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For UFO enthusiasts at Oregon festival, ‘it’s all extraterrestrial’

The UFO Parade marches through downtown McMinnville, Ore., during McMenamins UFO Festival on May 14, 2016. The festival regularly brings 7,000 to 10,000 people from as far away as Florida and Massachusetts to McMinnville, a city of 33,000, though organizers said attendance was down a bit this year because of the rain. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

RNS photos by Emily McFarlan Miller

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (RNS) Jan Woods believes.

She’s sure she saw a UFO back in 1978 when she was living in Nevada, something she spotted in the sky that was so amazing, she said, she had to pull her car over by the side of the road.

That’s one reason Woods, who now lives in Adin, Calif., attended the country’s second-largest UFO festival earlier this month. Another? She wanted to enter her dachshund — a “good sport” named Skeeter wrapped in silver duct tape and green cellophane — in the alien pet costume contest at the 17th annual McMenamins Hotel Oregon UFO Festival.

Jan Woods of Aiden, Calif., holds her daschund Skeeter in her lap before the start of the Alien Pet Costume Contest during McMenamins UFO Festival on May 14, 2016, at Buchanan Cellars in McMinnville, Ore. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Jan Woods of Adin, Calif., holds her daschund Skeeter in her lap before the start of the Alien Pet Costume Contest during McMenamins UFO Festival on May 14, 2016, at Buchanan Cellars in McMinnville, Ore. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

There was something for everyone — true believers, fun seekers and those in between– at the festival May 12-15 outside Portland — just as there’s something for everyone who’s ever looked up into the skies and wondered about something bigger than humankind.

Angels, demons, aliens — it’s all the same to Clyde Lewis, speaking in an episode of his Portland-based paranormal podcast “Ground Zero” that was broadcast from the McMenamins UFO Festival.

“We come from spirituality to the idea of the space age, and now coming together, we come to the realization that all people on this planet have an idea that something is out there watching us, whether it’s a god, an angel, a demon or even an alien,” Lewis said.

“It’s all extraterrestrial.”

Christopher D. Bader, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, agrees the difference between belief in the paranormal, such as UFOs, ghosts or Bigfoot, and belief in a religion is not that great. Both require faith, he said.

“People view the paranormal differently from religion, but to me it’s the same type of phenomena,” he added. “It’s belief in things that cannot be proven. That’s the currency of religion.”

The professor researched people who believe in the paranormal for the book he co-authored, “Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture.” He also is one of the principal investigators for the Baylor Religion Survey.

Those who are marginally religious tend to be the most interested in the paranormal, Bader said. Many very religious people don’t doubt the paranormal, but ascribe a different meaning to it, believing what appears to be an alien actually is a demon, for example.

People who aren’t interested in religion tend not to be interested in the paranormal either.

The difference between the two beliefs: cultural acceptance, he said.

“The majority of people in this country profess to be Christian of some sort,” he said. “So Christian groups — you might call them the accepted version of the paranormal or the accepted version of the supernatural.”

McMenamins Hotel Oregon began hosting the UFO festival after historian Tim Hills stumbled across a famous 1950 UFO photos taken by Paul and Evelyn Trent on their farm outside McMinnville.

Hills thought that first event might attract 25 people; the crowd overflowed the room into the hotel’s restaurant and hallway and onto the sidewalk, he said. And 17 years later, the event brings 7,000 to 10,000 people to downtown McMinnville, a city of 33,000, from as far as Florida.

Peter Davenport, longtime director of the National UFO Reporting Center, speaks during McMenamins UFO Festival on May 14, 2016, at the McMinnville Community Center in McMinnville, Ore. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Peter Davenport, longtime director of the National UFO Reporting Center, speaks during McMenamins UFO Festival on May 14, 2016 at the McMinnville Community Center in McMinnville, Ore. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

This year, for the first time, the festival’s speakers focused on a single sighting: the Phoenix Lights, a mass sighting of five orbs in a “V” shape that were reported moving over Phoenix on March 13, 1997.

Longtime director of the National UFO Reporting Center Peter Davenport called the sighting “probably the most dramatic event in the history of modern ufology” because of the number of witnesses, the size of the craft they reported and the interest the military apparently took in it.

For festival speaker Lynne Kitei, witnessing those lights outside her home near Phoenix set her on a journey that made her more aware of serendipity, of the connectedness of the universe and of what she described as the “potential we have as human beings.”

Kitei had no previous interest in UFOs and hadn’t grown up in organized religion. As a physician, she always looked for logical explanations. But she was also open to whatever might walk in her door, she said, and so what she experienced was profoundly transformative.

She set aside her career as chief clinical consultant of the Imaging-Prevention-Wellness Center at the Arizona Heart Institute to research what had happened, producing a book and documentary on the subject.

“Nobody said they had a revelation or anything religious at all, but the spiritual awakening is just amazing — in real time and long term — that these phenomena impart to the experiencer,” Kitei said.

