“Shooting Down Souls… Good Luck with That”: Some Paradoxical Thoughts on the UFO Phenomenon from a Historian of Religions

Author’s Note: The present essay was written for the inaugural event of the Sol Foundation, Stanford University, School of Medicine, November 17-18, 2023. Of course, I do not speak for or represent the Sol Foundation in any way here. The following thoughts are my own. – Dr. Jeffrey Kripal

This event feels “historic” to me. I want to begin with some reflection on it, more specifically on the relationship between this event and what we have been trying to do at my own institution, Rice University, over the last few years. I have in fact hosted two related events, in 2022 and 2023, to the same size of audience and to a similar level of excitement. These conferences emerged from our Archives of the Impossible, a broad research project dedicated to exploring anomalous phenomena across the university and its present order of knowledge and grounded in an actual physical archive that Jacques Vallee himself initiated around 2014. At present, there are some 15 collections and well over one million documents in the expanding archive. If my memory serves, it was in 2014, in Berkeley, California, where Jacques first spoke to me about placing his files and case studies in a university archive, and he had just met with a geneticist from Stanford named Garry Nolan about their shared research interests. So there are numerous conceptual, historical, and personal connections at work here.

The precise relationship between these two university-based initiatives hit me hard over the past few days as I took in the astonishing physics, movement, and luminosity of the observed craft and the chemical and atomic analyses of ejected UFO material, their obvious manufactured natures, and their anomalous isotopes. The same relationship became even clearer to me as I listened to the talk of Vallee for this conference event, “The UFO Phenomenon: A Genuine Scientific Problem.”

If I may paraphrase the talk, Jacques spoke of seven categories of strangeness. He explained to this audience that the sciences work on the first three, which involve physical material that can be analyzed and studied, as has been modeled here with such impressive success. Jacques cautioned us, however, that we err if we believe that this is the full UFO phenomenon. We essentially fall into a category error or confirmation bias, since we are looking at only what can be studied with our present scientific epistemologies and technologies. We are confusing what is there with what we can understand with our cognitive methods.

The UFO phenomenon is these first three categories, yes, but it also the remaining four, and it is precisely these that are often not talked about and not reported, much less studied, largely because of their inherent strangeness or anomalous relationship to our present way of thinking and being. If I may venture a guess here, it is not that they have not yet been studied scientifically. It is rather that they cannot be. Something else, an entirely new order of knowledge, is being called for.

It struck me listening to Jacques that the humanities at their bravest, and especially the study of religion at its furthest reaches, in fact specialize in studying exactly these, that is, the strangest stuff on the other end of the spectrum–categories 5, 6, and 7. This does not mean that the humanities as presently conceived and practiced are our answer; or that they are in any way sufficient. I do not believe that. But at least some of us try. And that, I realized, is the relationship of the two university-based initiatives. We can do the fundamental science and the public policy at Stanford–categories 1, 2, and 3. We can do the weird stuff at Rice–categories 5, 6, and 7. The inquiries are very different ones with vastly different materials and methods, but they are also very much related. They must be. That unity or shared quest is likely a part of the new order of knowledge that I hear Jacques Vallee calling for. If nothing else, it is a beginning.

So let me begin on that same shared spectrum of strangeness . . . .

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I am grateful to speak to you all at this inaugural conference of the Sol Foundation. I hope I can add something helpful and hopeful here at the end–an accent, perhaps, or a caution, perhaps even a superhuman future.

I want to begin by defining my perspective, since it blinds me to some things (especially technological possibilities), even as it brings other things into sharp focus (especially religious or spiritual possibilities). One cannot see a star through a microscope. And one cannot see a cell through a telescope. The lenses through which we see are focusing and limiting at the same time. Put differently, both the telescope and the microscope possess lenses that are intentionally distorted so that we can see at a particular level for specific purposes. So too with our professional frameworks. They are distortions of the lenses, but these disciplinary foci are also very helpful, and in fact they are necessary to see anything at all.

What I will say today is a kind of massive hunch or overwhelming intuition–largely unconscious, but not entirely so–based on reading thousands of pages of books and archival materials and engaging in hundreds of hours of conversations with experiencers and researchers from the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. I come to this practice with almost four decades of teaching and writing the history of religions. We might define the latter intellectual-spiritual discipline as the comparative study of humanity’s religious experience from the prehistoric cave paintings of Europe to today’s near-death or abduction experience, with a special focus on altered states of consciousness. It is out of this historical, comparative, and altered perspective that I will write of what Peter Skafish calls “signs that are given off by the x” of the UFO.

