UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age

Millennial Conspiracism

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David G. Robertson
Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2016.
     264 pages.
     $112.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781474253208.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In May 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced on a late night television show that, if elected president she would release to the public any information the government had been keeping secret about UFOs, extraterrestrials, and “Area 51”—the supposed secret military base where the government secures downed alien spacecraft. Dismissed by some as pandering to a conspiratorial Left, Clinton’s actions actually speak to how common conspiratorial thinking has become in modern life. Clinton took note of something that many people the world over believe: that it is plausible that there exists a government conspiracy to hide the existence of UFOs and extraterrestrials.

In his new book, UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism, David G. Robertson examines how what he calls “millennial conspiracism”—beliefs about secret plots as they relate to apocalyptic visions of the future—became intertwined with New Age belief in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. He argues that both conspiratorial and New Age beliefs feature discourses about UFOs, and that UFO narratives served a central role in the fusion of millennial conspiratorial and New Age discourses. In his analysis, Robertson emphasizes the role of epistemic struggles and epistemic capital among believers and practitioners, particularly regarding the claims of science and legitimate knowledge. The themes of the control of knowledge and the power of defining truth both emerge as tropes in this book.

Robertson employs discourse analysis as his primary methodology. He asks how participants use language to construct social realities. Robertson’s sources include the literature produced by the major Anglophone leaders in the arena of New Age UFO conspiratorial millennialism, namely Whitley Strieber, David Icke, and David Wilcock. Secondarily, he draws from his own ethnographic fieldwork at conferences related to these leaders, where he interacted with individuals who subscribe to millennial conspiratorial beliefs, in addition to questionnaires he distributed at these events. Robertson’s work is explicitly transatlantic, considering this movement in both its British and American contexts.

In the introduction, and sprinkled throughout the book, Robertson provides background on UFO conspiracism and popular millennialism as it arose during the mid- to late-twentieth century. His narrative is one familiar to students of ufology, starting with the 1947 Roswell incident and the Kenneth Arnold “flying saucer” sightings, Betty and Barney Hill’s claimed UFO abduction in 1961, and the conspiratorial claims of the 1990s regarding government coverups. He links the ufological developments to broader conspiratorial thinking and Cold War culture, as well as religious developments in the New Age when UFO discourse became internalized and transformed into spiritual teachings. None of this will be novel to specialists, but readers new to the subfield of new religious movement (NRM) studies will benefit from it. Robertson’s description of the historical and ideological development of the New Age movement itself is somewhat thinner, though I suspect most readers will know enough not to mind this.

The chapters on Whitley Strieber, David Icke, and David Wilcock serve as the heart of Robertson’s analysis. In his chapter on Strieber, Robertson provides an overview of this central thinker’s life and thought. He argues that Strieber, whose book Communion: A True Story (Beach Tree Books, 1987) popularized the alien abduction motif, became increasingly conspiratorial and millennial in his thinking, and his work has served as one of the conduits between UFO discourse and millennial conspiracism. Much more socially optimistic than Icke or Wilcock in his approach (though hardly utopian), Strieber’s millennial idealism helps bridge New Age and conspiratorial thought.

In the chapter on Icke, Robertson argues that practitioners within the New Age movement during the 1990s turned to millennial conspiracism as a means of resolving cognitive dissonance over the failures of their progressive millennial hopes. Icke was a politician and prominent television commentator in the UK before becoming deeply interested in New Age practices and teachings, including astrology, channeling, and prophecies. His work increasingly emphasized millennial conspiratorial themes, and Robertson (rightly) credits Icke with popularizing the “reptilian thesis,” which claims that a race of lizard-like extraterrestrials control human governments through a vast network of infiltrators and conspirators. Robertson credits the reptilian thesis as helping to bring together New Age millennial and conspiratorial beliefs into a single package.

While general readers are likely familiar with Strieber, and perhaps Icke, Robertson’s chapter on David Wilcock brings this important millennial conspiratorial thinker to our attention. A promoter of the 2012 “Mayan Apocalypse” movement that anticipated that the world would end in 2012, when the Mayan calendar ended, Wilcock also serves as an example of the near-contemporary intersection of New Age thought, millennialism, conspiracism, and the UFO narrative. Robertson does an excellent job unpacking and narrating the complicated story of the emergence of the “2012 phenomenon,” as well as demonstrating how Wilcock has engaged the rhetoric of science in order to marshal epistemic capital.

Robertson’s book must be read as part of a broader trend to take alternative, conspiratorial, and stigmatized spiritual beliefs seriously. He builds on scholarship in NRM studies, and studies in religion and popular culture, especially the work of Michael Barkun (A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, University of California Press, 2003) and Jeffrey Kripal (Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, University of Chicago Press, 2010; Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, University of Chicago Press, 2011). I hope this book is read by more than just specialists in these fields, since Robertson is fundamentally correct: we should take millennial conspiracism seriously as a form of religious discourse.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin E. Zeller is Associate Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College.

Date of Review: 
September 9, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David G. Robertson is Co-Editor-In-Chief of the Religious Studies Project and a committee member of the British Association for the Study of Religion. He teaches at the University of Edinburgh and has published widely on new religions, millennialism, conspiracy theories and critical theory. He recently guest-edited a special issue of Nova Religio and is the co-editor of After World Religions: Reconstructing the Introductory Course in Religious Studies (2016).

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