2016-06-30
Why did the Raëlians emerge from obscurity?

The cloning issue has become an issue of great public interest and here is a group that took the most radical position on it. Their overall thought was that human beings were a product of cloning by extraterrestrials, and hence they have looked to cloning as a means of immortality. Their idea is first to develop the technology of cloning and second, to add to it their special spiritual technology which Raël claims to have. He believes they can move the essence of the self from one body to its clone. So when the body wears out you can simply latch onto another body. Which implies an understanding of the self which may be problematic. Cloning is one thing, immortality quite another.

What are Raëlians like?

I've visited with them a time or two. They're just normal people who've got some weird beliefs. Some of them are very intelligent. A number of them are professionals, people with Ph.Ds and scientific credentials. One of the reasons they're in Canada is they lost their jobs in France during the last seven years when France was on a big anti-cult campaign. A number of their scientists who had secular jobs that had nothing to do with religion [were found to be Raëlians] and they were fired. So they pulled up roots and moved to Canada.

Can you explain what makes the Raëlians a religion?

A religion is a group that has a belief in transcendent reality, an ethic based upon that belief, and a community that worships.

They have rituals?

Oh yes. There are quite a number of different kinds of rituals. They have the equivalent of baptism initiation rituals, and as you reach various levels of the group there are ceremonies that accompany them. There are priests and gatherings that are the equivalent of worship. They have a much more Eastern worldview, so that they don't have a kingly deity to whom they bow down and worship directly, but certainly they have rituals that embody their belief system.

So Raëlianism is still a religion even though its followers are atheists.

Well, Theravada Buddhists are atheists. The Jains are atheistic. That's why we talk about transcendent reality. Some of the New Age groups believe transcendent reality is purely personal. It's not "out there," it's "in here." But it's still religion.

Do you think it's possible any of their beliefs would become mainstream in the future?

I think it's highly unlikely.

Even their beliefs about cloning?

Cloning is a fact of life. They didn't start the research on cloning and they won't finish it. They will participate in it as one player. But the whole idea of cloning is bigger than they are.

The beliefs they have that go with cloning are the beliefs that in the long run will test the religion because they believe not only in cloning, but also that cloning is a means toward immortality. After you do cloning, then you've got to do the second process, which is to get the consciousness, the essence of the self, from one person to the cloned person. That's the dubious part of their belief.

Perfecting cloning is just a matter of time and research and that's moving forward in various places quietly, hidden from public view. But the process of gaining immortality? That's a whole other issue.

Does the fact that the Raëlians emerged in the last three decades have anything to do with the emergence of technology? Can we put them in context?

What you have beginning in the 19th century is the emergence of science, and then technology comes along and makes that science real. Technology has continued to grow and expand and at different points different groups have latched onto a technology.

We think of channeling groups-they come out of television channels. The UFO groups from the 1950s that were into space travel. Spiritualist groups from the early 20th Century latched onto the telephone. The medium had a "telephone conversation" with the beyond. Groups ride a technology for a decade or two. But what happens is that the technology goes off and leaves you because technology is continually growing and changing and the popularity quickly leaves you behind.

Are Raëlians apocalyptic?

Not in the sense that the Branch Davidians were. But it's got a kind of a millennial edge to it because of the fact that the folks in the group are getting older now, so there's an urgency to get this done now or they're going to die and go away and miss the immortality they've been working all their lives for.

How old are they?

Raël's got to be in his 60s. His followers are 10 years younger than he is, mostly, the ones I have met.

People remember the Heaven's Gate cult from a few years ago. It also had beliefs about UFOs. What's the difference between them and the Raëlians?

Raël had contact with a UFO very early on, who told him he was special and told him about the origins of the human race and that the human race was cloned and was the product of a scientific experiment the extra-terrestrials had carried out. That was the future of the race-to become scientists and technological whiz kids.

Heaven's Gate was much different. In that case you had two prophets who claimed they were themselves extra-terrestrials and had come from a higher level and were here to gather people to take them off to the higher level, and that that was going to happen right before cataclysmic change here on earth. While UFOs are common to both groups, the follow-through is very different.

Are there other cults whose thinking has become mainstream?

The group we would think of being as way out at one point and is now really mainstream is the Methodists. Two hundred years ago to call someone a Methodist would be the equivalent of calling him a Moonie. It was a dirty word. The reason they were hated was that they preached "perfectionism"--you could become perfect in this life. That's still a pretty radical doctrine, which to some extent has been abandoned by the Methodists.

The Mormons were really hated in the 19th Century [in large part because of their practice of polygamy], and were not really loved in the first half of this century [after they'd abandoned the practice]. But now you've got some of the most powerful men in Washington who are Mormons, from Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on down.

What about a group like Christian Science, which popularized the power of prayer?

Yes, in the sense that spiritual healing is not esoteric anymore.

And the Seventh-Day Adventists promoted healthy eating.

Yes, and that idea has certainly gained a significant foothold through the New Age movement.

What usually happens when a group goes mainstream is that it loses its distinctives that got it known in the first place. The Adventists started out as a cult saying that Jesus is coming next week, and now [they're basically mainstream] and they teach that the Second Coming is somewhere out there in the future.

more from beliefnet and our partners