Years ago British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard went to live among the Azande people in Africa. An educated person of the West and a social scientist, Evans-Pritchard rejected the witchcraft beliefs of the Azande. But he began to recognize that to live and work among the Azande one had to assume the reality of witchcraft. Once this was done, social practices fell into place and the world made sense. He found that to live in an Azande village required a leap of the imagination without which it was impossible to obtain the basic necessities of life. Only by acknowledging the reality of witchcraft could he negotiate the basic transactions needed to keep him alive.
Attempting to understand the logic that led 39 well-educated people to commit suicide because they believed they would be transported to a higher level of being by way of a spacecraft that was tailing the Hale-Bopp comet requires a similar leap of the imagination. Usually we associate UFOs with science, possible other worlds and hard-nosed science fiction. Most discussions of UFOs concern 1) the question of whether there is scientific evidence for them and 2) theories about extraterrestrial life. All this seems a far cry from the pseudo-theosophical and gnostic ideas propagated on the Heaven's Gate Higher Source Web site.
But at least since the time of the first "flying saucer" craze of the early 1950s, interest in UFOs has been closely tied to matters of spirituality.
The suggestion that extraterrestrials regularly visit the earth was first made by the American journalist Charles Fort (1874-1932). In The Book of the Damned (1919) and other books, Fort argued that modern science represented a new kind of "pries/craft," which, he claimed, refused to admit certain inconvenient truths. Presenting a monistic vision of the universe, Fort systematically replaced Christian ideas of creation and providence with a form of secular spirituality involving godlike extraterrestrials.
Many early science fiction writers, including Damon Knight (1922-), Eric Frank Russell (1905-1978) and Sam Moskowitz (1920-), were influenced by Fort. More important, his ideas about extraterrestrials observing and guiding human development were adapted by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1890 1965) in Triplanetary (1934), which he developed into his "Lensmen" series in 1948. This highly popular series united numerous spiritual ideas and mythological themes into a hi-tech space opera. George Lucas's Star Wars movies were consciously modeled on the Lensmen books.
Another writer influenced by Fort was Richard Shaver (1907-1975), who created a sensation in March 1945 when his story "I Remember Lemuria" appeared in Amazing Stories. This fantastic yarn about lost civilizations generated an intense controversy. A series of sequels followed, leading to the publication of the books I Remember Lemuria and The Return of Santhanas in 1948.
The first UFO books appeared in 1950. Most of these were uninteresting descriptions of strange lights in the sky. In 1953 Desmond Leslie and George Adamski published Flying Saucers Have Landed. Adamski claimed to be the first human to have encountered space aliens visiting earth in UFOs. Significantly, both Adamski and Leslie, like Fort and Shaver before them, engaged in theosophical speculation. Long before they used science fiction to transform theosophical concepts into pseudoscientific claims about UFOs, these writers were deeply immersed in occult literature. From the beginning, UFO stories were entangled with religious beliefs of theosophical origin supported by rich occult mythologies. …