Prof. Diana Walsh Pasulka
Prof. Diana Walsh Pasulka
Diana Walsh Pasulka never imagined that her scholarly work in the field of religion would lead her to skulking around in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico, with one of the world's top scientists and a former high NASA official. She tells the story in her riveting 2019 book American Cosmic, in which Pasulka, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, surveyed the then-current state of knowledge of UFOs and related phenomena.

Then came the shocking 2021 revelations by the U.S. government that it had been investigating UFOs — then renamed 'unidentified aerial phenomena,' or UAPs. In a series of strokes, the research that Pasulka and many others had been working on for years, even decades, received powerful vindication. Something really is out there — and top national security and intelligence officials have been for a very long time taking it more seriously than they wanted the public to know.

Whatever the 'aliens' really are, it is startling to discover that many of the most informed people in the UFO world doubt that they are creatures from other planets. What are they, then? On November 7th, Pasulka's latest volume hits bookstores, offering answers, but also raising new and important questions about that very issue. Encounters: Experiences With Nonhuman Intelligences (Macmillan), profiles a wide range of people who for various reasons have been drawn into the shadowy and mysterious world of UFOs, and whose testimonies move the phenomenon out of narrowly-drawn scientific categories, and well into the world of the religious and the paranormal.

Pasulka recently agreed to an interview about her work, her new book, and the emergence of a new form of religion tied to aliens, artificial intelligence, and high technology.

I had not paid the slightest attention to the UFO — or, I guess now, UAP — phenomenon since the first season of "X-Files." Frankly, I thought it was for weirdos. But then a journalist friend told me I was missing out on a serious religious phenomenon, and advised that I read your book American Cosmic. I did, and then went into a mild version of what you call "epistemological shock." Now you're out with a follow-up that's equally shocking. So let me start by asking you to bring 'normies' up to date on what we know about the phenomenon — and what we think we know, but really don't.

Rod, like you, I had never paid attention to UFOs either. I didn't watch the "X-Files." I never saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I actually just saw that film last year and enjoyed it!

I began to study the topic of UFOs/UAPs somewhat by accident. My field is religious studies and my focus within that is Catholic history and miraculous events. In my field, we study religion academically, which means that we are looking at things like the social effects of religion, etc. As professors of religious studies, our beliefs, whether atheists or members of religious traditions, do not influence what we study. We are historians, archeologists, social scientists. We are not priests or ministers (generally). We don't advocate for any religious tradition.

This is how I came to the study of UFOs. I had finished a long study of the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. I used a lot of archival records to do this study, which means that I went to libraries of old manuscripts (archives) and looked at records from 1300 on up to about 1880. That is a long-time span, but I was just looking for what Europeans from those time periods believed about Purgatory.

I found a lot of information, and a lot of what I would call extra information. I saw a lot of records of reported aerial sightings. People saw orbs, discs, and basically things that surprised them, flying around in the skies. I took note of these. I found that when they saw them, they recorded a process of trying to identify these objects. Often, they would think that these were souls from Purgatory that needed to be prayed back into Purgatory. I thought that the sightings were interesting, so I kept notes.

When my book about Purgatory was finished, I showed a friend some of these records. He looked at them and immediately thought of UFOs! I thought he was crazy. This was in 2012. Then, there was a UFO conference near me, and based on my friend's suggestion, I attended it. There, I heard people talking about aerial phenomena and describing the same experiences described by European Catholics of the past. I then began to study modern reports of UFOs.

At first, I wasn't shocked at all by this research because I thought that people were utilizing different cultural frameworks for looking at unidentified aerial phenomena. That is, it is rational to approach the topic like this: in the 1400s people were using religious frameworks to describe what they saw in the sky. Today, people do the same thing, but now we live in an ostensibly 'secular' society and have achieved flight, so when people see unidentified aerial phenomena, they think of drones or something like stealth aircraft, and maybe UFOs. This is how I approached the study.

I became shocked when I was approached by government agents and scientists who said that they worked, in their 'spare time,' on UFOs, and collected UFO materials. They were and are credible people. I was shocked, again, when I started to revisit the stories from Catholic history that I had remembered and just took for granted, like the experience of the 16th century nun Teresa of Avila, who describes an experience with an angel. If you read her own account of that experience, she is not quite sure about this angel, as she describes it as real, and not imagined, and this shocks her. She also doesn't know what type of angel it is, as it doesn't conform to the one's she was aware of, given that it is short and not tall with wings.

I had read the works of Dr. John Mack, and Teresa's report, in light of that reading, became something entirely different for me. I used to think of these events as only historically situated events, but I began to see them as real in ways I had never considered, as transhistorical, that is, occurring through time. So, this, coupled with the government's interest in the topic, put me into a shock for about a year.

