UFOlogy, Religion, Tribalism, and That One Time I Saw a UAP
I sometimes wonder if people who know me from my previous work find my fascination with the UFO/UAP topic odd. In fact, when I was still working as a religious publisher, I got a lot of pushback when I would share even the most well-substantiated stories in serious publications about things like government and military disclosure of UAP encounters. There was a core contingent of folks who followed me who honestly believed that the phenomenon had to be demonic in origin, because they couldn’t find a way to make it fit with their soteriological views.
In one message I received, someone said to me, “If it is an alien race that evolved in some other solar system, then my entire Christian world view is in jeopardy.” Another attempted to explain the phenomenon as: “Either the ‘miracles’ of hell meant to confuse and confound or some country’s military tech tests. Either way, not aliens.” A third said that we had to accept the “metaphysical impossibility” of extra terrestrials.
One fellow tried to mansplain it to me as follows:
Intelligent, i.e. rational, aliens, would require that God ensouled another species of animal, but never told us about it. But if we are never meant to meet them, just maybe one might argue that it could be possible.
Visiting aliens would likely require rational aliens to travel for millions of years to reach us and mean that God wanted us to find out about them by surprise, as it were, and not a prophet. And the last thing is even more unlikely than the first, as astronomically unlikely that is.
“Certainly the Lord God does nothing unless He reveals His secret to His servants, the prophets.” Amos 3:70
I replied: “So what will you do if they show up? Tell them they don't exist?”
I suspect many of these folks might just try that.
These interactions, going back to that first New York Times article in 2017 that introduced former AATIP director Lue Elizondo to the public as he pushed for governmental disclosure, were one piece of the puzzle that was my rapidly-diminishing sense of faith. I had always bucked at the accusation, made by non-believers, that the Catholicism I loved was synonymous somehow with closed-mindedness or dark-age-dogmatism that took precedence over ascertainable truth. After all, I really believed in “fides et ratio” — faith and reason, working together. I believed in the notion that I was taught during my theology studies, namely, that while we might be required to have faith in things that reason couldn’t explain, it would never come to a contradiction between faith and reason.
The funny thing is, I have never claimed that I know extra terrestrials exist, or that they are behind the phenomenon. They may be. They may not. This is a mystery that intrigues and engages me, and I would like answers. I do claim, with the kind of certitude that can only be based upon known facts, that UFOs exist, that they appear to possess and utilize technology that defies the known laws of physics, and that our government, and others around the world, don’t know what they are. And that, to me, is worth spending time trying to get to the bottom of.
I found, to my dismay, that as more and more of my co-religionists showed up to tell me how the idea of extra terrestrials was a prima facie falsehood — a “metaphysical impossibility” that should not even be seriously considered — that the accusations about superstition and close-minded dogmatism weren’t just empty. To refuse to acknowledge the possibility that a thing could be real because your belief system assures you it cannot is an astonishing kind of intellectual dishonesty and epistemological arrogance. And the number of people taking this kind of position — some of them articulating rather well the theological reasoning behind it — only served to demonstrate that this was probably not just an aberration. Certain baked-in theological premises really did seem to preclude, at least by some interpretations, any real scientific curiosity on this topic. Of course, some of these same folks found it perfectly reasonable to also believe, with the backing of the Church, in things like Young Earth Creationism, which I find absolutely preposterous. And let’s not even get started on the jettisoning of anything like a scientific approach to understanding the intricacies of the COVID pandemic, which spiraled into countless conspiracy theories championed most strongly by many religious conservatives.
Each of these issues chipped away at my sense of belonging. How could I be part of a tribe so steadfastly closed off to curiosity, objectivity, and wonder? As my own prickly theological questions began to erode the supernatural side of my belief, these encounters contributed to my awakening to the realization that a great many of the people I had surrounded myself with were not, in fact, fellow travelers at all.
I have little doubt that some folks believe that I’ve replaced my former religion with UFOlogy. After all, these are people who believe that UFOs are a demonic manifestation, and for me to have lost my faith, while continuing to believe that the UAP phenomenon remains worth pursuing, is almost certainly a clear sign that I have fallen under demonic influence. This empowers them to click their tongues and shake their heads with rueful looks, adopting a posture of moral superiority as they pity me for my “fall from grace.”
But like theism, UFOlogy doesn’t get a free pass. Evidence must be examined. Theories and beliefs weighed and measured. At the end of the day, I’m not putting my faith in anything I can’t be sufficiently certain of. Nevertheless, truth is worth pursuing. And great mysteries are greatly compelling!
