The space-alien invasions: a simple case of gnosticism

BOOKS; THE ARGUMENT

The runaway popularity of abduction reports demonstrates an overvalued idea that has become a ruling passion.

June 27, 1999|By PAUL MCHUGH, M.D. | PAUL MCHUGH, M.D.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

G.K. Chesterton claimed, "When men stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything." He could probably easily have imagined that "anything" could include belief in space aliens (pilots and crew of flying saucers or other "unidentified flying objects") who carry people up into their craft to perform obscene operations on them.

A recent book describing "remembered" encounters with aliens is "Summoned: Encounters with Alien Intelligence" by Dana Redfield (Hampton Roads Publishing Co., 264 pages, $13.95). The author describes the now familiar pattern of these incidents: nighttime experiences with a dream-like character, followed and thus "confirmed" by inexplicable bodily bruises and welts the next day. All the old friends are here: gray eminences with large, almond-shaped eyes, celestial surgeons harvesting human gametes, hypnotists surmounting the alien-induced memory loss.

Abductions, though, are but one kind of experience. Others include sighting flying objects or gravity-defying lights, and inspecting "wreckage." All support the presumption that mysterious creatures are cruising about the earth inspecting us while governments cover up the news.

Just who believes this stuff? There are the credulous ones -- folk who seem captivated by myths and previously searched for the Loch Ness monster and Big Foot. But the beliefs would be less interesting as social phenomena if these were their only champions.

Many highly credentialed individuals have given "ufology" (the name coined for the study of UFOs) either full support -- as has John Mack, the professor of psychiatry at Harvard -- or qualified, legitimating support.

An example of the latter is found in "Aliens: Can We Make Contact with Extraterrestrial Intelligence?" by Andrew and David Clark of Oxford (Fromm International, 256 pages, $25). These authors reject most claims and acknowledge that in 1968 a comprehensive report from a group of physicists led by Dr. Ed Condon concluded that the "sightings" could be dismissed and that further investigations of UFOs would be of no scientific interest beyond the psychology of mass hysteria.

Nonetheless, the Clarks call for "science" to do more and to admit the existence of "a small number of cases that might, just might, be worthy of a fuller and more open-minded scrutiny." "The Abduction Enigma" by Kevin Randle, Russ Estes and William Cone (Forge Books, 416 pages, $25.95) rejects this wishy-washiness outright and concludes that all the cases remain the scientific rubbish condemned by the Condon Report.

The convinced proponents, though, are not half-hearted. Dr. Mack has risked his academic tenure to support these ideas. He has employed his substantial powers of argument to push the burden of proof from himself onto those who would deny alien abduction.

He has even used that dubious rhetorical device, so favored by psychiatrists, of insinuating that his opponents are irrational as when he said, "the evidence ... that [these phenomena] represent important domains of reality that seem to lie behind or exist along with the one science accepts -- is overwhelming. We cannot help wondering what motivates the need to reject this domain so eagerly."

A fervor for aliens led to the 1997 mass suicide of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult in California. They died believing they would "beam up" to a better, incorporeal existence aboard an alien spacecraft approaching the earth in the dust of the comet Hale-Bopp.

They left videotapes explaining what they were doing and how their human bodies ("vehicles") are to be set aside "... to be with the other members on the craft, in the heavens. Call it another dimension, call it another reality, who knows? We're kept in blind ignorance here which is kind of the state [you would expect] with these vehicles."

This is wild. How can anyone believe it, let alone die for it?

As a psychiatrist, let me emphasize that these believers do not suffer from the standard psychiatric disorders.

They are neither mentally retarded nor delusionally schizophrenic. They are functioning under the influence of an overvalued idea. Overvalued ideas differ from delusions in that they rest upon opinions circulating in a society but that, in true believers, are amplified into a ruling passion. Fanatics harbor overvalued ideas -- sometimes for good -- as in the abolitionist, John Brown -- sometimes for evil -- as in the anti-Semite, Adolf Hitler.

There is a rich historical and theological drama that's useful for examining these beliefs about space aliens. They are a contemporary manifestation of gnosticism -- a kind of cosmic paranoia that has been a regular manifestation of human thought, in different guises, for millennia.

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