You might, from the title, think Gregory Reece’s 2007 book UFO Religion is a study specifically of UFO cults, and whilst it does visit them by the end, it’s a broader look at the field than that. Reece is instead giving a general overview of the major beliefs propagated within the UFO field and exploring their origins – treating the UFO scene as a sociological phenomenon, whilst not endorsing its claims himself.
Reece structures the book in a logical fashion, beginning with the parts of UFO culture which seem on the surface to have the least parallels with religious or spiritual beliefs and progressing through to end with an examination of organised religious movements with a significant UFOlogical component.
Thus, in the first section, he covers the assertions of the “nuts and bolts” side of the movement – those who maintain that it is an essentially scientific phenomenon that can be investigated in a scientific manner – progressing from this section from the least contentious and most easily-substantiated claims (“People report seeing things in the sky they could not identify”) to progressively more tenuous positions (“UFOs have crashed”, followed up with “there is a government conspiracy covering up the truth about UFOs”, followed up with “aliens are abducting people and doing experiments on them”). From abductees it’s only a little jump into the world of the contactees, and then from there to the mythologists who promote the idea of ancient aliens on the one hand and those who establish organised religions around their contactee experiences on the other.
By and large, Reece is on the money when he is discussing the various topics he hits on, and is particularly good at teasing out their origins. Some of the points he raises are extremely useful ones which are often overlooked in discussions of the subject. For instance, when it comes to the 19th Century wave of mystery airship sightings, he notes that whilst the newspaper reports of these might be taken at face value by UFOlogists, it was actually commonplace in the era for newspapers to throw in joke stories, particularly with local in-jokes that would be picked up by their contemporary readership.
Reece cites a particularly good example where an 1897 report purported to be a witness statement about a mysterious airship flown by strange beings abducting cattle – but both the author of the affidavit and those who put down their counter-signature as an endorsement of his reliability were all known to be members of a local “Liars’ Club”, a group who’d get together and tell each other tall tales for shits and giggles.
Similarly, Reece points out that the “extraterrestrial hypothesis” – the idea that UFOs are alien spacecraft – didn’t snap into place instantaneously. These days, most people on the UFO scene tend to either assume that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is correct, or espouse even stranger notions, but according to Reece this was not the case back in 1947; whilst the hypothesis did gain steam reasonably quickly, various more plausible theories (like secret aircraft testing or atmospheric phenomena) were in wide currency at the time, and the term “flying saucer” was used in a generic fashion in the media to imply something unidentified in the sky but not necessarily to imply an extraterrestrial origin. In this context, the announcement from Roswell that the Army had recovered material from a “flying saucer” means less than later researchers have tried to make of it.
As Reece unpacks the origins of the Roswell controversy and how it was largely patched together decades after the event by Charles Berlitz and William Moore, he also notes how details from Frank Scully’s claims of a UFO crash at Aztec, New Mexico were grafted on – further undermining the credibility of Roswell for (as Reece documents) Frank Scully had been taken in by con artists. Other legends like the Men In Black are put under the microscope, and by and large Reece is wise to the esoteric agendas pursued by some contactees, making sure to note how George Adamski’s alien contacts had this remarkable tendency to divulge cosmic teachings which aligned closely with the Theosophical ideas Adamski had been promoting previously. He also notes how the “ancient alien” narratives often entail a derisive attitude towards ancient cultures – especially indigenous cultures in places colonised by Europeans.
Reece doesn’t spot some angles – for instance, he glosses over Whitley Strieber‘s boosting of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s teachings, he gives David Icke an easy ride because he assumes Icke’s targeting of political elites with his reptoid claims doesn’t overlap with more generalised bigotry, and he outright fails to comment on Bill Cooper and his overlap with UFOlogy, the far-right militia movement, and Christian apocalypticism, despite going into conspiracy theories in general.
He can also tend to have a rather superficial, surface level reading of some of his subjects, and tends to regard contactees as mostly harmless and Heaven’s Gate an aberration without considering the connections between some contactees and darker political and occult outlooks. He doesn’t seem to have included Jacques Vallée’s Messengers of Deception on his reading list at all, which I feel is quite the omission, since Vallée’s book is one of the few I’m aware of to attempt a look at the social and political implications of the contactee movement other than this one.
Despite these few shortcomings, UFO Religion is a very good introduction to the field and worth a read if you want to get an immediate grasp on it. What is perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that the book was published in 2007, and now fourteen years later the field really hasn’t moved forward that much at all. Sure, there’s been new sightings, but little in the way of exciting new outlooks or movements which aren’t just rehashing the concepts in here.