D.W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic has all the trappings of a sober ethnographic study of unidentified flying objects. Its organizing thesis holds that belief in the existence of shapeshifting extraterrestrial visitors can be understood as an emergent religion, offering communion with a higher power, reassurance of universal interconnectedness, and a simplifying explanation for a chaotic world. Yet American Cosmic is itself a shapeshifter. The scholarly monograph yields to reluctant memoir: to a conversion story, to be precise, the genre in which a nonbeliever experiences a divine revelation and, having seen the light, becomes an evangelist. Pasulka, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, discovers herself to be the subject of her own inquiry. Against her professional instincts, she reveals that she, too, believes.

The premise that UFO mania resembles a religious movement is nearly as old as the phrase “flying saucer,” which was coined by giddy headline writers to describe the nine shiny circular objects that Kenneth A. Arnold, an amateur pilot, observed flying at outrageous velocities, in echelon formation, above Mount Rainier on the afternoon of June 24, 1947. Hundreds of sightings followed within the year, including one over Roswell, New Mexico, that three decades later, after the original Air Force investigator claimed a cover-up, received enough belated attention to dwarf them all. The mushrooming cultural influence of the great UFO awakening led Carl Jung to argue, in Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1959), that UFO mania was displacing traditional belief systems. It fulfilled a primitive human need that organized religion had increasingly left unmet. The UFO was, in Jung’s phrase, a “technological angel,” and green men zapping vaporizers were better suited to modern sensibilities than angels brandishing golden spears. When God exited, aliens beamed in.

This argument was extended by Pasulka’s mentor Jacques Vallée, the “father of the modern study of UFOs.” A French information scientist and venture capitalist, Vallée was one of the early developers of Arpanet (a predecessor to the Internet), helped NASA create the first detailed map of Mars, and consulted on Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (he served as the model for the French scientist played by François Truffaut). It is not merely the case, Vallée has argued, that the emotions UFOs provoke in witnesses are “religious in nature.” The inverse is also true: religion has always been extraterrestrial in nature. What we call aliens, Christians call angels and demons, Buddhists call devas, and the Lakotas call star people. The prophet Ezekiel saw fiery disks spinning in the sky. Saint Teresa of Ávila was visited, and stabbed, by an illuminated creature. Might the pillars of cloud and fire that parted the Red Sea have been the handiwork of extraterrestrial pranksters? Who lit the bush on Mount Horeb? What causes saints to levitate? By this logic, UFOs didn’t start appearing in 1947. They have always been here—and always will be. We’ve just developed new terminology to describe them and have invented cameras that can observe their antics in higher resolution.

Pasulka insists that it does not matter whether any of the foregoing is actually true. “As a scholar of religion,” she writes,

I am trained not to weigh in, one way or the other, on the truth or falseness of believers’ claims…. There is no need to consider whether the belief is justified or not if one is just analyzing its social effects.

Vallée, who has been characterizing UFOs as “the next form of religion” since at least 1975, typically issues a similar proviso. So did Jung. But it isn’t long before Pasulka finds herself in New Mexico, blindfolded in a car driving through a remote desert within a permanent no-fly zone, en route to a secret location where an alien spaceship is believed to have crash-landed the same year as the Roswell event. After Pasulka’s blindfold is removed, her guide hands her a metal detector that he claims has been specially configured to identify alien artifacts. One of her companions, a Stanford biologist, recovers an object that resembles shrapnel. Later he conducts an analysis in his lab and concludes that the objects contain no earthly materials and, what’s more, violate the laws of physics. Pasulka accepts his explanation.

When the Catholic Church considers a candidate for sainthood, it assigns a postulator, a supervisory official licensed by the Vatican, to scrutinize each alleged miracle. The miracle validation process can take years, even decades, due to the extraordinary rigor of the operation. Witnesses are interviewed, medical reports are scrutinized, and independent experts are hired to arbitrate; postulators have rejected purported miracles on the basis of DNA tests. The skepticism is understandable: the Church can’t risk embarrassment.

