The sky and beyond evokes wonders and mysteries and, now, sadness with the deaths of the seven Columbia astronauts. The space program seeks knowledge of the stars and other planets from a scientific point of view, but some religions follow beliefs they claim were communicated directly by residents of other worlds. Earthbound scholars scrutinize those groups.

Susan Palmer's journey as an observer of the Raelian Movement began when she met members at a 1987 psychic fair in Montreal. The men in the group wore white turtlenecks, swastika-style medallions and the long hair that they believe empowers them to communicate telepathically with extraterrestrials. The Raelians invited her to participate in a raffle. A guide would come to the winner's home to show a video. Sure enough, Palmer "won."

This 15-year connection puts Palmer, who teaches religion at Dawson College in Montreal, in the forefront of scholars who study the Raelians. In January, as the world awaited proof that the Raelians had cloned five humans, she was finishing her Alien Apocalypse: A Sociological Study of the Raelian Movement, which Rutgers University Press plans to publish in early 2004. The book is one of a fleet of new or forthcoming titles by scholars about various UFO religions. Some academics are publishing anthologies with material on the Raelians. One who infiltrated Heaven's Gate in the mid-1970s is preparing to write a book about the group that extinguished itself in 1997 with the mass suicide of 39 members who hoped to catch a ride to heaven on a spaceship. A researcher who has followed the Unarius Academy of Science since 1986 is revising her manuscript about that UFO religion, which is awaiting arrival of the "space brothers."

These scholarly investigators track the beliefs and activities of UFO sects whether the groups make headlines or not, but when events do bring media coverage, the academics provide expert insight. Relatively few in number, they often contribute to each other's books. The new titles may bring attention and status to a realm of sociological inquiry usually considered a subgroup within the study of new religious movements. "I think we're right on the verge of seeing that field emerge when all these books come out," says James R. Lewis, a scholar of alternative religions.

Raelians Among Us

The Raelians are the world's largest UFO organization, claiming 55,000 members in 84 countries. But when Susan Palmer first met them, they were "just a dinky little group," she recalls. "I realized it was a free love group because they had all this nudity in their magazines. And they preached how you became more intelligent if you had more sex with more people." She said leader Raël (formerly Claude Vorilhon, a French sports journalist) initially formed a ufology club centered on his own "contactee" experience but uninterested in other peoples', and then made it a religion. Palmer believes Raël is convinced he really met extraterrestrial beings.

As do other scholars who spoke with PW, Palmer considers the Raelians capable of producing clones, as they have claimed to wide media coverage. Still, the cloning is a new twist for the Raelians, she said, and essentially represents turning humans into extraterrestrials. "Cloning a baby is putting the emphasis on human beings as becoming immortal gods like the aliens." She regards the Raelian Movement as authoritarian, with six levels of "guides," or leaders, and intolerance for internal dissent. Though Raël teaches that there is no god or soul, Palmer said the Raelians, with their awe of the aliens, have what must be considered a religious experience. At meetings she has attended, Raelians claimed to have had telepathic conversations with aliens and "felt their love," Palmer said. "But I've never felt their love," she added. Palmer's students enjoy the appearances Raelians make in her classes each term. But movement members "dumped" her after she was interviewed for a March 2002 Los Angeles Times article she said criticized the Raelians. Recently, however, Raelians visited a class she teaches on cults and new religious movements.

"She's had really very unprecedented access to them," said Kristi Long, social sciences and religion editor at Rutgers University Press. Long said that Palmer's Alien Apocalypse will be marketed both for general readers and for college classes. While journalists have done most of the writing about UFO religions, Long said, Palmer's background gives her more sophisticated insight into the ways new religions develop sociologically and change over time, and Palmer explores what that tells us about how society works.

The Gods Land

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung was intrigued by UFOs in the 1950s and described flying saucers as "technological angels." In 1956, three scholars—Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter—published the now classic When Prophecy Fails (Harper & Row), about a group led by a woman in Illinois who claimed to receive messages about the world's end from aliens via automatic writing. Scientist Jacques Vallee's Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults (And/Or Press, 1979), written for a general audience, warned that some UFO religions were dangerous. Aside from these books, scholars have only recently studied UFOs and religion from a sociological standpoint.

