Understanding UFOs through D.W. Pasulka’s “American Cosmic”

A scholar of religion imagines UFOs as a sacred myth for the needs of modernity

A persistent question I find myself asking is this: Is there a different way to think about UFOs than through the eyes of experts? In the realm of the unexplained and the extraterrestrial, a recent (2019) book, D. W. Pasulka’s “American Cosmic” reads like a kind of testament to the human spirit’s relentless quest for meaning. At first seeming to examine the technological elite of contemporary life and its interest in the extraordinary, Pasulka soon heads for the increasingly blurred spaces between technology, religion, and the extraterrestrial.

Pasulka, a scholar of religion, is on a journey of peculiar subtlety and depth here, aiming for hints of belief in odd corners of a modern age completely dominated by science and technology. Her exploration is not an academic endeavor but rather a pilgrimage into some edges of American culture where the celestial and the digital coalesce, perhaps a new pantheon of deities born from silicon and starlight. And there is more in this overlap than at first glance appears.


To understand Pasulka, we have to reach back to an important foundation in her thinking. “American Cosmic,” which Pasulka published in 2019, and soon followed with “Encounters: Experiences with Nonhuman Intelligence,” is one of two books that form an extension to a book first published in 1957, “The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion,” one of the seminal works by theologian Mircea Eliade. Eliade’s work had a direct influence on my life that was not small – and it did on Pasulka’s own thinking (although his work is not credited in her book).

The front cover of the first edition of Eliade’s book reveals an array of intertwined lines that form the vague appearance of a robed, winged angel. Over this image is a subtitle that describes the scope of his book: “The significance of religious myth, symbolism, and ritual with in life and culture.” There is the connection between Eliade and Pasulka, because, much earlier than Pasulka, Eliade explored the concept of the sacred and its distinction from the profane in various religious traditions. His particular contribution was in his analysis of how different cultures perceive and interact with what they consider sacred. To capture what in linguistics are called universals (elements of human behavior common to all cultures), Eliade introduces the idea of “hierophany,” anything that can be defined (and experienced) as a manifestation of the sacred. Eliade observes how in many cultures, the sacred is represented in space and time, distinguishing it from the profane world of ordinary experience which is always in some unmeasured “present.” A hint that Pasulka follows the work of Eliade is on page 18 of her own book when she was taken to

a place in New Mexico under a no-fly zone, and it was supposedly a location where one could find artifacts of an extraterrestrial aerial craft that had crashed in 1947… I called this the sacred place because it marked the location where it is believed that nonhuman intelligence revealed itself to humans. In my field the word that describes this kind of event is hierophany. A hierophany is a manifestation of the sacred. It occurs when a nonhuman intelligent being descends from the sky to the ground or otherwise reveals itself. The burning bush that Moses witnessed on Mt. Sinai, as recorded in the Bible, is a classic example of a hierophany. Locations like Roswell, New Mexico, function as sacred places, or sites of hierophanies, to millions of people who believe in extraterrestrials.

Eliade’s work monumentally influenced the study of religion and the understanding of sacred symbolism and myth, and similarly, one can also see how Pasulka’s own thinking further develops and expands this sweeping vision – except that Pasulka’s notion of the sacred is now renovated to reflect the postmodern context in which humans find themselves today.

However complex life is today, it has largely abandoned all forms of practical devotion to the sacred, which is now an empty, forgotten concept for most people. Therefore, a clearer portrayal of this precarious and troubling context is one of Pasulka’s aims, and for this reason, “American Cosmic” is rich in detail and meticulous in its examination of the human condition. But the sacred – however defined at any historical moment, and in whichever culture – is not a scientific pursuit. She is thus careful not to merely present facts; Pasulka also weaves a tapestry of stories and encounters, each thread revealing something of the wide range of beliefs in a new kind of sacredness: the mystical nature of extraterrestrial intelligence and how this “magic” is experienced. It is here that we can see how Eliade is the foundation for this point of departure: this widespread belief in nonhuman intelligence, she argues, is not the fringe phenomenon that many assume, but one that emerges (surprisingly) as a burgeoning faith, held by successful scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and professionals – in other words, nonhuman intelligence is becoming a modern mythology being written in real-time.