I’ve been interested in the UFO phenomenon since I was a kid. I remember getting books out of the library about Project Blue Book back in the 80s, and being so spooked by Whitley Streiber’s Communion that I put the book down and never picked it back up. (I must have been in middle school at the time.) I spent a lot of nights out looking at the stars, hoping to see something I couldn’t explain. I was a Star Wars kid (who also watched a lot of Stark Trek: TNG). I tuned into the X-Files every week, and fell in love with shows like Farscape. If I was reading a novel, it was always sci-fi. I was the first person in my entire social sphere to devour The Expanse — years before it became a big TV show. (It’s still my favorite book series of all time.)
My singular experience with a UFO — and I mean that in the most technical sense of the term — came in late 2001 or early 2002. The details, buried 20 years deep in my memory with no external documentation or corroboration, are somewhat hazy. I was in my hometown of Binghamton, NY, driving my bodacious blue 1990 Pontiac 6000 Safari Station Wagon with a beautiful young woman who would become my future wife riding shotgun. It was a cold day, winter or early spring, and overcast, probably early in the afternoon. I can’t remember where we were coming from, or where we were going to. I recall my youngest brother, who would have been 2 or 3 at the time, being with us in the car. My wife does not. What both of us do remember is something in the sky catching our attention. It was a black shape — it looked like a ribbon of silk, as I recall it — and it was undulating and contracting in the sky. It must have been around 500 feet off the ground, and it hovered there, changing shape, never ascending but never falling. At first, I thought it was a banner or some kind of fabric blown into the air by a gust of wind, but it managed to stay at roughly the same altitude, constantly moving in place, that it appeared to be under its own power. It was moving laterally, however, and we decided to follow it to see if we could get a better look. I think we must have chased it for half an hour, until it finally disappeared behind some trees in a neighborhood that we knew we’d probably never be able to get to the other side of in time to continue tracking it, and we let it go. At the time, there were no cell phone cameras, and although I had a VHS camcorder at home, I didn’t have anything with me that could have shot a video. Evidently, I also didn’t write anything about the experience down. It was one of those liminal experiences, the kind that make you wonder if you’re just being a silly kid chasing around a perfectly common object that only seems weird.
Thinking about it again this week, I decided to look in the National UFO Reporting Center database to see if anything similar had been reported during that time period. In October of 2001, something very similar was reported in New York City, described as a “Black, elongated shape-shifter” that was “floating/hovering” over Manhattan. The reporter said they first thought it was a “string of black balloons” but that the behavior was more like that of a living thing — this was the same impression I had with the thing I saw. Like a long, fairly wide, black ribbon that behaved like a surreal imitation of a bird. The reporter said that what he saw “Was jet black and appeared to be almost like a giant oarfish moving in the air in a twisting fashion. This thing had what seemed specific motions which were repeated over and over such as a sidewinder snake moves...deliberate and repetitive.” The reporter said that it moved quickly, then stopped and “danced” again, then moved and disappeared behind a building, where they lost sight of it.
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On October 30th, 2001, someone in Syracuse reported that “there was a full moon (or it looked full to us) and starting at the 4 or 5 on a clock going diagonally across the moon was a thin black line. It grew as it went across the very bright moon but stopped growing once it reached halfway then started to shrink back to nothing exiting at the 10:00/11:00 on a clock…It was the strangest thing I have seen in a long time.”
The only other entry I found that seemed to match was on the other end of the country, several years earlier. In Arizona, in 1994, someone reported that they saw a “constantly and rapidly changing black form like a hand opening up and closing or a windsock blowing observed against a complete cloud cover- stationery at the center of the sky (directly overhead).”
All of these descriptions were very similar to what I saw. On a whim, I started searching Google using descriptive words to see if anyone had captured a photo or video of this kind of phenomenon. Lo and behold, I found something that looked eerily similar (although it moves less) to what I’d seen all those years ago in a video shot in 2018 in New Jersey. (You may have to ignore the commentary, it’s a bit annoying - click here if the video doesn’t show):
As interesting as our little “UFO” encounter was, it was a singular, unprovable experience, and we moved on. The intervening years focused on trying to build a career and starting a family and all the rest of it, and though my interest in Science Fiction as entertainment never wavered, my interest in the topic of actual UFOs was drowned out by the feeling that the field was full of kooks and hoaxers. Plus, I was busy slinging hot, spicy, theological opinions, which had become my jam.
