Apocalypse now, and always: On UFOs, AI and encounters with non-human intelligence

Author and religious scholar D.W. Pasulka explores the blurred lines between technology and spirituality

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published May 22, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Distant silhouette of a person standing on rocks below Northern Lights (Aurora borealis), Iceland (Getty Images/mariuskasteckas)
Distant silhouette of a person standing on rocks below Northern Lights (Aurora borealis), Iceland (Getty Images/mariuskasteckas)

It’s understandable if our present moment feels to many people like the end of the world. No one needs reminding of the litany of terrible things happening across the globe, from the erosion of democracy to endless war to the “biological holocaust” our planet is undergoing thanks to climate change.

As someone raised in the shadow of Y2K and 9/11, my entire life has felt like waiting for an apocalypse. I was profoundly traumatized by the evangelical weirdness about those who will be “left behind” when Jesus returns from vacation to vacuum all the true believers up to heaven, not to mention the ever-looming specter of nuclear annihilation, terrorist attacks or killer rocks from space. Everything seems to be getting worse, not better. Yet, we’re still here.

To make things even weirder, now UFOs have been given mainstream legitimacy. We still don’t entirely know what they are, but one of the few established facts in this area is that the U.S. government has secretly studied UFOs for decades, and has actively sowed discord about whether they're out there and what they are. The feds and scientists who study them call them UAPs, or "unidentified aerial phenomena," which is admittedly more accurate, but the general public still gravitates toward the term familiarized by "The X Files" and other pop-culture artifacts. Whatever label we use, these things are unidentified. In many cases, we literally don’t know what the heck we’re seeing.

That hasn’t stopped people from making all sorts of assumptions about unexplained things seen in the sky. But the typical Hollywood account really doesn’t reflect what most modern UFO/UAP experiences are like. In her latest book, “Encounters: Experiences with Nonhuman Intelligences,” religious scholar D.W. Pasulka seeks to demystify this growing phenomenon, suggesting that the truth is far stranger than fiction. While aliens visiting from other planets remain a popular theory, and cannot be conclusively ruled out, that's far from the only hypothesis. Salon spoke with Pasulka about UFO encounters, new religions built around technology and strange lights in the sky, and the apocalypse.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book highlights the idea that UFO experiences aren’t much like the mainstream pop-culture depictions. One clear sense in which ideas of UAPs are wrong is that non-human intelligence doesn't necessarily mean E.T. from another planet. The idea of non-human intelligence communicating with humanity is an ancient one, reported throughout all recorded history — but this isn’t generally an area that has a strong scientific basis, it would seem. Can we talk about how some of these encounters can take different forms, including some that even weirder than aliens?

So first, I’m a professor of religious studies and most people don't know what we do. We're interdisciplinary: We’re archaeologists, sociologists, historians. We come at it from different perspectives and definitely do not advocate for any religious tradition. We think that studying religion is important, because most people in the world are religious, they belong to some traditional religion or nontraditional religion.

There's also this whole realm of new religious movements, which includes spirituality. A lot of people have a religious tradition but get rid of it, in favor of what they think are spiritual experiences, say via meditation, centering prayer or things like that. A lot of people consider themselves spiritual, but not religious, and that also fits into what we study. We study people's practices and beliefs and behaviors, and how they impact greater culture.

"When I started to look into people who have seen UFOs ... it's generally a transformative experience. And It's nothing like how it's portrayed in the movies. It's a lot stranger."

That said, we’re coming to this idea of how people think about the idea of the UFO. In 2012, I was one of these people that saw the UFOs as extraterrestrial vehicles, advanced technology from somewhere else, but I didn't believe in it. This is the stereotype we inherit from media technologies: films, social media, things that we share. All of us have grown up with some type of extraterrestrial media technology. It could be "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" or "Lost in Space." All of these informed our views of what a UFO is.

So when I started to look into people who have seen UFOs — they call themselves "experiencers" — or just people who've randomly seen UFOs, like pilots, it's generally a fairly transformative experience for them. And it's nothing like how it's portrayed in these movies. It's a lot stranger.

For people who have who see these routinely — and there are people who do — it's much different. I was shocked to find that the government was studying this. The first book I did was “American Cosmic" and I met people in programs who studied this, scientists at the top of their game, Gary Nolan at Stanford University being one of them.

This was shocking to me. It completely reoriented me to what is going on. I also did a study of the space program. I found that the people who were creating the rocket technologies that got us off this planet believed that they were in communication with non-human intelligences — on each side, Russia and the United States, each different. Russia had more of a Christian inflection, and people like Jack Parsons, in our program, thought of it in much more wild, esoteric ways, But they were definitely believing that they were in contact with non-human intelligences and these inspired their rocket calculations.

"We have something completely different now. This is a decentralized form of religion, that could only happen with the infrastructure that we have today."

I found that the United States space program didn't really want to talk about this at all. A lot of people in those programs didn't even know who Jack Parsons was. So there was a compartmentalization that was extreme. This is how I came to recognizing that there was a lot more here than what we inherit as a stereotype.

It would be foolish of the government not to study this phenomenon. So where do we go with that? If UFOs are a kind of new religious movement, it does not seem very organized. People aren't going to the UFO church down the street. So what are the implications of that?

I'm studying this as a new form of religion. We do have UFO religions where you can go to the UFO church, by the way. There have been UFO religions all throughout the 20th century. The Nation of Islam is a great example of a religion that was formed through its founders’ UFO experience and events. And the end of the world for them is happening, when the UFOs will come back and reshape social relations here on Earth. That's a religion here in the United States. It's all over the world right now.