The effect a perceived paranormal experience has on a person “really has a lot to do with how conventional they were before they had that experience,” said Bader. It’s a lot more life-altering for someone who has never considered spotting a UFO or Bigfoot than for someone who has investigated the paranormal, he said.

For instance, “Most Native American tribes are deeply spiritual,” said Jonathan Dover, a former law enforcement officer with the Navajo Federal Rangers. Dover, who has investigated many paranormal cases, had seen circling lights similar to those described in the Phoenix Lights in Leupp, Ariz., the night before the mass sighting.

“What we find interesting with Native American groups and UFOs is they just take it for granted that they’ve always been there. … This is just how it is; whereas over here it’s something that’s fearful or it’s something that’s shocking, I guess,” he said.

The UFO Parade marches through downtown McMinnville, Ore., during McMenamins UFO Festival on May 14, 2016. The festival regularly brings 7,000 to 10,000 people from as far away as Florida and Massachusetts to McMinnville, a city of 33,0000, though organizers said attendance was down a bit this year because of the rain. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

The UFO Parade marches through downtown McMinnville, Ore., during McMenamins UFO Festival on May 14, 2016. The festival regularly brings 7,000 to 10,000 people from as far away as Florida and Massachusetts to McMinnville, a city of 33,000, though organizers said attendance was down a bit this year because of the rain. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

It was their beliefs that brought three missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the UFO parade through downtown McMinnville, too.

The trio, wearing bright yellow “UFO volunteer” T-shirts, are serving the McMinnville area through the church’s Oregon Salem Mission. They’re always looking for ways to serve the community, they said, and someone in their congregation had mentioned the parade was looking for volunteers.

They couldn’t wait to tell their families back home about it, they said. But the idea of life on other planets wasn’t particularly earth-shattering to them.

“We believe that God’s created his children in his image,” said one missionary, who asked to be identified as Elder Carlisle. “The possibilities of God are endless.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

18 Comments

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  • In my mind the difference between belief in UFO’s and Deity is clear.
    Deity has power to Heal and Save Human Souls from Sin and Eternal Death.

    Faith, to be Faith, must be centered in Jesus Christ.

  • Damn you Robert Wise, Steven Spielberg and Erik van Dankein for creating the confluence of extra terrestrials and religious tropes (Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters/E.T., and Chariot of the Gods respectively)!

    You guys took all the menace out of alien invasions. Now we get the occasional annoying Space Jesus. How boring. The only time it really was exciting was Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Which was really more Space Aaron, Mohammed and Constantine.

  • “Christopher D. Bader, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, agrees the difference between belief in the paranormal, such as UFOs, ghosts or Bigfoot, and belief in a religion is not that great. Both require faith, he said.”

    Bullseye.

  • It’s interesting how similar beliefs in religion, and in other things like extraterrestrials, the paranormal, even conspiracy theories and pseudohistory, are. Among the similarities is a craving for answers — simple ones — when there are no answers at all, when they’re too complex, or when they’re emotionally disturbing.

    See something strange in the sky that doesn’t overtly seem to be an airplane? If one requires an explanation for it, one might be wondering about it quite a while but never get a sure answer. Yeah, it might be a weather balloon or some other strange but mundane object … but that’s hard, if not impossible, to verify. The simpler and easier conclusion is that it must be ETs! Of course it could be that! Why not!? Just latch onto that, and voilà! instant satisfaction.

    The same goes for a lot of other things. It’s particularly common when unexpected and horrific events occur, such as the Sandy Hook massacre in my home state of Connecticut. People decided it simply couldn’t possibly have been carried out by a disturbed, sociopathic 20-year-old. Such things simply don’t happen! They literally CANNOT happen! It must have been something else … either an event staged by “crisis actors” or a real massacre done by UN commandos, done for a nefarious purpose. They do this because they simply can’t deal with the reality that, sometimes, there really are disturbed, murderous sociopaths in our midst, capable of carrying out massacres like that.

    That said, it’s all very unnecessary. People have to learn to accept that, sometimes, things happen for reasons that are elusive or uncomfortable. It’s OK to not know what that weird object is in the sky. It’s OK to say, “Gee, I might figure out what that was, but for now, I’m not going to worry about it, and don’t need to leap to any simple but unfounded conclusions.” Really. It is! It won’t hurt any of us.

  • It’s good to see recognition of more mainstream religions as being on a par with the paranormal. However, I don’t see this as a negative for either, unless one rejects both as a materialist or just the paranormal via mainstream religious belief.

  • In many cases fictional works get incorporated into the beliefs and even the true life UFO encounter narratives.

    David Skal’s book.”Screams of Reason” ostensibly about “mad scientists” in culture devotes a chapter to the changes in UFO narratives. From thinly disguised parables of colonization (War of the Worlds) to Messiah narratives (my prior examples). Fiction and alleged fact blend freely into belief here . In many cases unconsciously.

