Working the web: Cults

Creating a cult is a cakewalk, says Clint Witchalls. All you need are a few ideas, an audience and access to the net

The Guardian/February 13, 2003

I've always thought that having my own cult would be fantastic: all those beautiful women lining up to have my baby, because I'm the third son of Osiris. And if that's not enough, there's always the plump offshore bank account and the chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce to consider.

To create a cult is a cakewalk. What you have to do is cut random sentences out of books such as Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, the Bible, and The Tibetan book of the Dead; mix them up and paste them on to a piece of card.

And there you have the central thesis for your new religion. The less sense it makes, the better. Like the Shopping Channel, cults work on the premise that there's one born every minute. All that's left to do is to put your kooky ideas on a website, and get yourself down to Leicester Square - or any other place where there is always a captive audience - for a bit of conversion. The only thing that prevents me from starting a cult is the end bit. The bit where I have to drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid, or be burnt alive by an over-zealous Swat team. That doesn't appeal to me too much.

The golden age of cults was in the late 60s and early 70s. Nearly every self-respecting hippie had dabbled with a bit of wicca or shared a bowl of mung bean stew with a Hare Krishna devotee. Remember the Divine Light Mission? Remember the Moonies? Recovering members can be seen licking their wounds at, respectively.

Nowadays, cults are more low key - you don't want to court publicity when you're making a batch of sarin in your Tokyo basement. It's easy to be fooled into thinking that cults had ceased to exist. Until a couple of weeks ago, that is, when Brigitte Boisselier, the chief executive of Clonaid, claimed that the company had cloned the first human.

Clonaid was set up by Claude Vorilhon, founder of the Raelian cult. His mission came to him after he met a bearded alien on top of a mountain in France. He had bunked off work. The alien told him _ well, I won't spoil it for you. It must be noted that Monsieur Vorilhon, an ex-sports writer, had previously boasted about his ability to generate free publicity.

The other great ex-sports journalist and master of publicity is our very own David Icke. Although Icke doesn't officially run a cult, he does have quite a band of followers who subscribe to his theory that the world is run by alien lizard people. At the beginning of this year, astronomers at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland said that if all light could be viewed at once, it would look turquoise. Icke retorted that he knew this already: that's precisely why he's been wearing a turquoise shell-suit since 1991, because it brings him nearer to God. The former BBC presenter's home page quotes Alice in Wonderland: "Dear, dear! How queer everything is today!" For more queer ramblings, watch Icke's show Headf**k on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Another master publicist was L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology. Scientology is meant to help clear people of unhappiness. "L" is long dead, but Scientology is very much alive. It's well known that Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley have all become members, but did you know that Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, is a Scientologist, too?

While rifling through the Ross Institute's database, I was surprised to note that many of the cults I thought had gone into liquidation or migrated to Mars were still thriving. Didn't the Heaven's Gate cult members "shed their earthly containers to catch a ride on the Hale-Bopp Comet" in 1997?

Apparently not. A couple of the surviving members have been busy digitising about 20 hours of video material, taken when the majority of the group were still in the here and now. The stragglers plan to join their mates in the Kingdom of Heaven. And if you, too, are interested in graduating from Human Evolutionary Level, you can still order the free set of CD Roms from "Heaven's Gate" on the Internet.

If you need a baloney antidote after all that, visit The Skeptics Society, run by Dr Nick Gerlich.

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