Book Review - Abducted How People Come to Believe They Were Abducted by Aliens

Cultic Studies Review, 6(1), 2007, 82-83

Book Review - Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Abducted by Aliens

Susan A. Clancy

Harvard University Press. October 31, 2005. ISBN 0-674-01879-6 (hardcover), $22.95. 162 pages (179 pages including references)

Reviewed by Ron Burks, Ph.D.

When first asked to review a book on alien abduction, I confess I had doubts. This is not about a charismatic leader who, like Marshall Applewhite, controlled his follower’s lives and deaths. The second half of the title was what caught my attention: How People Come to Believe…. I spent more than 10 years helping people understand how, without any tangible evidence, they came to believe their pastor, imam, guru, counselor, or son or brother was unique, worthy of extraordinary honor or incarnate deity. This is clearly not a book about thought reform, at least as we would like to know it. It is, however, a book about thought, and its presence and absence in people’s experience. And this is where Ms. Clancy’s accessible but carefully written work fits within the goals of this publication and its field of study.

Not content to speculate on motives, drives, or factors within or outside of those who believe aliens abducted them, Ms. Clancy asked the “abductees” themselves. She sees her work as following Harvard psychologist William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience in that she takes the experiences of her subjects seriously, but not literally. She is a true skeptic. She questions the literal experiences of those she studied, but at the same time calmly dismantles simplistic arguments. Those she studied are not easy to dismiss as “scientifically illiterate, cognitively challenged, logically impaired, or … talking complete and utter nonsense.”

She found three reasons people find alien abduction accounts compelling: They feel real to the participants; the stories from every culture and country appear, at least in a few aspects, remarkably similar; and the “sheer number and variety” of those people who had the experience are impressive. She points out that abductees are “no more likely than anyone else to suffer from psychiatric disorders”; and while they do “score highly on measures of creativity or proneness to fantasy,” she points out that many others with high scores never claimed to have been abducted.

This description should sound familiar to anyone who reads this publication. The same has been said in these pages for years with regard to members of cults. Ms. Clancy underscores the importance of understanding the “very human trait” to believe in “weird beliefs.” This is important, she says, because “believing weird things may prove harmful for the believer.” Conversely, she later finds that most of those she interviewed felt they benefited from the experience, however terrifying, in ways that count. Life had more meaning to them.

Finally, she compares abductee-believers to those who believe in Christianity. Readers might object to her implication that both must be accepted without any physical evidence. Mainstream Christian theologians emphasize experiences must not be taken as equal to those articles of faith that have at least some historical basis. Nevertheless, her point is well made that a largely unverifiable experience, whether “weird” or more socially acceptable, can enhance people’s quality of life.

Many in this human rights’ field of cultic studies have sincere but in some ways unverifiable beliefs themselves. We find meaning in helping our fellow believers, whatever their beliefs may be, with the effects or aftereffects of experiences in which their sincerity has been hijacked for the gain or aggrandizement of another. The study of cults is about accountability, not for what people think or believe, but in the context that all people in all communities should be permitted and encouraged to think clearly and critically about every aspect of their belief.

Abduction: Why People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens is a sensitive addition to the knowledge base that can help people understand how it is possible for almost anyone to believe almost anything, given the right circumstances.