X, indeed. Signs, indeed.

I have six things I wish to say.

1. Signs of the UFO: It’s about Scale

The first thing I want to say is that the signs of the UFO extend over immense ranges of space and time, certainly across the entire globe and throughout that tiny slice of memory that we call human history, and probably much further back. Any individual contact or abduction experience in the contemporary world is a mere moment in this larger hyperobject or super-presence. Precisely because of this immensity, the UFO cannot be fully fathomed in any of its recent manifestations. We can only intuit something of its hyper-presence from a much larger perspective that is at once comparative and historical.

A number of corollaries follow. One is that no single individual can possibly fathom this. It is going to take large teams, really entire disciplines over many generations. I continue to think that higher education is our best hope here, although these institutions have major limitations and fault lines that I do not want to deny. It is entirely possible that the UFO inquiry can only be done effectively outside social institutions like higher education, but such a necessity will guarantee the subject’s marginalization and require a constant re-invention of the wheel. It will also result in endless, and dysfunctional, levels of secrecy. I do not think we have time for that.

Another related corollary involves public policy: any nation-state that approaches the UFO as a potential “threat” to its present national security, much less conceives of a program whose very purpose is to “destroy” or “shoot down” the anomaly, may be perceiving something of the situation (since the UFO as physical object is not “ours” and may well represent a potential safety problem for aviators), but little or nothing at all of the potential meaning of the fuller superpresence, which does not appear to be restricted to any local politics or air space. Obviously, our arbitrary borders mean nothing to the UFO. It “violates” them at will, and effortlessly.

This rather obvious fact need not be bad news. It may in fact be very good news. This relegation of our present national identities to a secondary status, even a potential irrelevance is, after all, very much apiece with the UFO’s consistent concerns over ecological collapse, nuclear armament, and dystopian apocalypse. Still, public policies are as important as working political responses. What we desperately need is moral, scientific, and, frankly, spiritual leadership beyond our present borders and boundaries. The U.S. is poised to provide part of this leadership, but only if it can embrace its rich combinative legal logic, affirm its immigrant or “alien” nature, acknowledge and mourn its colonizing and enslaving pasts, and affirm again its historical refusal to bow to any religious absolute.

Such historical observations are not tangential, nor are they political “opinions.” They are historical facts of immense importance and implication. Indeed, the postcolonial reading of the UFO has been with us at least since Charles Fort observed in the second and third decades of the twentieth century that these “super-constructions in the sky,” as he called them, may have an eventual effect not unlike the strange ships that showed up in the harbors of the eastern seaboard of the “new world,” a series of events for which the indigenous populations simply lacked the categories to fathom, much less the technology to defend themselves against what was coming–settler colonialism and the endless violences and displacements that come in its wake.

I am also thinking of the ways that abductions might be read as a replication on a spectral plane of the earlier physical abduction by ships of the Atlantic slave trade. The alien abductions, in other words, take place within a deep historical context, and they are experienced radically differently by different racial, ethnic, and historical communities. That should tell us something important about the understandable anxieties around the topic, especially around the lack of moral agency in many of the encounters and contacts. They are not called “abductions” for nothing.

One can often detect something of the multi-faceted leadership I am imagining in the experiencers. I take it as significant, for example, that one of our most recent experiencers, Matthew Roberts–the U.S. Naval Service Member who was stationed on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt for the 2015 “Go Fast” radar video and later transferred to the Office of Naval Intelligence–understands the phenomenon to be fundamentally initiatory in its dynamics and spiritual in nature whose aim is a kind of unconditional love for all human beings, regardless of national politics, ethnicity, or religion. This is the sort of leadership I am talking about.

I fully understand that the vast majority of individuals are not ready for this type of “flip” into who they are before and beyond their constructed identities (there is an understatement). I understand that most people think that they are their psychological, national, and religious egos–their surface selves. This is probably the deepest provocation of the UFO–its utter disregard for our constructed local egos and the degree to which it abolishes or transcends them. There is immense potential here, but only if we are willing to surrender these righteous selves and create new public policy that constitutes a more humane and global worldview.