I like the idea of something blossoming within social activity. It’s not yet “here” as a fully developed belief, but it is always and pervasively to be found nearby, in conversation, in media, and in personal beliefs even among the digital intelligentsia with whom she speaks. For this reason, Pasulka’s reflective tone often finds itself pausing to ponder the larger implications of this cosmic faith. What does it mean to believe in extraterrestrial beings in an age where technology is almost indistinguishable from magic? How does this belief fill the void left by traditional religions in the hearts of modern Americans? She approaches these and similar questions with a reverent curiosity, much like the characters in a Samuel Beckett play who often found themselves questioning the existential fabric of their own lives. As we reflect on the perspectives offered to Pasulka by her conversation subjects, we realize that the “I” of Beckett is as indeterminate as the “I” of Pasulka, and the confidence of the modern lifeworld stands vainly on existential quicksand. And the same applies to any interpretation, not only of oneself, but of UFOs. And the author of this book can also become lost in the quicksand, as well. For example, who can sincerely agree with this statement below? I find it puzzling, unlikely, incongruous, and not borne out by any encounters or accounts in my own research or experience:

One thing that UFO events and religious experiences have in common is that they don’t begin as UFO events or religious experiences. They become UFO events and religious experiences through interpretation. I  have not met  one experiencer who has seen an anomalous aerial object and immediately thought, That is a UFO! (p. 81)

Pasulka presents a problematic, constructivist view of UFOs – there isn’t so much “a” UFO as a “UFO construction” – the idea that what a UFO is “supposed to be” creates what a UFO is, as if the object observed is performing in some way. A constructivist view is what makes celebrities, for example, possible. A world famous singer, for example, is dressed in a certain way, posed in a certain way, and moves in a certain way on stage – for the stage of the world itself. But that singer is also a human being who is not the character that is presented before our eyes. This fiction on stage feeds and fuels our imagination and we derive joy from the experience of being entertained by this “character” that has been constructed for us. That construction is not the person, nor can we perhaps ever really know the person behind the performer’s façade. In many cases, the façade is so clearly constructed that we can live knowing we are watching an impersonator, yet still manage to derive enjoyment from the energized similitude that this pseudo-performance creates, not just between the counterfeit and the audience, but also between the impostor and the performer that the real person has constructed.

An Elvis Presley impersonator at a Las Vegas show.

In this sense, constructivism is the opposite of an essentialist position, which holds that there is an a priori, predetermined reality of things – the UFO, for example – which is not anything else regardless of how they are interpreted, and objects like UFOs represent a certain real phenomenon that existed before ever being perceived by human eyes. The essence of a UFO, for example, is the reality of some existing nonhuman intelligence that is organized outside of human perception, on some distant planet, or on a ship in orbit, or deep inside our own earth.

Pasulka is not a UFO essentialist. She argues that the UFO phenomenon, as a mythic representation, is constructed and manipulated by the media

From my own research, I knew that digital media and media of all forms are manipulated to produce a specific response that is desired by the producers for purely economic reasons. I  was beginning to research the ways in which virtual and digital media were being used for political purposes under the auspices of information operations: how the military employed media, social media, and all types of electronic media for purposes of national security. All of these media have played major roles in the creation of global belief in UFOs and extraterrestrials. It is in the world of media that the myth is created, is sustained, and proliferates. (83)

This to me is a strange position for a historian of religion to assume. It is true that the UFO phenomenon is propelled by what media have made it out to be. But it is also true that the history of UFO observations is thousands of years old, if we accept the statements on Sumerian tablets regarding beings like Oannes. Sumerian culture takes Oannes as a visitor from another realm who came to teach humans about writing, and other important skills.

Oannes is often depicted with a fish head both in sculpture:

As well as on two-dimensional drawings and illustrations:

The handheld purse is widely interpreted as the sign of gifts and of knowledge, and Oannes was said to have brought many gifts to humankind. This is not a “construction” in the same that we see UFOs today – it wasn’t a fad or fringe idea, but crucial to the historical development of Sumerian culture. UFOs don’t enjoy this kind of recognition in any culture that we know today. Everywhere in ancient culture and lore, UFOs occupy a prominent position. They are seen as essential parts of those cultures. To claim that “It is in the world of media that the myth is created, is sustained, and proliferates” is not true of any culture other than ours, and the history of religion is the primary support on my claim rests. Importantly, too, is the fact that UFO studies has suffered from not being sufficiently embraced by media, and for this reason, it exists as a marginalized form of study, with almost no one outside of a small number of enthusiasts knowing anything substantial about it, aside from what they have heard or seen passed around as old clichés. I know no one outside of this interest circle who can name even two books on UFOs.

