For UFO believers, Luis “Lue” Elizondo—the former director of the now defunct Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a Defense Department project tasked with investigating reports of unidentified aerial phenomena—is like a prophet coming down the mountain. He claims to have seen the burning bush (i.e., classified, up-close, high-definition images of UFOs), and his every utterance sparks feverish interpretation in the cloisters of the UFOs subreddit and UFO Twitter.
2021 has been a busy year in the UFO sphere, and thus a busy year for Elizondo. On June 25, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated and baffling report on unidentified aerial phenomena, also known as UAP. In the weeks leading up to the report’s release, Elizondo tantalized audiences on cable TV and social media. On NBC News: “We’re 99 percent sure it’s not foreign adversarial technology, so that only leaves one other option. It’s someone or some things else.” On 60 Minutes: “I’m telling you it’s real. The question is ‘What is it?’ ‘What are its intentions?’ ‘What are its capabilities?’ ”
The report itself was more tentative in its language. Of the 144 incidents reviewed by the task force, 143 remain unexplained. It said that most of the UAP in question “probably do represent physical objects,” and a handful “appear to demonstrate advanced technology,” executing high-speed maneuvers without visible means of propulsion. “We don’t know exactly what they are,” former President Barack Obama admitted in a May late-night interview. “We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory.”
The question of what UAP are is intertwined with what they might mean. Three days before the report’s release, while appearing on a June 23 podcast, Elizondo answered a well-posed question—“If the general public knew or saw what you saw … what would the next week look like? How would the public react?”—with a muted bombshell. “Somber,” he said. “I think there would be this big exhale for about a day. And then this turning inward and trying to reflect on what this means for our species and to ourselves.” He continued, “I think you would have some people turning to religion. You might have some people turning away from it.”
Elizondo isn’t quite saying aliens, not out loud anyway, but hismessage is clear enough: UFOs are of intelligent, nonhuman origin. Skeptics bristle at the ufologist’s tendency to leap from unidentified objects to otherworldly intelligence(s), whether it’s extraterrestrial A.I., interdimensional travelers, or glitches in the simulation; to entertain such fantastic speculations is too much, too soon for the majority of scientists. Even still, Americans want to believe in aliens now more than ever, according to polls by Gallup and Pew Research. Why wait for the fruits of SETI’s radio searches or NASA’s astrobiology research when the answer to life, the universe, and everything might be hovering just off the coast of Virginia?
What should we make of this “new form of religiosity,” as D.W. Pasulka, author of American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology, has described the most recent wave of UFO mania? And if intelligent beings were to show up—in the lower atmosphere of our planet or in the upper atmosphere of another, perhaps as revealed by the soon-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope—how would it affect Americans’ feelings about mind and matter, about the soul and the world, in an increasingly irreligious culture?
To hazard a guess, I spoke with religious leaders and thinkers about the possibility of space-faring intelligent life and how UFOs fit into Americans’ evolving belief systems—now and in the future.
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