Beam Me Up Godly Being, by Karen Olsson, in Slate, covers or reviews a book by psychologist Susan Clancy, Abducted: How People Come To Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens. The article contains this passage:
In a chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience called “The Reality of the Unseen,” William James attested to the existence of a “sense of reality” distinct from the other senses, in which “the person affected will feel a ‘presence’ in the room, definitely localized, facing in one particular way, real in the most emphatic sense of the word, often coming suddenly, and as suddenly gone; and yet neither seen, heard, touched, nor cognized in any of the usual ‘sensible’ ways.” As evidence, James produces several firsthand accounts from people who were visited by “presences” late at night. These have a familiar ring: They sound just like stories from alien abductees, minus the aliens. Objects of belief, James says, may be “quasi-sensible realities directly apprehended.”
… When it comes to the ambitious project of explaining the why and wherefore of “weird beliefs,” Clancy’s book doesn’t tell us too much more than James did: People believe in this stuff because it seems real to them, more real than any reasoning about sleep paralysis or the unreliability of memories produced during hypnosis.
… People’s imagined contacts with aliens, she speculates, arise from “ordinary emotional needs and desires. … We want to believe there’s something bigger and better than us out there. And we want to believe that whatever it is cares about us, or at least is paying attention to us. … Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need.”
Olssen disagrees with Clancy’s ideas about religious impulses. She prefers to think that people who believe they have been abducted by aliens are influenced by pop culture acting on their subconscious minds. That of course raises its own question – is there a subconscious mind, or is the subconscious an arbitary label for flawed perceptions and memories and an excuse for impulsive behaviour?
I think Clancy may be right. Stories of alien abduction are one of the modern variants of stories of miraculous, magical and mystical experiences. People experience something – it may be a random neurochemical event in their brain. They interpret it in a narrative way within the limits of their language and belief systems. They stick to their story in the face of doubts and scepticism. They find, eventually, someone who supports and believes them and shares their experience. They feel special. The event takes on its own meaning. And it becomes a miracle, a vision, a channelled message, an alien abduction.
The references to William James are interesting. He is one of the founders of modern psychology and a reasonably rigorous scientist, but he was always very tolerant of spiritualism – perhaps because he could never directly challenge his father who was a prominent proponent. His early version of philosophical pragmatism and his philosophy of religion seem to have been set up to cut spiritualists some slack.
Another way of looking at it is that James was inclined to speculative thought – but people didn’t like to argue with such a well connected and presentable member of New England Society.