This week’s sermon wasn’t your typical religious instruction. My dad has always been interested in conspiracy theories and mysterious unexplained phenomena. I was too, for most of my life. This morning’s sermon was all about alien abductions and his explanation for them.
I live in New Mexico and our state has a long, weird history when it comes to alien lore. The infamous Roswell crash took place here. There are numerous reports of cattle mutilation in northern New Mexico. There’s the Taos hum (mentioned on the X-files!) which I guess could be alien-ish. The NRAO Very Large Array is about an hour south of my town. Most people assume it’s part of SETI, but that isn’t true. The VLA is used to listen to pulsars, black holes, etc. The false impression comes from movies like Contact. Anyway, the idea of aliens is relevant to our state and people here like to speculate about them.
He starts off by addressing the fact that thousands of people claim to have been abducted. Many of the claimants have similar stories; they were asleep in bed, awoken by a bright light, taken to an enclosed space (perhaps onboard a spacecraft), and examined by extraterrestrials. The aliens themselves are often described as short, gray beings with large heads and eyes. The physical examination inexplicably focuses on the anus and in some instances the abductee is sexually assaulted.
While there are many accounts of these supposed alien abductions, it is important to note that actual alien life has not been observed in our universe so far. My dad, however, is taking personal accounts of alien experiences as proof of something real. After all, how can so many people have similar experiences if it’s just a delusion? Religion notwithstanding.
Here’s where things get tricky, from a Baptist pastor’s point of view. If these people really are experiencing something, is it really aliens? According to the Christian world view – NO. It can’t be. The Bible doesn’t allow for intelligent life outside of earth. Original sin only applies to humans and therefore Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross only applies to humans. The church teaches that the first sin is what tarnished God’s creation with death and decay. Since we can observe decay in the universe, they conclude that Adam’s sin had universal consequences. Let’s say there is an alien civilization a hundred million light years away. Through no fault of their own their civilization will begin to crumble. The previously unknown phenomenon of death will now be a common occurence. As if that isn’t bad enough, because they aren’t graced with the knowledge of Judaism (and later, Christianity) they will suffer and eternal torment in hell.
My dad can’t imagine that God would be so cruel as to condemn innocent alien races to such a fate. So, obviously, aliens can’t be real. Statistic probabilities be damned, aliens simply cannot exist. SETI is a waste of time. Pack up your antennas and read a Bible, boys. But something must be happening. There must be a logical explanation for thousands of convinced alien abductees.
The answer has been staring us in the face this whole time: DEMONS. Before the late 1950s and a growing interest in science fiction and the space race, many people reported similar occurrences. Without the infusion of pop culture their experiences were usually described as demonic. People believed they were either visited by demons from hell or ghostly spirits of deceased people. A lot of people still believe they are visited by ghosts and demons. Just check out the Syfy channel for a near daily marathon of ghost hunting shows.
I have to agree that both alien and demon stories have similarities. They usually begin with the victim asleep in bed, they are awoken by a light or ghostly visage, confined to an operating table or held firmly to their own bed, experience unwelcome sexual contact and end up scared shitless and thoroughly convinced something happened to them.
Demons fit nicely into the supernatural worldview of the religious. It conveniently explains away visitors from outer space and simultaneously reinforces god vs. devil dichotomy.
The Bible says very little about demons, except that they’re often blamed for illness and hate being cast into pigs. A lot of Christians I know are convinced that mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are forms of demon possession. They think it’s silly that psychologists have to come up with rational excuses for spiritual problems. Religious people with mental disorders often go untreated because of this naive way of thinking.
So let’s be rational skeptic atheists. What is really going on here? Why do so many people believe something that real scientists reject? There are many possibilities. We know religious people believe impossible claims for a number of flawed reasons.
The most likely explanation is that these people have experienced sleep paralysis. I have had the unfortunate experience myself a few times and can attest to its terror inducing potential. When we sleep our body releases hormones that temporarily paralyze our bodies. This keeps us from physically acting out our dreams. Sleep paralysis occurs when we partially wake up, but our bodies are still paralyzed. Our inability to move can cause us to panic. An article from June 1998 in the Skeptical Inquirer described a typical sleep paralysis episode:
“…a person wakes up paralyzed, senses a presence in the room, feels fear or even terror, and may hear buzzing and humming noises or see strange lights. A visible or invisible entity may even sit on their chest, shaking, strangling, or prodding them. Attempts to fight the paralysis are usually unsuccessful.”
That sounds an awful lot like an alien abduction/ghost/demonic encounter, doesn’t it? I was absolutely convinced that I’d seen demons in my room when I was a child. It was only a couple years ago when I found out about sleep paralysis. The symptoms paralleled my childhood “demon” episodes so well that I knew I had finally found a rational explanation.
Of course, there could be other explanations as well. Vivid dreams, false memories, wishful thinking, sci-fi movie influences and the list goes on. Personally, I don’t believe either the alien or demon explanations. As an atheist, I have no reason to believe supernatural claims without evidence. As a skeptic, I find it hard to believe that aliens traveled millions of light years only to crash land in the desert and stick probes up some redneck’s ass.