But beyond this, however, “American Cosmic” also embodies a kind of urbane knack for capturing the Zeitgeist, the color and feel of the here-and-now. There is no clean separation between sense and absurdity, as Pasulka documents a contemporary lifespace where the boundaries between the religious and the secular, the scientific and the supernatural, are increasingly porous and overlapping. She highlights, for instance, how UFO sightings, once dismissed as mere fantasy, have found their way into serious scientific discourse and mainstream media. For any degree of dismissal and disbelief, there is a proportional level of fascination and even obsessive hunger for the images and actions of extraterrestrial phenomena. If there is palpable apathy about UFOs, it is expressed as a collective sentiment; if there is fascination about them, it is preserved as something internal, individual, and subjective, as often seductive and it is unsettling.

In that sense, Pasulka’s exploration, too, is deeply personal, lending the book an introspective feel. Her journey is not just about understanding a cultural phenomenon; it’s about understanding herself and her place in a world where the line between the human and the alien, however defined, appears to be fading. Perhaps this book will speak best to those whose existential quests seek meaning in the labyrinth of everyday life.

To contextualize the book, I wanted to see what book reviews found useful about this work. “American Cosmic” has elicited varied responses from reviewers, reflecting its complex and provocative exploration of UFOs, religion, and technology. I was surprised at how similar the reviews of the book were.

Kirkus Reviews acknowledges Pasulka’s approach to alien phenomena as a facet of religion, noting her intriguing assertion that belief in aliens, much like religious belief, is independent of objective reality. The review highlights her examination of ancient and modern accounts of UFOs and the serious investigation they warrant, despite a lack of physical evidence​​. Similarly, the Los Angeles Review of Books lauds the book as a significant academic work, commending Pasulka for her innovative exploration of UFO culture as a form of religion centered on science and technology. It highlights the book’s focus not on the existence of UFOs but on how they reshape our understanding of religion and technology. The review also draws attention to the ‘Invisible College’ of scientists and academics Pasulka studies, who pursue truth despite societal skepticism​​.

Meanwhile, Judith Reveal of the New York Journal of Books finds the book a challenging read (this was the least credible of all comments on Pasulka’s book – I was wishing it would be more substantial and less chatty) especially for those not already convinced of the existence of extraterrestrials. Pasulka’s alignment of UFOs with religious experiences and her incorporation of technology into this framework are noted as compelling, though potentially not convincing enough for skeptics. Reveal points out that while Pasulka’s arguments are interesting, the book’s academic tone might be off-putting for some readers​​​​. In contrast, The Daily Grail offers a more critical perspective, describing the book as a mix of ufological exploration and deep thinking about UFOs, religion, and technology. The review praises Pasulka’s insights into the interplay of media and technology with UFO beliefs but criticizes the overly enthusiastic tone she sometimes adopts. It suggests that Pasulka’s personal journey in the book mirrors the religious conversion experiences she studies, leading to an ‘anthropologist gone native’ scenario​​​​. Curiously, the review opens with a non sequitur of sorts, quoting Pasulka’s claim that “The truth is potentially ‘out there,’ but it’s unlikely to be found in media productions”. As someone who works both in research and in film, I fail to see the idea that one medium or another has the monopoly on truth in regard to any kind of investigation. Truth is truth; it is not medium-dependent (were that it were so!).

Together, these reviews form a palpable synthesis, as we might expect from a work as multifaceted, intellectually rigorous and engaging as this one. In my view, the book’s primary contribution is not its exploration of UFOs alone, but in the way it more or less suggests that the events and context of UFOs are catalysts for a new kind of spiritual understanding, something that I believe resonates widely with a rise in public interest in the mystical and transcendent aspects of existence.

In conclusion, “American Cosmic” by D. W. Pasulka is an exploration of the human quest for meaning in an age of technological marvels and cosmic wonders. The book invites readers to ponder the existential questions of the 21st century. It is not just a study of a belief system; it is a reflection of our collective longing for connection in a vast and mysterious universe, a universe that beckons us with the promise of secrets yet to be revealed. In this sense, Pasulka’s work bridges the gap between the scientific and the spiritual and – importantly – it contends that our understanding of phenomena like UFOs cannot be confined to traditional categories of thought (indeed, I resonate with this line of reasoning very much). Instead, they require a more holistic approach that considers both empirical evidence and the profound impact of belief on human culture. Can the book be read as a preparation for some future circumstance, disclosure, or mass event? To the extent that “American Cosmic” invites readers to embark on a journey of intellectual and spiritual discovery, it fulfills a role that many similar books have done for centuries. Pasulka’s work is a serious meditation on the human condition, a quest for understanding in an era where the boundaries between the known and unknown, the material and spiritual, are increasingly blurred. And that is both what the contemporary world and the realm of UFOs share most intimately in common.

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