UFO RELIGIONS . The rise of interest in unidentified flying objects (UFOs) has been amply demonstrated over the last few decades. It is not surprising that in an age of scientific discoveries, especially in the field of astronomy, the search for extraterrestrial life is a legitimate and respectable enterprise. But the quest for alien life on planets both within and outside our galaxy appears to have gone beyond the usual pursuit of scientific data supported by empirical evidence. It has also surpassed the quest for adventure beyond the confines of planet Earth. Many people do not just speculate about the possibility of alien life elsewhere but claim to have actually encountered or been visited by aliens. The search for UFOs has become the center of a belief system with most, if not all, of the features that are usually linked with religion. The phrase UFO Religions can thus be applied to those organizations that exhibit many of the various dimensions that have been routinely applied to other, more established, religious organizations.
While the precise definition of religion is still a matter of debate among scholars, there seems to be some agreement about those key features or characteristics that are central to any religious system. Among these are a communally shared belief system or worldview in which a sacred or transcendent reality figures prominently; a belief that the human race needs some kind of salvation or redemption from its present condition; an ethical system; experiences such as devotion, ecstasy, rebirth, and inner peace; central myths or stories, especially those dealing with the creation and future of humankind; and rituals. Many of these features are also found in UFO religious groups, though not all have been accorded the central place given them in most of the world's religions. Several UFO groups are noted for forming well-knit communities with a mission to propagate the teachings of their faith. Others stress individual spiritual development and/or healing. Still others, while having some of the main features of religion, are mail-order organizations and thus lack the communal and ritual aspects typical of some UFO religions.
The rise of the modern UFO religions can be traced to Kenneth Arnold who, in the mid-1940s, reported to have seen several flying saucers. Sightings by other individuals followed, and soon people were relating their experiences of meeting and communicating with aliens from other planets.
George Adamski (1891–1965) was the first contactee of the modern era. Believing that he had been visited by a being from the planet Venus on November 20, 1952, Adamski saw himself as the chosen person with the mission of communicating important messages from the aliens to human beings. Adamski never founded a religious organization as such, but he attracted a following interested in the wisdom and knowledge that the aliens had to offer to the human race. This led to the foundation of the International Get Acquainted Club. Several organizations to disseminate his teachings were later founded by his followers. The largest is the George Adamski Foundation, which has since 1965 continued to circulate his works and to promote his view that contacts with aliens have been made throughout the ages and that advancement in various sciences has been achieved through such contacts.
The George Adamski Foundation became the spearhead of the religiously oriented UFO groups that have emerged since the 1950s. The leaders of these groups reported contact with aliens, mainly from various planets in our solar system, and at times maintained that they had traveled to other planets, where they were shown advanced civilizations that made human cultures look rather primitive. Some of these leaders were charismatic and/or prophetic and succeeded in gathering a clientele around them, eventually forming cult movements, "which are full-fledged organizations that attempt to satisfy all the religious needs of the converts" (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985, p. 29). They became an elite group of individuals who were accepted as contactees with extraterrestrial intelligences who delivered their messages and teachings through their chosen mediums or prophets.
Some UFO groups, such as the Aetherius Society, Unarius Academy of Life, and the Association for Sananda and Sanat Kumara, with the passing away of their leaders in the 1990s, are now becoming institutionalized and have continued to survive and carry on their agenda without the presence of a contactee.
Some scholars have pointed out that there is a connection between UFO beliefs and the Theosophical Society and the I AM Religious Activity, though these latter groups cannot, strictly speaking, be called UFO religions if for no other reason than that the existence of, and communication with, aliens is not one of their central characteristics. Yet many of the aliens are similar and at times identical to the masters of the Theosophical Movement. The teachings of quite a few UFO religions have incorporated Eastern religious notions, such as karma and reincarnation, that were already made popular by theosophy. The Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara is an excellent example of the link between theosophy and extraterrestrials. The late Sister Thedra, the founder of this organization, channeled for years the ascended masters, while later on she also communicated with the angel Moroni (prominent in Mormonism), with beings from other planets, and with Sananda (Christ). In the same way, George King, the founder of the Aetherius Society, maintained contact with aliens, many of which are identical to the ascended masters, which include founders of world religions such as Jesus and the Buddha.
General Worldview and Aims
The worldview adopted by UFO groups is much broader than that proposed by traditional religions. It indirectly includes modern astronomical discoveries and takes for granted the existence of intelligent creatures on other planets in the vast cosmos. These beings are superior to the human race intellectually, scientifically, and spiritually. In spite of this expansive view of the universe, the main concern is still planet Earth, which is conceived as a somewhat backward planet where men and women need outside help to advance in the course of evolution.
While UFO religions offer little, if any, speculation about the origin of the universe, they often have elaborate theories of the origins of the human race and its condition here on Earth. Raëlians, for instance, hold that human life on Earth was created by beings from another planet through their knowledge of DNA and its use. A similar view had already been popularized in Erich von Daniken's book Chariots of the Gods (1969) and has become part of UFO mythology.
