This is a fun one! In this month’s segment, we discuss Alien Cults and UFO Religions, and their relationship between science, religion, and popular culture. Ufology religions tend to co-opt popular scientific language and ideas and “religionize” them, echoing and incorporating the popular preoccupation with alien abductions, sightings, and conspiracy theories. We focus on two main alien religions, Scientology and Heaven’s Gate (whose website was mirrored and is still viewable), by tying in their particular religious claims with the enveloping social discourse on science.
As always, you can listen to the stand-alone segment here, or the entire 9sense Podcast in which I co-host.
The two main sources for this episode are listed below, with relevant excerpts.
Brief excerpt from Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis:
One of the interesting aspects of the Church is how certain elements of the popular culture of the 1950s were preserved within the Scientology subculture.[…] A more subtle, but far more significant, mid-century theme preserved in the time capsule of the Church’s subculture is reflected in its name. Prior to the blossoming of cold war nuclear concerns and the emergence of the ecology movement’s critique of runaway technology, the general populace accorded science and science’s child, technology, a level of respect and prestige enjoyed by few other social institutions. Science was viewed quasi-religiously, as an objective arbiter of “Truth.”; Thus any religion claiming to be scientific drew on the prestige and perceived legitimacy of natural science. Religions such as Chris- tian Science, Science of Mind, and Scientology claim just that. There are, however, a number of differences between popular notions of science and science proper. Average citizens’ views of science are signifi cantly infl uenced by their experience of technology. Hence, in most people’s minds, an important goal of science appears to be the solution of practical problems. This aspect of our cultural view of science shaped the various religious sects that incorporated “science” into their names. In sharp contrast to traditional religions, which emphasize salvation in the afterlife, the emphasis in these religions is on the improvement of this life. Groups in the Metaphysical (Christian Science; New Thought) tradition, for example, usually claim to have discovered spiritual “laws”; that, if properly understood and applied, would transform and improve the lives of ordinary individuals, much as technology has transformed society.
The Church of Scientology is in this same lineage, though Scientology takes the further step of explicitly referring to their religio-therapeutic practices as religious technology; in Scientology lingo, the “tech.” In much the same way as the 1950s viewed technology as ushering in a new, utopian world, Scientology sees their psycho-spiritual technology as supplying the missing ingredient in existing technologies—namely, the therapeutic engineering of the human psyche.
Brief excerpt from Benjamin E. Zeller’s, Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America:
“Our message is not now, nor has it ever been, religious or spiritual,” declared the individual calling herself Anlody, a few months before the mass suicide. The message was not religious, Anlody insisted, although her own statement containing those words also discussed the human soul, the “Chief of Chiefs,” Lucifer, the Tree of Life, and eternal salvation. In the mind of Anlody and her fellow members of Heaven’s Gate, the eternal fate of her soul did not qualify as a religious or spiritual concern. In a parallel development, Anlody’s compatriot and leader, who called himself Do (pronounced “doe”) declared of his movement, “[t]his is as scientific—this is as true as true could be.” Yet, the “scientific truth” that Do discussed in the video in which those words appeared included extrasensory perception, spirits, biblical prophecy, extraterrestrials, and the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. Such is the irony of a group that fits most scholars’ assumptions about a religion, but itself demonstrated only a tepid ambivalence toward the category of religion.
Within Heaven’s Gate, science and religion coexisted as unequal binary opposites. Science, the movement’s members insisted, represented truth, rationalism, reasonability, and the reliance on evidence. Religion, by contrast, possessed falsehood, emotionalism, no sensibility, and reliance on faith. The former category surpassed the latter in every regard, they argued, and therefore the adherents of Heaven’s Gate positioned their movement as a science. Yet in term of content, function, and the groups with which it competed, Heaven’s Gate certainly qualified as a religion. For example, their worldview centered on salvation, creation and the Creator, the nature of the soul, and the Bible. The group adapted religious practices from the New Age religious subculture, such as diet regimentation, meditation, and channeling. And in their own words, they reached out to “ministers, evangelists, and [New Age] awareness centers.” The actions of the members of Heaven’s Gate implied that it was a religion, but that they really wanted to be more like a science.
2. Anlody, “Investments,” in HGA, sec. A, 98–100 (originally produced 1996).
3. Heaven’s Gate, “Planet About to Be Recycled—Your Only Chance to Survive—Leave with Us [Edited Transcript],” http://www.heavensgate.com/misc/vt100596.htm (accessed 13 November, 1997 [Defunct]).
4. It is certainly not my intention to enter into the debates over the definition of religion. Certainly scholars differ on how to define the concept, and I wish to note here that according to most definitions with which I am familiar, Heaven’s Gate is a religion.
5. Heaven’s Gate, ’88 Update, in HGA, sec. 3, 2–19 (originally produced 1988).
Original air-date May 24, 2015.
Palmer, Susan J. Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion.
Partridge, Christopher. UFO Religions.
Zeller, Benjamin E. Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion.