and works on secret government projects. His story becomes a major plot line, but to summarize it would be to destroy its power. Suffice it to say, Tyler is real, and he cannot be dismissed unless one wishes to deny Pasulka’s account.
Indeed, Tyler represents one pattern many skeptics who wish to dismiss the UFO phenomenon may find deeply troubling: he is tremendously scientific and intelligent. The very existence of Tyler challenges a notion many secular people cherish: the idea that religious people, or anyone who disagrees with them, is essentially some kind of idiot. Besides the class dimension to this hoary prejudice (religious people have their own version of it), it encodes a normal human bias: we tend to think that fundamentally different beliefs about the world must stem from something absurd. It does not take a genius to see why we do this as humans: if we didn’t, we would have to relativize our own beliefs and confront the fact that reality is far weirder than we thought. Which it is.
For almost all of human history people believed in powers in the earth and sky that appeared to them. Outside of modern Westernized contexts, people still believe this. Our culture is different because — we like to think — we have eliminated such fairy tales (never mind that we are chock-full of our own fairy tales). Except we have not, which is one of the extraordinary things Pasulka shows in her book.
UFO appearances, when one brackets out any question of their ontological status (whether they are real, or are as they appear to people), show patterns very similar to miracle reports throughout history. These similarities are so striking in fact that they raise serious questions about whether or not UFOs are somehow a version of whatever has caused people, for all of history, to perceive events in the external world that can only be described as wonders or miracles. The UFO phenomenon thus belongs as much to the history of religions as it does to science.
The world’s religions provide an enormously rich and sophisticated vocabulary of ideas, events, and entities that we still think with in everyday life, regardless of our personal beliefs (think of how useful the words “god” and “worship” still are, for example). Scholars take this to a higher level and can use the concepts and frameworks of religion to illuminate a wide variety of phenomena, from capitalism to totalitarian societies. It thus may be, as Pasulka and some of her subjects suggest, that we require the categories of religion to understand why so many people have, without any expectation or background bias, seen flying objects that are totally inexplicable. For the fact of such sightings is incontrovertible; it is their meaning that troubles the curious and the questing.
The results of interpreting UFOs through the academic study of religion, as Pasulka does, are striking not only in their illuminating power but also in their personal effects. Pasulka herself is changed by the end of her book, just as Tyler is. Just as I was. If truth is what a reader wants, who knows what will happen to them. Either way, a reader will find few more thrilling reads in the fiction section than this academic book, hiding a modern Grail quest under its covers.
Do I believe in UFOs, then? At this point, you know as much about my convictions as I do. For me, they are still a secret, even to myself. What I do know is that, as a scholar of religion, I was impressed by a learned book that was also a beautiful story. As a philosopher, I was delighted and challenged by a sophisticated attempt to navigate a befuddling yet important phenomenon. As a human, I feel a kinship I never thought I would with a group I did not know existed: for I too am questing, as so many are, for a new Grail. As I was reading Pasulka’s book, I was reminded, again and again, of what Terrence said: homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto — “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.” Even, I might add, aliens.
Samuel Loncar, PhD (Yale University), is a philosopher and scholar of religion. He is also the publisher and editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a LARB channel.