ETs, UFOs and the Psychology of Belief

Uncanny things are thought to happen at night ...
Uncanny things are thought to happen at night in desolate places via Wikipedia

© Michael Clark. All rights reserved.

ETs and UFOs

The acronym ET (extraterrestrial) points to the idea that living organisms might exist somewhere beyond our Earth. And the acronym UFO (unidentified flying object) means that something unidentified appears in the sky.

Sometimes UFOs are eventually identified as a weather balloon, parachute or jet plane, so a mystery becomes an ordinary event.¹ But other times we never understand what’s up there. When we can’t understand, it’s tempting to see a UFO as an alien spacecraft piloted by creatures from the far reaches of the universe.

The distinction between UFOs and ETs isn’t ironclad. Again, the U in UFO stands for unidentified, and it’s possible that some UFOs could be ETs. During World War II, for instance, airborne glowing balls were observed and photographed by Allied pilots. These phenomena came to be called Foo Fighters (the rock band came later…), and suggest that some UFOs might be intelligent life forms. The life forms might not be as we normally understand them. They’d be more like those energy creatures we see in Star Trek and other science fiction stories. And they’d probably be able to survive any kind of atmospheric conditions.

ETs and UFOs in Popular Culture

Among all the uncertainty, hoaxers and confused thinking we find today, it remains true that ETs and UFOs are a part of popular culture.

Different web sites arguably reflect various human myths, dreams and expectations about aliens and their alleged spacecraft. Given the limits of our human consciousness, it’s not surprising that most of the talk about ET/UFOs is colored by personal bias and cultural filters.

Religious fundamentalists, who usually see the world in black and white, often say that aliens are manifestations of the devil. At the other end of the spectrum, some ET/UFO enthusiasts claim that aliens are here to save the planet.

In addition, some individuals believe that they, themselves, are alien emissaries, born of a human but really, so they say, from another planet or cosmic dimension.

While it’s good to be open-minded, the topic of ETs and UFOs requires careful, critical analysis. The following list outlines some of the main questions that any serious researcher should ask:

  • Are ETs/UFOs the stuff of myth and fantasy?
  • Can they be explained by normal, everyday phenomena?
  • Do ETs have physical, energy or spirit bodies?
  • Could ETs/UFOs travel through space and time?
  • How intelligent are they?
  • How much more of the universe can they see?
  • Is every ET kind and helpful?
  • Could some be harmful to other ETs and to human beings?
  • Could this harm be psychological, and not just physical?

It seems probable that ETs do exist in some shape or form. Both the Catholic Church and the CIA endorse inquiry into the possibility of alien life. And Library and Archives Canada has an online resource called Canada’s UFOs: The Search for the Unknown.

There’s a lot of material on the internet about ETs and UFOs. Here’s a sampling of what can be found today. Some of these web sites might seem sort of far out and questionable, while others appear quite sober and raise some good questions.

ETs, UFOs and Spiritual Discernment

UFOs and common sense - see image notes, below.

Arlan K. Andrews summarizes a good number of reports suggesting that psi abilities (ESP, clairvoyance) increase after a person believes they’ve had a first ET/UFO contact.2

Although inadequately explored in the ET/UFO literature, from the perspective of interfaith mysticism it’s conceivable that unfriendly ETs or, perhaps, demonic spirits posing as ETs impart paranormal abilities on psychologically vulnerable individuals, leading them to develop a kind of inferiority/superiority complex (as spelled out by the American psychologist, Alfred Adler).

It would be easy for a vulnerable individual to overlook painful personal issues if meddling ETs or demons were (apparently) feeding them other people’s thoughts, along with false prophecies and delusional ideas about being special and better than everyone else.³

Indeed, some people seem convinced that they’ve been sent to Earth as sacred rulers over the unenlightened masses. And they’re willing to ignore or patch up false prophecies with ad hoc explanations to prevent their (most likely) delusional bubble from bursting, which would probably bring painful personal issues to the fore.

While the powers that be tend to see false prophecy in terms of a delusion or mental illness, there’s nothing wrong with this approach when it’s right. A problem arises, however, when that kind of explanation might be wrong or, at least, incomplete.

