Saviours of souls using topknots and technology

January 17, 2003

Susan Palmer and Bryan Sentes say that the cloned baby furore raises wider questions about our belief in scientific and technological progress

On December , the private corporation Clonaid announced that the first cloned human, a baby girl nicknamed "Eve", had been delivered by Caesarean section the day before. If this claim were true, it would turn a new page in the story of humankind's genetic destiny. Media attention has focused on the truth of Clonaid's claim, soliciting primarily the informed opinions of biotechnologists. But the religious aspects of Eve's alleged birth call for scrutiny too as both Clonaid's chief executive and vice-president are members of the hitherto obscure Raelian religion.

The Raelians seek to expand the boundaries of science for religious and ultimately millenarian purposes. However, the Raelians are by no means the first to fuse religion and science. Over the past 25 centuries, since Socrates was convicted of impiety and Galileo of heresy, the relationship between faith and reason has become increasingly ambivalent. Today, cosmologists casually invoke "God" in their speculations and books explore the physics of life after death. Such scientific forays into realms traditionally seen as theological have become especially numerous over the past 200 years.

Throughout the 19th century those dissatisfied with the contradictions between investigation and revelation looked for a synthesis. One such synthesiser, Sir Oliver Lodge, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, wrote in the preface to his 1915 book The Survival of Man that belief in life after death "will in due course be scientifically established". Lodge's curiosity continues to inspire parapsychologists and other groups such as the Society for Scientific Exploration, which publishes one of the few refereed scholarly journals in border sciences.

Meanwhile, the religious have sought to use scientific terms to justify or articulate their own beliefs. In the US, school boards are challenged to teach a version of the Christian creation story alongside the theory of evolution in science classes. "Intelligent design" has replaced "creation science" as the label of choice for those who seek to use the findings of geology and palaeontology to argue against the more orthodox views of the genesis of the earth and the evolution of life. However, new religions conceived in the past two centuries are born into a world defined by science and technology, so scientific language and devices easily plug into their beliefs and rituals.

Nineteenth-century New England spiritualist John Murray Spear claimed he was instructed by his spirits to construct an elaborate machine to incarnate God. Unfortunately, his devout neighbours violently dismantled the machine soon after.

A more contemporary group is the Church of Scientology, whose adherents first started using the "E-meter" in the 1950s to detect and erase traumatic events from the psyche. The E-meter has since been superseded by the O-meter, which facilitates travel in space and on the astral plane, the exploration of past lives and the exorcism of "body thetans" - the souls of dead space aliens murdered by the evil galactic ruler Xenu 75 million years ago in an effort to solve overpopulation.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s "contactees" - George Adamski, Daniel Fry, Howard Menger and many others - published accounts of meeting ufonauts, well-intentioned beautiful humanoid beings from advanced civilisations who had come to impart their higher moral knowledge and to warn humankind of the dangers of atomic energy and war. On both sides of the Atlantic, religious groups formed around some contactees, two contemporary instances being Ruth Norman's Unarius in California and George King's Aetherius Society in England. Aside from idolising the utopian technologies and societies of the ufonauts, both use pseudotechnological devices in their ritual practices. Aetherius Society members meet annually to pray and store the energy of their good intentions in a kind of battery. This energy is then transmitted to trouble spots on earth to disperse the negative energy and suffering there.

Claude Vorilhon, founder of the Raelians, was born on September 30 1947 in Vichy, France. He had stints as a racing driver, sports journalist and pop singer before publishing Le Livre Qui Dit La Verité (The Book that Tells the Truth) about his first encounter with extraterrestrials, in an extinct volcano's cone near France's Clermont-Ferrand region on December 13 1973. His contact was a little greenish man with long hair who identified his kind as the Elohim of Genesis - "those who come from the sky". Over a six-day study session in a flying saucer, the little man explained that the Bible is a series of stories told by ancient peoples about technological marvels. Genesis is an allegory of how the Elohim created the earth for use as a biotechnological research lab. Their mastery of biochemistry is evidenced by all life on earth, including human beings, who were made more or less in the image of their designers. Vorilhon was renamed Rael ("son of light" or "messenger") and given the task of spreading the word about humanity's true origin and of building an embassy for the Elohim to return to when a sufficient number of human beings believed.

In his second book, in 1975, Rael recounts how he was taken to the home planet of the Elohim where a tissue sample was taken from between his eyes and used to produce a fully matured Rael clone. He was told that what the religious call a "soul" is merely material, transferable to a new body and that this is how the Elohim have achieved immortality. The same technology is used to manufacture clones whose mental capacities are limited to functions as labourers or sources of sexual pleasure (Rael experiences first hand a night with six female "biological robots"). In this account, translated as "space aliens took me to their planet", the Raelian fascination with biotechnology and cloning is fleshed out.

Following the birth of the animal clone Dolly the sheep, Rael announced the launch of Valiant Venture Co, which he claims offers cloning through Clonaid, Insuraclone and Clonapet. In his 2001 book Yes to Human Cloning: Eternal Life Thanks to Science , Rael espouses the creation of biological robots, and says that cloning promises an endless supply of replacement parts and, ultimately, immortality. Having liberated sex from reproduction, Rael claims medical science can now free reproduction from sex, allowing reproductive choice as never before. The endlessly young population of this paradisal planet will be fed on genetically modified food and will be able, by the wise use of science, to seek pleasure forever. In early 2002, despite Valiant Venture's Bahamian assets (an offshore post office box) being frozen, media reports began about a cloned baby girl due around Christmas, one of five successful procedures allegedly performed by Clonaid.

The media circus begun by Clonaid's Boxing Day announcement has distracted reflection over the event's wider meaning. As early as 1958, Carl Jung observed that flying saucers are religious symbols. Appearing as advanced technological artefacts from utopian societies that have overcome need, war, disease and death, they represent humanity's desire to dominate nature by means of technology. The unquestioned correctness of global development and the production of ever-new technologies all confirm the universal, if unconscious, reign of the scientific Zeitgeist . Such utopian aspirations, what one academic calls the religion of technology, are ubiquitous in popular culture - think Star Trek - indicating that a faith in technology to solve the world's problems forges ahead. The Raelian religion cannily probes this unspoken faith in science and technology. How else could a man who claims he receives telepathic instructions from our extraterrestrial creators through his topknot attract such global attention unless his proddings, however kooky, aroused an uneasy awareness of our own barely articulate beliefs?

Susan Palmer is a lecturer in the faculty of religion and Bryan Sentes is a lecturer in the faculty of English at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada.

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