Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Friday, May 11, 2007

Basis For Belief, Part Five: Angels and Aliens

(I'd hoped to have this post up Wednesday, but between job interviews and sundry other inconveniences, it's been a busy week. Well, anyway, here it is:)

Yeah, the Basis For Belief series was only planned to comprise four posts, but then I read a book that went with the material so well I figured I can include it as an honorary part of the series. The book in question was the May selection for the Skeptics' Book Club, Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, by Susan Clancy. (The book was suggested, incidentally, by Ross of The Skeptic Review; the book club's response was generally positive, though one woman did object to Clancy's mentioning being "dressed in purple" as characteristic of people who believe in weird phenomena. You can probably guess what color she habitually wore.) Clancy writes of her experience interviewing people who claim to have been kidnapped by aliens, and of her conclusions about them: that these people aren't crazy; most of them are otherwise ordinary, well-adjusted people who happen to have one particular weird belief.

But the reason I think this book fits in so well with the "Basis For Belief" series is because it describes many of the same processes I was discussing in a religious context, only concerning a different (but equally irrational) belief system. I hadn't read the book yet when I wrote those posts, but the parallels are striking--especially with the third post, about the Holy Ghost. Clancy doesn't explicitly point out the similarities until the very end of the book, but they're obvious long before she mentions them. For instance, those who believe they were abducted by aliens simply know it's true, and refuse to be persuaded by rational evidence; there's no apparent meaningful difference between their insistence on their beliefs and what a Christian calls "faith". They want to believe in aliens, many of them, because it gives their life a purpose; even those who say the abduction was a traumatic experience also say they wouldn't want to avoid having it, if they had to do it all over again. Believing that aliens are abducting humans and performing tests on them lets them believe that there's something greater than mankind in the universe, and that humans--and the abductees in particular--are serving an important purpose. Sound familiar?

The abductees, at least the most "faithful" of them, are not unaware of the logical explanations. Sleep paralysis. False memories. But they discard them. Why? Because they just know what happened, through means they can't explain. "All I can say is that it happened to me; it didn't happen to you. I felt it." "I don't care that it doesn't make sense to you, or that scientists say it can't happen...I was changed, and I know it's true." "I knew it--I just knew it had happened. I felt it in my bones." Again, is all this different in any meaningful way from the way a Mormon who's supposedly received a testimony from the Holy Ghost knows the church is true? Or how any other Christian knows that Christ is Lord, or any theist knows that God exists?

I was also particularly struck by the process by which these "abductees" received their false memories. Nobody, says Clancy, gets up one morning and suddenly decides he was abducted by aliens. He starts thinking maybe he was abducted, and it builds up over time into a certainty. Usually (though not always) this happens with the aid of a hypnotist or therapist who asks leading questions and/or asks the subject to imagine what could have happened. What we imagine enough can often come to seem real to us (and she cites a number of studies that have established this), and even if at first the subjects weren't sure they were abducted, the more they start to mull it over and imagine possible scenarios, the more sure they become.

This has a remarkable likeness to the process that missionaries are taught to use for conversion, especially the step of "identifying the Holy Ghost". They're told to ask whether the investigator felt anything as he was reading the Book of Mormon, and then tell him (pretty much regardless of what he answers, outside of responses like "nothing" or "a toothache") that he just felt the testimony of the Holy Ghost. The missionary explains further, and invites the investigator to remain open to receiving the Holy Ghost's testimony in the future.

Seems to me like pretty much the same process. Therapist: "How did you feel that morning? Well, it's possible you were abducted by aliens. Let's think of what could have happened, and see how you feel about it." Missionary: "How did you feel as we were reading these scriptures? You were feeling the testimony of the Holy Ghost! Let's read some more, and see if you keep feeling it." In both cases, they're identifying a feeling with a particular phenomenon, which tends to make the subject imagine that feeling as being more intense and significant than it had been, and to associate it with that phenomenon in the future. No wonder converts can get such strong testimonies of the church's truth--in exactly the same way that these "abductees" get such strong convictions of their abductions!

Clancy, of course, doesn't believe in alien abductions; she does a thorough job of tracing the history of aliens in popular culture and the roots of the belief. If anything, I think she's rather too pessimistic in her estimates that intelligent life could have evolved elsewhere--but even if it did, I agree that the chances that aliens, who happen to look remarkably humanoid (and even more remarkably like a fictional alien that had just appeared on a TV show a couple of weeks before the first abduction report!), have been regularly coming to Earth and extracting tissue samples from humans for no discernible purpose for the last several decades. I concur with Clancy that, however fervently these people believe they've been abducted, it's quite safe to say they haven't.

But if religious beliefs have the same kinds of basis as alien abduction beliefs--and they do; as I said, the resemblances are quite striking--then why should they be given any greater credence?

"Ten years from now," Clancy writes in an early chapter, "believing in aliens and in their presence among us will perhaps become as common as believing in God."

Maybe--but I'd like to hope that conversely, if not in ten years then perhaps in twenty, or fifty, disbelieving in God will come to be as normal and as fully accepted as disbelieving in alien abductions.


At 5/12/2007 12:00 PM, Blogger Qalmlea said...

I've had one of those sleep-paralysis dreams. It was freaky. I was aware of the room around me, couldn't move, and there was weird dream stuff happening, too. I can see why someone might think it was real, since it felt like I was awake. No aliens for me, though. Just a skeleton. It was a relief when I really woke up and realized it was a dream.

However, I had no motivation for thinking it was real, either.

At 5/14/2007 6:14 AM, Blogger Lifewish said...

Qalmlea How did you feel that morning? Well, it's possible you saw a walking skeleton. Let's think of what could have happened, and see how you feel about it...

At 5/15/2007 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess this is only tangentially related, but it's kind of funny the way the title of this post reminded me of one of my early doubts of Christianity (I said early, not necessarily good). It was back in my middle school/high school days when I really wanted to believe in things like UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster, and probably watched a few too many documentaries about them, read a few too many articles about them, and maybe watched a little too much Star Trek. And when the Bible mentioned angels, or people ascending into heaven, or similar things, I remember always wondering in the back of my mind if it wasn't just a primitive people describing visits from aliens or time-travellers or what not (if I'd known then about cargo cults, I'd probably really have gotten caught up in that line of thinking, but I was still a good Christian, then, so I didn't really pursue those doubts). Yeah, I know I'm not the first person to have wondered things like that, and I know now there are much simpler explanations, but still, that's what the title of this post made me think of.

At 5/22/2007 5:16 PM, Blogger Ross said...

I first bought Susan Clancy's book after seeing her speak at the Skeptic's Society. During the Q&A period, someone asked about the connection between the psychology of abduction and belief in God. Clancy made it pretty clear that she personally does believe in God, and though she realizes the parallels between the two, she doesn't really want to put her beliefs under the same microscope. If I remember correctly, the implication was that we should not press her on the issue.

At 5/29/2007 7:14 AM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Ahh, compartmentalization. That's reassuring, eh Ross?

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