UFOs, Belief, and Secularism: an interview with Dr. Diana Walsh Pasulka

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UFO testimony are making headlines again. How does belief in UFOs match with science and religious belief? Religious Studies professor examines the evidence.

 

 

Former US military intelligence officer-turned-whistleblower, David Grusch, who served for 14 years in the Air Force and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, alleges that the United States Congress is being kept in the dark about research on UFOs. With UFOs (or UAP, unidentified anomalous phenomena) back in the news, Shuddhashar FreeVoiceturned to Dr. Diana Walsh Pasulka, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, for her insights on UFO belief and the role of secularism in setting boundaries between belief and the state.

Dr. Pasulka spent six years interviewing scientists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who believe in extraterrestrial intelligence and technology. She visited the purported UFO crash sites in New Mexico as well as Vatican archives to learn more about the widespread phenomenon of UFO belief. Some of her findings are published in her monograph, American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Dr. Pasulka has authored three monographs and is co-editor of anthologies about digital technology and religion. Her work focuses on Catholic history and new religious movements. She has written for Oxford University Press, Routledge Press, Macmillan Press, and her work has been featured in mainstream presses such as Vice, Vox, Fox News, Tank, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Publisher’s Weekly.

 

Shuddhashar FreeVoice: In your book American Cosmic, you document your encounters with scientists who genuinely believe in the existence of extraterrestrials, who claim to have encountered and worked on reversing extraterrestrial technologies. What impulse do you think motivates them? Is it sheer intellectual curiosity characteristic of any scientific endeavor? Or are they driven by a desperation to turn their beliefs into reality?

Diana Walsh Pasulka: When I began this research in 2012, I approached the study of UFOs as I approached the study of many religious beliefs. I assumed that the belief in UFOs was faith-based and relied mostly on testimonial evidence and subjective experiences that were bolstered by entertainment media. I considered UFO belief and practices to be an emerging global religiosity, rather than a specific UFO religion.

What I didn’t expect was to meet scientists who were engaged in research related to UAPs (unidentified anomalous phenomena, formerly UFOs). That is what happened, however. I met scientists who were working on off-planet technology. They are actually more careful than your question indicates–they were not desperate at all. They were driven by curiosity. They make no assumptions that the “debris” is from another planet, and they initially concluded that it was anomalous and that it was likely off-planet. They are very good scientists with academic credentials and jobs at top universities. Their beliefs, which they are open to changing based on new data, are not faith-based, but based on evidence gathered through experimentation. This was surprising to me. I didn’t expect to learn about programs, some of which were affiliated with the United States government, the focus of which was to study anomalous phenomena related to UAPs.

I chose to include this in the book because this is what I found, and it turned out to be so different from what I had originally thought that I allowed the ethnographic method to pave the way for something that later turned out to be corroborated.

In 2017 the New York Times published an article by journalists Leslie Kean, Ralph Blumenthal, and Helene Cooper, which uncovered the existence of these programs. Apparently, what has been uncovered, the existence of long-standing programs which had been secret and study UAPs, whatever they are, is fueling and accelerating the belief in UAPs.

What I think is interesting is that at this point I don’t think it matters to the widespread belief if Grusch’s claims turn out to be untrue… I found that UAP hoaxes actually influence more people’s belief in UAPs than anything that might actually be “unknown.” This is the power of media, and especially mass media, in influencing behavior and belief.

Shuddhashar FreeVoice: Generally believers in UFO contact seem to rely on testimonies without a concern for concrete material evidence. What matters to them is whether the testimony comes from someone with ties to the so-called Deep State. Has such exclusive reliance on testimonies turned them into a faith community?

Diana Walsh Pasulka: There are a variety of different beliefs and practices associated with UAPs within different cultures. First, the plurality of other worlds has been a consistent theme in Western traditions, and people like Emmenual Swedenborg wrote about the presence of intelligent life forms on other planets in a popular book in the 18th century. Some indigenous cultures trace their lineage to the Pleiades star cluster. Although these beliefs are pervasive, they are not based on the smoking gun of proof that many people require for belief in UAPs, which is obviously very allusive in the present context, so in this sense yes, UAP belief is largely based on faith.

