Known Unknowns :: Religion, UFOs, and Diana Pasukla’s American Cosmic

For those uninitiated to the history of the UAPs— those whose knowledge of UFOs and aliens comes more from Hollywood films and TV shows than very real declassified government documents — the past months have been a mixture of confusion and ontological shock. Stories once relegated to the pages of yellowing sci-fi paperbacks have seemingly become a reality. We now live in a world where legacy media reports on UAPs, short for Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon, regularly; where military and government officials testify under oath to US Congress about classified cover-up operations, reverse-engineering programs, and “non-human biologics” recovered from crash sites; where presidential nominees are questioned about UAPs during primary debates; where corroborative photographical evidence including thermal, radar, and infrared video have not only been released to the public, but are available at the click of a YouTube link

At this juncture, we, the American public, are confronted with a “known unknown.” We know that the phenomenon exists and has existed for a long time — experienced and documented by every culture, on every continent throughout human civilization, well before former US intelligence official David Grusch gave his congressional testimony in July of 2023, and even farther back than the 1953 Robertson panel, which would become the impetus for the continuation of Project Blue Book: the code name for the systematic study of unidentified flying objects by the United States Air Force (of which 701 of a total of 12,618 reports remained “unidentified” by the termination of the project  in 1969). 

For all this testimony, we still don’t know exactly what UFOs are or have an explanation for their occurrence. Naturally, we hate this: we don’t like what we can’t understand; we fear the unknown. We want answers and seek solace in facts, even if those facts are moving targets, subject to change. This is further complicated by the longstanding social stigma and ridicule surrounding the UAP subject. Nobody wants to be dubbed a “tin-foil hatter” or conspiracy theorist. We want to be rational and pragmatic. We want to be Dana Scully, not Spooky Mulder.

While the UAP phenomenon defies our current understanding of physics and reality, in doing so it offers the potential for a paradigm shift in our understanding of the universe. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic…magic is just science that we don’t understand yet.”

In D.W. Pasulka’s 2019 book, American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, the professor of religious studies documents her six-year-long ethnographic study into the belief systems at the root of the UAP phenomenon. Along the way, she interviews influential scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, astronauts, and former military and government officials, traveling from the deserts of New Mexico to the Vatican archives in Rome. Pasulka’s intent isn’t to persuade or deter from the phenomenon but to understand why—and how—people believe (or don’t believe) in UFOs and aliens from a modern vantage point. Using the history of religion as her narrative compass, Pasulka questions how people interpret unexplainable events and how current technology manipulates such interpretations. 

Throughout American Cosmic, Pasulka compares and contrasts ufology with Christianity. In this context, skeptics such as Mick West and Michael Shermer could be considered the equivalent of atheists. Dr. Steven Greer and Linda Moulton Howe are akin to evangelical believers (and like evangelical preachers, their intentions should be treated with plausible suspicion). Academics and scientists like Eric Weinstein and Avi Loeb fall into agnosticism. The Area 51 base in the desert of Nevada is the equivalent of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Varginha, Brazil, akin to Nazareth, Israel. These locations function as sites of hierophanies, attracting millions of people who make their pilgrimage based on their beliefs. Much like the chronicle of religion, the history of ufology is a record of perceived contact with supernatural entities that descend from the skies. 

In many ways, abduction narratives scan like a modern update on the ancient experience of gods and angels descending from the heavens. This interpretation has been propagated by theologians such as Michael J. S. Carter, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, whose book Alien Scriptures: Extraterrestrials in the Holy Bible reevaluates the Bible as a historical document of human contact with extraterrestrials. 

Pasulka covers the documentation of artifacts found in religion such as the Shroud of Turin, Noah’s Ark, and the Ark of the Covenant, drawing comparisons to the history of theoretical artifacts in ufology: the “Sports Model” UFO that Bob Lazar claims to have seen at the S4 facility in Area 51, the “Skinny Bob” footage rumored to have been leaked by the KGB, and the “exotic materials” allegedly housed at Wright-Patterson Air Force base. The parallels Pasulka draws between the belief structures of religion and ufology are nothing if not thought-provoking, and this is Pasulka’s intention with American Cosmic: to unpack faith and cosmology through our current understanding of neuroscience and technological perception. Pasulka wants to understand why people believe what they do.