Central to any UFO religion is the belief that contact with aliens is the way to salvation and improvement. The teachings of Adamski describe the aliens as "beings of amity, intelligence, understanding and compassion," while the Semjase Silver Star Center in California points out that they come with a mission to assist the human race out of its present ignorance. Some groups, especially those that originated in the 1950s such as the Aetherius Society, White Star, the Ashtar Command, and Cosmic Star Fellowship, stress the need to be saved from the dangers of the atomic (or nuclear) age that can lead humans to self-destruction. Others, such as the Solar Light Retreat, expect aliens to help solve the energy and environmental crisis. Spiritual development, a higher consciousness, healing from spiritual, psychological, and physical maladies, emancipation from the fear and chaos that beset human beings, and evolution to higher spiritual and self-awareness levels are among the benefits that many UFO groups hope to accrue with the advent of intelligent and advanced beings from other planets. In some UFO groups, such as the Aetherius Society and Unarius, healing is one of the main ritual practices. In others, such as the Extraterrestrial Earth Mission and Mark-Age, the stress is on achieving a higher consciousness or a more advanced evolutionary stage.
The belief system of UFO religions is often considered as part of the New Age movement and tends to be syncretistic. Thus, Chen Tao (God's Salvation Church), which in 1997 migrated from Taiwan to North America, is a prime example of such amalgamation, with Buddhist, Daoist, and folk beliefs intertwined and later combined with a Christian apocalyptic and millenarian worldview.
One of the common features of UFO religions is that their founders are convinced that they have been contacted by aliens. Adamski related how he had been visited by a humanlike being from Venus who imparted certain knowledge that he was instructed to pass on to humankind. He also could communicate with the aliens by telepathy. Other contactees who followed him made the same claim. George Hunt Williamson of the now defunct Brotherhood of the Seven Rays had contact with Martians via automatic writing. William Ferguson of the Cosmic Circle of Fellowship was transported to both Mars and Venus, where he was given messages to bring back to Earth. George King, of the Aetherius Society, received messages from aliens either while in a trance or by telepathy. The founders of Unarius, Ernest and Ruth Norman (known as Archangels Raphael and Uriel respectively), authored books containing teaching received from advanced intelligent beings living in other worlds. Nada-Yolanda (Pauline Share) of Mark-Age, Inc., uses both automatic writing and telepathy to convey messages from beings in spacecrafts. In like manner Valerie Donner of the Ground Crew uses channeling as a means of communication with extraterrestrial beings. Claude Vorilhon (now known as Raël) of the Raëlian Movement met several times with an alien who entrusted him with the good news of the true origins of human beings and of the return of the Elohim. The two leaders of the Extraterrestrial Earth Mission (known since 1993 as Drakar and Zrendar) go a step further and proclaim that different aliens have periodically taken possession of their bodies, presumably enabling them to communicate more freely and regularly to human beings.
As in the classical monotheistic religions, where God takes the initiative to call prophets, it is the aliens who approach specially selected individuals and commission them to act as messengers to the human race. The aliens, though not elevated to the status of gods or goddesses, are obviously transcendent and suprahuman beings even in those UFO religions like the Raëlian movement in which belief in God or supernatural beings is not found or does not occupy an important place.
Besides an elaborate soteriology, UFO groups also teach an eschatology, the chief element of which is the actual arrival of the aliens, an advent that, as Solar Light Retreat teaches, will initiate a new heaven and a new earth. The Ground Crew maintains that at least one angel will accompany each spaceship and that Earth will be transformed into a paradise.
The advent of aliens can be apocalyptic and/or millenarian. In most instances the time of the extraterrestrials' arrival is not specified but is expected to be relatively soon. Probably the most recent attempt to pinpoint the time of arrival was made by Chen Tao in Garland, Texas. In typical prophetic fashion, its leader, Hon-Ming Chen, said that God would announce his descent by taking control of the television networks on March 25, 1998. In similar fashion Unarius Academy of Science has foretold the advent of the aliens in their flying saucers. As in many prophetic instances, the failure of the prophecy to materialize has not led to the demise of the group.
Another UFO religion, Mark-Age, believed that the arrival of the aliens would be around the year 2000 and stated that its mission was to externalize on Earth the Hierarchical Board, namely, the spiritual government of our solar system, in preparation for the advent of the aliens. Borrowing the concept of the second coming from Christianity, it teaches that this Christian belief has a dual meaning, namely (1) the second coming of each one's I Am Self, expressed through the mortal personality; and (2) the second coming of Sananda/Jesus the Christ, Prince of Earth, in his resurrected, light body.
Other groups are more cautious. The Aetherius Society expects a new master, presumably to precede the advent of the aliens, but does not give a specific date. While many members believe that it will be soon, the society states that he will come when human beings are ready for his arrival. Raëlians think the extraterrestrials will arrive around the year 2020. But before they arrive, human beings must first have established world peace and built an embassy for them in or near Jerusalem.
