A subculture now exists in every country, based on the idea that humanity has a higher destiny. You will find people . . . who have literally dropped out of city life . . . because they had received messages from space instructing them to do so. . . .Their lives have been changed by what they consider to be genuine extraterrestrial communication. . . .We are not here dealing with escapism-we are dealing with the next form of religion.
In H. G. Wells's story "Jimmy Goggles the God" a diver stomps onto the shore of a Pacific island in his diving suit (nicknamed "Jimmy Goggles"). The natives, seeing this unearthly being coming to them from the sea, unhesitatingly assume he is a god and proceed to worship him accordingly. In our time, otherworldly beings are allegedly visiting our planet in considerable numbers. It tells us something about human nature that-almost from the first moment the flying saucers were reported-there were those who saw beyond the nuts and bolts of the surface phenomenon to its profounder and more spiritual dimensions. What seemed to most people simply a mirror of our own tentative ventures into space-manifestations of alien technology-carried for these others implications of a supernal reality.
At the basis of every religion is a story, generally focused on a particular individual: Buddha, Confucius, Muhammad. The most elaborate and arguably the least implausible of these stories is that of Jesus, whose career while incarnate on earth involves wonders of all kinds-after an immaculate conception and virgin birth, the hero is visited by three kings bearing symbolic gifts, and he grows up to perform miracles and enunciate teachings, finally giving himself up voluntarily as a sacrifice to redeem humanity's sins, then ascending back to heaven.
The flying-saucer religions have nothing to offer to compare with this-but they do not set out to do that. If traditional texts that are the very basis of the world's leading religions are today widely relegated to the realm of folklore, it is understandable that many regard them as an inadequate foundation for the most important spiritual commitment of their lives. Still, the promoters of the established religions offer their potential customers a product so defective yet find so many takers, which tells us something about human nature; fewer and fewer are choosing to swallow the sales pitch, which tells us that a growing number of people are learning to back their own judgment rather than take on trust what they are instructed to believe.
The flying-saucer story, by contrast, is eminently suited to a space-age awareness. As we humans make our own first tentative ventures beyond the atmosphere of our planet, it is natural to imagine the reverse process-other inhabitants of the universe coming to visit us. Stories of otherworldly visitors have been told throughout history, but they have mostly come from heaven, hell, or other such fantasy places. What has enabled today's otherworldly visitors to get the edge over their predecessors is that they claim to come from worlds more or less like our own-not a pie-in-the- sky heaven, but a planet that would be acceptable to the most skeptical astronomer. That proposition that we should be visited by the inhabitants of such places is scientifically plausible, even to be expected.
What can be said, though, is why this type of religious belief attracts people today. Robert Ellwood has written: "The UFO experience has seemed for many fraught with spiritual or religious meaning. This is understandable, for the sense of wonder evoked by the thought of otherworldly visitants flows easily, for persons of a certain susceptibility, into those feelings of the presence of the numinous and the transcendent which characterizes religious experience." This has been adumbrated through this essay. To summarize, we can say that UFO sects offer a plausible story that conforms, superficially at least, with our knowledge of life in space. They do not require belief in traditional myths such as virgin birth or bread changing into flesh and wine into blood; their marvels are space-age marvels and not inconsistent with scientific possibility. At the same time, it must be said that even though the stories are scientifically credible there is as yet no evidence for them that could be considered scientifically valid. The new URGs require just as much a suspension of disbelief, just as venturesome an act of faith, as any of the old religions.