American Cosmic also examines the cognitive science of technology and media and the myriad ways it impacts belief structures, suggesting that what one sees on a screen—whether it’s a tablet, smartphone, or television—can take root in one’s neurology and memories, determining not only how one views their past,  but perhaps even future behaviors. Pasulka proposes that all forms of media are manipulated to produce a specific response from the viewer based on the desired intent of the narrative. To support her claim, Pasulka cites The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris of Harvard University and Daniel Simons. The book recounts a study in which a group of subjects were shown two videos of people passing a basketball and asked to count the number of passes happening in each video. In both videos, people pass a basketball back and forth, but in one of the videos, a person wearing a gorilla suit walks through the court as the basketball players pass the ball. Chabris and Simon found that half of the subjects did not notice the gorilla passing through the scene, too caught up in watching the basketball being passed back and forth. 

Later in the book, Pasulka explores the famous Betty and Barney Hill abduction case of 1961. During hypnotic regression sessions, Barney Hill would sketch out the physical details of the aliens that abducted him and his wife. In 1994, UFO skeptic Martin Kottmeyer discovered that Barney’s sketches were nearly identical to an alien creature featured on The Outer Limits, aired on February 10th, 1964 — twelve days before Barney’s hypnotic session. This isn’t to completely discredit the Hill’s abduction case, but to suggest that memories are reconstructive based on exposure to technology and media. The UFO experience is remembered with and through the extensive corpus of mass media about the topic. In a somewhat cryptic passage, Pasulka, who has worked as an advisor and consultant on horror films like The Conjuring, elaborates on the connective tissue between UFOs, religion, and technology, writing, “In the first century, these people would be called scribes and redactors, but today they are agents of information, like screenwriters, television producers, and authors … I began to record the mechanisms by which people believe and practice, and how they believe and practice. The producers, actors, government agents, and even myself were all part of the process of the formation of belief, and perhaps even pawns in the process.”

But what of physical materials? In one tantalizing chapter, Pasulka connects with a metallurgist working to analyze pieces of debris found in the New Mexico desert, purportedly from a UFO crash site. Presenting his findings, he explains the debris is either one of two things: a highly complex synthesis of exotic metamaterials engineered at a subatomic level that would cost billions of dollars to fabricate or “something made them somewhere other than on Earth with technologies we don’t understand.” If the most likely explanation for the debris was that it was from a multi-billion dollar piece of metamaterial of terrestrial origin, why were fragments of it scattered across the desert? Or, as the metallurgist told Pasulka, “Why would someone do that? Spend millions and millions of dollars to create these parts, and then throw them out into the desert where we would find them? It doesn’t make sense.” Like most things in ufology, these questions only lead to more questions. As Pasulka documents her investigation throughout American Cosmic, the mysteries and conspiracies embedded within ufology begin to expand. 

Pasulka’s own religious faith makes her a curious investigator into religion and ufology. In American Cosmic, Pasulka writes of herself, “Because I am a professor of religious studies, many people naturally assume that I am religious. People in my field study religion, of course, but they are all over the map with respect to their personal beliefs and practices. Most of the atheists I know are also professors of religious studies. That is not me, however. I believe there is a truth, but I am open about what it is.” Being open to any and all possibilities allows Pasulka to not only entertain the labyrinth of theories into the UAP phenomenon—extraterrestrial, ultraterrestrial, technoterrestrial, interdimensional —but maintain an objective voice, unhindered by preconceived biases. If Pasulka has an agenda, it isn’t to sway the reader in any direction but to examine how media, technology, cultural background, and personal experiences shape our dogma and ideologies, both in what we believe and what we doubt. 

Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, a UFO historian or a fair-weather fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), American Cosmic offers a provocative and pragmatic look at the UAP phenomenon from the vantage point of religion and faith, mass communication and digital media. On the surface, American Cosmic appears to be about ufology, tracking its historiography and major players such as Jacques Vallée and J. Allen Hynek (as well as figures such as business magnate Robert Bigelow and Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell). But at its nucleus, American Cosmic explores the complex creation of myths and theology and how humans deal with the unexplainable. 

This November, Pasulka will release a new book Encounters: Experiences with Nonhuman Intelligences, further exploring the phenomenon. Ahead of that book, and considering recent events in the wacky world of ufology, there’s never been a better time to read a book like American Cosmic. Just recently, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer introduced legislation for “biological evidence of non-human intelligence,” and the Pentagon unveiled a new website operated by the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), dedicated to analyzing UFO reports. 

There appears to be an unprecedented level of transparency surrounding UAPs, an admission we’ve never seen from the government that may or may not be part of a slow roll towards full disclosure. Of course, the most intriguing question about the UAP phenomenon and UFOs—as well as religion and God—is, “What or who is it?” But American Cosmic goes further by asking, “Why do you believe that?” | e hehr

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