DALLAS – Christopher Bader was one of those kids who loved tales of the improbable, and he grew up to become his own improbable tale: He’s a sociology professor at the conservative and Baptist Baylor University. He’s a Presbyterian. And he has a particular interest in people who say they are UFO abductees or victims of religion-linked ritual abuse. His study of the two groups was published in a recent issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
“My students ask me all the time: ‘Do you believe in UFOs? Do you believe in ritual abuse? Do you believe in Bigfoot?'” Bader said. “My answer is that I just don’t care whether they’re real or not.”
Studying the sociology of religion is nothing like delving into theology, he said.
“We’re not studying God. We’re studying what people who believe in God and live on earth do,” he said.
“God” and “religion” are defined broadly by sociologists of religion. Beliefs in UFO abductions and in ritual abuse both include a large dose of faith.
The scientific mainstream has not accepted any claims of alien abductions. And many who claim to have survived ritual abuse say they discovered the abuse by recovering long-repressed memories. The length of time between the alleged event and the recovery of the memory often makes it hard to investigate the claims.
So are there UFOs grabbing people? Are there satanic cults abusing people? In many cases, people believe without the kinds of evidence that would convince outsiders — it’s a matter of faith. And that means people in support groups for UFO abductees or ritual-abuse survivors can be studied as members of “new religious movements.”
Sociologists such as Bader study these small groups because they think it is a way to understand how successful faiths develop.
After all, the largest religions all started with a few people considered unusual by their neighbors.
“It really is no crazier than anything else,” he said of the outside-the-mainstream stuff he studies. “I appreciate it as a belief, and a sincerely held belief.”
Most of his work involves less controversial belief systems — why churches and denominations succeed or fail in drawing members. So when Baylor hired him a couple of years ago, he told his new bosses that part of his studies could seem a bit, well, odd for a Baptist school.
“But when I talk about Satanism in class, I’m not recruiting,” he said.
His paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal, is the fruit of years of tentative contacts with the support groups. Members are suspicious of outsiders. And much of his paper details how he gained their trust — and eventually, some information about them.
Bader was able to get 55 of the UFO folks and 51 ritual-abuse survivors to anonymously fill out forms detailing their ages, education levels and other demographic information.
That fills a hole in the study of these groups, he said. Most attention has focused on the beliefs or on the psychological effects for the believers. Bader’s goal was to identify the kinds of people who believe.
What he came up with has its limits, he admits. The sample size is small, and there’s no way to know for sure whether they represent the average UFO abductee or ritual-abuse survivor. But the results are in line with research on other small, new religious movements, he said.
Academics who study such movements tend to consider members of these groups rubes, he said. “They assume that these are some country bumpkins who believe that the UFOs are plucking them off their tractors. That’s not what people who are interested in new ideas are like.”
Of the 51 UFO abductees, 32 were women; 48 said they were white, six identified themselves as Native American (three chose both categories), 34 attended some college and 29 were white-collar workers. Most said they found some positive aspects to their experience.
Of the 48 ritual-abuse survivors, all were white women; 44 had attended college; and of the 21 then employed, 18 were white-collar workers. This was an unhappy population, and most reported that they had dozens of personalities.
What they have in common, Bader said, is that they mostly follow the pattern found in other new religious movements.
“The theory tells us that it doesn’t matter about the personality of the god involved,” he said. “The point is that a certain demographic is interested in things outside the mainstream.”
By Jeffrey Weiss, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS