What would religious leaders do if aliens showed up?

For UFO believers, Luis “Lue” Elizondo—the former director of the now defunct Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a Defense Department project tasked with investigating reports of unidentified aerial phenomena—is like a prophet coming down the mountain. He claims to have seen the burning bush (i.e., classified, up-close, high-definition images of UFOs), and his every utterance sparks feverish interpretation in the cloisters of the UFOs subreddit and UFO Twitter.

2021 has been a busy year in the UFO sphere, and thus a busy year for Elizondo. On June 25, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated and baffling report on unidentified aerial phenomena, also known as UAP. In the weeks leading up to the report’s release, Elizondo tantalized audiences on cable TV and social media. On NBC News: “We’re 99 percent sure it’s not foreign adversarial technology, so that only leaves one other option. It’s someone or some things else.” On 60 Minutes: “I’m telling you it’s real. The question is ‘What is it?’ ‘What are its intentions?’ ‘What are its capabilities?’ ”

The report itself was more tentative in its language. Of the 144 incidents reviewed by the task force, 143 remain unexplained. It said that most of the UAP in question “probably do represent physical objects,” and a handful “appear to demonstrate advanced technology,” executing high-speed maneuvers without visible means of propulsion. “We don’t know exactly what they are,” former President Barack Obama admitted in a May late-night interview. “We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory.”

The question of what UAP are is intertwined with what they might mean. Three days before the report’s release, while appearing on a June 23 podcast, Elizondo answered a well-posed question—“If the general public knew or saw what you saw … what would the next week look like? How would the public react?”—with a muted bombshell. “Somber,” he said. “I think there would be this big exhale for about a day. And then this turning inward and trying to reflect on what this means for our species and to ourselves.” He continued, “I think you would have some people turning to religion. You might have some people turning away from it.”

Elizondo isn’t quite saying aliens, not out loud anyway, but his message is clear enough: UFOs are of intelligent, nonhuman origin. Skeptics bristle at the ufologist’s tendency to leap from unidentified objects to otherworldly intelligence(s), whether it’s extraterrestrial A.I., interdimensional travelers, or glitches in the simulation; to entertain such fantastic speculations is too muchtoo soon for the majority of scientists. Even still, Americans want to believe in aliens now more than ever, according to polls by Gallup and Pew Research. Why wait for the fruits of SETI’s radio searches or NASA’s astrobiology research when the answer to life, the universe, and everything might be hovering just off the coast of Virginia?

What should we make of this “new form of religiosity,” as D.W. Pasulka, author of American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, has described the most recent wave of UFO mania? And if intelligent beings were to show up—in the lower atmosphere of our planet or in the upper atmosphere of another, perhaps as revealed by the soon-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope—how would it affect Americans’ feelings about mind and matter, about the soul and the world, in an increasingly irreligious culture?

To hazard a guess, I spoke with religious leaders and thinkers about the possibility of space-faring intelligent life and how UFOs fit into Americans’ evolving belief systems—now and in the future.

When I raised the possibility of extraterrestrial life to Reggie Blount, a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he shared a verse from the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians: “We look through a mirror dimly.” For Blount and many Christians, the full reality of God’s creation will be forever obscure to human beings, like opaque glass. As Blount sees it, in a universe containing a potentially infinite number of galaxies, aliens may very well exist. “But,” he emphasizes, “I don’t think other intelligent beings would change our relationship to God.”

Blount’s perspective aligns with most of the clergy with whom I spoke. For the planet’s 4 billion monotheists, there are two planes of existence: one constituting material reality and another inhabited by a loving God who exists outside (and yet also paradoxically within) time and space. For Christians, Muslims, and Jews, UFOs and even aliens are fascinating, to be sure, but they needn’t represent a major disruption to a metaphysical system in which the fundamental dichotomy between God and the world is already and permanently decided.  The universe may contain undiscovered, extravagant life forms, but the accompanying theological challenges—about the breadth of creation, the possibility of conversion, the moral status of nonhumans—need not threaten a monotheistic picture that’s always been multidimensional. Pope Francis, for his part, has said he would baptize an extraterrestrial who asked for it: “Who are we to close doors?”

Jimmy Akin, an expert on Catholic theology and the host of Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World, a podcast that examines “fascinating phenomena in the physical world” from a Catholic perspective, said that “if there are intelligent aliens, they are simply other creatures of God. We should learn about them and their place in God’s plan.” He continued, “We know that God has created other intelligent creatures: the angels—in fact several different kinds of angels.” As for UFOs, Akin echoed what was a familiar refrain in my conversations with religious thinkers “I’m open to wherever the evidence goes.”

Imam Asad Zaman, the executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, was less tentative on the question of unidentified flying objects: “I think people equating UFOs with extraterrestrial life is definitely a stretch.” But, he said, the discovery of extraterrestrial life wouldn’t be problematic for most Muslims. After all, the Quran specifically names God the creator of worlds, plural. Zaman went on to paraphrase a few lines from the 56th surah of the Quran: “I swear by the station of the stars, and if you only knew how big of an oath that was.” “Of course,” Zaman said, “we now understand the nature and scale of the galaxies. This allows us to contemplate that the creation of God is much bigger than we can fathom.”

