Apocalyptic Groups

The Raëlians, the religious group linked to Clonaid, are not unlike many other apocalyptic spiritual movements.

Los Angeles Times (Calendar), Jan. 4, 2003
By Reed Johnson, Times Staff Writer

Since the Clonaid company and its religious affiliate, the Raëlian group, announced what they claimed was the first successful human cloning last week, the howls of protest from scientists and ethicists have been matched by the titillated panting of TV announcers and newspaper headline writers.

Those reactions may intensify after Brigitte Boisselier, the chemist who heads Clonaid, backed away Friday from promises that proof of the clone's authenticity would be made available within days.

But some scholars who study new religions and cults say the Raëlians' spiritual beliefs are not so easily dismissed or ridiculed. Rather, in certain limited but key respects the beliefs resemble those of other, relatively new U.S. religious movements such as Mormonism and Scientology, as well as those of more contemporary sects. In their apocalyptic worldview, the fusion of religion, science and quasi-sci-fi beliefs, thepreoccupation with sexuality and sexual regulation, and the emphasis on the central role of women in their belief system, the Raëlians share tenets with other better-known religions, both mainstream and fringe, these scholars suggest.

John Crossley, director of the USC School of Religion, says that other U.S. religions have placed issues of sexual practice and reproductive regulation front and center in their belief systems. Mormon leader Joseph Smith took several wives and advocated that his male followers do the same. His purpose, Crossley says, was to "speed up" the creation of "the true Christian community" -- the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Susan J. Palmer, a Montreal sociologist and author of a forthcoming book about the Raëlians, "Alien Apocalypse," says that beliefs similar to the Raëlians' can be found "throughout Christianity." She cites the early Mormons, the Shakers and the 19th century Oneida Perfectionists of upstate New York, all of whom advocated nontraditional family structures; regulation of members' sexuality, either through bigamy, communitarian sexual practices or celibacy (in the Shakers' case); and/or "egalitarian gender roles." The common thread, Palmer writes, was a belief that a controlled form of sexuality and parentage could provide a "spiritual solution" to the "decline and fragmentation" of traditional families.

According to Palmer, who has studied the Raëlians for a dozen years and says she has interviewed Raëlian founder and self-styled prophet Claude Vorilhon and hundreds of his followers, the Raëlians' teachings resemble in some ways those of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh -- the late, Indian-born philosopher and founder of a utopian community in Oregon -- and the Washington-based Ramtha Foundation, whose followers include a number of female Hollywood celebrities. To varying degrees, Palmer says, the beliefs and worldviews of Raël, Rajneesh and Ramtha all attempt to assimilate social and behavioral changes brought about by the sexual and feminist revolutions of the 1960s and '70s.

In her essay, "Woman as World Savior: The Feminization of the Millennium in New Religious Movements," Palmer discusses Rajneesh's belief that "feminine energies must be released" in order to overcome the devastation of AIDS, which he predicted would decimate the planet in 2000. (Rajneesh died of massive coronary thrombosis in 1990.) At Rajneesh's Oregon commune, Palmer says, women filled more than 80% of executive positions.

The Ramtha Foundation also puts forward an apocalyptic worldview in which men -- construed as destructive creatures who "brutalize sex" and "eroticize violence" -- are urged to "see women as equals, as brilliant gods." The foundation is headed by businesswoman J.Z. Knight, who claims to channel the spirit of Ramtha, a 40,000-year-old warrior.

Much attention has been paid to the Raëlians' belief that the human race was created by extraterrestrial scientists in test tubes from their own DNA. Yet the idea of extraterrestrials intervening in and altering humankind's destiny is hardly novel.

It shares certain parallels with the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. Science fiction author H.G. Wells also posited the idea of extraterrestrials manipulating human genes to produce a race of earthly supermen in one of his last novels, "Star-Begotten" (1937). The notion that we are star-begotten children of the universe appears in such disparate pop-culture sources as Max Ehrmann's 1927 proto-New Agey poetic mantra "Desiderata" ("You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here") and in the final frames of Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey," at the endof which a humongous Star Baby presides over the implied spiritual rebirth of the human race.

