Enter the Alien: UFOs as the New American Religion

Perhaps the most interesting and telling fact about UFO sightings is that they have overwhelmingly occurred in the United States.

This might mean that either extraterrestrials are specifically observing the United States or that the United States is peculiarly rich in those cultural characteristics that stimulate eyewitness reports concerning alleged extraterrestrial encounters.

I believe there is much more evidence for the latter supposition.

In a scientific age where the world’s traditional religions are under constant intellectual and moral attack, it would not be surprising that people would, not despite this but because of this, continue their search for spiritual meaning and situatedness.

As Sigmund Freud once famously proclaimed, many people, perhaps a majority, are possessed of an “oceanic feeling” which naturally leads them to religious speculation and to seek cultural forms of mystical participation.

Since Freud’s time, the “oceanic feeling” has not disappeared apparently, even if the traditional ways in which they have been expressed have significantly weakened.

The peculiar strength of religious feeling in the United States has often been noted starting with the likes of Tocqueville through Karl Jaspers and continually debated by modern day sociologists. Many theories have been offered to try to explain this cultural phenomenon. The plural nature of the American religious market, the need for a cultural marker to signal cooperation and safety in a vast unsure continent,the perceived need for a kind of social conformism. Indeed, self-identifying atheists are still at a marked social and political disadvantage within the United States, although there are recent signs that this is rapidly changing.

So while the United States arguably still continues to be bathed in subjective lathes of “oceanic feeling” the traditional ground and structures that once channeled that feeling have either weakened or, even, disappeared.

Enter the Alien.

A belief in highly intelligent (read technically advanced) aliens is, in many ways, a perfect expression of a new American religion.

Firstly, in a society that, itself, is highly technical, scientific, expansionary (and at least mildly threatening), and puts a high cultural value on power, speed, and practical intelligence, Aliens seem to fit the bill of a refracted American presence somewhere beyond our vision, experience, and capabilities. Indeed, it is my view, that “ET” is a semi-unconscious projection of ourselves: space faring, colonialist, technical without a specific goal or creed other than ceaseless economic expansion.

As Emile Durkheim noted more than a century ago, a people’s religion is a parallax mirror of itself: its self-perception, ideals, fears, wants, and spiritual needs.

The Alien here is a thinly disguised American technocrat or member of a privileged elite. Powerful, inscrutable, amoral, secretive, vaguely menacing and, above all, omnipresent if not always immediately visible.

The fear and wonder of the Alien is the fear and wonder of a modern technical civilization that has seemed to escape any kind of moral control.

Indeed, the religion of the Alien is more like the religion of Alienation in the Hegelian sense.

A total giving away of ourselves to something outside of us and thus beyond our control.

ET is beyond us, above us, perhaps even surreptitiously controlling us as are the levers and fulcrums of our extremely complex society. We are moved by them while we struggle to resist, futilely, the direction of our future. We feel ourselves to be fated by powerful others, even, in the extreme, by non-human machines (that’s the other American religion: the apocalyptic revolt of the robots).

In a world directed by global elites and their technological means, we see our subjectivities discounted (even if superficially celebrated by media oligopolies). We are disappearing from our own sight, only to be found again in the projection of the Alien as either world destroyer or world savior.

The dual possibility of the Alien as harbinger of death or renewer of life is as old as religion itself. What is somewhat different here is that the American Alien, its eventual revelation and coming into visible being potentially brings into full circle either the negation of our world system or its transcendence, and almost always through technical means.

The very technical society that breeds our profound disquiet is seen here as either the apocalyptic means or palingenetic promise of the overcoming of the time and space we inhabit. We seek a tunnel out of our unique situation not unlike the psychedelic/hyper-space tunnel through which Dave Bowman entered in the film 2001 A Space Odyssey.

The aliens, then, are us in our own historically specific conundrum of alienation,

We long to visit ourselves again and to find a real home on earth.

As always, however, it is not to the stars and their mysterious inhabitants that we should look for our eventual salvation or destruction but to ourselves and to each other to resolve the spiritual crises of our age.

ET is not out there. They are, truly, already here.

Dan Corjescu teaches at the University of Tübingen’s TRACS program.