  • Not prepared to totally discount the possibility of extraterrestrial life, I would however contend as a Christian believer, any interaction between such life and ourselves will be held in abeyance until we have resolved and fulfilled our earthly destiny as defined by the prophecies of the bible.

  • I agree with you on the influence of science fiction in the relationship between UFOs, alien encounters and religion. Skal’s work is one example of the case for this. However, this connection did not start with Hollywood. We can go back to figures like Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), or Guy Ballard in the I AM movement of the 1930s.

  • Fair enough. Wasn’t really making the claim it started with Hollywood. But I am claiming they are a major influence in an unintentional way.

  • “craving for answers — simple ones —”

    No. That’s standard ignorant atheist bias.

    If you think religion offers simple and undisturbing answers, you know nothing about religion. Listen to any preacher of any faith, even the tackiest TV preachers, and you’ll hear a LOT of disturbing answers and a LOT of admissions that some questions are unknowable. Good old “Hellfire and damnation” is not simple or comforting.

    Many religious answers are in fact OVERLY complicated. Why do we need a Trinity when one God will do?

  • And, as C.S. Lewis points out, it can be comforting to believe that no God will bring you ultimate justice and so you don’t need to rely on a Savior, confess your sins or worry about a judgment.

  • But Steven Speilberg also did a remake of War of the Worlds that was pretty terrifying.

  • Oh definitely. It was one of the weirder adaptions of the story. It even gave us tripods, the red weed, and a modern version of “the artilleryman” . Elements which were prominent in the novel but absent in adaptions or similar alien invasion flicks.

  • Re: “No. That’s standard ignorant atheist bias.”

    If you use it that way, you clearly don’t actually know what the word “bias” means. If you’re a typical Rightist, then you’re using it in a typically Rightist fashion, as a “snarl word” intended to disparage. But that’s OK. Disparage me all you like! Whatever pejorative words you hurl at me cannot and will never make me factually wrong.

    Oh, and … I’m not an “atheist.” You may think I’m one, but that also cannot and will never magically making me one.

    Re: “If you think religion offers simple and undisturbing answers, you know nothing about religion.”

    Oh, I know plenty about religion. I was raised Roman Catholic and converted to evangelical Protestantism. And that’s just for starters. I know much more about religion than most religious believers do … by a mile.

    ReL “Listen to any preacher of any faith, even the tackiest TV preachers, and you’ll hear a LOT of disturbing answers and a LOT of admissions that some questions are unknowable.”

    Correct. They do throw around all sorts of variations on the old “it’s a mystery” trope. That, I fear, is precisely the sort of easy answer I was talking about. It’s a quick way to shut people up and make them stop answering pesky little questions. So yeah, it’s really easy to toss around.

    Re: “Good old ‘Hellfire and damnation’ is not simple or comforting.”

    Actually — yes, threats of eternal damnation are, indeed, very “simple”! “Do as I tell you and believe what I tell you, or my almighty sky-tyrant will BURN YOU IN HELL FOR ALL ETERNITY!!!! Muahahahahaha!” is just about as “simple” as you can get! And it is, indeed, very “comforting” for believers in the almighty sky-tyrant to take “comfort” in the notion that they, being oh-so-very-special-in-the-almighty-sky-tyrant’s-eyes, will be spared an everlasting punishment that the rest of the insolent human rabble will be subjected to. If you think about it, what could possible be more “comforting” than that? To believe you’ll be able to revel in the endless torment of uncountable billions of other souls? If you need an example of how delightful many Christians view this notion, please read the last chapter (i.e. 30) of Tertullian’s De spectaculis (aka “On the Games”). I would post a link to it here but RNS would block my comment if I do, so I’ll just have to ask you to look for it yourself. All of Tertullian’s extant writings, including this one, are available for free in English translations on the Internet.

    Re: “Many religious answers are in fact OVERLY complicated.”

    Actually — no, they’re not. Most of it all boils down to the aforementioned “it’s a mystery” trope.

    Re: “Why do we need a Trinity when one God will do?”

    We “need” a Trinity because Christians have never managed to get past a series of christological conflicts that first erupted in the late 3rd century and intensified into outright skirmishing in the 4th. That, in turn, happened because a lot of princes of the Church were looking for ways to exert ecclesiastical, and by extension political, power over the Roman state (or, at least its eastern portion). I could explain further, but entire books have been written on the subject so there’s no way I could hope to do the topic justice in a comment. Suffice it to say the Trinity was spun out of ordinary human and historical forces during the late Roman Empire, and has been retained due to Christianity’s heavy — and often dysfunctional — reliance on precedent.

    And the manner in which Christians have managed to retain what is, essentially, an illogical, asinine and laughable notion (i.e. there are three distinct gods who are actually one, but are still definitively separate yet totally united) is that very simple trope: “It’s a mystery!”

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