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Extraterrestrial Life
Do UFOs Say More About Us than Extraterrestrial Life?

Religious studies scholar David Halperin says UFOs are symptomatic of our collective fears.

It has been over three years since The New York Times  broke the news that U.S. Navy pilots in 2004 encountered an object flying at inexplicable speeds over the Pacific Ocean. On June 4, The Times broke another UFO story, this time reporting leaked information from a Pentagon report on the recently renamed unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), revealing that its authors had not found evidence of alien spacecraft, but still could not explain the sightings. The resulting media craze led NBC to proclaim that, “After 75 years of taboo and ridicule … serious people are finally talking seriously about the unidentified flying objects people see in the skies.”

Definitive explanations for the UFOs have yet to emerge, but David Halperin, retired professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, thinks we are asking the wrong questions.

David Halperin

Last year, Halperin published Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO, a scholarly book that analyzes the UFO as a religious, cultural, and psychological phenomenon. In it, he writes, “The central question that needs to be asked about them [UFOs] isn’t, what are they? or where do they come from? or, conversely, how can any sensible person believe such rubbish? The question is, what do they mean?”

According to Halperin, whether UFOs are in fact alien spacecraft, secret government technology or merely natural phenomena is irrelevant to the subjective meaning people project onto them. The latter, he claims, tells us far more about our culture.

Halperin theorizes that the emergence of the UFO is intertwined with the birth of the atomic age. In 1947, reeling from the carnage of the Second World War and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first sightings of the modern UFO era occurred. The most notorious took place at Roswell, New Mexico, where a flying saucer piloted by small, bulbous-headed aliens supposedly crash-landed and was taken by the U.S. military. The 509th Bomb Group, headquartered at Roswell Army Airfield nearby, scavenged the wreckage, which it claimed was a weather balloon. Coincidence or not, it was also the only unit of any military to be entrusted with nuclear weapons.

“The most basic meaning of the UFO for us is as a representation of death, of our mortality,” said Halperin. “I do not think it is a coincidence that the UFO era began in June 1947, the same month that The Doomsday Clock first appeared on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The UFO era began when we began to grasp that we were facing a new type of death, which was not just your death or my death, but the death of all of humanity, the death of God, in a nuclear holocaust.”

Visions of the end of the world have always existed in human cultures, but until recently they entailed the deliberate intervention of a benevolent god — a judgment day, after which a new heaven and Earth would follow. But the vision of total annihilation, Halperin says, is unique to the modern UFO era.

The religious undertones in modern UFO culture have often become overt. In A.D. After Disclosure: When the Government Finally Reveals the Truth About Alien Contact, a 2012 speculative nonfiction book, journalist and screenwriter Bryce Zabel and historian Richard M. Dolan claim that when official revelations of UFOs controlled by extraterrestrial life come to light, history will begin again, split between B.C. (Before Confirmation) and A.D. (After
Disclosure). At that moment, the authors predict, Congress will hold Watergate-style hearings to interrogate the conspirators, abductees will file a class-action suit against the government for withholding information and a decade of rapid cultural and societal change will be ushered in like a high-tech replay of the 1960s.

While many UFO enthusiasts hope the upcoming Pentagon report will mark the dawn of such a new era, The Times’ early reporting of leaked information suggests otherwise.

Today, Roswell has built a cottage industry out of its alien mythology, but the UFO has gripped the nation’s imagination at large with films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Men in Black” and “Arrival.” An Aug. 2019 Gallup Poll found that one-third of Americans think some UFOs that people have spotted have been alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies.

Only recently, however, did speculation about visitations from extraterrestrial life become mainstream in the media.

“December 2017 was the turning point,” Halperin says. “That was the month that The New York Times, which had always been contemptuous of UFOs, all of a sudden did an about-face and ran twin articles about the Pentagon’s secret UFO program and the first of the peculiar videos taken by Navy pilots [of the now infamous “Tic Tac” UFOs]. With that, UFOs entered the realm of the respectable.”

Although the Defense Department’s secret UFO monitoring program dates to the 2000s, their recent explosion into mainstream culture in the form of aliens, heralded by The Times and bolstered by the Pentagon, was a symptom of a new sense of imminent catastrophe, Halperin believes. Whereas the prospect of nuclear war spawned the first UFO, the threat of climate change has resurrected it, and the twin disruptions of Donald Trump’s election and the coronavirus pandemic popularized it.

“I think these fears accelerated after the 2016 election when we elected a president who was quite nakedly contemptuous of the warnings of the dangers that lay ahead,” he says. “UFOs have, if you’ll forgive the expression, soared into the stratosphere at the time that we have confronted a real alien invader with a different set of initials — COVID, and not UFO. I think our fascination with UFOs now is a way of responding to that alien invasion.”

Halperin draws from the philosophy of Carl Jung, the famed 20th-century founder of analytical psychology, to inform his approach to UFO culture. Jung argued that certain universal themes exist across all human cultures and manifest differently in specific times and places. The flying saucer and the small green alien are, according to Halperin, examples of such manifestations. Scholars have argued for the explanatory power of archetypal concepts in scientific disciplines like psychobiology and neurophysiology, though Jung’s theories remain controversial.

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