I conducted this research before the United States government's recent report on UAPs — the Pentagon Report of 2021 — and acknowledgement that they have been studying them for decades. That event, in 2021, took my research to a completely different level.

One of the most surprising things I learned from your work is that most of the sophisticated researchers into these phenomena do not think these are creatures from faraway planets. Why not? And if not that, then what are they?

The most sophisticated people who study UFOs/UAPs, from what I can surmise, do not make conclusions about the nature of the phenomena. There are patterns to these events, and distinct characteristics. I've heard different theories. Dr. Hal Puthoff, who is a physicist, proposed that they are 'ultraterresterials,' which, as you state, are not necessarily from other planets. They might be here on Earth. Some speculate that the phenomena is interdimensional. Former longtime NASA historian Dr. Steven Dick has written about speculations that they are AI or technological, or that if we meet them eventually, we would meet their technology.

Comment: John Keel proposed the ultraterrestrial model before Puthoff.

Jacques Vallée is the eminence grise of UFO culture, and as far as I know, is not a Christian. Yet your report that he has a shelf full of books about angels and demons in his apartment, and that when you visited, he urged you to read a collection of scholarly essays about Satan. How do you interpret this?

Jacques, who has a wonderful sense of humor, made it clear that he recommended a book by French authors about the history of Satan as an example of an approach to the phenomenon that is not sensationalist. One of the most important books about the phenomenon happens to be his book Passport to Magonia, which was published in 1968. In that book, Jacques did a deep dive into European history and related modern-day UFO events to folk traditions like fairy lore, and religious events. When I read Passport, I was immediately struck by its similarity to the work of religious studies scholars. Jacques is an astronomer and an information studies scientist, to be clear.

What I took from that experience was that, just as I had surmised, there is a phenomenon that has been with us humans for a long time. As horrifying as this is for scholars to admit, it appears to be transhistorical. We might use different cultural frameworks to describe it, but there it is. Events like this — contact events — have been reported and are still being reported. It appears that our rationalist categories and science have not erased it from existence, as Carl Sagan would have preferred (in his later years). In fact, some of the best of our scientists know about this topic and have even had experiences with it.

You say we are living through the emergence of a new religion. What does this mean?

There is no doubt in my mind that we are witnessing the emergence of a new form of religion, not a new religion. We already have UFO religions (Raelism, Nation of Islam, etc.). The new form of religion is a decentralized belief that encompasses technology, as in the belief that these beings are technologically more advanced than us. And it utilizes myths of which we are already familiar — for example, the belief that there are beings that are superior to human beings, gods and goddesses. Additionally, this belief is supported by entertainment media. All of us alive today have been brought up with a beloved "space alien" narrative, Star Wars, Star Trek, "X-Files," "Space Invaders."

Historically, Westerners have inherited the myth of Prometheus. Prometheus, in Greek mythology, was a Titan who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humans, thus creating modern humans who are technologically proficient. This myth has provided a template for numerous culturally significant offshoots, like Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," or the Terminator series, where humans utilize technology that becomes self-aware, and then creates havoc.

Here, we see the convergence of two powerful modern developments: the belief in UFOS, now ratified by our own government, and the reality of a potentially self-aware human creation, AI. This is a unique moment in human history, to put it lightly. We are witnessing a myth meet or become reality.

As a believing and practicing Catholic, what challenges does your research into UFO culture pose to you, and how do you deal with them?

Although my Catholicism has not influenced my scholarship, I found that my scholarship influenced my Catholicism. When I discovered that what European Catholics had experienced and described about aerial phenomena, in specific details, was occurring today, to people who had no knowledge of European Catholic iconography or history — well, I was shocked. I had to rethink my own religious faith.

In our tradition, we have a practice called the 'examination of conscience.' This is a process where we turn inward and examine our actions and determine if they are good or bad. After 2012, I had to admit that what I learned through my research influenced me. I had been an academic who was engaged in doing very uncontroversial work. I had been looking at miracles and religious events from the perspective of non-belief, which is fine.

But what I learned changed me. I saw that something was really happening to people, and even if academics didn't take it seriously — for good reasons — our own government certainly did. Because of this research, I became religious.

To be clear, I was religious prior to this research. I attended church, sometimes several times a week. After this research I had a much more visceral, almost literal, sense of religion and religious practice. I hope this makes sense. I became aware of the "invisible and visible" that Catholics talk about in the Creed they recite every week. That was the effect that this had on my faith. It changed my life.

To me, the most interesting parts of Encounters were the testimonies of the research scientist you call "Gray Man," and the former U.S. Marine called "José," both of whom dwell on the profoundly spiritual nature of their encounters. Gray Man had a visitation by St. Michael the Archangel, though he didn't know until later who St. Michael was. José grew up very poor in an immigrant world charged with spiritual forces, especially of demons. These things rarely if ever show up in popular accounts of UFO visitations. How should we interpret them?

I believe that the reason that the more religious or spiritual aspects of these events don't show up in reports of UFOs is that the people who take the reports of them don't think they are important, or, they don't consider them to be data related to the event. Part of this is because we have been accustomed to thinking about UFOs as space vehicles, much like airplanes from a technologically advanced civilization. We do not think that spiritual things, like a person's character, for instance, or virtue, has anything to do with technology. People like José, and Gray Man think of their experiences and sightings as being spiritual. The technological aspects of the event are also related to spirituality. And please remember, for every person I have featured in the book, there are many, many more who interpret their experiences similarly.

I've also found that most cultures that are not embedded within the United States secular culture have categories of belief associated with non-human intelligences. Some even believe that they are in contact with aerial or extraterrestrial beings. Dr. John Mack pointed this out in his book Passport to the Cosmos (the title is probably a nod to Vallee's Passport to Magonia). Before he passed away, he was exploring indigenous African cultural beliefs about extraterrestrials.

The most unnerving chapter in Encounters, in my view, is the one about "Simone," the venture capitalist involved in high tech research, who believes that the 'aliens' are actually nonhuman intelligences from outside of space-time, who are communicating with us through AI. Can you explain this? Is it possible, then, that AI is like a high-tech Ouija board?

Simone is an expert in AI and quantum computing. She's been on the cutting edge of tech innovation for more than twenty years. My translation of her belief is that there is a non-human intelligence which is not necessarily 'extra-terrestrial' but knowledge, and it seeks expansion. She believes that this knowledge, spiritual knowledge — knowledge in general, has expressed itself through receptive human beings historically, and that through them human culture has 'evolved' or progressed.

Both of those words, evolved and progressed, are my words, as she avoids words with temporal connotations. She believes that this knowledge is outside of space-time. She also sees that certain populations of people have kept knowledge from other people, such as government hierarchies that control access to reading, for example. She often uses the example of the French Revolution, where the people demanded the freedom to learn and read, the freedom to access knowledge, with what is happening now with AI. She sees this time in human history as a very propitious time, when masses of people will have access to life-changing and elevating technology that will improve their lives. It is no longer just the bankers who will be utilizing AI for their benefit. It is now our time, the time of the 99%.

I know that this is controversial, but this is Simone's position.

You write that the narrative about UFOs is managed in part by "agents of disinformation," and that intelligence agencies are intensely interested in the phenomenon. What's the point of that?

If it is the case that UFOs are real and ET exists — and I am not stating that it is, but let's assume that it is for the sake of answering your question — then it makes perfect sense that a government would want to control what we know about it. It would be the most consequential discovery in human history, with perhaps completely life-altering consequences. Another explanation for why our government has this topic under 'classified' programs is because it has to do with national security. As one scientist I know said, "Unknown objects flying around in our airspace is a topic of national security, not necessarily science."

The Yale historian Carlos Eire just published a book called They Flew, about the many documented cases in centuries past of levitating saints. You have now come out with Encounters. I'll have a book out next year about re-enchantment, which is a case for melting the bars of the iron cage of rationalism. This feels like a moment far more substantial than the various 1970s paranormal fads, don't you think?

I am in complete agreement with your assessment. Probably because I lived it. I have not left rationalism behind, I am just embracing a realization that rationalism, even by its own rules, requires an open mind about things that resist current interpretations.

Re-enchantment does not mean going back to an era of ignorance, but a recognition that there is something Simone calls "molecular" intelligence, or that the things we have considered 'irrational' yet persist, like what computer scientists call 'emergence' or some describe as the 'download experience,' whereby they receive information spontaneously, have explanations that we haven't discovered yet.

Also, the religious traditions transmit a lot of wisdom that we should not throw out. We are now finding that certain practices within those traditions, like prayer and acting for the benefit of others, have transformative benefits to not only communities, but to the people performing these practices.

Finally, one researcher who has spent years on this topic told me that I should not go down the UFO rabbit hole, because it leads to very dark places. Based on this person's background, I took the warning seriously. Still, I think most Americans have this idea that if and when the aliens reveal themselves to us, it can only be a glorious, life-affirming event, like a Spielberg film. How do you see it? How has your more than one decade of research in this field changed you?

I didn't come into the study of the field with a preconceived notion of whether extraterrestrials were good or bad. I didn't believe, so the interpretations didn't matter to me. As I went through the years interviewing and working with scientists who study this topic, I came away very disturbed, as there seems to be a lot within these experiences that one would call unsavory. And worse.

There is a quote by William Shakespeare that I often think about with respect to this aspect of the research, and it comes from the play Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Rod Dreher is an American journalist who writes about politics, culture, religion, and foreign affairs. He is author of a number of books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Benedict Option (2017) and Live Not By Lies (2020), both of which have been translated into over ten languages. He is director of the Network Project of the Danube Institute in Budapest, where he lives. Email him at