Close Encounters of the Theological Kind - Word&Way

Close Encounters of the Theological Kind

“We’d like the White House to pay a little more attention to UFOs.”

This is the request made to White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe, in Season 1, Episode 5 (“The Crackpots and These Women”) of The West Wing.

“Are we paying any attention at all right now?” Sam asks.

“No,” he is told.

“Thank God.”

Reality occasionally imitates art. This episode aired in 1999, when UFOs were still the obsession of a few and a joke to many. But now, they are suddenly getting serious attention.

Later this month, the Pentagon will release an unclassified version of a report detailing what the U.S. government knows about unidentified flying objects (UFOs!). This increased attention is partially the result of military personnel, over multiple decades, reporting encounters with unknown aircraft behaving in surprising ways. Those familiar with the report’s findings say it neither provides evidence of alien activity nor is able to rule it out.

All the uncertainty is garnering notice not only among conspiracy theorists but by those at the highest echelons of power. During an appearance on late night TV, former President Barack Obama said, “There’s footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don’t know exactly what they are. We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern.”

Avi Loeb, a prominent Harvard astrophysicist, recently wrote a book and has conducted frequent media interviews about an object in space that is confounding astronomers. While its identity is debated in the scientific community, Loeb dares to say that “the simplest explanation for these peculiarities is that the object was created by an intelligent civilization not of this Earth.”

Other scientists are far less certain. The debate about alien existence and visitation is filled with complexities, uncertainties, and hypotheses that are hard to prove or disprove.

In the interests of full disclosure, we’re both firmly in the skeptical camp. Like Donald Trump, each of us is “not such a believer.” Having identified this common ground with the former president, all our critics can cease complaining that we reflexively disagree with anything he says! Discovering that aliens exist would not bother us. We just happen to think the likelihood is low enough that we do not spend much time fretting over the question (this essay being an obvious exception).

What makes us so confident in our doubts? We could pretend to grasp the intricacies of Fermi’s paradox or pontificate about the Great Filter, but we have not gotten down into the scientific weeds. Our argument boils down to this: We have more important things to care about and so should you. In this edition of A Public Witness we aim to convince you that if aliens seem threatening to you, there is something far scarier that you need to consider.

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