Orthodox religion appears increasingly incapable of filling the God-shaped hole in our lives. But where to turn? NS writers on belief and discovery at the end of the century
At a Washington press conference last year, a reporter asked General John M Shalikashvili, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to "assure us that our country is effectively protected" from "invasion, abduction and other mischief from some kind of alien being".
"Am I the alien being you're talking about?" the general replied. But he can't joke these millennial anxieties away. The historian and UFO-ologist David M Jacobs, in his latest book, The Threat: the secret alien agenda (Simon & Schuster, [pounds]16.99), warns that it may already be too late to stop an alien breeding programme aimed at taking over the planet. Handsome, Levi-wearing aliens, he tells us, have been assigned as "personal-project hybrids" to nave regular sex with various earth-women. The aliens tell lies and have several projects apiece, but they are so seductive, romantic and cute that most of the women fall in love with them. "After intercourse," Jacobs reports, "some hybrids linger for a short time before putting on their clothes and going to another task."
Most apocalyptic scenarios and conspiracy theories are about threats and mischief of some kind. Because the final years of a century or millennium suggest to many people more a death than a date, images of sickness and danger tend to dominate in fin-de-siecle fantasies. As we get closer to the start of the new century, however, images of rebirth begin to appear alongside those of destruction or decay. In the film Contact, for instance, Jodie Foster plays a scientist who meets a spiritually advanced species of extraterrestrial radiance; in real life, the Harvard professor John Mack believes that aliens are benevolent, and that "the abduction phenomenon is . . . about the preservation of life on earth". In this New Age version of the apocalypse, aliens are actually gods - divine or at least advanced beings who are trying to communicate with us, and who have inspiring messages of immortality. We may have to master Sanskrit or astrology to decode their veiled prophecies, but these beings are on our side, and if we can solve their mysteries we can learn the secrets of the universe.
Specialists in solving these cosmic codes insist that truth cannot be apprehended through fact and reason alone. As Michael Baigent, in Ancient Traces, writes: "Reality encompasses more than that which we can see, touch, smell, taste, measure, weigh and generally record. There is the part of our reality which is after, or beyond the physical, the so-called metaphysical or supernatural; that part which encompasses things we call divine." He is, not surprisingly, studying for an MA in mysticism and religious experience at Kent. Similarly, Graham Hancock warns that "poised on the edge of a millennium, at the end of a century of unparalleled wickedness and bloodshed in which greed has flourished, humanity faces a stark choice between matter and spirit the darkness and the light".
Yet gnostic or not, these books seem addressed to obsessive lobbyists with lots of leisure time: chariot-spotters of the gods. Whether pedants or jet-setters, academics or autodidacts, the authors revel in factoids and the trappings of science - terminology, citation, diagrams, photographs and experiment swaddling the hypotheses, anecdotes, uplifting quotations, wild suppositions and rhetorical questions. They are all looking for a unified field theory of everything, striving to fit random bits of information into a coherent world view.
Baigent argues, along with religious creationists, that the fossil record doesn't support Darwin's theory of evolution, because there is no evidence of transitional forms. He believes instead that an advanced human civilisation existed millions of years before the cavemen, probably …