Professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and author of Heaven Can Wait: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture (OUP, 2014) D.W. Pasulka explores what she calls a new religion centered around a “UFO Phenomenon” in her new book, American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (OUP, Mar.).
What inspired you to the write this book?
During the writing of [Heaven Can Wait], I went through a lot of reports, records, and archives and came across a lot of beings of light, orbs, and aerial phenomena. A friend of mine mentioned that it sounded like something out of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I had never really thought about UFOs or anything like that before but a week later, there was a UFO conference in my town, so I decided to go. I began to be contacted by people who claim to have been contacted by non-human intelligence and realized that this was a new form of religion.
Can you give an example from your book of how the media has shaped the perception of the UFO phenomenon?
There is a painting of Saint Francis with an angel in the sky with beams of light hitting Saint Francis’s hands giving him what they call the “hands of Christ.” But when young people see this, they often ask, “Is this a UFO?” When we see something unidentified in the sky, we aren’t wondering if it is an angel. When we engage in film or very immersive media, it isn’t just our conscious mind that is consuming this media; it is different parts of our brain. At some level we are believing that media. We don’t have an actual UFO; we don’t know what one looks like so we refer to the media’s interpretation and depiction of what a UFO looks like.
How are beliefs in UFO phenomenon similar to traditional religious beliefs, such as Christianity?
One of the main similarities is this idea of End Times or what we call it in my field, Eschatology. If you look at Christianity and Judaism, there is this idea of future end times, end of history. A time when God is going to make things correct and the good people will get their reward, that type of thing. There is this idea within the communities of UFO believers that is very much linked to technology. Somehow, technology will help us. For example, the scientists who took me to an alleged crashed UFO site in New Mexico call this site the “Donation Site.” They are calling it the Donation Site because they believe that some non-human extraterrestrials, perhaps even humans from the future, donated this technology to us so that we can get ourselves out of the various crises that we are in or that this technology can somehow help us.
What did the writing of this book teach you about your own beliefs?
There is this new era in which we find ourselves, this screen era, in which we can’t escape the emergence of a sea of frequencies and technology. We can try to get off the grid, but we won’t be able to because there are satellites in the sky that are beaming radiation and frequencies down to us. This is the environment we live in and environment plays a huge part in what we believe and how we experience our religiosity and spiritualism. Of course our new technological environment is going to impact our religion. For example, we have a category called the “nones,” who say they don’t have any religion, but if you ask them if they believe in non-human extraterrestrial intelligence, many of them will say, “oh yeah.” It’s not like they have given up on spirituality or religiosity; this is just a new form of it and that has shifted my beliefs in the infrastructure of religion.