Significant Figures and Organizations
While many people believe in UFOs, the number of UFO religious organizations and of those who have joined their ranks is rather small. J. Gordon Melton (2003) lists twenty-three flying saucer groups, while Mikael Rothstein (2002) estimates that they are twenty-five different groups active today, but he does not list them. Melton's list, only slightly updated from the previous edition of his encyclopedia, omits such groups as Heaven's Gate, Chen Tao, the Nuwaubians, and the Ground Crew and its splinter group the Planetary Action Organization (PAO). It still remains, however, the most complete and provides short descriptions of the origins and belief systems of each group.
Melton's list also indirectly points to the some of the difficulties involved in studying these groups. Thus, Melton states that two of the groups he lists are defunct. He could not trace the addresses of eight groups and found that six provide only a post office box address. Nine of the groups mentioned have a web page, as have the more recent ones. The vast majority do not report the number of members of the organization. The membership of most groups may be somewhat fluid and probably consists of a few hundreds or thousands at most. At least two, the Ground Crew and Zeta-Talk (the latter led by Nancy Lieder), exist only on the internet. By far the largest UFO group is probably the Raëlian movement, which boasts sixty thousand members in almost a hundred countries. Unarius Academy of Science states that tens of thousands of individuals have participated in its programs. It is not clear how each organization counts its membership. The Aetherius Society lists three levels of membership, full, associate, and friends, the last including interested individuals and scholars, but it provides no figures.
Not all UFO groups prefer to be called a religion. The Aetherius Society's web page states explicitly: "This is not a religion.… It's a spiritual path to enlightenment and the cosmic evolution of mankind." Unarius Academy of Science tends to view itself as a philosophy of life, while the Nuwaubians prefer to call themselves a fraternal organization. One group in particular, the Raëlian movement, is highly critical of established religion, particularly Christianity. It describes itself as an "atheist, spiritual organization" and states that one of its goals is to lead human beings to understand true religion. Its founder, Raël, starts by reinterpreting the biblical concept of Elohim, which, he asserts, refers not to God but to beings from another planet who created life on Earth.
Until recently, UFO religions have not been controversial. They rather left the impression of being innocuous, eccentric groups. In 1997, however, the members of Heaven's Gate took the initiative to transport themselves to a spacecraft by committing suicide in order to move into a higher state of being. This was perceived by many as a warning sign that UFO religions might be dangerous. Chen Tao's claim that God would speak over the television networks and then come down in flying saucers to save people created quite a stir and raised the fear that its members might follow in the path of those of Heaven's Gate. Such fear proved unfounded, and when the prophecy failed, many members abandoned the group, though some have remained loyal to Hon-Ming Chen's teachings and prophetic utterances.
The view that UFO religious are dangerous has been buttressed by the fact that several UFO groups, including the Raëlian movement, the Ground Crew, Unarius, and the Nuwaubians, share the apocalyptic view that the arrival of extraterrestrials is imminent. In fact, however, most UFO religions are benign and pose no threat to their members or to the public. Their predictions, no matter how far-fetched they might appear to be, are not of doom and disaster but of the betterment of the human race on Earth.
In late 2002 and in early 2003 the Raëlian movement made headlines by announcing that its scientists had succeeded in cloning human beings. Cloning is considered by Raëlians as the first step in the human quest for eternal life, and although the scientific reactions to their claim have been negative, it still remains part of their agenda.
During the last few years the Nuwaubians, who moved from New York to the Georgia countryside in 1993, have become one of the most controversial UFO groups. They have been accused repeatedly of child abuse and of encouraging Black Nationalism. Their leader, Malachi York, has spent three years in jail for assault, resisting arrest, and possession of weapons. In January 2004 he was convicted of sexual abuse of children and sentenced to a long jail term. Other, much less serious charges have been leveled at leaders of several UFO groups. George Adamski and Eduard Meier of the Semjase Silver Star Center were both accused of faking photographs and plagiarism, while William Ferguson of the Cosmic Circle of Fellowship was convicted of fraud and sentenced to a year in prison.
The presence of UFO religions has elicited the attention of many scholars from different academic fields. Both sociologists and psychologists have offered different interpretations of why they might come into being and of the psychological and mental state of their members.
The rise of belief in UFO religions is interesting from the point of view of both religious studies and theology. UFO religions seem to be making an attempt to relate religion with science more positively. The adherents of UFO religions see their beliefs confirmed by scientific data regarding the nature of the universe and the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Ryan Cook (2002) has called them "Technospiritualities."
From a theological standpoint, UFO religions attempt to incorporate a scientific view of the universe in their ideology. Traditional theology is Earthbound. In terms of myths of creation, beliefs regarding the origin of the human race, its current problems and destiny, and spirituality, theology has been confined to the planet Earth. Although theological speculations about the possibility of other worlds have been going on long before modern astronomy and its discoveries (O'Meara, 1999), Earth still remained the theological center of the universe. Speculations about the spiritual nature of beings in other worlds, their need for salvation, and the possibility of divine intervention were never considered in the context of contact with extraterrestrials who visit Earth in flying saucers. UFO religions offer a new worldview and propose a novel vision of the future. Whether these will captivate the human imagination further or not remains to be seen.
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John A. Saliba (2005)