Pasulka assumes a similar posture. She is not interested in studying the YouTuber who claims to have footage of a UFO from the Galactic Federation of Alpha Centauri; instead she interviews the man who runs the Facebook group debunking UFO hoaxes. She meets hundreds of professional scientists who not only believe in UFOs but actively investigate them: terminally credentialed university professors, biotech CEOs, a former NASA astronaut, and a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a high-level security clearance. Although their experiences and theories vary, they tend to agree about one fundamental fact: the US government is in possession of alien spaceships and alien corpses.


Very few of them will admit this on the record, however. What emerges from Pasulka’s research is a portrait of a modern-day religious society that, until recently, has been largely concealed from public view: devout believers who, despite the strength of their conviction, refuse to discuss their beliefs openly out of fear of social or professional embarrassment. They are smart enough to know how ridiculous they sound.

Take Gray Man, the “head of a laboratory” for “a major research agency” who emerges as a leading figure in Encounters, Pasulka’s quasi sequel to American Cosmic, published without the imprimatur (or restraint) of a university press. Gray Man was one of hundreds of people who in 1994 reported the sighting of a “huge, round, very shiny object in the shape of a ball” flying over Brisbane Water, an estuary in New South Wales, Australia. Later, Gray Man received a nocturnal visitation from a murderous, luminous phantom brandishing a sword. Robert Bigelow, the near-billionaire founder of an aerospace company who helped develop the Pentagon’s classified UFO investigation program, believes that his Utah ranch is a space-time portal exploited by interdimensional creatures—an intergalactic Hartsfield-Jackson. Kary Mullis, a Nobel laureate in chemistry for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction, writes in his memoir, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field (1998), of an alien abduction. Outside his cabin in Mendocino County one evening, on the way to an outhouse, Mullis was greeted by a raccoon radiating light, as if plugged into an electric socket. “Good evening, doctor,” said the raccoon. “Hello,” Mullis believes he replied, before promptly losing consciousness.

The hero of American Cosmic, however, is the “Invisible Tyler D,” to whom the book is dedicated. In a desperate effort to assure us of his credibility, Pasulka swaddles Tyler in encomia: he is one of the “most intelligent and successful people” she has ever met, a former aeronautical engineer who “worked on almost every space shuttle that was ever launched” before leaving the program to become a prolific and fabulously wealthy entrepreneur. (“He traveled in a private jet. He drove an expensive sports car.”) After selling his first invention, a biomedical device inspired by information Tyler had gathered during an experiment in outer space (Pasulka is exceedingly vague on details, presumably to shield his identity), he was stopped at an airport by federal agents. They asked if he wanted to return to the space program—not to his old career in space shuttle design, but to a “very special” office, presumably located within the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. When he reported for duty, he was assigned to a desk next to a square room wrapped in concrete and metal.

“There was something in there,” Tyler tells Pasulka. Whatever that something-in-the-metal-wrapped-room was, the facility’s managers didn’t want it to escape. They went so far as to forbid employees from even talking about the metal room. But something did escape, claims Tyler: “energy and frequencies that changed the way he thought.” The something-in-the-metal-wrapped-room implanted in his mind ideas for novel technologies. Pasulka offers, as one example,

a material that has been etched at the molecular level with information. The etching codes the material with information that human bone “reads” as itself. It is then incorporated into diseased human tissue and bone, which helps the body recuperate from cancer and other illnesses.

Tyler shows Pasulka a photograph of a patient, a young mother of twins, whose bone cancer, he tells her, was healed by his invention.

This benign form of mind control is a hallmark of ufology. Believers call it the “download,” a psychic delivery of enlightening information from an “off-planet” superintelligence. (UFO worship, like most religious faiths, has its own delightful in-group lexicon: those who claim firsthand encounters with aliens are experiencers; scholars, government employees, and professional scientists like Tyler D. who study UFOs in secret, “from the inside,” are invisibles and collectively comprise the invisible college; and UFO activity is collectively referred to as the phenomenon, as in “The study of the phenomenon requires an openminded, nondogmatic approach.”) Tyler believes that most, if not all, of his more than forty patents derive from alien telegrams. So does Pasulka. “[Tyler’s] immediate bosses didn’t know how this functioned or happened,” she writes, “yet it was true.”


