Nathan (vovat) wrote,

God Bless the UFO

One thing I'd been meaning to read for a while and finally actually read is Chariots of the Gods?, by noted Swiss tax evader, embezzler, and conspiracy theorist Erich von Däniken. The main idea behind the book and other works by Von Däniken is that the gods worshipped by early civilizations were actually aliens, and that these ancient astronauts influenced the progress of humanity. He casually cites various ancient writings and artifacts as evidence of this, but his main argument seems to be, "You can't prove it DIDN'T happen." Which is true, but we also can't prove that the pyramids weren't built by three-eyed bunny rabbits made of cotton candy (they were eventually eaten, which is why there's no record of them in Egypt today), even though I just made it up. People like to use gaps in scientific knowledge as ways that their pet pseudoscientific or religious theories could be true, but it just doesn't add up. Imaginative explanations to fill these gaps can make for interesting stories, and indeed Von Däniken's work has been influential on later works of science fiction. But it's also sometimes the case that fiction can become so ingrained in human minds that people start to assume it's true, and that's definitely the case with the flying saucer crowd. As mentioned in one of Penn and Teller's earliest Bullshit! episodes, many people who have claimed to have seen aliens reported pretty much exactly what had been in movies and other fictional works around the same time. And I've seen it proposed that Von Däniken himself was heavily influenced by works of fiction, most specifically those of H.P. Lovecraft. I haven't read much of anything by Lovecraft, but I've heard that many of his stories involve age-old alien monsters manipulating human society to their own ends. Von Däniken's ancient astronauts are considerably nicer and more human-like than Cthulhu, but the same idea is still at work.

Of course, Von Däniken's theories were pretty much dismissed forty years ago when he first had the book published, and they're not any more accepted today. They have maintained a certain level of popularity, though, despite the fact that they don't make a whole lot of sense. The author points to monuments such as the pyramids and stone heads of Easter Island, and says we don't know how they were made, which suggests that alien intelligences helped out. But why would these astronauts fly across the vast reaches of space just so they could tell some more primitive people how to make impressive but not-too-useful monuments out of stone? I can just imagine the discussions they had:

Ancient Egyptian: Hey, nice flying ship! Can you teach us how to make one?
Alien: No, I don't think you're ready yet. I'll tell you what. Why don't you stack a bunch of rocks on top of each other in the desert? We'll come back later to see how you did.

As I've seen mentioned elsewhere, there's also sort of an implicit racism, or at least ethnocentric prejudice, in the idea that ancient civilizations would have required outside assistance to have done anything that would impress anyone today. When speaking of the Mayans near the beginning of Chapter 6, Von Däniken writes, "The famous Venusian formula could quite plausibly have been calculated by an electronic brain. At any rate, it is difficult to believe that it originated from a jungle people." But why not? Sure, evidence suggests that the Mayans had complex knowledge of astronomy and no concept of the wheel, but not all societies develop in exactly the same way. Maybe their priorities were just different from those of the Europeans. We don't know, but it's rather insulting to look back at an old civilization that had made some significant advances and say, "Well, they MUST have had help!" Hey, maybe they did, but why jump immediately to that conclusion? And where did these aliens learn all their advanced skills? Were they taught by OTHER aliens?

I close with a few other suggestions from the book that I found particularly absurd:

  • Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed with nuclear weapons, and the Arc of the Covenant was an electric conductor.
  • When Ezekiel saw what he thought was the throne of God, surrounded by a bunch of bizarre angels, it was actually a space vehicle.
  • "'Giants' haunt the pages of almost all ancient books. So they must have existed." Yeah, because different societies couldn't have independently come up with the idea, "What if there were people, but they were, like, really big?"
  • The alien astronauts interbred with humans, because apparently they were genetically compatible with beings that developed in an entirely different part of the universe under what were probably entirely different circumstances. Really, what are the odds of THAT?

Tags: bible, books, history, religion
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