Handbook of UFO Religions
Series: Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion
- ISBN: 9789004435537
- Published By: Brill
- Published: March 2021
Handbook of UFO Religions offers a thoughtful overview of the category of “UFO religion.” However, it is not a survey guide that systematically discusses each UFO tradition in a similar manner. Many of the more widely known UFO traditions are discussed in this book. However, some chapters are centered primarily on issues of method and theory, while others focus on a specific aspect of a tradition without providing a comprehensive overview of the tradition’s general practices and related mythologies. Rather than manifesting as a weakness, however, the sophisticated discussion and the well-handled examples throughout the work make this a text that could be of interest not only to those who wish to specifically learn about UFO religions, but also to anyone interested in the method and theory of religious studies.
The editor of this volume, Benjamin E. Zeller, highlights the topic’s relevance through an explanation of Hillary Clinton’s campaign promise to make previously classified information on UFO phenomena open to the public. The formerly fringe topic is now thoroughly mainstream, taken seriously by even very senior politicians and policy makers. Zeller explains that the study of UFO religions is one where several seemingly disparate areas of interest overlap. Psychology and an attempt at explaining lived perspectives are brought into conversation with Scientism and Millennialism. The book also engages with traditions commonly categorized as “world religions.” Popular culture and media are similarly shown to interact with what might be thought of as traditional areas of esoteric study, such as Occultism, Spiritualism, and Theosophy. The study of UFO religions and discourse related to them is, then, one that touches upon contemporary consciousness—from the very public sphere to the very private. Following Zeller’s establishment of the relevance of the study of UFO religions, Michael Ashcraft continues by framing current conversations on the topic, tracing the explorations of those ideas by Jewish and Christian theologians beginning in the 1960s and 70s and leading through the research of a diverse set of scholars, including psychologists, folklorists, and sociologists.
The book’s content is laid out in five parts. The first section focuses on how people have come to view passages from ancient texts as evidence for extraterrestrial influence on earthly matters. Notable in the first section, “Religious Engagement with UFOs,” is Layne R. Little’s “Vimānas and Hindu Ufology” for its description of Vedic texts’ process of understanding modern technologies and innovations. Throughout, Little deploys specific examples to provide thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the practices of mythmaking and interpretation. Other chapters in this section examine how elements of Jewish, Christian, and Native American narratives have been redescribed as UFO encounters in modern interpretations.
Part 2, “Methods and Themes,” offers, as the title suggests, more in-depth discussion on some of the methodology used in UFO religion studies. Social function and dynamics feature heavily in this section, with descriptions of how abduction accounts transform into meaning-laden myths, and how individuals with a common interest in UFOs have convened into structured groups. Additionally, attention is drawn to the less obvious business of UFO religion, with its considerable book salves and creation of celebrity, in “Ancient Aliens” by Olav Hammer and Karen Swartz.
Part 3, “Case Studies: Individual Proponents,” brings readers detailed insights on a range of specific ideas about UFOs, from Christa Shusko’s examination of Eleanor Kirk’s The Christ of the Red Planet (Print Co., 1901) to Raymond Bernard’s exploration of Hollow Earth teachings.
Part 4, “New UFO Religions Emerging from the American Context,” contains six chapters that specifically focus on UFO religions in an American context. Some of these chapters explain how emerging ideas on UFOs and extraterrestrials engage with historical issues such as racial tension, as in Susan J. Palmer’s chapter “The United Nuwabian Nation,” or American ideological responses to the Cold War, as found in Hugh Urban’s “Scientology.” Urban provides a concise account of the historical development of Scientology, describing a confluence of anxieties over the Cold War with a common fascination with science fiction, and outlines Scientology’s resultingly complex church organization and cosmology.
Part 5, “New UFO Religious Movements Emerging from the Global Context,” contains five diverse chapters that bring the conversation around UFO movements out of the United States and into a more varied set of cultural contexts. Kelly E. Haye’ “Spirits of the Space Age: The Valley of the Dawn as a UFO religion” examines a religious movement centered in Brazil; the author relates that some elements of this tradition reflect the heavy impact of colonization, and members of the Valley of the Dawn, and specifically its leaders, are conceived of as players in a cosmic drama. France and the Raelian movement are examined by Régis Dericquebourg. Lukas Pokorny surveys several UFO religions in “East Asian UFO Religiosity.” These include Japan’s God Light Association, Chino Shōhō, and the currently active Kōfuku no Kagaku movement, as well as the now globally popular Chinese tradition Falún Gōng and smaller emerging movements from South Korea primarily centered on relating meaning to the many reported flying saucer sightings there.
Overall, this is a well-curated collection of essays that address common themes in a very broad set of contexts. The volume touches on such common issues in religious studies as group formation and mythmaking, but it does so with examples from recent history and at a time when interest in UFOs is widespread. This quality makes the book effective as a showcase of religious studies methodology and theory and as a catalog of well-researched insights on the specific examples it examines.
Melody Everest is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Alberta.Melody EverestDate Of Review:February 28, 2023