ABC News, Jan. 3, 2002
By Geraldine Sealey
If Claude Vorilhon is right, Dec. 13, 1973, was a big day for the planet Earth.
That’s when 4-foot, dark-haired, olive-skinned extraterrestrials appeared to Vorilhon at a volcano in France and told him they created human life in their image using DNA, he says.
The scientifically advanced visitors, known as Elohim, supposedly stayed in contact with humans through the years via prophets such as Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, says Vorilhon, now 56 and a former car-racing journalist.
Now known as Rael, Vorilhon seeks to spread a message of science and spirituality and build an embassy for the extraterrestrials in Jerusalem. Last week, much of the world was introduced to the Quebec-based Raelian movement when the group claimed to have created the first human clone — a step toward achieving eternal life, they believe.
Since then, Raelians have been widely ridiculed as cultists. Indeed, many practices and beliefs of this sect stray far from the mainstream: the UFO theme park, the emphasis on open sexuality, and the leader himself, who wears his hair in a bun perched on his balding head.
But just how much more far-fetched is Raelianism from other faiths? Just the thought of comparing Raelian beliefs to Christianity, Judaism or Islam surely raises sacrilegious flags for many, despite the freedom of religion encoded in the Constitution.
Many religious scholars, though, see a broader definition of religion — and the Raelians fit it, they say, just as Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do.
Instead of the word “cult,” considered by religious scholars to be the most derogatory term of their field, modern sects are known as “new religious movements” in academic lingo. Just because a belief system is young does not make it wrong, scholars say.
After all, the Romans once considered Christians superstitious for not worshipping the emperor, said Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society and author of Why People Believe Weird Things. “I’ve never seen any verification of his 55,000 members.”
The Raelians are just the latest fringe religious group to make headlines in recent years and raise questions about what constitutes religion and what makes a cult.
Scientologists have caused a stir with celebrity believers such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, bitter legal battles and accusations of abuse and corruption. The Hare Krishnas defended themselves against brainwashing allegations and gained a reputation for soliciting new members in airport terminals.
While many religious scholars are accepting of new sects, apocalyptic groups often garner criticism. Heaven’s Gate, whose members committed mass suicide and made the sect extinct in 1997, believed a spaceship riding behind the comet Hale-Bopp would take them to heaven, for example.
“With groups like Heaven’s Gate you might be able to use that term [cult]; they wreaked a great deal of harm,” said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions and author of Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails .
From UFO Sect to Mainstream Religion?
To many Americans, though, Heaven’s Gate equals Hare Krishna equals Moonies. New beliefs don’t win widespread popularity here and are even less welcome than a century ago, Melton said.
Early in the 20th century, 30 percent of Americans were affiliated with a religion. Now, 80 percent claim to be members of a particular church. “The chances of [a new sect's] success are less because the pool of unaffiliated is less,” Melton said.
A century ago, Americans considered Mormons cultists, in part because of their polygamous ways. But now, many prominent Americans belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Mormons (who no longer advocate polygamy) are officially mainstream.
Is such acceptance possible for Raelians?
Usually, successful new religious groups are evangelistic and aggressive about recruiting members, and maintain a fairly low level of tension with mainstream society, Melton said.
Success for the Raelians may mean dropping their affiliation with UFO-style beliefs. “Mormons as polygamists couldn’t do it. Mormons not as polygamists could do it,” Melton said.
While some observers say the recent publicity about Rael’s cloning claims may boost the sect’s profile, some scholars say the foray into science may prove calamitous for the movement.
Cloning Failure Could Test Faith
Clonaid, the Raelians’ scientific arm, claims to have cloned the first human, but so far the company has not provided scientific proof. And even if it did create a clone, costly mistakes in the process could test Raelians’ faith and further ostracize the group.
“In terms of their own belief system, what they’re doing [cloning] is ethical, but not in terms of broader society,” Flinn said. To illustrate his point of just what can go wrong, Flinn pointed to the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, who has experienced premature aging and arthritis.
For others though, greater costs of Raelians’ faith could come to science itself, whether or not their cloning efforts were successful.
“This could be an important development for medical technology that’s now tainted,” Shermer said. “The real guys are worried Congress will panic and pass restrictive laws [on cloning] because some UFO nut says he did it.”
Cult or New Religion?
| Jehovah’s Witnesses||1869 by Charles Taze Russell||Believe in powerful God of the Old Testament, known as Jehovah and a heaven, where Jesus Christ and 144,000 “true Christians” will rule over the kingdom of earth. Do not believe in hell.|| Made failed prophecies for major events, such as Jesus’ return to earth and Armageddon. Do not accept blood transfusions and refuse military duty, voting and saluting flags. |
|Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)|| 1830 by Joseph Smith ||Smith said God and Jesus told him he should not join an existing church. Believe Mormons represent a restoration of the original Christian church. Believe in eternal life.|| Polygamy taught until 1890. Now, any members who practice polygamy are to be ex-communicated. |
| Scientologists|| 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard|| Man is neither mind nor body, but “thetan,” or soul. The goal is to move up the “bridge of total freedom” from the material world into a state of transcendent perfection.|| Investigated by IRS, FDA, and FBI. Been involved with legal battles over critics publishing texts on the Internet. In various countries, especially Germany, the church is viewed as a harmful cult. |
| Unification Church (“Moonies”)|| 1954 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon|| Believe someone must marry, raise a sinless family, and propagate perfection until the kingdom of heaven is established on earth.|| Criticized for mass weddings, some of which are arranged. Accused of mind control and deceit in recruiting. Massive financial empire and backing of right-wing causes have been questioned. |
| The Family|| 1968 by evangelist David Brandt Berg or “Moses David,” “Mo,” “Father David,” and “Dad” to Family members.|| Similar to fundamentalist Christians but believe in sexual relations outside of marriage and communication with departed spirits. || Sexual practices, such as using sex in recruiting or proselytizing, have been criticized. |
| Raelians|| 1973 by Claude Vorilhon|| Believe extraterrestrials created humans. The Elohim will not come back to Earth until there is world peace and an embassy has been built in Jerusalem. Eternal life is ultimate goal. || Formed Clonaid to give gay and infertile couples the chance to clone a child from one partner’s DNA. Teach “sensual meditation,” which critics say advocates free sex. |
|Heaven’s Gate|| 1975 by Marshall Applewhite (aka Do or Bo) and Bonnie Lu Nettles (aka Ti or Peep) || “The Two,” Bo and Peep, were extraterrestrials who would lead humans to heaven in a spaceship. Believed a spacecraft was waiting for them behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Committed suicide believing they were entering the next level. || |
All members of Heaven’s Gate are believed to have perished when the group committed mass suicide on March 27, 1997.
| Aum Shinrikyo|| 1986 by Asahara Shoko, or Chizuo Matsumoto|| Teachings offer freedom from suffering and illness. Draws from various Asian traditions, such as yoga and Tibetan Buddhism. || In 1985, Aum members poisoned subway trains in Japan with sarin gas, killing 12 people.|