By Mike Reid
WASHline, March 2006
In 1947 something happened near the desert town of Roswell, New Mexico. It was not much of an event at the time. A U.S. Military surveillance balloon crashed onto some remote and dusty ranch land. The balloon was part of the then highly classified Project Mogul and carried aloft sensors designed to detect Soviet nuclear detonations. Because of the classified nature of the project, military officials quickly cleared the crash site of all wreckage and debris and put a misleading cover story in the local press to deflect public interest. This event should be nothing more than a very minor footnote in the history of the Cold War. Had it happened a few years earlier it probably would have remained just that. But the second half of the Twentieth Century would introduce space flight and Hollywood science fiction movies. Humans, and Americans in particular, were looking to space as a new frontier. Sputnik orbited the Earth. On cinema screens, moviegoers watched strange beings from Mars and elsewhere come to invade or save our homey little planet.
The Roswell event remained largely unknown until the 1970s when UFO enthusiasts took an interest in it. As the belief in UFOs and extraterrestrial visitations grew, so did the Roswell story. The story of the “crash” got more interesting the more it was discussed. Unrelated events that happened at different places and times were blended into the story. Charlatans and publicity seekers added their speculations and tall tales to the mix. By the end of that decade, a military balloon had turned into an extraterrestrial space ship replete with an alien crew whose bodies had been strewn along the crash site. Today the Roswell incident is at the center of an entire mythology. Bookstore shelves are laden with numerous accounts and analyses of the amazing “alien spaceship crash” that occurred there and the insidious Government cover up that continues to obfuscate and enshroud it. “Documentaries” on the subject have appeared on network TV. Hundreds of web sites contain material about it. Hundreds of thousands of people are convinced that the U.S. Government is covering up the crash of an extraterrestrial spaceship. Many of them believe this with a fervor usually reserved for religious fundamentalists.
The myth that now surrounds the Roswell event bares little resemblance to the actual facts. I have long been fascinated by the modern mythology of UFO visitations. I’m not much interested in the UFOs themselves. I have never seen one bit of what I would consider credible evidence that the Earth has ever been visited by extraterrestrials or that they even exist. But I’m quite interested in the mythology and the people who cling to it. Serious journalists have completely debunked the Roswell crash story, yet hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of people still believe in the myth. Millions more believe that extraterrestrials have visited the Earth. They want to believe this so badly that they will accept any “evidence” that supports their belief no matter how dubious and reject any evidence or logical reasoning to the contrary no matter how solid.
It is as if the Roswell incident marked the beginning of a new religion. Perhaps that is exactly what it now is. For purposes of this essay, I will define “religion” as a set of organized beliefs that a person or group of people hold with near certitude, but that are not grounded on empirical evidence or testable theory. I think that the Roswell story fits this definition. In the course of only a few decades an otherwise unremarkable event was embellished and exaggerated to almost supernatural proportions. Is this how religions begin? Did something like this happen in Palestine two thousand years ago with Jesus and in countless other places with countless other divine figures?
In the First Century of the Common Era (C. E.), mystic religions thrived in the Mediterranean world. The historical Jesus may have been one of the many peripatetic holy men who preached throughout the region. Tradition holds that he was a real person who was a prominent figure in his time and place. But surprisingly, the historical evidence for this is thin to say the least. In fact, there is no contemporary record of his existence outside of Christian writings. Even the Gospels date from many decades to a couple of centuries after his time. It seems that the Jewish, Greek, and Roman scribes of the time never heard of him or at least did not consider him important enough to write about. One would think that a man who could walk on water and raise the dead would be worthy of some note.
In fact, the historical evidence for Jesus is so scant and his resemblance to earlier pagan figures so striking that some modern scholars openly question his historicity. Even ancient scholars recognized that Jesus and the story of his life bare a notable resemblance to that of earlier pagan gods and god-men—the Greek Dionysus, the eastern Attis, and the Egyptian Osiris to name a few. Jesus may be a wholly fictitious figure who was constructed from a melding of earlier Jewish traditions with those of some of the then thriving and very pagan Hellenistic Mystery cults. This hypothesis is not implausible given that many of the first Christians were probably Hellenized Jews.
