About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

UFO abductions like religious experiences?

A new book, due out in October, "Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens," by Susan Clancy (Harvard University Press) draws a direct parallel between experiences of alien abduction and religious experiences, according to a recent article in the New York Times which features an interview with the author.

Indeed, that suggestion has been made several times in the skeptical literature, but it is now becoming part of mainstream science (even though of a "soft" science such as psychology), thanks to the work of Dr. Clancy. Clancy and her group did not set out explicitly to compare abductions and religion, and in fact they neglected -- unfortunately -- to ask their subjects about their religious beliefs. But by the end of their research, the parallels were simply too strong to ignore, something that hopefully will prompt a follow-up study addressing the abduction-religion connection more directly.

Among the interesting findings of Clancy's group are the fact that abductees are more prone to recall false memories (demonstrated under laboratory conditions), that they are more likely to be interested in the paranormal and UFOs to begin with, and -- most tellingly -- that they have a tendency to interpret their experiences in quasi-religious terms. For example, one of the subjects interviewed by Clancy said: "You know, they do walk among us on earth. They have to transform first into a physical body, which is very painful for them. But they do it out of love. They are here to tell us that we're all interconnected in some way. Everything is." That ain't that different from people who claim they have heard directly from God.

Benedict Carey, the NYT reporter, begins the article suggesting that abductees are neither daft nor psychotic, and that Clancy's work implies that their experiences "should be taken as seriously as any strongly held exotic beliefs." Right, except that the same study clearly hints at the fact that such "experiences" are entirely in the minds of the people who have them, not likely to be a reflection of things really out there.

Clearly, we ought to take the delusions of some people (religious fanatics like Bin Laden and George Bush come to mind) very seriously, because they have consequences for all of us (9/11 and the Iraq war, in case you were wondering). But that's most certainly not the way in which these people wish "to be taken seriously." No, they really want us to believe that what they are experiencing is as real as the pasta and fagioli I had last night for dinner. Or did I?


  1. I experience a mental state called hypnopompic hallucinations and let me tell you, as well as being terrifing they are very real to the person having them. Fortunatly I have experinced them all my life and I have ways of controlling and waking my mind from this state. For you that may not have experienced it, just close your eyes and think back on the most terrifying thing you have ever experienced and then think of being paralized as well it just feeds on itself! It's a very vivid experience that even after I wake can leave me disturbed for hours. They most often happen when I am over tired or because of stress.

    Because I have the experience of knowing what these are and where they come from I don't attribute them to anything supernatural. For the longest time I though it was sleep apnia(sp?). I can see how someone of a less aware background or experiencing this for the first time could see it as a visit from demons, aliens, or the devil. Because it most happens to me when my situation is already bad a, I would not doubt that others would face similar problem when they are stressed or having a life crisis. When you wake, if you are givin the wong information you could easly latch onto that explination and go with it.

    Life crisis + horrifing semi consious dream state + bad explination = Raped by gods / Deamons / UFO / "the gaser" / insert any mass media craze here


  2. For reference...

    The mad gasser.

    This is a recent 20th century account of SP becoming a form of mass hysteria including witness accounts and evidnece from nothing more than this same dream state.

  3. Hi Massimo,

    I'm sorry to get off of the subject, but I am interested in discussing "design in nature" with you, since you seem to have the same basic fellings about it that I do... from what I've read.

    If you feel inclined, then I'd appreciate it if you could post your four types of design for discussion.


  4. Hi Massimo,

    This is a bit off topic, but I was wondering if you had a rss or atom feed for your blog. I looked for it, but I couldnt find it. It would be helpful if there was one.

    Otherwise, great site !!


  5. MP: "Clearly, we ought to take the delusions of some people (religious fanatics like Bin Laden and George Bush come to mind) very seriously, because they have consequences for all of us.."

    Yes thy do. BUT extremism is an individual problem, and secularists can obviously be extremists (or enablers of extremism) too. Note the huge missteps of various secular societies. Germany would come quickly to mind, of course.

    How can one actually believe that there are only consequences for the actions of so-called extremists, when we know good and well that amorality and neutrality has consequences that are just as profound? Actually, that lack of action makes way, or clears the field, for extremism.

    There is something out-of-whack about your deductions, M.


  6. "Anonymous",

    I think that you got it right when you said that "secularists can obviously be extremists too".

    Meaning that the balance of extremes is as close to truth and reality as you can get. Which isn't the same thing as neutrality, it just means that the middle of the road defines the actual path that diametrically opposing belief systems derive.

  7. Sorry, no RSS feed available for this blog, at least not yet.

  8. Alien abductions are, indeed, analogous to a religious experience and I use that fact to make a point about faith in my debates with theists, who employ the word ‘faith’ in so many deceitful ways.

    I say to them, ‘suppose I claim to have been abducted and subjected to sexual and medical experiments by extra-terrestrials, and I work very hard to convince you. I talk passionately for a long time and occasionally you ask pointed questions. Finally, your eyes glaze over and you say, “I’ve listened to you for a long time, but you haven’t given me any logical reason, any shred of evidence in support. How can you expect me to believe such a crackpot story?”

    In reply I pull out my trump card from the world of theism and I say, “But the very lack of logical proof and material evidence is called faith, which is considered sufficient reason to believe anyway.”

    My example forces them to confront, probably for the first time, their fraudulent use of the word ‘faith’, which flips logic on its head. They use the word ‘faith’ to change INSUFFICIENT reason to believe to SUFFICIENT reason to believe.

  9. On the subject of aliens etc, I would recommend Carl Sagan's book: "The Demon Haunted World - Science a Candle in the Dark". He explores this topic really well and adds a great chapter about the state of science education and critical thinking in general.


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