Cult of freedom

‘Everything he is against we are for,’ RaŽl says about the Pope
National Post (Canada), Feb. 28, 2003
Daniel Sanger, National Post

As the U.S. Congress yesterday debated new laws surrounding human cloning, the RaŽlians, the group that recently thrust the issue into international headlines, can expect more publicity. It will make them very happy.

The sect entered the international lexicon in December, when a senior RaŽlian “bishop” convened a press conference in Florida on Christmas Day to announce that scientists working for the group had successfully cloned a human being. With echoes of a miraculous virgin birth, it was the perfect story for the season (which, conveniently for the RaŽlians, is often excruciatingly slow for news).

That the claim was increasingly regarded as a hoax mattered little for the sect or, indeed, the fascinated media. “After the worst coverage of us, the most garbage-filled, there are still people who say, ‘hold on,’ and buy the book and join us,” says the sect’s founder, RaŽl, a former auto racing journalist and chansonnier once known as Claude Vorilhon.

But the media circus surrounding the cult’s cloning claims has focused on the freakish nature of RaŽlianism and overshadowed the fact that it is an intriguing, nascent religion.

Susan Palmer, who teaches religion at Concordia University and Dawson College in Montreal, defines a cult as “a baby religion that is just not toilet-trained, that is still throwing up on people’s carpets” and adds, “Anyone who knows anything about religion knows they all started out as cults.”

RaŽlianism is a cult of intriguing paradoxes: it calls itself “an atheistic religion”; it is at once virulently anti-pope but extremely Catholic. Most often overlooked — and most at odds with the dangerous and secretive cult template the RaŽlians are often squeezed into — it is a remarkably open and innocuous group. RaŽlians are an overwhelmingly tolerant and pleasant bunch. In fact, cloning campaign and generally bad fashion sense aside, it can be argued they are the model of what a religion should be in a modern, diverse society.

Few people have studied the sect as closely as Palmer. She first encountered the RaŽlians in the mid-1980s, around the time the sect began receiving its earliest media coverage in Canada. (Much of this attention was a result of the unfortunate — and intentionally provocative — symbol used by the group at the time: a swastika inside a Star of David. It has since been changed.)

Palmer was already developing a specialty in the abundant and varied new religious groups that have sprung up in Quebec in the wake of the Quiet Revolution and the precipitous decline in influence of the Roman Catholic church in the province. The area was appealing to Palmer because of her own family’s past. Although she grew up mostly in Europe, where her father was a diplomat, she is the descendant of renegade polygamous Mormons who left Utah to settle in Alberta in the early 20th century.

“I sometimes feel as if I’m hanging around with my ancestors,” she says of the time she spends with groups like the RaŽlians.

Palmer, who has written one book on the sect and is finishing a second, says the RaŽlians “were wonderful to research. They let it all hang out.” While they have become more guarded in recent years, she says they are still more transparent than almost any other religious movement, new or not.

In many ways, RaŽlianism seems like the perfect religion for the multicultural 21st century. RaŽlians embrace differences and encourage tolerance of all manner of diversity, whether it be religious, cultural or sexual. As a result, many members come from stigmatized or marginal groups, such as strippers or the gay community.

Members are free to float in and out of the movement — of the 50,000 claimed RaŽlians, only a small minority are believed to be active or to be remotely regular about paying the 10% tithe they are supposed to contribute to the movement. There is none of the shunning of lapsed or errant co-religionists common among Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. As RaŽl puts it, “I prefer that people be happy without me than unhappy with me. We’re here for pleasure.”

Those beliefs are, of course, notoriously libertine; they are also oddly defined by Roman Catholicism, which, like a parent, has provided a model for the sect to both emulate and rebel against.

Almost any interview with RaŽl betrays his obsession with the Pope. He sometimes asks to be referred to as “Your Holiness” and, when he feels questions are impertinent or mocking, routinely asks “Would you talk like that to the Pope?” He has also modelled the RaŽlian hierarchy on that of the Catholic Church, with his bishops the equivalent of cardinals.

It is hardly surprising that a new religion would define itself by referring to the dominant faith from which it has emerged, says David Frankfurter, a professor of religion and history at the University of New Hampshire. This is what sects and new religions do, he says. “It’s a big part of the rhetoric of new religious groups to juxtapose themselves against the established church.”

In most ways, the RaŽlians use the signposts of the Roman Catholic church to point the direction in which they should not go. Whereas Catholics bring children into the faith as early as possible through baptizing, “a person has to be an adult to become a RaŽlian,” says RaŽl. “We tell RaŽlian parents, ‘Teach your children all religions and let them choose at 13, 14, 15, when they are capable of forming an opinion by themselves.’ That’s the way all schools should be. What makes fanatics are religious schools. Jewish schools make fanatical Jews. Muslim schools make fanatical Muslims, Catholic schools make fanatical Catholics.”

Indeed, RaŽl sums up his sect’s catechism simply and candidly — and also by reference to the Pope. “Everything he is against we are for,” he said in an interview in Florida two years ago. “Everything. Contraception. Homosexuality. Divorce. All the values we espouse, he opposes.”

RaŽl says his decision to start up Clonaid and embark on the pursuit of human cloning was a result of hearing the Pope condemn the science shortly after the birth of Dolly the sheep.

The RaŽlian definition of itself as “an atheistic religion” and its goal of harmonizing science and the spiritual is also a reaction against Catholicism and the mysteries of the church.

According to RaŽl, nothing is unknowable and the destiny of our species is quite literally to become our creators. In his circular worldview, there is no beginning or end. We were created by aliens — our future selves — and it is through cloning and other scientific wizardry that we will learn to live eternally and create other species — who are, of course, ourselves.

It is a bizarre creation myth, he acknowledges, but what creation myth is not bizarre?

In one important sense, the RaŽlians stand out from other cults. Mike Kropveld, a Montrealer who set up the resource centre Info-Cult after a friend joined the Moonies, has been following the group closely for 20 years. In that time, he says, there has not been any substantiated charges against the RaŽlians. “No fraud or child abuse,” he says. He suspects the few allegations of impropriety have stemmed from disapproval of the RaŽlian beliefs and lifestyle rather than fact.

RaŽl’s tolerance is also reassuring to religious scholars. Frankfurter warns that sects are often unstable and liable to mutate quickly. “They can really go off the deep end,” he says. “But for the time being, it seems that the RaŽlians are doing fine.”

The crucial moment will come when RaŽl, 56, becomes too old or too ill to lead the group. Of course, there is the possibility he will clone himself, despite his insistence he is not interested in doing so.

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