James R. Lewis, who teaches religious studies at the University of Wisconsin— Stevens Point, was working in 1992 on a publication he had founded, Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and Culture. Over three or four issues, he had collected a number of articles on UFO groups, and he realized the collection would make an interesting anthology. With Lewis as editor, State University of New York Press in 1995 published The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds, which Lewis describes as the first serious book about UFO sects. It included a chapter from Palmer about the Raelians, one from Robert Balch about what would become Heaven's Gate, and one co-written by Diana Tumminia about the Unarius Academy of Science.

The Gods Have Landed sold, Lewis said, but the study of UFO religions didn't gain notability until the Heaven's Gate suicides two years later. Since then, scholars have written journal articles and made conference presentations every year on UFO religions. "Right now, we've reached kind of a critical mass where we have a number of books moving toward publication," Lewis said. He has edited or written 21 books, of which all the general-reference books contain some information on UFO religions.

A UFO religions anthology he is editing for Syracuse University Press is provisionally entitled Alien Gods: Religious Dimensions of the UFO Phenomenon (2004). It includes chapters on the Raelians by Palmer and her Dawson College colleague Bryan Sentes; by Christopher Helland, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto's Centre for the Study of Religion; and by George Chryssides, a senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Wolverhampton in England. Lewis is also editor of Encyclopedic Sourcebook of UFO Religions (Prometheus Books; Jan. 2003)—for which Palmer wrote about the Raelians—and Legitimating New Religions (Rutgers; Dec. 2003), with Raël planned for the cover.

A World of UFO Religions

Christopher Partridge, who teaches theology at Chester College, a college of the University of Liverpool, told PW that while a lot of books about UFO religions tend to be written from an Anglo-American perspective, he wanted to show a broader picture. UFO Religions—which he is editing and Routledge has scheduled for June release—includes a Finnish scholar's look at UFO traditions in Finland, an Australian academic's examination of cargo cults and a German researcher's discussion of UFO faiths in Germany. Wolverhampton's Chryssides contributes a chapter on the Raelian Movement, while Lewis writes about Heaven's Gate. Partridge provides a chapter on understanding UFO religions and "abduction spiritualities."

In UFO Religions, Daniel Wojcik, who teaches English and folklore studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene, discusses the apocalyptic and millenarian aspects of American UFOism. The University Press of Mississippi plans in early 2004 to publish Wojcik's UFO Visionary Art: Flying Saucer Technology and Creations of Ionel Talpazan. The book profiles Talpazan, a self-taught artist who depicts UFO images, Wojcik said, and considers how UFO art "often addresses universal religious concerns." These include "the origins of humanity, the reasons for evil and suffering, the promise of worldly transformation and a golden age, guidance and salvation offered by otherworldly beings who function as 'technological angels.' "

Are UFO accounts around the world echoing one another? Said Partridge, "They seem to be. That's my impression. There does seem to be a certain commonality to it." How much of this is due to the globalization of Western influences—seen in everything from fashions to fast food to television—is difficult to say. Partridge also is editing The Encyclopedia of New Religions (Lion Publishing; Jan. 2004), which will include information about UFO religions.

Knocking at Heaven's Gate

In 1975, Robert Balch, a sociology professor at the University of Montana in Missoula, encountered a tiny group then receiving heavy news coverage. About 20 people in what was known as Human Individual Metamorphosis had suddenly vanished from Oregon. Then some of the missing showed up near Missoula and held a meeting to attract followers. Balch, who happened to be on a leave of absence, infiltrated what eventually became Heaven's Gate. This summer, he expects to start writing a book based on 28 years of studying the group and interviewing the few surviving members, ex-members, parents and other relatives.

"Nobody else has really studied Heaven's Gate firsthand," said Balch. Aside from a small cluster of "pop" titles right after the suicides, Balch said scholarly articles or book chapters are all that have been published. Most writings about Heaven's Gate rely on what Balch and David Taylor, then a graduate sociology student who had also infiltrated the group, had published together, including a 1976 cover story for Psychology Today.