Modern Christian apologists like to point out that there is mention of Jesus in a work by the late First Century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. There is a very short passage known as theTestimonium Flavianum, which is found in his massive, multi-volume historical work The Jewish Antiquities. In this passage, he describes Jesus as the “The Christ” (i.e., the Messiah), the performer of miracles, and as having risen from the dead three days after crucifixion. However, it is highly unlikely that Josephus, a Jew, would refer to Jesus as such and it seems even more unlikely that if he did, he would consider such an important figure worthy of only a brief mention in one short passage in his comprehensive history. The Testimonium Flavianum is almost certainly the result of a latter-day Christian redaction and did not appear in Josephus’ original text, at least not in its surviving form. The name “Jesus” appears a second time in an even shorter passage in Josephus’ work, but there it is only in reference to his supposed brother James and says nothing about him, except that he was “called Christ.” This second passage is probably also a latter-day interpolation.
Like the Roswell crash story, the story of Jesus did not become widely known until decades after the fact and then only through the evangelism of its adherents. Had Jesus performed miracles or gained followers in the thousands as Christian doctrine professes, there should be some mention of him in the Jewish or Roman records from the time. His absence from history strongly suggests that if he existed at all, he was only a locally known figure who did not do anything extraordinary enough to gain wider notice. The story of Jesus developed over time in the decades after his supposed death. Memories of events from his life became exaggerated and embellished. The deeds of others were attributed to him. Perhaps Jesus was a real person. Perhaps he was not. Perhaps he is a composite character created from multiple people both real and mythical. We do not really know, but it hardly matters. Roswell shows us that even in our modern age of science and journalism, extraordinary stories can develop from mundane facts. For the pre-scientific people of the ancient world, who believed in minataurs and demigods, another preternatural god-man with magical powers would not require much of an imaginative leap.
There have been no figures such as Jesus, Mohammed, or Gautama Buddha in modern times. There have certainly been and continue to be plenty of wandering would be holy men and women preaching the end of the world or some other strange doctrine, but they cannot get traction in the face of modern critical analysis. And most educated people today require at least some amount of tangible evidence before they are willing to believe in outlandish miracles. Not for many centuries has any new theistic religion gotten past the cult stage or survived more than a few generations after the death of its founder. Certainly beliefs have evolved over time and new denominations have sprung up within the framework of existing religions. For example, Mormonism is a relatively new Christian denomination that began in America in the nineteenth century. However, they all ground their belief system on miraculous events that supposedly occurred in the remote past long before these events would have had to endure the scrutiny of modern science or investigative journalism.
The notion of extraterrestrial visitors fits nicely into our times. It is not so hard for modern people to believe in them. Just as the story of Jesus is a product of its time, the modern myth of UFOs is a product of ours. Respectable organizations such as NASA, universities, and the various Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) projects are currently engaged in a search for evidence of microbial life on Mars, extrasolar planets, and artificial extraterrestrial radio signals. Their projects are worthwhile and are based on real science. Unfortunately, and largely to the dismay of those involved in them, these projects inadvertently lend credibility to a belief in UFOs among the less scientific public.
The great majority of people alive in the world today are religious and believe to some degree in the supernatural. Humans seem to have some innate need for intelligent and benevolent powers who are greater than themselves and who are not constrained by the laws of Nature. As a consequence, otherwise thinking and rational people are willing to accept a doctrine even when it does not hold up under scientific scrutiny. Perhaps religion lends a modicum of security that is too comforting even for modern people to let go of. This may explain the continued allure of the modern myth of extraterrestrial visitations. Many modern and reasonably educated people simply cannot accept the self-contradictory and scientifically untenable doctrines of ancient religions. But the need to believe in some higher power is so strong that they will gravitate towards less anachronistic, but still fanciful beliefs. If this is the case, religions will continue to develop and evolve to fulfill the needs of their time and will long be with us in one form or another.
Mike Reid is the president of WASH and editor of WASHline.