In his book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life, astronomer David Weintraub describes this capacity of modern religions to evolve and adapt: “Historically, some religions have shown that they have enough theological dexterity to survive the regular challenges to doctrine and belief that emerge from humankind’s increasingly sophisticated knowledge about the natural world (e.g., despite its very public spat with Galileo, the Roman Catholic Church has adapted to the scientific knowledge that the Earth orbits the Sun).” According to Weintraub, with the exception of a few fundamentalist sects, the Big Three religions “are robust enough to accommodate the paradigm-busting news that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would present.” Beyond those, a number of Eastern religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, already explicitly posit other worlds and sentient beings.

This isn’t to say that uncomfortable theological challenges do not exist, especially for the Abrahamic religions and their offshoots. Rabbi Sam Kaye of the Temple in Atlanta told me that he didn’t know if aliens could become Jewish, on account of their potentially lacking the necessary (ahem) anatomy to be circumcised. Southern Baptists and other evangelicals believe that Christ is the only way to eternal salvation and that human beings maintain a special relationship with God; it’s easy to see how ETs might represent an unwelcome third party. In his book, Weintraub raises a fascinating problem for Muslims, who would likely be eager to proselytize to aliens: “If extraterrestrials exist and live at a great remove from Earth, how would they determine the direction of Mecca, five times every day, for prayer?”

These issues might explain in part why the faithful aren’t especially interested in thinking or talking about UFOs and aliens. But I also suspect that religions have simply become more secularized and scientifically minded than is often assumed by outsiders. A number of clergy were hesitant to speak with me, and those who did struck me as cautious and uneager to speculate without better evidence. At times, I was reminded of something the British Reform rabbi Lionel Blue once said: “The secular world is more spiritual than it thinks, just as the ecclesiastical world is more materialist than it cares to acknowledge.” Sometimes, in other words, the pious play the role of the skeptics—and vice versa. On the question of aliens, your neighborhood pastor is more likely to affiliate with the “Out There?” crowd—punting the idea of ETs a few light-years into the depths of outer space—than fall down the “They’re here!” rabbit hole. Rabbi Adam Bellows, of the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, shared his own statement of purpose: “My Judaism inspires me to get to know the universe, and science is how I do that.” As for UFOs, Bellows demurred, invoking Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is the best one.

Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester and a practicing Buddhist, recently argued that while “UFOs sightings, which date back to at least 1947, are synonymous in the popular imagination with evidence of extraterrestrials … scientifically speaking, there is little to warrant that connection.” In my conversation with Frank, he emphasized the fallacy of searching for aliens close to home when possibly inhabited exoplanets beckon: “You wouldn’t look for Manhattanites somewhere other than Manhattan!”

What about the so-called religious “nones,” the rapidly growing number of Americans who don’t believe in God? And what about the “kind-ofs,” the churchless Protestants, the “raised Catholics,” and the cultural Jews who don’t attend services and for whom religion is more of an inherited abstraction than a lived experience? It turns out that nonbelievers are the ones doing most of the magical thinking when it comes to extra-, intra-, and ultraterrestrial beings.

Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University, wrote in a New York Times op-ed: “People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.”

There are likely far more nonreligious people in the United States than self-reported surveys suggest. Knowingly or not, the nones (and I’d bet many of the kind-ofs too) subscribe to a worldview known as scientific materialism, which posits matter and energy—the physical universe—as all there is. The materialist paradigm was captured most poetically by Carl Sagan (“We are star stuff”) and most dramatically by Friedrich Nietzsche (“God is dead”). But, however it’s phrased, scientific materialism isn’t exactly psychologically satisfying. A gnawing spiritual hunger, what the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls “this incredible need to believe,” compels human beings, along a thousand different streams, toward a nonhuman intelligence who knows more than we do.

Here’s Routledge again: “[B]ecause beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.”

Where the pastor’s sermon once gave hope, now it’s podcasters asking particle physicists, “What do you think about aliens, man?” Where religious revivals once held Americans’ attention, now it’s grainy YouTube videos of flying somethings. Whatever they are, UAP are objects of immense wonder for millions: faceless, flying triangles and Tic Tacs that may just hold the key to reality if only they’d just sit still. What if, the nonbelievers wonder, a higher power represents something far stranger than the old prophets could’ve imagined?

For now, UAP remain a mystery, one that will continue to hold considerably more power for the metaphysically undecided. When I asked Adam Frank (who, I should emphasize, is skeptical about UFOs) how he’d explain Buddhism to an alien, he offered a succinct response: “I would say that Buddhism is just this. It’s a religion that focuses on exactly what’s happening: nothing more.” I suspect believers and nonbelievers alike would do well to go with the Buddhists on this one and regularly take measure of a universe that’s at once perplexing and comprehensible. Something’s happening—in the skies, in our souls, or both, or neither, depending on whom you ask—and everyone’s this deserves a fair hearing.

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