Overview:

UFO religions claim gods from other galaxies have visited earth. Devotees might hope the James Webb telescope will confirm these beliefs.

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Will the James Webb Space Telescope confirm what the UFO religions have been claiming—that extraterrestrial beings, having their own religions on distant shores, have visited Earth with religious messages?

Around 50 BCE, the great Latin stylist Lucretius said, “We are bound to acknowledge that in other regions of the universe there are other planets with various tribes of men and various breeds of beasts.” Extraterrestrial life seemed obvious to Lucretius, but his speculations fell on deaf ears.

In the 1500s, the Italian philosopher and cosmologist Giordano Bruno published books saying the universe consisted of infinite solar systems with infinite habitable planets housing an infinite array of beings. To Bruno’s mind, God could conjure these things in a day and a half of creative labor and easily manage the menagerie for God’s entire life. But the notion of extra-earthlings did not align perfectly with the reigning Christian orthodoxy of 1500s Europe, and so handsome Giordano Bruno and his handsomely bound books were burned to cinders. 

The idea of extraterrestrial life held no attraction for people.

In fact, no ancient religion dreamed of other worlds or moved beyond its local locale, even though some ancient notions of god included divine attributes like omnipotence and omniscience, two bullets on a heavenly resume that should suggest ease in supervising many billions of inhabitants on many billions of planets. But no one cared about life elsewhere.

Just as humans care nothing for the near endless eons that precede or follow their ninety years of oxygenated existence, so too do humans not care a whit for the near endless cosmic spaces that surround their square patch of tierra de madre, momma earth. Hence the adage, coined just this moment by yours truly: As With Time So With Space: No On Cares. Religions in all historic moments only confirmed this prejudice, until century twenty.

UFO was coined in the twentieth century and refers to unidentified flying objects presumably piloted by beings from other galactic neighborhoods than our own.

It is one thing to imagine life beyond the third stone from our sun. Most educated people can admit this is likely. It is quite another thing to consider that other planetary beings have been flying low over rural New Mexico since the 1940s. Some educated persons believe this, but most do not. It is yet another thing entirely to think extra-terrestrials are communing with and abducting human beings. Most disbelieve this, although some educated persons of stable mind (both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial) have testified to its truth. And finally, it is quite another issue completely when someone draws a religion out of the whole UFO universe. But this was indeed done, beginning in the latter half of the 1900s.

For these many UFO religions, belief in extraterrestrialism is either a peripheral tenet of the faith, but nonetheless important, or it is a central tenet of the faith. In America’s Nation of Islam (unrelated to orthodox Islam), extraterrestrialism is peripheral but important. In the religion of Raelism, extraterrestrialism is central.

UFO religions disagree about who UFO pilots and passengers are. Are they golden gods? Or are they simply messengers of the gods? Or are they only copper-plated creatures like us? For some UFO religions, ETs are the gods that earthlings have been referring to all along: these ETs created life on our planet un-miraculously with simple materials and measuring spoons. For other UFO religions, ETs bring divine messages from the gods, usually warnings about imminent disaster. And still, for other UFO religions, ETs are merely religious seekers, not unlike Homo sapiens.

In the late twentieth century, there arose a field of inquiry called exo-theology, speculating about religion on other planets; thinking about the gods of other planets. As with all theologies, exo-theology contemplates something it also knows absolutely nothing about, namely, what beings from distant galaxies believe about, compose creeds about, debate to death about, the inner life of a god.

Will the Webb telescope shed no light on this bizarre, fantastical, brow-knitting theologicus galacticus?

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...