Angel or alien?

This painting by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich depicts biblical shepherds experiencing an angelic encounter.

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Fire in the Sky

The sky has always teemed with sights to stir the imagination: atmospheric anomalies, wildlife, optical illusions, aurora borealis, shooting stars and distant supernovae just to name a few. Even in our scientifically informed age, countless phenomena escape our understanding.

As Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung pointed out, these sights have no intrinsic meaning, but even the earliest humans jumped at the chance to project their hopes, dreams and nightmares into the vastness of the sprawling void. They personified the sun and moon as deities and poured their belief systems into the wheeling movements of the stars. And when they glimpsed strange lights, they read them as omens. 

Just as the emotional resonance of a UFO sighting falls to the observer, so too does the explanation. Humans have always experienced brushes with the unknown, and they've always fished for explanations in the waters of their cultural worldview. In the absence of science, they turned to their religious beliefs, folktales and myth.

Consider the UFO encounter that took place in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. In what has subsequently been explained as everything from stratospheric dust to mass hallucination, thousands of witnesses in the predominantly Catholic town claimed to see the Virgin Mary arrive in "an airplane of light" [source: Radin]. Before the advent of Christianity, the same event would have likely been viewed through the lens of a pagan belief system. How do you think such an event would be interpreted in the entirely different world we know today?

By framing a bizarre occurrence within the context of a belief system or worldview, an individual attributes both a "what" and a "why" to the phenomenon. Such a view also helps sanction the experience and allow the individual to feel like he or she is both special for having experienced it and normal for sharing such experiences with others. Perform an Internet search for "UFO support group," and you'll see for yourself.