Alien worlds

Dianna G. Tumminia (editor). Alien Worlds: Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact. Syracuse University Press, 2007.

An interesting collection of papers dealing with the religious dimensions of the contactee and abduction movements and related topics. There are the usual discussions of the established UFO religions such as the Raelians, Unarius and Aetherius Society, but there are also looks at lesser known movements such as Allen Michaels Universal Industrial Church of the New World Comforter with a grand membership of ten. This organisation combined extraterrestrialism with a mixture of Christianity and Marxism in a concoction which harks back to the days of nineteenthth century communist communal movements.

Jerome Clark traces the later career of Dorothy Martin alias Marian Keech of When Prophecy Fails fame. Often seen as a group of isolated eccentrics, Martin’s circle was much more closely bound into the esoteric and cultic milieu of the period than was recognised at the time. Martin reinvented herself as Sister Thedra of the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, and after a rather peripatetic existence ended up at the New Age centre of Sedonia, Arizona.

Beyond this clear cults there exists a wide range of ‘religious’ phenomenology within ufology. Abductees and their support centres receive a fair amount of attention. Norwegian ufologist Georg Ronnevig explores the role of aware sleep paralysis in the rise of the abduction mythology. He argue that ASP though known and named in many traditional cultures had become a ‘homeless’ and largely unmentionable experience in contemporary America, until the presentation of ASP episodes as ‘alien abductions’ in the writings of Whitley Streiber and Bud Hopkins created a vocabulary and explanatory system by which such experiences could be recounted.

This led to the shift from outdoors to domestic abduction narratives, as people revised their ASP experiences in light of the new system. The ideological belief, in the therapeutic community, in the existence of amnesia and repressed memories led to an acceptance of fragmentary ASP imagery as simply the tip of a submerged iceberg of repressed experience which could be recovered by hypnosis. (This of course extends beyond ASP, just about any odd, anomalous or just fragmentary memory could be seen as the clue as to the existence of this hidden depth) The abduction experience is therefor the supernatural or religious narrative of the therapeutic society.

Scott Scribner discusses the religious dimensions of the abduction experience more fully, locating it in classical types of human fears, and emphasising that abduction narratives tell us far more about the human condition than any hypothetical aliens. He suggests than instead of emotionally loaded words such as ‘abductees’ and ‘experients’ we use the more neutral term ‘teller’. The teller is the person telling a (purported) first hand story, contrasting with the ‘narrator’, the entrepreneur or ringmaster who presents other peoples’ stories.

This seems to be the distinguishing mark between the contactee and the abductee stories. The contactee is the centre of his/her own story, the teller is the hero; in the abduction narratives it is the investigator, the narrator who is the hero. He (and just occasionally) she knows much more the ‘real’ story than the teller, and is able to weave the isolated fragments of the teller’s memories and dreams into a comprehensive narrative. No wonder that the there are such strong similarities between abduction narratives.

In his study of abduction survivors’ groups, Christopher Bader notes that they tend mainly to recruit from white women, with a higher than average percentage having a college education – quite a contrast from the earlier imagery of ‘trailer trash’ abductees. This profile would I suspect echo those of many other therapeutic communities, perhaps one can almost talk of the ‘therapeutic classes’. It suggests that they recruit from people who do not have obvious objective causes such as poverty, racism, abusive partners, drug or alcohol problems to account for their vague sense of unease and not-rightness of their lives.

One of the problems that sociologists examine is how science is distinguished from pseudo-science. Pierre Lagrange examines how this operated in French ufology, where the boundary was between ‘contactism’ and ’scientific ufology’. From Lagrange’s account it appears that French ufology came, as in Britain, out of an occultist milieu, in this case the ‘Atlantean’ movement. Pioneer writers like Marc Thirouin evaluated cases on an individual basis, without drawing a permanent ideological wall between contactees and witnesses. New groups such as GEPAN arose to create a more ’scientific’ approach. Groups founded by contactees could turn into investigative groups and vice-versa. Even so the techniques of the ‘investigations’ would cause most mainstream scientists eyebrows to raise, one group critically reinvestigated the contactee claims of its founder using ‘psychological, graphological and astrological data’.

This difficulty in creating a separation between science and the occult is clearly demonstrated by the article by Jacques Vallee, which has scientific sounding critiques of the American abductionist movement and its manipulation of evidence, along with sections which suggest that he really does believe in the existence of sylphs and similar boggarts. Perhaps the demarcation never really existed in the first place, and the origins of modern science are not quite what the textbooks would have us believe. I have already commented at times on the role of the occult in the lives of rocket pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Herman Orberth and Jack Parsons, and there is more on this line to come.

There are other papers, which are of a slighter character, or not so much on our subject which space does not allow us to discuss, but overall this is an interesting and valuable collection.  |PR|

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