There's also Raëlism, where you have a person who has a UFO experience, and we have millions of people who belong to this religion. So there are a lot of discrete UFO religions. But what I'm saying is, no, we have something completely different now. This is a decentralized form of religion that could only happen with the infrastructure that we have today, which is a technological infrastructure. People can identify that they have had these UFO experiences, go to specific social media sites like Reddit, Twitter or Instagram, and share their videos and experiences.

So this is reinforcing a belief. There's different types of belief, but it's still a religiosity. A lot of people who have these experiences are doing things that people in religious studies identify as rituals, practices, belief in beings that we consider to be higher, more advanced than us, or even malicious in some ways. So this is what I'm saying when when we're talking about a new form of religion.

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This is global. It transcends nation-states, whereas traditional religions were localized and regional. This is happening because of the shift in technological infrastructure. Before, we saw this with the Protestant Reformation, which would not have happened had we not had the printing press — a technological invention that networked people with information. We're seeing this supercharged at this point in time.

It's really interesting to me how UFO religion blurs the line between technology, science and spirituality. There's a hard line in Western culture between those things. But in a lot of other cultures, that's not really a thing. It's all one, and separating stuff as real, tangible, scientific or technological is just kind of arbitrary.

Carl Jung is a person who writes about this in the early 20th century. And he basically calls the image of the UFO the "technological angel," and says that this is, in a sense, religion and technology merging, which it has to do if religion is going to survive — it has to change shape. He begins to speak about it as a psychological appearance, like some kind of archetype.

You know, we're afraid of sentient AI [artificial intelligence]. Well, that's a form of non-human intelligence. So I think it's really interesting that at the same time that the UFO is getting prominence, we also see AI gaining prominence. A lot of the communities of people who created AI and were longtime AI creators, coders and things like this, their belief system was basically a UFO-type belief system. They did not believe that these were extraterrestrial. They believed they were interdimensional, which means that through AI, we're opening up new, non-space-time places of information and knowledge, and that this kind of interaction with this other intelligence was going to be happening.

I read that you're a practicing Catholic. I’m curious whether you have any thoughts about the idea that the government is hiding the truth about UFOs from the public because it would cause world religious organizations to panic or collapse or something. Is this really a genuine risk, what’s called “epistemological shock?” Or would most religions be able to adapt? Are we ready for some of these paradigm shifts that seem apparent?

A lot of people from the government have approached me and asked my opinion about how people in religious traditions will feel if the government comes out and says, “Yes, we've been studying UFOs and we believe that they exist.” And by the way, the government has done this many times and nobody's really gotten very upset about it. [Editor's note: To clarify, the U.S. government has acknowledged the existence of UAP, but says it has found no evidence they are extraterrestrial or non-human in origin.]

I basically think that religious traditions, or at least almost every religious tradition, have metaphysical categories for non-human intelligence, obviously. I think that it's secular people who don't understand this. There have been studies about people in religions and how they'll feel about it. They're totally fine with it. A lot of them already believe it.

So I think it's not going to create shock. I think that if the government [makes that claim], that's just a way for them not to share the information that they have, because if they have information it probably has to do with national security. And that's a legitimate reason not to share it, frankly. They don't have to make the excuse that religious people are gonna freak out about this.

It seems the whole culture of secrecy is kind of counterproductive, because people don’t speak out about it and we can’t figure out what UFOs are, systematically, which gives people room to make assumptions. I’m very wary of claims that UAP are aliens from another world, here to rescue us from our mistakes about climate change or war or whatever. That idea feels too familiar to the Christian apocalypse, replacing one with another. I feel like in some ways, the notion of apocalypse is just about shirking our responsibility as humans to take charge of what's happening on this planet.

I've studied apocalypse. There's obviously the apocalypse that evangelical Christians believe in, and that actually is different from the Catholic apocalypse. Even within the very large field of Christianity, different religions within that have different ideas of apocalypse, whereas some don't even have any.

Secular people also have apocalypses. There’s this idea of the zombie apocalypse. There's the idea of the climate change apocalypse, which is bolstered by scientific evidence. But it's very associated with the end of human history and time. So we've been living through this idea of apocalypse, no matter if we're religious or not.

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In fact, part of the reason why I started to study UFOs was because there was another apocalyptic prediction in 2011. My students were really worried. They were asking me — there was a man in California, I can't remember his name, who was predicting that the end time was coming and he was getting a lot of media attention. A lot of people were selling everything they had, taking their kids’ college funds and giving it to this man, because he was saying we had to do this to warn everybody that this was going to happen. Of course it didn't.

So I decided that I needed to give this class to my students, because they needed to know that apocalypses have been around for thousands of years, and nothing ever happens. Did you know that climate change has been around too? I don't want to say that, no, pollution is not happening and terrible things are not happening. No, they're happening. But climate changes have been around and have been documented, even here in the United States. There were people who immigrated here because of climate change in various European countries. They were unable to live in their country, so they immigrated here. So even climate change has been around. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't take it seriously. That just means that we need to have a broader idea.

There's a NASA historian named Steven J. Dick who has said that when humans are looking historically, they generally look at 1,000 years, 2,000 years, 10,000 years, something like that. He says we need to have cosmic time, so that we can understand maybe things in terms of millions or billions of years, so that we can begin to understand our place in the universe, we can become much more cosmologically aware.

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is Salon's science and health editor specializing in drug policy and pandemics.

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