However, there is material evidence like radar signatures, eyewitness accounts by trained observers like pilots, and now, apparently, debris from crash retrieval programs like that being studied by the scientists I interviewed. Many people are waiting for the United States Congress to investigate the claims made by David Grusch, the whistleblower who spoke of the crash retrieval programs in a Congressional hearing in July 2023.

What I think is interesting is that at this point I don’t think it matters to the widespread belief if Grusch’s claims turn out to be untrue… I found that UAP hoaxes actually influence more people’s belief in UAPs than anything that might actually be “unknown.” This is the power of media, and especially mass media, in influencing behavior and belief.

Shuddhashar FreeVoice: You have suggested that this current belief in UFO, the Deep State, and related systems is a new form of religion that is challenging secularism. Would you expand on that?

Diana Walsh Pasulka: I have said that the UAP belief/practice system is a more generalized and decentralized form of religion. It is at once beyond the nation-state and within it. Secularism, in most general terms, is a position whereby religious concerns remain separate from the nation state or a governing institution, and the presence of UAP belief definitely challenges this. The UAP itself is a transcendent object in that it is assumed to be outside of human conceptions of it (unknowable at the present time), and people project upon it their hopes and fears. In my field, religious studies, we’ve found that the UAP event often initiates distinct sects that are often apocalyptic. In the last five years the UAP has gained traction as a “real object” studied by the U.S. military. This is unprecedented and is a fascinating time, especially as this transcendent object is definitely not separate from the nation state, it is now placed at the heart of it. This challenges secularism as a position that advocates for the separation of religious concerns from government. Questions such as, what is the nature of reality and human nature? for example, come to mind when confronted with the reality of the UAP.

We are also seeing a move to include concerns about the UAP within public policy.  As the Congressional Hearing on the topic of UAPs was aired, people on various social media platforms had made templates of letters for people to send to their representatives asking them to get involved in the UAP issue. People could download the letters, sign their names, and then email them to their state representatives. This is one way in which secular assumptions are being challenged by the UAP. Another is that secular thought has long been associated with rationalism, and it is now come to light that scientists, the bastions of rational thought, have been studying UAPs, within government programs.

Finally, the Disclosure Movement is a grass roots political movement that demands the U.S. government to release information about the topic of UAPs. Members of the movement suggest that such an event, the existence of the UAP as extraterrestrial intelligence, is so important that it trumps national security or national interests and needs to be disclosed.

I had a recent conversation with an advocate of this position who told me that the Vatican needs to release the contents of its vast archive immediately because no nation should have this history for itself, but it needs to be accessible to all people as a basic human right. They assumed that the Vatican held information about UAPs. So the language of the human right to know is being utilized with respect to the UAP issue.

Shuddhashar FreeVoice: Some observers have suggested that the UFO contact movement is more about a fascination with dystopian technologies and a fear of government control and less about whether extraterrestrials exist. We are interested to know your take on this.

Diana Walsh Pasulka: The UFO contact movement is a general category that refers to many different developments all around the world, so it is impossible to categorize the beliefs in general terms. I would say, however, that the Contactee movement that exists in the United States from the 1990s onwards had advocates like Harvard research professor John Mack, who was a committed environmentalist and antiwar activist.

Two of the most interesting contact events happened at elementary schools—one in Australia and the other in Ruwa, Zimbabwe. The students and some of their teachers witnessed a UAP and saw its inhabitants. The children reported receiving communication that warned them about the future and an environmental catastrophe. What’s interesting is that the kids grew up and they maintain their story. They believed it then, and they believe it now, and even the teachers stand by their story. They are still concerned with the environment and a future environmental crisis.

So in this sense, yes, there is less of a concern with the fact that there exists aliens and more of a focus on the message delivered by the experience. This is in sharp contrast to the current narrative of the military whistleblowers, which focuses on technology that might be used to obliterate us. In fact, it seems like these messages are quite the opposite—one indicates that the UAP event works to help us control our dystopic inclinations, and the other compels us to shore up our military to protect us from a potential alien invasion.

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