2. It’s about Technology

The second thing I want to observe is that the UFO has taken on special urgency precisely because of our human technology. With new advances in radar, sonar, and satellite capabilities, we are seeing what was probably always there in the environment but was generally invisible. Put more bluntly, these things are not new, but our technological abilities to see them are.

It also needs to be said: many of our present global crises around ecological degradation and nuclear holocaust are precisely because of our sciences and technologies. I do not think it is an accident at all that the UFO shows such anxious interest in our warplanes (the famous “foo fighters” of World War II) and nuclear installations. So the statement “It’s about technology” is doubly meant.

Or triply. The total UFO event, after all, seems to possess both a material, technological, or physical and a mental, spiritual, or paranormal dimension. I do not want to be heard as denying that what we are dealing with here includes craft of some kind. I want to affirm that, but I also want to emphasize that the total UFO phenomenon (all seven degrees of its strangeness, to invoke Vallee’s model again) clearly violates our present ways of dividing reality up into “mind” and “matter,” into “subjectivity” and “objectivity.” I continue to think that this fundamental nonduality is the phenomenon’s ultimate power and provocation–the signs of its x.

Any discussion of “technology,” then, should take into account this fundamental both-and. It does not, of course. We continue to think in terms of our machines, our technology, our weapons. We hear about “back-engineering” and “craft.” We even hear of “biologics.” And then we slice off the spiritual or paranormal dimensions, pretending that they do not exist or do not matter. This is wrong. Diana Pasulka has been a clarion voice here, urging us to think of technology and the UFO in spiritual as well as material terms. Her voice, I think, has not been sufficiently heard or integrated, particularly by those who want to think only in terms of “now we have proof,” by which they mean, “now we have physical stuff.”

I should also add here that our present realizations around AI will likely have a major impact on our ability to understand the UFO itself, which has for decades included descriptions of the “robotic” ways that the beings are said to move or interact with humans (hey, I wouldn’t walk into a tribe of angry apes, either; I would send an expendable AI entity). Put a bit differently, AI gives us a new way of imagining and picturing what is going on, much as modern cosmology, hyperdimensional mathematics, and evolutionary biology have done so in other contexts. People do not go “up” into heaven now (we know there is no “up”). They move into “other dimensions” or “evolve” into other forms of consciousness. Science, or science fiction, has changed us.

The present case of the UFO, AI, evolution, and modern notions of space travel can be compared in some ways to the modern near-death experience, which is also heavily dependent on recent biomedical technology: people are now being “brought back” from much further into the death process. As a consequence, they are remembering more, and they are saying more. One result is a new genre of mystical literature–the near-death experience literature.

The UFO and near-death experience, then, are, in some sense, unintended but quite real consequences of modern technology. To be more precise, the two related phenomena cannot be reduced to or explained by the technologies involved, but they also cannot be experienced on a broad level without them. Of course, there were examples of both the “near-death experience” and the “UFO” before the biomedical, radar, sonar, and satellite technologies, but they were relatively rare. Not anymore.

The question of recovered bodies or “biologics” presses the case even more directly. This would indeed force our hand, as it were, make us lay our philosophical cards on the table (maybe even become more aware that we are playing such cards). Those cards assume an objectified and measurable physicalism or materialism (in which mind or consciousness is not really real), but also a type of anthropocentrism, or the idea that human beings are at the apex or center of the evolved cosmos and that our senses (and their sciences) should somehow be prioritized as uniquely corresponding to the natural world. Neither of these assumptions–the scientistic materialism nor the sense-based anthropocentrism–are adequate to the full complexity or “high strangeness” of what is actually going on.

In the words of my colleague William Parsons, such a realization, particularly one that involves biologics, would constitute a “fourth blow” to human egoism, after the Copernican, Darwinian, and psychoanalytic revolutions that relegated the conscious ego from the center of the universe (Copernicus), from the intended consequences of biology (Darwin), even from the conscious or psychological control of itself (Freud). This would be yet another blow that removes us from us, as it were. Maybe that is ultimately a good thing.

3. It’s about Religion

This brings me to my third point, which, obviously, is my main point: the history of religions can be very helpful but also very misleading with respect to the signs of the UFO. Religion is the elephant in our living room. This rather obvious fact is dismissed under the intellectual cop-out that is “woo.” To the extent that we use this word and what it represents (a refusal to theorize it), we cannot grasp what is at stake, what these events mean or portend. This does not mean that “religion” is our answer. I am not saying that. I am saying something much more doubled and nuanced. Hear me out.

The history of religions is very helpful to the extent that the religions give powerful and consistent witness to something transcendent to our ordinary human experience, something Other than the social human or rational mind, even from the natural world as commonly understood, and so potentially and utterly transformative of society and the self. Cosmologically speaking, the religions commonly place this transcendent Other in the sky, the heavens, or the stars, which they often understand in fully physical terms. The similarities to the UFO are obvious. I often joke about “weird beings coming down from the sky and messing with humans–that’s called religion.” The joke is meant as a joke, but there is a comparative argument in the smile.

But we have to be very careful and precise about that comparative argument, and most people are not. They assume their own belief system, their own worldview, whatever that worldview happens to be: religious or secular, or probably a little of both.

It should be stressed at this point that many of the intellectuals and prodigies of the religions have been very aware of the basic incommensurability of a NHI (nonhuman intelligence) with human cognition and quite adept at translation and mediation of the human response. But–and here is the difficult part–these very translations are often not accepted by the believing public. This is one reason the word “mystical” (mustikos) means, quite literally, “secret.” It is not that there is some kind of whispered content that could be shared but is held back, some power game: “I have the secret, and you don’t.” It is rather that this form of knowledge is not communicable unless the listener is ready, has the requisite experience, and has “ears to hear,” as the ancient Jewish rabbi once put it. Few do, of course.

As Nietzsche put the same matter (he called it “esoteric”), what will be heard in most such cases is nothing at all. The teaching will sound nonsensical, absurd–in a word, impossible. That is because that which is being spoken is impossible within the categories of the reigning order of knowledge. We are talking about a different state of consciousness, a changed human being, and different types of bodies.

I think the physical aspects of religion, including and especially what I want to call “the physics of mystics” (the really, really strange stuff–think human levitation or precognition), have been vastly underestimated in the present regime of knowledge. Human bodies in the history of religions do all sorts of superhuman things: levitate, bilocate, know the physical future, and experience different types of conscious energy, to name just a few. These (of course) have often been read as legendary exaggerations. Exaggerations they often are, of course, but that does not mean that there is not something being exaggerated, some core truth behind the glowing tales.

I was once asked to lecture at MIT about two things: human levitation and UFOs. So I did. I think they are indeed related in their anti-gravitational properties. People do levitate. They do “fly.” And they do so silently, inexplicably, almost always in altered states over which they have little if any control. We have no way of understanding any of this in our present order of knowledge. It is simply impossible, and yet there it is.

It is also relevant that the religions are often very suspicious of the apparitional content of visionary experience, even often of experience itself, since “experience” implies a subject knowing an object, and both are being transcended or overcome here (there is philosophical sophistication). The ufological literature generally lags far behind in that it possesses little systematic understanding of the levels or types of visions, apparitions, encounters, and mystical communions, much less a theorization of experience itself. As a result, its understanding of what is actually happening is too often naive and simplistic.

My point? That we have much to learn from what we already know, that is, from the historical past; but that we have to be very careful with that past–and very suspicious. What we are often dealing with in the ufological materials is what Christian theology would call demonology or, in other more positive or transformative modes, angelology–basically, entities that are not human beings, have different types of bodies, and are not “God.” Such entities have been given multiple interpretations in the religions, but the demonic beings in particular are generally seen as fairly low within the total ecology of the religions, even “below” the living human. This does not mean that this is what such entities in fact are. We also have to remember that both the soul and its double have been called “demons.” The demon, or daimon, is in fact an ancient figure of immense importance and nuance. Calling something “demonic,” then, solves nothing at all. It only reveals one’s limiting assumptions, and probably one’s theology.

Things are different again today, but not entirely different. In the modern ufological literature, for example, the beings are often considered future humans, an interpretation to which I am much drawn and find intuitively persuasive. Future humans, moreover, often take on demonic or even “evil” qualities with respect to modern humans, for example, in the coming superhumans (Übermensch) of Friedrich Nietzsche. Indeed, I happen to think that one of our big mistakes in these realms is that we are imagining the UFO in spatial terms (I hear this kind of thinking whenever some astronomer observes that the distances are too great for interstellar travel) and not in temporal ones (they are from another time, not another star system).

My point is not to opt for a particular model–angels, aliens, or future superhumans. My point is that, even within the religious traditions themselves, far above the demons or “aliens,” and very much within the reach of living human beings, are the mystical experiences of unity, communion, emptiness, enlightenment, liberation, deification (becoming a god, or becoming an angel), and physical metamorphosis that are understood to be the real purpose and goal of human life. We do not need to sign our names to any of these particular belief systems, but we should learn from their attempts at ordering the anomalies and affirming both the physical and spiritual natures of the beings involved.

Many of the altered states of the history of religions, moreover, are inherently “apophatic,” that is, they “say away” (apo-phasis) what has been said or believed by the surrounding public or culture within the religious register, which generally understands the deity as an “object” or “being” that can be approached and engaged as such. Here we return to the basic nonduality of mind and matter that I hinted at above.

These apophatic experiences are non-translatable into sensory or rational means (which, of course, rely on the same subject/object structure), much less mathematical or scientific ones. Hence their broad rejection by the public. Again, secrecy here is not about content; it is about a kind of gnosis or deifying direct knowledge that is not transactional or communicable because it cannot be slotted into any subject/object structure. Such an apophatic or mystical sensibility, I must stress, could become a key contributor to the present discussion. This is an order of knowledge that we have simply lost but desperately need back in some new form.

That’s the good news. There is also some bad news. What we today call “religion” is also profoundly unhelpful in that it is usually not like this. It is not apophatic. Indeed, religion inevitably leads to all kinds of belief systems or interpretations, including demonic ones. From a historical and comparative perspective, none of these objectifying systems can be exclusively true for the species. It is quite possible, of course, that they are all true in some local sense, in some kind of inclusive or pluralist kind of way. That is, it is possible that all of these belief systems give relative witness to a set of human responses to this superpresence, none of which are wrong in themselves as local perspectives.

Such a comparative practice is embedded, for example, in the ancient Asian image of the five blind men and the elephant (to mix the metaphors, also standing in our living room). All five blind men feel a different part of the elephant (the trunk, the tusk, the leg, the ear, the tail). They say very different things, since they experience very different things. This is then applied to different “blind” religious perspectives: it is long and soft (the trunk); it is hard and pointy (the tusk); it is firm and strong (the leg); and so on. No one is wrong. But no one also is completely correct, either. That is a very different kind of “elephant in the living room.” This is also a very different kind of comparative argument, and one not in favor of any particular religion or culture as absolute and exclusive.

It is also possible that a pluralism may be more radical still–not a witness to a deeper unity or elephant, but to a fundamental plurality of being, an entire invisible ecology of life. Maybe what we think of as nature behaves differently in different cultural contexts because it really is different. What we would have here is a shocking multinaturalism. Maybe nature is culturally conditioned (I confess I often entertain this notion in my readings about the prevalence of human levitation in some historical epochs and its demonization or relative absence in others). Perhaps in the end this is what the UFO has been about –the production of multiple local belief systems and attending cosmologies, of these different religions and different realities.

But here is the thing. Because of modern communication, we are becoming more and more aware of these historical processes. If the UFO in its full reach means what I think it means, we are also becoming more aware of the nonhuman or superhuman presence that has inspired and shaped these histories, for better and for worse. We are much less certain of our certainties, and this is a good thing. Accordingly, the process of civilizational development, the history of religions, and perhaps even the conscious production of physical reality itself, must change; it must become more conscious and aware.

So, yes, there is a deep connection between the history of religions and the UFO, but we cannot use our present assumptions about society, science, space exploration, and extraterrestrials to understand the past within a kind of “presentism” (as if our present worldview is somehow complete or infallible). Nor can we use the assumptions of the past (about gods, or God, or angels, or demons) to understand the present or future. We have to be much more sophisticated than this kind of thinking, whichever way the arrow flies. We have to be “reflexive,” as we say in the study of religion and culture. We also have to be “transversal” in a radically comparative way, by which I mean that we have to try to sit “in between” all of them to grasp something of the hyperobject or superconsciousness that is appearing in our midst, always through the perspectives of our cultural assumptions, religious or secular upbringing, and socialization.

There is simply no debate, for example, that the UFO is related to psychical, parapsychological, and paranormal phenomena. Serious researchers have been saying this for over half a century. How many times do we need to hear this before it becomes common knowledge? Perhaps the technology effects or projects the paranormal display, like some kind of movie projector. Perhaps these anomalies are expressions of consciousness itself. Perhaps consciousness itself is the projector. Perhaps, as I have argued for over a decade, such events show us in dramatic terms that there is no final separation between mind and matter. But, as I explained above, to deny all of this, or to call it “woo,” is to settle for a small slice of the total phenomenon and reject what is being shown to us in such colorfully paradoxical ways, over and over and over again.

This comparative relationship between the UFO and the paranormal, then, might seem irrelevant, but it is in actuality very relevant, as it explains well why the sciences of the UFO have been attempted again and again but have never found a stable home in the conventional materialist-oriented sciences and their particular assumptions about mind and matter. The reason is simple: the total UFO event does not honor these assumptions. Perhaps we are at a new day. Perhaps we can do this now. I hope so.

This can be good news, then, as long as we can accept our sciences for what they are and can do, and what they are not and cannot do, and then integrate those other intellectual disciplines–like anthropology, philosophy, and the history of religions–that have rich histories of theorizing consciousness or mind and its relationship to the physical world, even and especially in the mediation of altered states. This is another way of saying that we have to embrace, study, and fund all seven categories of strangeness that Jacques Vallee has outlined for us, not just the first three. I understand that this is a hard message for those who think more and more science and technology will give us an answer. It will not. And that is certainly my message to you today: we need the whole university and the entire spectrum of strangeness to come to terms with what is happening all around us, as us, and to us.

Again, it is not that “religion” has our answers, either. Related here is the question of how the religions might react or respond to what is sometimes called “disclosure.” There appear to be two basic positions here in the literature. One position argues that the religions–more likely, the religion of the author in question–can assimilate and integrate such disclosure. The other position argues that religions are expressions of previous eras and forms of knowledge, not this one, and so they are incapable of the radical change that would be necessary. Hence, it is concluded, the necessity of secrecy or, in some cases, gradual disclosure. Speaking such a secret out loud or all at once would spell the end of civilization. Or such is the argument.

I confess I am more of the latter negative camp (I do not think that many religions can integrate the UFO, much less alien bodies), although I understand and appreciate the former positive camp as well. Perhaps I sit, or wobble, in the middle of the two. I suspect there is an important truth in both positions, and I would draw a sharp distinction to explain my own waffling (I’m good at rationalizing). I would say what I already said, namely, that religions are helpful in their insistence on translating or mediating a presence that is transcendent to the social human being, but that they are not helpful in the ways that they insist on particular belief systems, none of which can likely survive any kind of robust revelation of a species-wide cosmic condition. I suppose in the end it matters which religions or what kind of religion one is talking about, and what constitutes disclosure. I think the question is complicated.

Allow me two further points.

First, I cannot help but notice that many a religious believer will literally demonize parapsychological phenomena. UFOs are real, but they are demons. Mediumship is evil. And so on. I can explain to you what such people believe are the biblical roots of such beliefs, and why the biblical texts themselves are much more complicated and, frankly, interesting, but that is not my point. My point is that some religion literally demonizes what we are trying to talk about. That takes it off the table. It does not keep it on the table.

Second, and very much related, I am quite concerned about what is sometimes called the psychedelic renaissance, a name given to the broad-based psychiatric and clinical study of psychoactive molecules in the U.S. and Europe and the pharmaceutical and legal transformations that are very much sought in their wake. Much as we see in the UFO phenomenon, the altered states induced by such psychoactive plants often display a fairly clear animist structure–plants and animals speak, paranormal powers manifest, instectoid entities appear, as do, by the way, aliens and UFOs.

What concerns me here are two basic things. First, predictably, the wildest or strangest of the psychedelic states are actively ignored or not reported at all in much of the literature. Secondly, the history of European colonialism and monotheism with respect to psychoactive plants has been absolutely awful, and often literally murderous. Has “religion,” then, welcomed the animist revelation of the plants? Certainly not these religions.

The British writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote a science fiction novel many decades ago, Childhood’s End (1953), basically arguing that full disclosure of an alien presence, even a friendly one, would render immediately irrelevant all religions on the planet, except, the book implied, Buddhism (this was or would become Clarke’s religion, of course). This was the “end of childhood,” that is, the end of religion. I am somewhat with the early Clarke here, although I seriously doubt that most Buddhist traditions can survive a fuller revelation, either. I guess I am deeply skeptical that anything resembling what we now call “religion” or “science” can survive a truly non-human or superhuman intelligence. I think we are talking about a different kind of humanity here, a future one that has not yet appeared to us.

Or maybe it has.

4. It’s about Moral Values

My following three final points are really just corollaries or appendices of my third central point, that the UFO is about religion. The fourth point I want to make is that the signs and entities of the UFO can be “good” or “bad,” or both at the same time, with respect to our present human value systems. This moral doubleness, moreover, is structurally and classically “religious,” so, again, this fourth point is really a strong corollary of the previous one.

One of the very first lessons one learns when one studies religion seriously–and by “seriously” I mean the philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and history of religions–is that the sacred is morally double-edged. There is a positive sacred. The sacred attracts, redeems, and saves. There is a negative sacred. The sacred repels, terrifies, destroys. The demon is simply the reverse of the god, as the Western magical tradition puts it. It is naive to think that the sacred is restricted to only one of these poles. That simply is not true, and it has never been true. To put things in a soundbite: religion is not about being nice or good; it is about the revelation of superhuman power and actualizing the same in both individuals and the community toward specific ends.

This moral doubleness of the sacred and stress on superhuman power plays out predictably in the abduction literature within this same doubled structure. There are enlightening or spiritual experiences of unconditional love and cosmic awareness, and it is common for such experiences to activate all kinds of paranormal effects and powers, especially telepathic and precognitive ones. There are also terrifying rapes and forced abductions, themselves imbued with uncanny power as well, that leave people scarred and scared, sometimes for life. Both happen. Both are true in this simplest of senses (“they happen”). There are also, of course, negative abduction experiences that morph into spiritually transformative experiences, and the reverse. All of this is entirely in line with what we see in the history of religions.

There are different ways to interpret such things, of course. The first way is the comparative method announced in my opening point: the UFO superpresence is immense in space and time, and no single experience of it should be taken as the whole. Hence the negative experiences are as much a part of the total picture as the positive ones are. They are two sides of the same coin, or floating sphere.

Another common interpretive move, evident also in the handling of negative near-death experiences (visions of hell, for example), is to read all negative responses as just that: as responses of the human, not of the nonhuman or superhuman presence. The social ego, it is said here, is not ready for transcendence or spiritual dissolution. And so the ego responds in fear and images of violence. I myself have made this exact argument, so I am very sympathetic to it. But I also recognize it is an interpretation and requires a basic distinction: between the human response and a superhuman presence.

Within the same basic distinction, it is also often pointed out that the “intention” of the alien presence is difficult to fathom and may in fact be positive on its own level, even if it is experienced as demonic or negative on the human level. Certainly, even some of the scariest phenomena, like those described at Skinwalker Ranch, appear to make moral distinctions between humans and animals: dogs are turned into goo; people are not.

In terms of the envisioned sexual or reproductive components of the modern abduction accounts, do we not practice animal husbandry or forced insemination all the time? Just look at your pet dog. It was once a wild wolf. Who did that? We did. Is this kind of species breeding “rape”? And are we so naive to think that we will not someday practice another kind of genetic manipulation on ourselves?

Or, in terms of animal mutilations now, do we not slaughter millions of animals every day for food? So what, exactly, constitutes the evil of a few hundred, or a few thousand, mutilated cattle? I eat hamburgers. I also live with a four-footed furry being we call “Delilah.” Can I explain this profound moral inconsistency? Nope.

What am I saying here? I am saying that I think the moral values of the super-presence are not our moral values, but they kind of are. Hence my suspicion is that this is something superhuman, not completely nonhuman. That’s a guess. Please hear it as such.

5. It’s about Deception (or Art)

The fifth point I want to make is that secrecy and deception are at the heart of the UFO phenomenon. When students of religion look at the signs of the UFO long and hard, one of the things they take away is the profoundly deceptive quality of the apparitions and experiences. Whatever is appearing is not what is actually behind the appearances. What we are witnessing is some kind of super-intelligence engaging in camouflage and misdirection.

Beware, then. To employ a very useful metaphor, we appear to be caught inside a movie. We are not looking at the projector of those movies. We cannot trust our senses here. We cannot trust our beliefs. We cannot trust our reasons. All of these are being manipulated. We can only trust our distrust. There is camouflage. There is disinformation. And these are internal to the UFO itself. There is a much more positive way to say this. The UFO is about a most fantastic art; a real filmmaking, with physical special effects and all. We are caught inside a work of art, as Terence McKenna once observed, no doubt with a grin and a spin.

6. It’s about Ontological Shock

The sixth point I want to make is that the UFO is finally about ontological shock. David Grusch used the phrase this last summer, and in the global moral ways I have suggested above. Historically, the phrase is most associated with the Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack, who used it in the 1990s to describe what experiencers were undergoing: a massive re-ordering of what they considered to be real in light of their abduction experiences, which in no way could be integrated into the previous materialisms of the experiencers. In historical fact, the phrase “ontological shock” was coined in the 1950s by the Protestant liberal theologian Paul Tillich (who meant something different but related to the term). In short, the phrase has a deep history in the study of religion again, even when it is being used by a military and intelligence professional or an experiencer.

There is a strong corollary to this sixth point. It is this. Any approach to the UFO that wants to normalize it, that is, reduce it to society (which is what the social sciences and the humanities do) or to nature (which is what the sciences do) is inadequate. Something much more radical is afoot. I call it the impossible.

The point is to shock us into a new conception of the real. In Peter Skafish’s terms, the “signs that are given off by the x” of the UFO are fundamentally about “ontological redistribution.” By the phrase, Skafish means to suggest something related to what I am suggesting above, namely, that we are being challenged to shift our very notions of the real and to expand the concepts through which we think and imagine. We are being encouraged to consider the possibility that our present psyches, societies, and nation-states, our religions and moral systems, even our sciences and bodies do not and cannot know what is actually so, and precisely because these same systems have distributed reality into the conventional boxes of society, nature, and God. Something else, something truly “alien,” is going on.

And so I return again to my own apophatic convictions. It is not that we do not know what the UFO is with our present categories and order of knowledge. It is that we cannot know what it is with our present categories and order of knowledge. It is not about any present society. It is not about what we think of as nature with our physics, chemistry, astronomy, or computer science. It is not about any religion, past or present. It is strange beyond any of our normalities or forms of professional knowledge.

Is there a public policy for this? I don’t know. Maybe something in stages. “Let us first acknowledge the reality of the UFO, and then . . . .” But that strategy assumes that we know what reality is, or that such a reality comports with our science and technology. We thus continue the mistake within the terms of the mistake.

Shooting Down Souls . . . Good Luck with That

I like to tell jokes, as I think these jokes crystallize my intellectual arguments, much as icebergs crystallize the ocean they float in and in fact are in another frozen or crystallized form. People remember jokes, too. They don’t remember arguments. Sometimes–okay, often–no one laughs at my jokes, no doubt because the terms of the joke do not match their understanding of the world and so can produce no sudden disjunction, shock, or what we call “humor.”

I sometimes joke, for example, that the present concern with “threats” and national intelligence is fundamentally misguided, that “they might as well be trying to shoot down souls.” I then follow up with a challenge: “Good luck with that.” Does such a joke and challenge make any sense in our present order of knowledge? No, of course not. And that is my point.

I think the joke is funny, but then I also feel very alone. Thank you all this weekend for making me feel a little less alone.

Dr. Jeffrey Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Houston, Texas. This essay was originally presented by Kripal at  The Sol Foundation Initiative for UAP Research and Policy Symposium at Stanford University on Saturday, November 18, 2023. All copyright is reserved by the author, and this essay was reprinted here with permission. For similar commentary from Professor Kripal, see his How to Think Impossibly: About Souls, UFOs, Time, Belief, and Everything Else (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming), as well as his various previous books, more about which can be found at his website, www.jeffreyjkripal.com.