I've recently been laid up at home with a broken toe, comforting myself by rewatching some of the recent Marvel Comics movies on Netflix, and got to thinking about the popularity of the Chariots of the Gods hypothesis. You know, where the ancient pagan gods were actually aliens. Marvel used it as the premise for the Thor franchise, and it's also turned up in Star Trek, Prometheus, and a the most recent Indiana Jones movie, just to name a few off the top of my head.
I think it's so popular because modern Westerners, whether Christian or materialist, don't believe those gods really exist, but it seems rather strange and unsatisfying to say that they were just plain made up. They were so universally believed in, and while each pantheon was different they were similar enough that pagans seemed to readily identify their own gods with those of others. The idea that they were aliens, despite its total lack of scientific or historical support, provides an appealing way to honor the old stories without swallowing them whole.
But after reading Charles Taylor's description of paganism in A Secular Age, I'm even less inclined to think it's true. The image of gods as aliens fits with the modern view of gods, gods as 'extras,' beings who intrude upon a mechanically functioning universe with extraordinary, miraculous events. Paganism, though, was more about the day-to-day realities. Even if some ancient version of Marvel's Thor did show up and summon a little thunder and lightning for the frightened mortals, I don't think they would have assumed him responsible for all thunder and lightning unless they had some notion of a thunder-god already.
I'm no expert, but I can't help thinking that our image of ancient paganism has been distorted by the fact that the main thing that we know about it is the wild stories. So we all know about how Zeus impregnated Leda disguised as a swan, but only the specialists know anything about how Zeus was habitually worshipped. However, I suspect that the ancient priorities were different, and one clue to this is how they identified each other's gods. Take Odin the king of the Norse gods, for instance. Sounds like Jupiter, right? But actually, Jupiter was identified with Thor, while Odin was identified with Mercury the god of commerce. It doesn't really make sense unless you consider their points of interface with humanity. Jupiter and Thor were both creators of storms, while Odin and Mercury were both psychopomps, who escorted the souls of the dying to the next world. Their mythical personalities and relationships seem to have been less important than those tangible roles in human life.
I suspect that the Chariots of the Gods theory is also based on the modern idea that the heart of religion is believing that certain things happened for which you have no proof. That is obviously influenced by Christianity, in that belief in the events described in the New Testament forms the basis of the whole religion (especially for Protestants, since they are so Bible-focused). But here, too, the point of interface between God and humanity is the key; it's just unusual in that it's so focused on one point of interface, one that grows more distant from us as time goes on. Describing the revolt against sacraments in the late Middle Ages, the Catholic Taylor injects a bit of editorializing when he suggests that maybe, even if God isn't "magic," he might distribute his power through sacraments and rituals to allow for the fact that we are embodied beings and not just creatures of pure, ethereal faith in things not seen. Maybe so.