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Ancient Astronaut Theorists and Mainstream Scientists: Religious Ideologues?

Erich von Daniken, the Egyptain Dendera "Light Bulb", and Neil deGrasse Tyson [L-R] (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Erich von Daniken, the Egyptain Dendera “Light Bulb”, and Neil deGrasse Tyson [L-R] (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

by Aaron J. Schieding

It is well known that some establishment scientists believe in God or gods, but that doesn’t mean that they believe in Creationism. Many ancient astronaut theorists have non-traditional beliefs, but they don’t all discount the possibility of the existence of a supreme being. In fact, for both groups, there’s no rule that says one has to have any particular religious beliefs. Yet, members of both groups may sometimes seem like they’re acting on a religious-like ideology. Essentially, this stems from stubbornness to accept either new or old/established ideas.

In 1968, Erich von Daniken’s book “Chariots of the Gods?” forever altered preconceived notions about human history. He claimed that our civilization has been influenced by past visits from ‘gods,’ who were actually extraterrestrials. Obviously, this did not sit well with most scholars of history and religion. But from Daniken’s point of view, establishment critics were inflexible and had a collective mindset.

In the book, he pointed to ancient structures, written accounts, artifacts and artwork that seemed to be too advanced or out of place. He was sure that ancient astronauts had interacted with people, giving them astronomical knowledge and instructing them on how to advance society. Daniken said that people would have assumed that the aliens were gods, and that these interactions forever changed religion.

Is the Ancient Astronaut Theory a Religion?

To some, this may seem like a silly question. If extraterrestrials have visited—or are currently visiting—our planet, that does not mean there is anything supernatural about them. Theorists are just saying that aliens are beings who are more technologically advanced than we are. It is akin to a scientific exploratory team observing a primitive tribe in the jungle. As for theorists themselves, their beliefs are as diverse as the countries they come from. It is true that belief in extraterrestrials is the main bond between ancient astronaut theorists. However, they don’t worship aliens. In fact, at a speaking engagement, featured on Ancient Aliens (S5 E10), Erich von Daniken told the audience:

”I have to express one thing very clear. What I do here has nothing to do with a new religion. I will turn myself in my tomb if some idiots create a new religion according to my thinking. This is the last thing I wish. Absolutely not.”

For those unfamiliar with the Ancient Astronaut Theory (AAT), there is sometimes confusion about whether there is a religious aspect involved. Apparently, this is often due to people hearing about religions that incorporate aliens into their beliefs. The two most well-known groups fitting this description are Scientologists and Raelians. The former believe that an ancient spacefaring race placed many beings on our planet, who died off. Scientologists think that their souls are the same ones belonging to those ancient aliens. The latter group, apparently taking ideas from Erich Von Daniken and late author Zechariah Sitchin, say that aliens directly affected the formation of life on this planet. They believe that the aliens have manipulated our DNA, and that they secretly record our thoughts.

There are many skeptics and critics of the AAT, some of whom are scientists. In a review of the late Philip Coppens’ book “The Ancient Alien Question,” archaeologist Dr. Jeb Card criticizes the text for being rebellious against the scientific establishment, as well as being too spiritualistic in nature. According to him, “Coppens explicitly urges rejection of professional archaeology and modern science, as they have stripped the modern age of a philosophy rightfully based in mythology and religion. . . .He stresses that the AAH (ancient aliens hypothesis) exists because professional archaeologists will not incorporate Western esoteric traditions as true knowledge.”

Card’s response to the book is not surprising. He is coming from  a very different way of thinking, and seems to feel that religion and science are like mixing water and oil. To be fair, Coppens did claim that top Egyptians may have communicated, spiritually, with alien entities, by using psychoactive drugs. This could explain the lack of concrete evidence of a physical alien presence in ancient Egypt, but it is also just a theory. A scientist like Card would be averse to putting an unsubstantiated claim like that in one of his publications. Of course, Coppens isn’t the first ancient astronaut theorist who has discussed the possibility that religion has been heavily influenced by aliens. We know that modern religions have borrowed some concepts from previous ones, and that has been a pattern, historically. Yet, in terms of the AAT, it really comes down to the claim that many ancient gods were actually extraterrestrials. This is something that needs further research and evidence. Still, Coppens and his peers are saying that for ancient people, aliens would appear godlike. But, as already pointed out, these theorists are also saying that the aliens are simply more advanced than us. There’s no need for these theorists to have magical beliefs.