It is Tyler D. who brings Pasulka to the sacred crash site in the New Mexico desert, accompanied by another invisible, whom Pasulka initially calls James Master. “One of the world’s leading scientists,” Master has had his own run-in with men in black. After he appeared in a documentary in which he conducted an analysis of an alleged alien artifact and concluded that it was human-made, two men showed up at his office. “We want to know what you really found out about the artifact,” said one. “We want to know why you got involved and what else you might know.”

The men were not federal agents but invisibles. One was an employee of a large aerospace firm, the other a scientist “at one of the world’s most renowned universities” who moonlighted for the CIA. When they shared the findings of their own UFO investigations, Master decided to become an invisible himself. In the years since, he has pursued a prolific secondary career as a UFO investigator, analyzing suspected extraterrestrial artifacts and studying the brain tissue of airplane pilots who are worried they’ve suffered physiological damage from close encounters with UFOs.

“I have seen things that our current theories of science cannot explain, yet the evidence for them is very real,” Master tells Pasulka. “I know we are not alone. There is something here; what does it want? Is it studying us? I don’t know. But it is here; there is no doubt in my mind.”

In Encounters, Pasulka reveals that Master is the Stanford immunologist Garry Nolan, the author of more than 350 academic articles, the holder of fifty patents, the recipient of $10 million in federal research grants, and the founder of at least seven biotech companies. He outed himself as a ufologist after the Pentagon released a report in 2021, at the request of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that identified more than 140 UFO events for which extraterrestrial origins could not be ruled out. The publication of the Pentagon report lent unprecedented credibility to the phenomenon; as Pasulka puts it, it “ratified this new form of religion.” Nolan began giving public talks and returning calls from reporters. He appeared for a full hour as the sole guest on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Today. “Whatever this stuff is,” Nolan told Carlson, “it’s hundreds of technology revolutions ahead of us, and [possesses] an understanding of physics that we don’t appreciate.”

An experiencer does not tend to notice one UFO or meet a single alien. Encounters, much like religious visions or miracles, once begun, flow forth: Open my eyes that I may see. They also tend to be accompanied by paranormal effects: “downloads,” prophetic dreams, healing powers, and poltergeist activity. One experiencer describes bedroom doors opening and slamming shut, and clothing turning itself inside out. “Once you become aware that there is a phenomenon,” writes Pasulka, “it becomes aware of you.”

Nolan’s awareness, we learn, began much earlier than the office visit by the two invisibles. He was five or six years old when little people began appearing in his room at night. As a teenager, while he was walking through a dark forest, a shapeless formation of lights passed over him; in his thirties he awoke to the sight of a thin, smoky presence at the foot of his bed, urging him to go back to sleep. Nolan, like Tyler D., believes that his encounters have imbued him with a sixth sense, one that he claims can be detected biologically. “Once the phenomenon contacts humans,” he tells Pasulka, “it leaves a signature…. It is physical, physiological…. We can identify it.” (Nolan claims to use “cutting-edge approaches” to discover “what types of molecules are involved in this process” but neglects to disclose the details.)

As Pasulka grows close to her experiencers, they exhibit worrying signs of theological promiscuity. Gray Man, at Pasulka’s suggestion, comes to suspect that his visiting alien is Saint Michael the archangel, slayer of demons and guardian of children; he commands evil visitations to be gone “in the name of Jesus.” Another experiencer claims not only to see spaceships but to have witnessed a Catholic miracle, a “full-chakra Kundalini electric shock wave while chanting,” a past-life encounter, and a transformative encounter with a “luminous, numinous white light.” A veteran of the Afghanistan war refuses to distinguish between UFOs and demons. A venture capitalist, between alien encounters, serves as a deacon for the Episcopal Church and takes spiritual retreats with the Dalai Lama. Jacques Vallée identifies as a Rosicrucian and owns hundreds of books about angels. American Cosmic ends with Pasulka taking Tyler D. on a tour of the Vatican; he has an epiphany and converts to Catholicism. The phenomenon is not only a new way of branding the old religions, but a receptacle large enough to contain them all.

It also offers the promise of greater credibility. Congress, after all, doesn’t order the Pentagon to declassify what it knows about the workings of the Holy Spirit. One experiencer, while gathering evidence to support the canonization of a Catholic archbishop, asks Pasulka, somewhat plaintively, “Do you think there is a UFO connection here?” An extraterrestrial angle might make the miracle stick—might make it more real.

In ufology the appeal to credibility tends to take refuge in scientific metaphor and technological jargon: the more abstract the concept, the less explanation needed. “Downloads” are only the beginning. Quantum physics provides a “go-to explanatory framework” for claims that seem to defy the laws of physics. (“Recent developments in quantum physics,” says one experiencer, “give merit to the idea that a ‘place’ exists outside of our dimension of space and time.”) But so do the theory of a multiverse, the World Wide Web (aliens communicate through a “network [that] predates the internet”), and the field of epigenetics (“epigenetics is cosmic intelligence”). Artificial intelligence, indiscriminately invoked in Encounters, is, in the words of one of Pasulka’s invisibles, both “an extraterrestrial nonhuman intelligence from beyond space-time” and “closer to our true nature than what we call biological nature.” Even pseudoscience is more persuasive than angels.

Pasulka ends Encounters with an appeal for sympathy for her motley band of experiencers. “Perhaps a day will come,” she writes, “when UFO knowledge and its pursuit will be free and unfettered by the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of the previous century.” But as Jung observed in 1959, the opposite is true: “To believe that UFOs are real suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged.” Belief in UFOs is widely held, at least in this country. (In the UK, citizens are more likely to attribute paranormal activity to ghosts.) In recent years ufology has been debated with increasing sobriety at the highest levels of the federal government, which has upgraded the loony UFO to the solemn UAP (unidentified anomalous phenomena).

Last July a House Oversight subcommittee held a hearing to assess the threat of UAPs to national security. The star witness was David Grusch, a former Air Force intelligence officer. He is the most senior officer yet to claim the existence of a secret government program, in operation for decades, to recover and study crashed UAPs and their extraterrestrial pilots. He was joined by Ryan Graves, a former F-18 pilot who during his decade in the Navy regularly observed UFOs that defied any conventional explanation, including a motionless dark gray cube suspended inside a clear sphere. “The American people deserve to know what is happening in our skies,” testified Graves. “It is long overdue.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed. He cosponsored a successful amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act to mandate the disclosure of “recovered technologies of unknown origin and biological evidence of non-human intelligence.” On March 6, the Department of Defense published a report that, after reviewing the entire history of US government detection of unidentified flying objects, found

no evidence…that any sighting of a UAP represented extraterrestrial technology. All investigative efforts, at all levels of classification, concluded that most sightings were ordinary objects and phenomena and the result of misidentification.

But even the report’s authors doubted this conclusion would dissuade any true believers.*

Pasulka’s books occupy an uneasy middle ground in the ufologist canon—a canon lousy with uneasy middle grounds. Readers with religious convictions may find validation in the notion that UFOs are but the same old gods, dressed in green instead of gold. To credit a theological explanation, however, is to undermine a scientific one. The appeal to cutting-edge, dimly understood technologies and scientific theorems would seem to split the difference. You don’t go for saints and demons? How about string theory or the multiverse? The closer Pasulka treads to a grand unified theory of technology, theology, and ufology, the more the edifice groans and quakes. If the phenomenon is everything to everyone, it’s nothing. Which may be exactly what It wants us to think.