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Of the many different cores around which a cult can form, possibly the most curious is the phenomenon of UFOs. Beyond the ostensibly pragmatic issue of whether or not aliens are indeed responsible for UFO sightings, there is a huge volume of discussion in formal and fan literature (and online in social media forums) regarding the interpretation of UFO reports as personal encounters with alien beings―physical and/or ethereal. In fact, such subjective discourse has almost completely supplanted any rigorous attempts to study the subject with anything resembling scientific methodology.

Given that much of ufology focuses on highly subjective interpretation of the UFO phenomenon as being due to an alien presence on Earth, how does ufology advance? And since there is a trend in modern ufology to embrace contactee-oriented discourse, having evolved from merely alien abduction accounts to more esoteric claims, what does this mean for the advancement of knowledge in the field today?

Modern ufology appears to have rejected science in favour of a more mystical and religious view. A simple look at a list on Amazon of best-selling books about UFOs on any given day will show that the top ten titles are conspiracy-based, religious, personal accounts of encounters, or are titles only peripheral to the subject of UFOs, such as ancient astronauts (which posits that aliens visited Earth during our early history or prehistory). Few can be classified as “scientific” in their approach.

This is likely an accurate reflection of the general public’s view on UFOs. The populist consensus is that aliens are visiting Earth and are in direct contact with humans, whether conspiratorially, with one or another government organization, or invasively communicating and meeting with contactees. This in itself is an interesting phenomenon, because there is no incontrovertible evidence, from a scientific standpoint, that aliens exist at all, let alone are in contact with humans.

And yet, the belief persists. A recent Canadian poll released in August 2016 found the “vast majority of Canadians (79 per cent) say it is either definitely (29 per cent) or probably (50 per cent) true that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.” And when the random sample of the Canadian population was asked if they believe: “Extraterrestrial beings have already visited the Earth,” 11 per cent replied “Definitely True,” and 36 per cent replied “Probably True.” Furthermore, 43 per cent of Canadians believe: “The U.S. government has covered up the existence and presence of extraterrestrial life on Earth.”

Polls done during the past 50 years throughout North America have found similar results; a significant percentage of the population believes that aliens exist and that they are visiting Earth. This is despite the fact that aliens have not been detected by terrestrial telescopes or other instruments, even though searches for extraterrestrial intelligence continue to be conducted by scientists and laypersons alike.

What, then, drives such a belief system? We can gain insight into the UFO belief mechanism by looking to other belief systems for comparison, such as mainstream religion. Religious adherents share a common set of beliefs that reinforce their behaviour and convictions. If they believe the universe was created by God, they will search for any indication that is so and adopt a set of tenets that lead directly from their belief system. In some fundamentalist sects, they will reject any negative evidence and dispute or indeed shun any sacrilegious attempt to undermine their strongly-held views.

More and more, ufology is the realm of UFO fans who describe their own experiences and encounters with denizens from other worlds or who promulgate extraordinary UFO stories. Few within UFO fandom dare to question claims of alien abductions or other kinds of contact with entities from “elsewhere.”

We should also recognize the distinction between UFO abductees and contactees because they do seem to be different kinds of people in at least one aspect. Abductees tend not to proselytize the way contactees often do. In fact, most abductees insist on anonymity. For the most part, abductees are baffled by their experiences and that is why they appeal to researchers for help. In short, they don’t appear to know what has happened to them and need some assistance in sorting out their lives, emotions and world view.

Modern contactees, on the other hand, need no one to tell them what happened to them. They know that they have encountered space aliens and have been selected for some important purpose. They can espouse great knowledge about how the universe “really is,” and approach researchers not to get guidance, but for verification. What’s more, many take it upon themselves to counsel other abductees and are sometimes regarded as experts themselves. Some feel they have been chosen by the aliens to help others of like mind.

Fanatical UFO belief is essentially an anti-science movement. It rejects scientific evaluations and rational explanations for UFO sightings, often embracing an elaborate government cover-up of “the Truth” or ascribing near-omnipotent powers to aliens who manipulate reality. In this UFO subculture, patently absurd accounts and claims are considered not only possible, but likely.

This rejection of science by many in our culture has been noted by many scholars, most well outside of ufology. One recent study found: “Rejection of scientific findings is mostly driven by motivated cognition: People tend to reject findings that threaten their core beliefs or worldview… General education and scientific literacy do not mitigate rejection of science but, rather, increase the polarization of opinions along partisan lines.”

In this age where some people see a breakdown of society and where uncertainty dominates politics and economics, it may seem attractive to look for salvation somewhere other than from conventional paths to solutions. The reasoning seems sound enough: if aliens are truly advanced technologically―as they would need to be to have achieved interstellar travel―then they would certainly have solved problems such as environmental pollution, overpopulation, unequal distribution of wealth, world hunger, and war.

Psychologists have defined a theory of cognitive dissonance whereby people with strongly-held beliefs will protect their views by adjusting them to fit facts or, more usually, reject the facts that would negate their views. Such a process is clearly at work within hardcore UFO fandom, best defined in a classic study by Festinger et al., whose seminal work When Prophecy Fails documented the actions of a so-called “Doomsday Cult” who believed that aliens would save them from a disaster. Even when the divinely inspired prediction of doom did not materialize, cult members still clung to their beliefs against all rational thought.

It should be noted that not all individuals who are interested in the subject of UFOs are disaffected to this extent. Many are either simply curious about the subject because of pop culture representations of aliens, or are UFO witnesses who are merely trying to understand what they have seen. UFO belief becomes cult-like when adherents become closed to any interpretation of UFOs as conventional phenomena, and become something closer to religious zealots.

UFO zealots are certain that there is a real UFO cover-up preventing the truth of alien visitation from reaching the public. This can come from direct suppression of proof of alien visitation through the manipulation and control of mainstream media, or from silencing of selected UFO proponents who are “getting too close to the truth.”

“OUR ALIEN, WHO ART IN HEAVEN” by Chris Rutkowski, co-author of When They Appeared is an extract from his contribution to UFOs: Reframing the Debate edited by Robbie Graham.

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