Raël's UFO Religion
Rutgers University Press, 226 pages, $21.95 (pb)
Spiritual notions centred on UFOs aren't always much further outside rational comprehension than are mainstream religious beliefs.
The night sky affords visible affirmation of the infinity within which our minuscule existences operate. The possibility of extraterrestrial life somewhere in the vast universe doesn't violate ordinary logic. And in an era when technology is a god, it follows that a form of divinity may be conferred on some imagined, distant species of great technological advancement.
Throughout decades of claimed UFO sightings and alien encounters, a modest number of fervent people have responded this way. Canadian photojournalist Douglas Curran once spent years driving around North America to meet them, the effort resulting in a 1985 book called In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space.
Under a predictably vivid quilting of eccentricity, the rural Alberta gas-station operators and California retirees who had built flying saucers in their backyards evinced an unexpected kind of poignancy. While humans were poised to destroy themselves with their atom bombs, they believed, wiser alien brothers had harnessed technology to better ends, and these space creatures -- Jesus was often perceived as one of them -- represented hope.
Is science fiction as a religion more fantastic than, say, the Judeo-Christian mythos? Lacking the weight of history or broad acceptance, it's certainly easier to ridicule. More to the point, its "prophets" are our entirely visible contemporaries, and its cultish excesses and hypocrisies are subject to present-day showcasing. Nascent Judaism and Christianity endured cataclysms, but it's unclear they could have survived CNN.
Which brings us to a Quebec-centred UFO group and its leader Rael, the self-proclaimed son of an extraterrestrial named Yahweh and half-brother to Jesus, Moses and Buddha. There's little poignancy here, except perhaps for followers who lost marriages and custody of their children as the price of membership, or the young women who are proscribed from physical intimacy with anyone but Rael (and the extraterrestrials who created the human race via cloning).
Having most of the hallmarks of a cult, starting with a colossally self-aggrandizing autocrat at their head, the Raelians have excited as much anger and hostility as ridicule.
That has apparently been all to the good, for one of the peculiar talents of Rael -- a racing car hobbyist born in France in 1946 as Claude Vorilhon -- has been aggressively to court outrage and inflame general sensibilities while amassing the usual booty sought by charismatic big shots and lesser schlubs alike: power, in this case significantly translated as the fealty of sexually numinous babes.
Susan J. Palmer, a teacher of religious studies at Dawson College in Montreal, chronicles this tale from the time of Vorilhon's claimed first encounter in 1973 with the Elohim, the extraterrestrials who designated him a prophet. Palmer had been studying the group for 13 years when Raelians made world headlines in 2000 with their declared intention to clone a human child. That hubbub escalated in 2002 with the group's entirely dubious claim to have done so through its Clonaid lab under a PhD chemist, Brigitte Boisselier.
In the school of all publicity being good as long as your name is spelled correctly, the Clonaid caper starring the never-seen baby Eve was a high-water mark for Raelians. They currently claim a membership of 65,000 worldwide but this is no more verifiable than Rael's regular séances with the Elohim (such contact is forbidden to his followers).
In any case, negative attention often works well for groups looking to cull the disaffected. Vorilhon's virulent anti-Catholicism, expressed in such stunts as the distribution of condoms outside Catholic schools, likely wins some Raelian converts in Quebec. An ethos that elevates free-ranging recreational sex to the point of absolving parents of responsibility to their children, draws a heavy plurality of males to the group.
Who the Raelian emblem of a swastika inside a Star of David attracts isn't entirely clear, although Jews accosted outside their Montreal synagogues to be told that Rael is the Messiah have not been eager supporters.
Author of Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women's Roles in New Religions and a number of other books on fringe sects, Palmer offers a survey of these dreary doings that's almost as curious as the subject. She declares her vantage is that of a sociologist, but plays that card selectively. While dutifully citing the negatives without assessment of their human cost, she is also a declared enthusiast, even happily pointing to parallels between Rael's religion and the Mormonism of her upbringing.
She explains in her introduction, "I resolved to write about the Raelian Movement as I had always seen it -- as a harmless, delightful religious subculture bursting with vitality, whose values were far more responsive to contemporary dilemmas (overpopulation, sexism, racism, nuclear war) than were those of most of the great traditions -- certainly than those of the Catholic Church."
Palmer allows being disgruntled when Rael started compelling visitors to bow and refer to him as His Holiness, and his intolerance of criticism verged into paranoia. Still, she admires his "taking the mickey out of his disapproving audience" and feels the sect embodies the "magic" that "our contemporary churches are badly in need of."
Palmer even manages to use the term "feminist" a couple of times in relation to the Raelians, praising Vorilhon as "a connoisseur of feminine beauty."
Well. While Raelians have not been self-destroying in the manner of the Solar Temple cult and others, to claims of delight and harmlessness a diplomatic and thoughtful response might still be: "Huh?"
The upshot for all those lonesome non-Raelian UFO dreamers, of course, is that their pathos-tinged celestial hopes of alien salvation are yet again cast into a media zone somewhere between the farcical and the sinister. Hence, it might seem fair to ask, does Vorilhon himself believe what he says?
Palmer thinks so, but it's actually a moot point. Whether you really imagine you're the Messiah or just position yourself that way to manipulate others, you've likely got a problem -- and so do your followers.
One of the few known Alatons on the planet, Toronto journalist Salem Alaton has something of an alien lineage himself.