When Balch went to that first meeting, he introduced himself as a sociologist and asked about the possibility of hanging around. "They thought the spaceships were going to come along in just a matter of days," he recalled. Members of what Balch would label the "Bo and Peep UFO Cult" were trying to overcome their human habits, and thus were minimizing contact with the outside world. Balch had to join the group to find out what was going on inside, although he left a couple of months later, when his leave of absence was up. Over the years, he interviewed ex-members and parents of members.

In 1994, two people showed up at his university office, wearing close-cut hair and unisex clothing. "That was a look that was new to me," Balch said. "I thought—this is stereotyping for you— 'These are cult people.' " At this point they called their group Total Overcomers Anonymous. They'd sought him out because they knew he had written about their group. Later, they returned with two or three other members. They interviewed him for a documentary they were making about themselves that never was finished. They needed to do some computer work, and Balch let them use a departmental computer. "Then they disappeared, and the next thing I heard about them was when the suicides happened."

Waiting for 'Space Brothers'

Diana Tumminia, a professor of sociology at California State University in Sacramento, began studying the Unarius Academy of Science as a graduate student in 1986, and made it the basis of her 1995 doctoral dissertation at the University of California—Los Angeles. She attended Unarius classes on topics she described as "pseudoscientific mythology," such as dreams, the Martian wars and life on Atlantis. Now she is revising a manuscript about the group. "It's a local phenomenon. If you're in San Diego, Unarius is sort of a fun-loving, good-hearted oddity," said Tumminia. "No one takes them seriously, but their presence in San Diego is sort of historic."

The Unarius Academy claims to communicate by telepathy with space beings that are beneficent, like angels, and are to guide humankind into a new era of peace and prosperity. Tumminia's book examines the ability of the group to keep faith despite failed prophecies about the landing of the "space brothers." The believers "always came up with an explanation," she said. "This is what we in sociology call unfalsifiable knowledge." So, she said, when 2001 came and went without the expected landing of the space brothers, the believers blamed the September 11 attacks and Earth's warlike status.

Tumminia waited to write her book, which she intends to finish by June, until after the prophesied time came and went to see how the Unarians would explain the nonappearance. She calls the book When Prophecy Never Fails, and uses newer sociological theories to examine, as did the venerable When Prophecy Fails, why people believe in a prophecy that continues to disappoint.

The Lure of the Edge

Plenty of people who claim to have had UFO experiences don't join organizations. "My book is about all those people who don't join contactee groups, " said Brenda Denzler, author of The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs (University of California Press, 2001), which is scheduled to come out in paperback in June.

Denzler said that while people who join the tightly knit UFO religions tend to be drawn by the message the leader imparts from extraterrestrials, those in what she describes as "the larger UFO community"—though they may be interested in others' experiences—have their own sightings and encounters to contemplate. Denzler has a doctorate in religious studies from Duke University and is conducting the Abduction Millennium Project, a long-term study of UFO experiences and experiencers. Many abductees or "experiencers" feel they have received messages, she said, but most do not go out to preach and publish, gain a public, or become leaders of UFO groups.

What attracts adherents to UFO religions? Lewis said some followers seek a clear-cut creed in an era when many religious denominations have been "watered down." Moreover, he said, new religions—small in size—reproduce some characteristics of traditional community, offering a shared view of the world, a similar set of values, a sense of people taking care of one another. UFO religions, in particular, supply "an aura of the scientific"—something modern.

The authors of these new books also tackle this question: What is the truth behind stories of abductions and other encounters with space aliens? "I think that there's some phenomenon that can't be explained by conventional modes of explanation. Whether those are vehicles piloted by extraterrestrials, I don't know," Lewis said. "I think that there are a certain number of real experiences." He thinks some of the sightings might be of experimental craft launched by the government, or that some other sort of spiritual phenomenon is interpreted as UFOs. Or maybe aliens really are observing us.

"This is really an important part of the American landscape today," said Prometheus publisher Paul Kurtz, who is publishing Lewis's Encyclopedic Sourcebook of UFO Religions. Kurtz chairs the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and is a philosophy professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He said the Encyclopedic Sourcebook would be marketed for the general educated reader and for scholars and scientists. "Who's not intrigued by these accounts of UFO visitations?" Kurtz asked. "We're trying to unravel it. What does this mean? Are there creatures from outer space trying to abduct people or is there something far more profound here?"