The skeptics: Cults set off an alarm

Critics fear religious fervor may overwhelm critical thinking

To hear Paul Kurtz tell it, putting your faith in UFOs is a sin against science. "This is a kind of religious temptation," says the chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, "to leap beyond the evidence, to bring in other dimensions that are beyond any kind of logical or empirical support."

By Alan Boyle

What Kurtz has in mind here isn’t so much the sightings of strange lights in the sky. In the past, most of those sightings have turned out to be misidentifications of objects such as rockets or aircraft, meteors or bright planets.

Kurtz sees more of a religious aspect to the reports of abduction experiences, in which aliens pass through walls, transport humans to a realm of mysterious lights and sights, subject them to a series of trials, reveal visions — and in the end return their subjects to everyday reality.

"That’s like a mystical experience in one sense, analogous to classical mysticism," Kurtz says. "You get a lot of that in near-death experiences."

But as believers build UFO reports into what he sees as a New Age religion, complete with chariots of the gods and unworldly teachings, Kurtz is deeply concerned about the Heaven’s Gate scenario repeating itself.

"It may be pretty deep," he says. "Look at the Solar Temple. Just before Heaven’s Gate, four people killed themselves in the Solar Temple. ... You have all of the drama of the new religions emerging, clothed in science and technology."

Worries about UFO enthusiasm are nothing new to skeptical inquirers. Philip J. Klass, editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology and a longtime debunker, warned in his 1989 book "UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game" that the phenomenon had become "a cult that threatens the mental health, perhaps even the life, of those who unwittingly become participants."

Kal K. Korff, who has written books critical of the 1947 Roswell Incident and the Billy Meier space sect, says the current outer-space hysteria is coming at just the wrong time.

"We’re approaching the end of the century, and we cannot afford to take with us all the baggage that we have had over the past century," he says. "Now more than at any other time, we need critical thinking. And from what I’ve seen in the schools, critical thinking is not taught. And that’s a tragedy."

Kurtz also blames news and entertainment conglomerates for blowing the phenomenon out of proportion.

"The media is packaging the paranormal and selling it as a product," he says. "So they may have a book, a hardcover, a paperback, a movie, a made-for-TV show, syndicates. ... It’s a selling of a fictionalized account. We think the media have a responsibility to raise the level of scientific literacy and appreciation of methods of critical thinking."

Even as they criticize the media hype, the dearth of critical thinking and questionable practices such as the use of hypnosis to reconstruct abduction experiences, most skeptics will acknowledge the UFO phenomenon is worthy of study.

"All of these reports indicate that something is happening," Korff says. "But we don’t know what, and we need to know."

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