Along these lines, contemporary and ancient religious traditions suggest the, perhaps, related approach of discernment. Admittedly, discernment is a tricky concept with a meaning that really depends on who’s using it. But I believe it still has some value.

The anthropologist I. M. Lewis notes in Ecstatic Religion (1971) that saints, sages and shamans from all walks of life agree that the psyche is not an island. This may have a positive aspect. Figures like St. Anthony, for example, reportedly have guided individuals toward lost articles and missing children.

However, personal openness to being guided has a downside. A good number of spiritualists and theologians believe that the mind can be obsessed or even possessed by spiritual hackers, traditionally regarded as demons, tramp souls and ancestral spirits.

For convenience, the possibility of evil ETs and demons will be grouped under the single heading of Negative Spiritual Influences (NSI). While some believers in NSI might be paranoid reactionaries, it’s improbable that all of them are paranoid and deluded.

Different spiritual traditions suggest that NSI can produce hallucinations and manipulate individuals. Existing in a more comprehensive space-time than human beings, NSI might see future possibilities, influence a person’s choices, and compel them to accept false explanations as to why certain events occur.4

Most of us have probably met someone with an underlying inferiority complex or unresolved psychological trauma who parades around telling others they’re an achieved saint. This kind of thing seems quite common in both organized religions and cults, where not a few borderline – or perhaps insane – individuals hide out under the safe, well-defined and socially legitimate structures of their particular religion or cult.

To avoid this kind of scenario, interior influences allegedly of ET origin must be painstakingly discerned. Discernment in the religious sense means the use of reason, experience and divine gifts to separate true and false interior perceptions. As Henri Martin P.S.S. puts it:

The charism of discernment is “a kind of supernatural instinct by which those who have it perceive intuitively the origin, either divine or not, of thoughts and inclinations submitted to them.” (J. de Guibert, Lecons, p. 306). It is to be distinguished from revelation of the secrets of hearts, properly so called, made directly by God. In such revelations, which is extremely rare, objective certitude is absolute. In the case of discernment the chances of error lie in the subjective interpretation and use of the supernatural light received. Lacking an infused charism, ordinarily “God will assist by special interior light a gift of discernment acquired by experience and prudence in the application of the traditional rules of discernment.” (ibidem).5

On the need for spiritual seekers to be sincere, humble and rational in the discernment process, the scholar of mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, says:

Ecstasies, no less than visions and voices, must, they declare, be subjected to unsparing criticism before they are recognized as divine: whilst some are undoubtably “of God,” others are no less clearly “of the devil.”6

The Next Step

When approached with an appropriate degree of care, the notion of ETs and UFOs can be thought-provoking and good material for sci-fi tales. The possibility of ETs and UFOs point to a broader canvas and, for all we know, the next stage of humanity’s journey through the cosmos.

As with any new and uncharted territory, however, it’s usually unwise to act on blind impulse. Those who believe they inwardly perceive and, perhaps, possess special abilities from ETs would probably do best to err on the side of caution.

Unconventional interior perceptions and alleged psi abilities should be soberly evaluated in the spirit of humility and, in whenever possible, within the context of informed and qualified peers. Predictions should be checked with actual outcomes. Either something happens or it doesn’t. And no amount of ex post facto fudging can change the fact that an ET prophecy didn’t come true. And interior perceptions should be checked within a larger group of qualified peers so that mistakes are identified and corrected. A genuine conversation among real human beings could result in coming to terms with personal issues or, perhaps, revealing faulty information that contributed to a false interpretation of an interior perception.

To rigorously examine a given truth claim is hardly a groundbreaking idea. It’s prominent in religion with the discernment process and in science with the peer review. And there’s no reason why sincere ET and UFO research should be any less responsible.

Image Notes

Image copyright © Michael W. Clark. All rights reserved.
See photo in middle of this article

These lights appear about ½ – ¾ inch below the moon in the original photo posted in the middle of this article (detailed here with enhanced contrast). This is not a UFO but at first I thought it might be. After taking several pictures of the same scene it was clear that the three lights moved in some kind of mathematical relation to the camera angle. I concluded that these lights were a quirk of the camera and am compelled to ask how many other UFO images could be explained this way.


¹ See, for example, Steve Hammons’ article, Extraterrestrials curious about American football?

2 “Psychic Aspects of UFOs” in Ronald Story, ed. The Encyclopedia of UFOs. Doubleday & Co. Garden City, New York: 1980, pp. 286-289.

³ On the belief in reading other people’s thoughts, see Have some people just lost it?

4 (a) George P. Hanson discusses this area in The Trickster and the Paranormal (New York: Xlibris, 2001, pp. 210-248).

(b) The belief in demonic influence is found in almost all religions, myths and folk traditions. See, for instance, Sir J. G. Frazier’s The Golden Bough. Some have attempted to integrate the spiritual view with perspectives from contemporary psychiatry and psychology.

(c) Spiritual seekers sometimes believe that a divine voice foretells the future or outlines the best course of action. Others say God appears to them personally. However, in some cases it’s unclear whether these voices and visions are from God or perhaps a NSI that phrases things and applies specific emotional tones (e.g. firm and domineering or perhaps gentle and loving) to prey on psychologically vulnerable individuals. Similarly, destructive cult leaders manipulate disciples through prolonged psychological, sexual and/or cultic abuse. Victims compensate by believing they’re special or ‘chosen’ vehicles of the divine when, more likely, they’re being duped and exploited by the charismatic leader (and possibly a NSI). Moreover, a cult leader or alleged spirit guide may give victims new names and even induce extraordinary numinous experiences to reinforce a delusional sense of superiority and holiness. Chrystine Oksana points out that victims of prolonged abuse often denounce their families and form ties with a new family, creating new names for themselves to fit with their new self-image. This may be a necessary stage in the overall healing process but the question remains: How many victims abreact their pain and heal from the initial abuse? In addition, Catholics and Muslims accept new names when entering a monastic community. So the issue of taking on a new name is potentially complicated and jumping to the conclusion that it indicates pathology seems unwarranted.

5 Jacques Guillet, Gustave Bardy et. al. (trans.) Sister Innocentia Richards, Ph.D., Discernment of Spirits. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1970, p. 104. Learn more about discernment »

6 Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, New York: New American Library, 1955, p. 361. Likewise, William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, suggests that some lower forms of mysticism may have “proceeded from the demon” (London: Penguin, 1985, p. 423). See also, An Outline of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, Chapter XVI – The ‘Cruder’ Phases.

Further Reading

Ashpole, Edward. The UFO Phenomena. London: Headline, 1995.

Bletzer, June G. The Donning International Encyclopedic Psychic Dictionary. Norfolk, Virginia: The Donning Co., 1986.

Dennet, Preston E. One in Forty: The UFO Epidemic. Commack New York: Nova Science Publishers, 1997.

Frazier, Kendrick et al. (eds.). The UFO Invasion. Amherst New York: Prometheus Books, 1997.

Godwin, Malcolm. Angels: An Endangered Species. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Hanson, George P. The Trickster and the Paranormal. New York: Xlibris, 2001.

Hough, Peter A. and Jenny Randles. The Complete Book of UFOs : An Investigation into Alien Contacts and Encounters. London : Piatkus, 1994.

Howe, Linda Moulton. Glimpses of Other Realities, Volume II: High Strangeness. New Orleans, Louisiana: Paper Chase Press, 1998.

Lewis, James R. (ed.). The Gods Have Landed: New Religions From Other Worlds. Albany: State University of New York, 1995.

Matheson, Terry. Alien Abductions. New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Story, Ronald D. (ed.). The Encyclopedia of UFO’s. Garden City, New York: Dolphin Books, 1980.

Thompson, Keith. Angels and Aliens: UFO’s and the Mythic Imagination. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1991.

Vallee, Jacques. Forbidden Science. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1992.

Wright, Susan. UFO Headquarters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Zukerman, Ben and Michael H. Hart. (eds.). Extraterrestrials: Where are They? (second edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


  1. You forgot to t mention the work of Steven Greer, The Disclosure Project, the National Press Club Conference in 2001?

    The material found on the website I believe is more in line with reality, with well above 500 witnesses, all from the military, intelligence community as well as pilots and NASA employees.

    Make sure to visit Dr. Steven Greer’s website: to really understand this phenomenon.

    Richard Lalancette


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