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Where the ancient extraterrestrials fit in

I think I have picked out some of the motivations behind programs like Ancient Aliens. Besides the frequent repetition that our world really was visited by non-human beings from other worlds, there is also an undertone of debunking (to use a term I don't like) towards the world's religions.

When Giorgio Tsoukalos reminds us that "there are no gods," his remark can be taken several ways, especially since Tsoukalos has alluded more than once to "the God that I believe in." His attitude is like that of Captain Kirk in one of the Star Trek movies, when he asked, "Why does God need a starship?" Well, turns out that the entity they were dealing with wasn't God.

All the same, there is a rather dramatic difference between saying, "There are no gods," and "There is no God." As I thought that over, the whole concept behind the program fell into place like a puzzle piece. I am glad the program is on the air and I hope they keep it coming.

We divide religion into those that are considered revealed (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and those that were invented or otherwise acquired through human experience. A primitive culture that tries to ingratiate themselves with the gods of nature is an example of an invented belief system (and also of one that doesn't work).

That is not to say that there is not a lot of overlap between the two. The early Hebrew people treated their One God pretty much like the pagans around them, offering sacrifices to him and living in fear of his wrath. But when Moses came to the blinding realization that God was not an earthly creature in any way, a process of reformation began (informally) in Judaism that is still going on. Of course the Jewish people have moved away from much of the morality that is detailed in the Old Testament. They no longer have slaves, harems or concubines. That is one of the reasons why we as Christians should relegate the Old Testament to its place in history and no longer consider it a guide for the lives we live today.

The anti-religion angle of ancient extraterrestrials (such as it is) contributes to one very modern belief. As Bishop John Shelby Spong writes, any God who can be killed (discredited), should be killed. The old "God is dead" theology ought to be properly understood today: it was the idea that a concept of God that people believed in before the World Wars has "died;" those who went through those horrendous ordeals could not believe in the Nineteenth-Century stereotypes. Dumbing down theology does no more good than dumbing down education, and that milk-and-water theology simply crashed on reality.

But the idea that the ancient polytheistic systems of belief are related to actual prehistoric visitors to our planet is useful. It ought to be clear that if such entities did come to visit us, some of them would be of good character and others, not so much. There are good and evil gods in every pantheon.

These persons (or things) might have been quasi-humans with superior attributes--more beautiful than humans, bigger, stronger. They might also have brought with them superior technologies. But the two are quite different. The Book of Genesis states clearly that the Nephilim (whatever they were in fact) could couple and reproduce with human women. So could the gods of the Greco-Roman ethos. And on the technological front, they were also handy with magical items like hammers and tridents.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and other, earlier records state that gods came to earth and tampered with human beings in what we now call genetic manipulation. Creatures were said to be created for the purpose of being work animals, mining gold for the visitors. We can't tell today if these legends are true, but there are gold mines in existence that are tens of thousands of years old--they must have been dug and worked in prehistory, long before any records of the earliest human civilization. We have no explanation for the remains of such cultural centers as Gobeckli Tepe in Turkey, which goes back for ten thousand years before the present era. Wikipedia says:

"It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dag, an area which geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains. Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Mount Karaca Dag 20 miles away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated. Such scholars suggest that the Neolithic revolution, i.e., the beginnings of grain cultivation, took place here."

We have to get used to the idea that there are things we will never know about human prehistory. But for the purposes of determining what religion is, we cannot begin with the re-interpreted myths of the Old Testament. We must begin by recognizing that the God of Moses was not a god of the Hebrews' ancient neighbors (not even the Egyptians). The Pharaoh Akhen-Aten arrived at a concept of a god that was above earthly existence. The Aten was not someone who visited earth centuries ago and imparted wisdom to humanity. It was a source of life itself, and that concept harmonized with the Hebrew concept of Jehovah that lived in Egypt before Moses set out into the desert.

The ancient visitors, on the other hand, may have had the sort of ego that wants to be worshiped--they may even have considered it a joke--or the primitive religion that surrounded early belief may have been invented by us (more or less intelligently). But what led up to the life and death of Jesus is simply a different thread of intuition and belief.

In reality, Christians do not believe in a God that likes to hurt innocent bystanders. The recent description of God as a psychotic mass murderer arose from a realistic depiction of the story of Noah (in a film of the same name). The shocking story of the Flood, a story that the Hebrews re-interpreted from the Sumerians, becomes pretty hard to live with when you see it spelled out ("Do I have to draw you a picture? Okay, here's one!").

Whatever the involvement and timing of prehistoric visitors, we must allow that many centuries of elaboration and invention followed. Humans came up with some ingenious ideas about religion, many of them bad. We have every right to figure it out and try to arrive at something sensible; in fact, I think we are obligated to do so.