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July 29, 2008

A Credible Believer?

I once tried to write a college paper on extraterrestrials. I would say the attempt floundered pretty badly -- not only is it hard to speculate about the issue without getting into some sticky territory spiritually, but it also doesn’t help that most of the loudest voices among those who believe are seen as conspiracy theorists and nutjobs.

So I was interested when Edgar Mitchell, a veteran of the Apollo 14 mission, decided to speak out. The guy is a former astronaut; he can’t be all crazy, right?

At any rate, he’s getting national coverage, including the Reuters video below.

More than wondering whether it’s possible that aliens exist, I find it more interesting to notice how hungry the public is for stuff like this. If you haven’t noticed, the news feeds on sites like Yahoo! and AOL are littered with stories of UFO sightings quite regularly. The mystery of it all seems to pique our interest in a unique way. I wonder if the public isn’t eager to grab onto tangible evidence of something beyond itself, so we read the stories in hopes of finding something that will, once and for all, make us believe.

How could we parlay this widely-held interest in the supernatural into a discussion about our faith?

(The above link to an interview with Mitchell provides a lot more information than does this brief video.)

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Devin, it is an interesting topic and fascinating to consider why people are so intrigued by the idea of aliens and UFOs. For more commentary on the issue, readers, see these past BreakPoints:







Dan Gill

I don't see what his fortunate position as an astronaut adds to the debate. He simply says the same things that many others have said, all of them second-hand or third-hand. It's the same conspiracy theory stuff, only it's being said by a man who rode a spacecraft to the moon.


Don't you think that's a pretty tough gig to get, though--riding a spacecraft to the moon? I agree that he's repeating some things that have been said before, but it's hard to imagine that he's not a pretty intelligent person with some hard-to-get contacts.

Steve (SBK)

I think it adds weight (in virtue of his rare achievements). On the other hand, he sounds like a nut to me - who's merely speculating.
What is it about the US Government that allows all the secrets to be serendipitously in their clutches?

Anyway, I disagree with this wording: "How could we parlay this widely-held interest in the supernatural into a discussion about our faith?".

I would think that most views on aliens are strictly natural (as I believe the first link by CLH discusses) - especially used in worldviews that hope to "de-spiritualize" the universe.

But, that isn't to say that the "interest" per se can't be parlayed... and that would likely just come in the form of getting people to actually analyze their beliefs and assumptions rather than having a vague hope or speculation.

Just my thoughts...

Chris Clukey

I think Dan makes a good point, and I do believe that well-meaning people are sometimes victimized by those who get some kind of thrill from making themselves out as part of a conspiracy.

One time I came across a guy (I'll call him Bob for clarity) on an online forum who said he knew that Flight 800 had been brought down by a Navy missile because he had spoken with a retired Navy diver who had been tasked with moving the parts of the missile away from the rest of the wreckage. Another user asked Bob how the diver would have told the pieces of missile from pieces of aircraft, especially in waters where the visibility is often measured in single digits. If I recall correctly, Bob didn't have an answer for us.

J.G. Burkett describes a psychological phenomenon called "Wannabe Syndrome" in his book "Stolen Valor." It was first identified by a Veteran's Administration psychologist, who found that there were fake veterans showing up at VA hospitals absolutely convinced they had done tours in Vietnam. They had invented this fantasy to deal with feelings of inadequacy or (in a few cases) to handle guilt over draft dodging.

I wonder if Mitchell didn't just run into some folks with a case of wannabe syndrome.

Mike Perry

Technical expertise doesn't equate to good sense. During the 1982 elections, I was working for a biotech firm and was amazed at the number of those with science PhDs who'd fallen for Perot and were planning to vote for him.

A narrow professional education or a demanding career often leaves someone without the wealth of experience it takes to judge whether the many-times-removed sources Mitchell is depending on for his remarks were being honest with him or simply enjoying themselves duping a famous astronaut with one of the world's most popular conspiracy theories.

I'd be more impressed if a street-wise cop or parole officer had been the one making these claims. They're used to spotting lies. An astronaut isn't. An astronaut it trained to believe what experts tell him. "To deploy X, flip switch Y," that sort of thing.


That Burkett book sounds really interesting. But it's a shame they call it "wannabe syndrome," as if it wasn't bad enough to find out you've been manufacturing your own memories. Ha.

Chris, I think you may be underestimating what it takes to be an astronaut. It's certainly a lot more than flipping switches. I once interviewed a Christian astronaut finalist with a degree in aerospace engineering. He had to be one of the most intelligent men I've ever met, and yet he was only an astronaut finalist - he never made the cut to actually go into space. All that to say that, while technical expertise may not equate to good sense, I think the degree of training it takes to be part of a NASA operation has to count for something. And for me, it makes it difficult to believe Mitchell could duped into believing an easily exposed lie.

Steve (SBK)

Good point Mike on lie detection abilities...

Steve (SBK)

Good counter-point Devin...

Dan Gill

His intelligence is not in question. It's the credibility of his statements that is in question. Many very intelligent people have believed a lot of nonsense.

Jason Taylor

I really think extraterrestrials are simply fairies. Whether they live in the dark forest or on other planets they are essentially the same thing and neither is more credible then the other. Science made older forms of folklore less widely believed but human nature must have it's due.

Chris Clukey


I recommend the book heartily. Keep in mind that the main theme of the book is dealing with the flock of lies that have been put forth about Vietnam vets. It's a very, very interesting read.

Kim Moreland

"...underestimating what it takes to be an astronaut"
And then there was the astronaut (Lisa Nowak) who planned to maim or kill her rival.

Jason Taylor

The beliefs are not incompatable with being an astronaut. Marco Polo's believe in Prestor John, and deserts haunted with Jinn did not prevent him from learning how to survive the journey, keep his accounts and bargain with oriental shopkeepers. Likewise Edgar Mitchell's belief in Fairies on Other Planets, really does not prevent him from being a good astronaut. Unorthodoxy in one area does not preclude efficiency in another.

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