As mentioned, the work of late author Zechariah Sitchin, which was mainly published between the 70s and 90s, is popular with those belonging to alien-believing religions. One of the author’s critics has, surprisingly, appeared as a guest on History’s Ancient Aliens. Graham Hancock, famed explorer and author of books about ancient mysteries and consciousness, has criticized Sitchin as being a fraud. This year, in a statement about his views on the AAT, he had the following to say about Sitchin’s work: “a gigantic work of science fiction masquerading as fact, and giving rise to something like a New Age ‘religion’ in which people have ‘faith’ in the existence of a planet called Nibiru and its advanced, high-tech inhabitants — our creators, no less! — known as the Nefilim or the Anunnaki.”

There’s no doubt that Sitchin capitalized on the success of his books. He mixed his own translations and interpretations of ancient Mesopatamian writings with an expansive modernized narrative. Each book would claim to answer a piece of the alien puzzle for captivated readers. This is something mainstream religious texts have been used for, in terms of trying to answer people’s burning questions. Yet, Graham is clearly concerned that many readers believe that their “creators” are nearby and might want to help them. Less than a month after he made the above statement, he talked about seeing these kind of individuals at the 2016 Contact in the Desert conference. He got the impression that some of these attendees, presumably Sitchin fans, believed that the Anunnaki are like benevolent siblings, and that they could set humanity on a different path (after, supposedly, doing so in the past). Of course, the AAT is connected with modern ufology. Whether aliens were here or are here doesn’t change people’s belief in their existence. Are some people going to be more emotionally-attached in their belief of extraterrestrials? Sure.

Do Mainstream Scientists Have Their Own Collective ‘Religion’?

When it comes to the AAT, UFOs, and alien abduction reports, most mainstream scientists offer outright rejection of these things. They believe that the AAT is baseless. They claim that 95% of reported UFOs are explainable. And the other 5%?; they simply leave those as unexplained. Finally, they say that people simply make up abduction reports. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. Yet, the normal reaction from scientists is not surprising. Their careers ride on establishment tracks. They are all passengers inside of rail cars owned by the leaders of the worldwide scientific community. If an establishment scientist tries to veer off on a new track of their own, they often get derailed. Many scientists today, including NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan, Stephen Hawking, and Neil deGrasse Tyson believe that extraterrestrial life may exist. However, considering what we know now about the Universe, this isn’t exactly a bold claim. In fact, these scientists don’t believe that aliens have been piloting UFOs around our skies. If they did, they’d probably find themselves in hot water.

It’s no surprise that there have been numerous articles written about the Ancient Aliens show, many of which are highly critical of the series. The show features a number of interesting characters, who often make far out claims. One of the components of the AAT is that aliens must have traveled a far distance to visit our planet. The light years in-between Earth and ‘nearby’ stars and galaxies is not in dispute. However, astronomers and astrophysicists believe that it would take way too long, without using a wormhole, to make distant travel possible. Physics does allow for the possibility of wormholes, but it’s not totally understood how a craft could utilize one for a specific flightpath, or have enough energy to do so. Of course, ancient astronaut theorists say that if extraterrestrials are thousands or millions of years ahead of us, they’re using an advanced propulsion technology. For the majority of the scientific establishment, this is seen as pure speculation. There have been some scientists who strayed from the collective opinion of their peers. This includes the late Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell, as well as Dr. Jack Kasher, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Nebraska. The former claimed that we are being visited by multiple alien species. The latter investigated the now infamous 1991 NASA space shuttle video, which was filmed during STS-48. The video shows an object moving in orbit, coming to a complete stop, and then reversing course. Kasher had the following to say about what’s seen in the video: “whether it’s wormholes or warping space, there’s got to be a way to generate energy so that you can pull it out of the vacuum, and the fact that they’re here shows us that they found a way.” Not surprisingly, NASA disagrees. They ‘think’ that the moving objects are just ice particles. Mitchell and Kasher both disagreed with the scientific establishment, but they also have something in common. The former was most vocal about UFOs and aliens decades after he had retired. Kasher is a retired professor. In both cases, they didn’t have much to lose.

