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The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs

Brenda Denzler
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Pages: 313
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pngv2
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  • Book Info
    The Lure of the Edge
    Book Description:

    UFO phenomena entered American consciousness at the beginning of the Cold War, when reports from astonished witnesses of encounters with unknown aerial objects captured the attention of the United States military and the imagination of the press and the public. But when UFOs appeared not to be hostile, and when some scientists pronounced the sightings to be of natural meteorological phenomena misidentified due to "Cold War jitters," military interest declined sharply and, with it, further overt scientific interest. Yet sighting reports didn't stop and UFOs entered the public imagination as a cultural myth of the twentieth century. Brenda Denzler's comprehensive, clearly written, and compelling narrative provides the first sustained overview and valuation of the UFO/alien abduction movement as a social phenomenon positioned between scientific and religious perspectives. Demonstrating the unique place ufology occupies in the twentieth-century nexus between science and religion, Denzler surveys the sociological contours of its community, assesses its persistent attempt to achieve scientific legitimacy, and concludes with an examination of the movement's metaphysical or spiritual outlook. Her book is a substantial contribution to our understanding of American popular culture and the boundaries of American religion and to the debate about the nature of science and religion. Denzler presents a thorough and fascinating history of the UFO/abduction movement and traces the tensions between those who are deeply ambivalent about abduction narratives that seemingly erode their quest for scientific credibility, and the growing cultural power of those who claim to have been abducted. She locates the phenomenon within the context of American religious history and, using data gathered in surveys, sheds new light on the social profile of these UFO communities.The Lure of the Edgesucceeds brilliantly in repositioning a cultural phenomenon considered by many to be bizarre and marginal into a central debate about the nature of science, technology, and the production of a modern myth.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93027-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xviii)

    In the mid-1950s two small groups of individuals with very different histories and interests came together for a short period. Their brief interaction has had long-term effects on a third group of individuals—a larger group by far than either of the two principals. The first group consisted of a handful of people who gathered around a woman called (pseudonymously) “Marian Keech,” a student of Theosophy and other esoteric teachings and a practitioner of automatic writing. The second group was composed of sociologist Leon Festinger and a handful of graduate students interested in the growth and demise of messianic movements....

  5. CHAPTER ONE A Short History of the UFO Myth
    (pp. 1-33)

    UFOs and aliens are a seemingly never-ending source of amusement for most people. A cartoon depicts two aliens visible in the bubble top of a UFO flying away from Earth. One turns to the other and says, “It’s weird, Zork. We’ve been visiting that planet for years and the only ones who believe in us are the poor white trash!” The cartoon is funny because it plays on stereotypes about UFO believers. Those stereotypes are, however, largely untrue. Unidentified flying objects have actually been observed and reported by people from all walks of life—from professional astronomers, pilots, and presidents...

  6. CHAPTER TWO A Short History of Alien Encounters
    (pp. 34-67)

    In its most basic manifestation as an aerial anomaly the UFO was, to borrow a phrase from C. G. Jung, a “myth of things seen in the sky.”¹ In its simplest form as night lights and anomalous daylight disks, it presented formidable challenges to the grassroots organizations of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s who were dedicated to solving the mystery. Ideas about crashed saucers and a government cover-up conspiracy added layers of complexity to the basic myth and siphoned time and energy away from study of the core phenomenon while, some felt, yielding little of concrete value in return. The...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Ufology: On the Cutting Edge or the Fringe of Science?
    (pp. 68-102)

    In 1968 Kevin Waters (a pseudonym) tore an article on UFOs out ofPlayboyand gave it to his son Michael to use for a school project. The article was by Northwestern University astronomy professor J. Allen Hynek, the scientific expert on UFOs during the air force’s investigation into the phenomenon. Hynek had spent many hours in fieldwork and analysis of reports of strange aerial phenomena, and this was one of six pieces that he published on the subject. Five of those six appeared between 1966 and 1969.¹ Only two were in scholarly or professional journals; the rest were published...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Ufology and the Imaginal
    (pp. 103-123)

    In many ways the study of UFOs has exemplified modernity’s conflicted relationship with the “Other.” In a transcendent sense, this alone qualifies ufology as having religious valences. But even in a more mundane sense, religion and ufology have been intertwined, because religious motives have so often been imputed to UFO witnesses, UFO investigators, and those who believe them. Yet although many in the UFO community struggled with mainstream science, they nevertheless tended (or intended) to use a scientific framework for understanding UFO phenomena. There was almost no room in the organized study of aerial anomalies for religion, which one theologically...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Ufology, God-Talk, and Theology
    (pp. 124-154)

    The idea that UFOs and occupant encounters were demonic, not just in their behavior but in very fact, surfaced early in the UFO community. Some UFO students with Christian convictions proposed that the aerial anomalies that had been under study since 1947 were in fact the end-time “signs and wonders in the sky” spoken of in the Bible.¹ There were a number of books and treatises published dealing with the connections between UFO phenomena and the Bible. Many of these were more readily available through Christian book distributors than through the book distributors and outlets serving the UFO community. Nevertheless,...

  10. AFTERWORD. Final Thoughts on Science, Religion, and UFOs
    (pp. 155-160)

    I began this study by pointing out the problematic nature of much of the scholarship on the UFO movement, limited as that has been. In particular the equation of ufology with religion, made on the basis of studies of small groups led by people who claimed contact with aliens, goes against the self-understanding of the UFO community considered in its wider sense, for whom ufology is first and foremost a scientific quest to understand tangible, real-world phenomena. Yet I have also shown that the scientific status of ufology is in many ways problematic, even according to participants within that community,...

  11. APPENDIX. A Picture of the UFO Community
    (pp. 161-178)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 179-242)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-286)
  14. Index
    (pp. 287-295)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 296-296)