The 2017 story in the Times changed all that. I remember sitting in our large family van with the kids on one of those rare cloudy, rainy Arizona Sundays. We were sitting at a shopping center where I was waiting for my wife to emerge from a store, reading news stories on my phone. I’m pretty sure I actually said, “Holy Shit!” out loud in a car full of fresh-from-church children. The story included actual Department of Defense videos of US military pilots engaging with UFOs. Lue Elizondo came across immediately as serious and credible. I was hooked.
The next year, on a whim, I wound up watching Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers. I found myself unexpectedly compelled. Here was a man telling an almost unbelievable story about being recruited into a secretive government UFO reverse-engineering program, and not a single thing he said triggered my well-honed bullshit meter. From there, it was a cascade. Commander David Fravor and the “Tic Tac” encounter off the USS Nimitz. Gimbal and Go Fast. The drone swarm and trans-medium UAP recorded by sailors on the USS Omaha. The Wilson Memo. Testimony from former US Nuclear Weapons base personnel like Capt. Robert Salas and Capt. David Schindele about UFO-related tampering with missile bases that has been hidden under a veil of secrecy for decades. The Pentagon’s first unclassified report on UAPs. Congress’s first UFO hearings in half a century. Even, though I’m not sure it quite rises to the level of everything else on the list, The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch.
The rabbit hole, as they say, goes deep. But more and more credible witnesses add their names to the pile of those pushing for more investigation and disclosure. In addition to Elizondo and others already named, there’s Christopher Mellon, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; Garry Nolan, a widely-respected immunologist and Nobel Prize-nominee at Stanford University School of Medicine who holds 40 patents and has founded several companies based on his inventions; NASA director Bill Nelson; and a number of qualified military and intelligence personnel from around the world. Journalists, academics, podcasters, and documentarians are all over the issue too - Ross Coulthart, Bryce Zabel, Jeremy Corbell, James Fox, Joe Rogan, Lex Fridman, Curt Jaimungle, Eric Weinstein, Avi Loeb, and Diana Walsh Pasulka, to name a few. (This is off the top of my head, so I’m probably missing some notables.)
Perhaps the most important upshot of all of this attention is that there’s a push going on right now to make it possible for whistleblowers to come forward — even when constrained by nondisclosure agreements — to share what they know about the phenomenon, including evidence they may possess. The House voted in July to approve a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to this effect. There’s a real hope that folks like Elizondo, who has talked about having seen more than he is allowed to discuss, will be able to finally come forward.
To stay apprised, I follow a number of UFO-related Twitter accounts, because that seems to be the fastest path to learning about new developments as they happen. What I find somewhat bizarre is that the same kind of ideological factionalism I got sick of dealing with as a player in religious media is heavily present in the modern-day online UFO community. Though on first glance, one would think the UAP-curious would have a vested interest in working together to help solve the mystery, free of dogma and internecine warfare, this is clearly not the case. Endless pissing matches and personality conflicts rumble through the community, the #ufotwitter and #uaptwitter hashtags plagued with high-school level drama as debunkers, deceivers, and demagogues all try to carve out their own chunk of territory in this somewhat niche-but-quickly-growing area of interest.
From where I stand, as a relative newbie to this space (despite my decades-long interest), I see a lot of people who should be blocked, muted, or otherwise ignored. There is no “pope” of UFOlogy, no single authoritative figure who commands reflexive assent, or from whom dissent is tantamount to schism or heresy. Doctrinal purity tests should be impossible in a movement without doctrines, and yet the tribal motif in human evolutionary psychology manages to find a way. In my opinion, those who move the issue forward, acting like professionals while offering well-considered commentary, helpful informaiton, and a push for disclosure, are the ones to follow. Others can and should be safely ignored.
There really is a sense that this issue is building to a crescendo. The number of videos of sightings in the wild is higher than it’s probably ever been, with the proliferation of cell phone cameras. Although as I note below, the limitations of our technology still hinder our ability to capture what we might see:
Limitations or not, it’s a fascinating and exciting time for those who can’t help looking up at the stars, or at the images of countless galaxies being pulled in by the new James Webb telescope (see below), and wonder how it’s possible for us to be truly alone in the vast, unfathomable expanse of universe that’s out there.
Truth is, I think I look up more now than I ever did, even as a kid. Maybe, one of these days, I’ll catch a glimpse of something that’s looking back.