As regular viewers of Ancient Aliens know, there are often guests on the show who are not ancient astronaut theorists; they are scientists and academics–sometimes, they’re both. Two of the most frequent of these are Dr. Michael Dennin (Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UC Irvine), and Dr. Sara Seager (Professor of Planetary Science and Physics at MIT). They offer their expertise on various subjects, and the show’s editors fit interview clips with relevant discussion topics. Critics of the show allege that producers unfairly mix and match interview clips, in order to try to legitimize ideas from ancient astronaut theorists. This would seem to be somewhat subjective. However, the presence of scientists on the show certainly seems to be both positive and beneficial; clearly, this is due to these guests making scientific statements that may make various theories more tangible. However, if one reviews all of the scientists’ statements, with the exception of people like Dr. Deepak Shimkhada and a couple others, it is apparent that most of them are not willing to agree with much of the AAT. They may, personally, find it interesting. Yet, those who appear on the show can really be lumped in with outside notables like Tyson and Hawking. Their collective mantra is “aliens might be possible”. It might not be surprising if it turned out that all of these scientists carry the same pre-written phrase in their pocket, which reminds them to tow the same line. Before my critics label me as some conspiracy nut, I’m not saying scientists do actually do this. Still, there are examples of scientists pushing collective ideology.

In 1996, a group of NASA and affiliated scientists claimed that they found fossilized life in the oldest Mars meteorite ever discovered. Their claim received a lot of interest, which was boosted by a White House speech by President Bill Clinton. However, as time went on, the majority of these scientists’ peers said that their was no real evidence of fossilized life on the Mars meteorite. Today, the majority of relevant scientists continue to hold their ground and say that no alien life has been discovered. Additionally, in 1976, the Viking Mars landers collected soil samples, which were tested to see whether they contained microbial life. Out of three tests done, one indicated possible microbial life in the dirt. One of the key figures in NASA’s Viking project was engineer Gilbert Levin, who came up with the biology test. He’s maintained, for 40 years, that they did find life. While some agree with him, the majority have stuck with NASA’s declaration of no life found. As usual, it’s never a straight answer. But what about the SETI program? They’re listening for alien life. Well, even with SETI, we find the same old story with collective thought. The project has directors and volunteers all across the world. If someone thinks they’ve detected an authentic alien radio signal, they can’t just go public with their finding. The SETI community has to review the findings and determine whether they constitute a need to tell anyone. While it’s reasonable to be cautious, no claimed anomalies, thus far, have been accepted by the SETI community. Some people have created projects, to search for alien signals from space, that are independent from SETI. One of these individuals is famed ufologist Steven M. Greer. In recent years, he has criticized SETI, because he claims that a project insider told him that unusual signals had been found, but that the project heads have covered them up. He seems to believe that his rivals don’t really want the public to know the truth about alien life.This may or may not make sense. One would have to analyze who manages SETI, and their relationships with those in the scientific and political communities.


Obviously, due to the unusual ideas that ancient astronaut theorists put forward, they are constantly criticized. Yet, they research, write (sometimes, together), and theorize, which are all things that scientists do. Compared to the scientific establishment, there are not nearly as many ancient astronaut theorists. There are only dozens of well-recognized ones. They don’t always agree on purported evidence or theories. In fact, on Ancient Aliens, they sometimes offer conflicting theories on the same subjects. Over the years, younger theorists have looked at some ideas from Erich Von Daniken–as well as other earlier AAT proponents, and offered different explanations, but they didn’t have to go through an establishment group to do it. The only unifying agenda for these theorists is trying to convince the world that aliens have affected human civilization. Ancient astronaut theorists aren’t required to live by a set of standards, and they don’t all follow a well-organized belief system. Thus, it’s not really fair to claim that the AAT is some kind of religion.

In looking at establishment scientists, some of whom are staunch critics of the AAT, we can see more community structure and standardization of ‘beliefs’. For instance, most astrophysicists believe that life came from the “Big Bang”. However, their explanations as to how something came from nothing leave much to be desired. Of course, it’s just a theory, which scientists say they will build up over time. Sound familiar? It’s kind of like the AAT. For scientists who are truly dependent on the ‘system’, they have to answer to both their peers and the most prestigious leaders of their particular fields. Even Einstein and Tesla presented their ideas to their peers, seeking an approving reception. For scientists in the academic world, the hierarchical structure is a bit similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church, albeit without an obvious pope figure. However, just like ancient astronaut theorists, there are certainly disagreements between scientists. Oftentimes, one scientist will challenge another’s findings by publishing a response in a scientific journal. Even still, those journals are part of the system. In the grand schemes of things, scientists’ use of logic and the scientific method promote–normally–objectivity; due to this, scientists’ collective ideology mostly lacks a personal or spiritual quality, which means they don’t really resemble a religion.


Note: This article also appears on my blog at

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