Vorilhon's preoccupations are also not without precedent in this latest age of millenarian anxiety. In her essay, Palmer identifies Raël (as Vorilhon says he was renamed by aliens he encountered in 1973), Rajneesh and Ramtha as "profeminist prophets" who champion theologies in which women are assigned what is deemed by the faithful to be a spiritually exalted role. Boisselier, the Clonaid leader, reportedly holds the rank of bishop within the Raëlians.

Frequently, these roles evolve in conjunction with an apocalyptic vision of the future, an intimation that time may be running out for the human race, says Palmer, who in her essay quotes Vorilhon as having said that, "the Age of Apocalypse will be the age of women!" Even the timing of Clonaid's announcement that the clone baby had been "born" on Dec. 26 seemed designed to suggest parallels with the Virgin Mary's divinely authored conception of Jesus.

"A close look at the authority patterns of new religious organizations reveals an abundance of female messiahs, mediums, and sibyls, and feminine leadership has become surprisingly common," writes Palmer, who teaches at Dawson College and Concordia University, both in Montreal. "Even among the rank-and-file members there seems to be a prevailing notion that their women will play a key role in the endtime -- as midwives assisting the birth of a new age, as mothers of a future homo superiorus, or as usherettes in a cosmic theater."

The Shakers, for example, regarded their leader, Mother Ann Lee, as the messiah. In the Raëlian movement, a prominent role is designated to the Order of the Angels, an elite group of beautiful young women who volunteer to devote themselves completely, including sexually, to the alien creators and to the prophet Vorilhon. Their tasks also may include serving as the human incubators of cloned embryos. Monogamous sexual relationships and traditional notions of motherhood are disavowed by the group, Palmer says.

Palmer also emphasizes that in Raëlian belief, behavioral qualities that are stereotypically regarded as "female" are prized above "male" ones. "In the movement it's very charismatic to be very feminine, very soft and gentle. And the men in the movement are that way. It's very uncool to be uptight or to yell at someone." Palmer says one male Raëlian she met later dropped out of the group protesting, " 'Why can't I be an angel? This is sexist!' "

Palmer acknowledges that the idea of the Order of the Angels smacks of the "Playboy" philosophy, with its musty ideas of compliant female sexuality in service to swingin' '60s bachelor-pad-dom. (Palmer describes Vorilhon as "like a typical Frenchman, sort of a sportsman playboy.") The Raëlian Angels also may put some people in mind of Margaret Atwood's 1986 novel "The Handmaid's Tale," about a futuristic dystopia in which young women are made to act as sexual surrogates for sterile upper-class women -- exalted in one sense, but thoroughly exploited.

Yet Palmer stresses that the Raëlians' view of woman's role as a kind of global rehabilitator offers a sharp contrast to such apocalyptic, male-centric cults as that of the Rev. Jim Jones, who led his followers into mass suicide in Guyana in 1978, or the male "monks" of the "Heaven's Gate" cult, who committed mass suicide in San Diego in March 1997. Prophets like Raël, Rajneesh and Ramtha proffer an implicitly more hopeful post-apocalyptic vision, emphasizing birth and rebirth rather than death.

"Catastrophic groups tend to be more patriarchal in their orientation," says Stephen O'Leary, associate professor of communication arts in USC's Annenberg School and author of "Arguing the Apocalypse" (Oxford University Press).

"Apocalypse has always had a tragic and a comic side," O'Leary says, one based on fear, the other on hope. "The fear is we will all die and the hope is there's a new age coming and we will be redeemed.... There's anxieties about sexuality, technology, cloning, and all these new things that are transforming our lives, and what [the Raëlians] are trying to do is provide a positive spin in which they're saying this [cloning] is transforming the world in a positive way."

Even so, Palmer is uncertain whether Raël/Vorilhon was prepared for the furor that has arisen around Clonaid's announcement. She suggests that his book "Yes To Human Cloning" may originally have been intended as a tongue-in-cheek argument masquerading as a more serious sociological tract. She compares it to Jonathan Swift's satiric "A Modest Proposal," in which the author of "Gulliver's Travels" argued that the cure for 18th century Ireland's famine was to eat the babies of the poor.

"I'm not sure that Raël even expected this to happen," she says. "I think he's a little freaked out." Like any expectant papa, perhaps?