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  • Alien Worlds: Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact
  • Christopher F. Roth
Alien Worlds: Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact. Ed. Diana G. Tumminia. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007. Pp. xvii + 364, illustrations, acknowledgments, contributors, introduction, appendices, references, index.)

No one interested in UFOs will be sorry to spend time with this volume, uneven though it is. Sociological interest in this topic dates to the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails by Leon [End Page 356] Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter (Harper & Row), which is still a Sociology 101 mainstay. Folkloristic attention to the subject was focused by the work of Linda Dégh and Thomas Bullard in the 1970s and 1980s. Jodi Dean (Alien Worlds: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, Cornell University Press, 1998) and Debbora Battaglia (E. T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces, Duke University Press, 2005) have recently brought cultural studies and anthropological perspectives to the topic, respectively. Mostly, however, the subject remains a de facto branch of religion studies and is dominated by scholars such as J. Gordon Melton and Susan Palmer, who account for it using concepts such as "millennialism" and "new religious movements." The interdisciplinary breadth of Alien Worlds is therefore welcome, with chapters by sociologists, anthropologists, historians of religion, and even assorted non-academic autodidacts of the kind that compose the rank and file of this vernacular science. In one way or another, all draw on bodies of lore and legend, oral and written, that are the stuff of folklore studies. Tumminia contributed to an earlier volume that was grounded more firmly in religious studies, James R. Lewis's The Gods Have Landed (State University of New York Press, 1995). The quality of the chapters in Alien Worlds is more uneven than those of Lewis's book, but this is not just because of the autodidacts.

The chapters are arranged into four sections, "Contactee Religions," "Abductees and Contactees," "Myth, Folklore, and Media," and "Ufological 'Science' and Therapy." In the first section, Tumminia's interesting and well-researched contributions concern two California storefront churches, the Unarius Academy of Science and the Universal Industrial Church of the New World Comforter. Somewhat inaccurately, Tumminia calls Unarians a contactee group; in fact, they practice channeling and revelation and, despite their outer-space idiom, have little or nothing in common with the contactee and abductee movements. Along with Mikael Rothstein's chapter on Britain's Aetherius Society, Tumminia's essays typify much UFO scholarship, because they do not focus on the wider social and cultural phenomenon of UFO belief, which calls for ethnography combined with cultural critique and mass-culture historiography. Instead, they focus on the relatively low-hanging fruit, as it were, of insular, routinized, and inevitably minuscule UFO religions, which tend to be cut off not only from the wider world, but even from mainstream UFO culture. Fortuitously, these tiny sects usually include public relations specialists who are eager to talk a blue streak and quickly fill an investigator's notebook. This line of scholarship tends to be oriented toward amassing evidence for one or another mechanistic sociological model, such as Weber's notion of charisma, and I sometimes doubt the applicability of such research to ethno-ufological research, if I may use that term, pursued out in the wider culture—let alone its applicability to the social sciences more generally.

In a slightly different vein is the ufologist Jerome Clark's informative update on "Sister Thedra," whose sect was the focus of Festinger's monograph, and Bryan Sentes and Susan Palmer's contribution on the Raëlians, a UFO sect which is unusual in having a large mainstream membership and direct engagement with cultural and political trends. However, those familiar with Palmer's fine 2004 monograph (Aliens Adored, Rutgers University Press) will find little new here.

The second section, "Abductees and Contactees," engages more with issues that make modern UFO culture theoretically, methodologically, and epistemologically challenging. Georg Rønnevig gets to the heart of the matter with an analysis of the construction of abductee narratives in the ritual context of support groups and recovered-memory hypnotic sessions. Here is a topic all students of the UFO subject, especially folklorists, need...


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