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Aliens AdoredRael's UFO Religion
By Susan J. Palmer
Rutgers University PressISBN: 0-8135-3476-3
IntroductionHow I Researched the Raelians
I first stumbled across the Raelians in 1987 at the Montreal Psychic Fair. I was with my friend James, who is a shirag (priest) in the Sufi order in the West, and we were strolling past the booths, checking out the pagan/New Age/Wiccan books. Most of the stalls were tended by black-robed witches reading the tarot or clients' palms. We watched an Ontario housewife in a coral polyester suit channel Catholic saints in a high wispy Toronto-inflected accent, as she lay in a coffin padded with turquoise satin. Then I spotted the Raelian guides-men whose long locks straggled down white turtleneck shirts, skinny chests weighted with heavy medallions. On drawing closer to peer at these, I saw the Star of David interlocked with-could that be a swastika? The booth displayed posters of UFOs flying through space.
"Hey, James! Look, here's a flying-saucer group!" We struck up a conversation with the two Francophone guides, who showed us Raël's books. The tall one invited us to participate in a raffle. We had to write answers to basic questions on astronomy and put our papers with our names in a glass bowl. "The winner will receive a visit from a guide, a free Apocalypse magazine, and a private viewing of the videocassette They're Coming!"
The next morning my phone rang. "Congratulations, Madame Palmer,you are the winner of the Raelian raffle." We set a time for the guide to come over, and I phoned James to invite him also.
"Hey, James, guess what? I won!"
"So did I," said James.
"What a coincidence! I thought there was only one winner."
"Susan ... don't you get it?"
The Raelian guide who came to my house was named Gaston and had long dyed-blonde hair. I couldn't tell if he was gay or straight. The Apocalypse had artful photographs of naked Raelians cavorting at their summer camp. Some photos were homoerotic. "Finally," I thought, "a gay NRM [New Religious Movement]!"-but no, not necessarily, for there were other photos of the Playboy cheesecake variety. Others were quite abstract and artsy, including a close-up study of chest hair and skin pores with swirling galaxies in the background.
I was fascinated to discover that the Raelians were radical materialists. They were also free-love advocates, and I'd just finished writing a book on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, for whom "sex is the path to super-consciousness." I invited the Raelians to speak to my class on New Religious Movements at Dawson College. There, the students peppered them with questions, the Jewish kids challenging their use of the swastika and the word "Elohim" (the Raelians' name for the extraterrestrials who contacted Raël). I brought my class to the Raelians' initiation ritual, the Transmission of the Cellular Plan, at the Sheraton hotel. The guides let us distribute membership questionnaires at the meetings and conduct interviews. I had never encountered an NRM that was so cooperative, that actually liked being studied. It was part of their "we are the first scientific religion" stance, and an indirect way to "spread the message" among my students.
Some of my students were a bit taken aback by the Raelians' sexual effervescence. Xhua-xin, a conspicuously ornamental nineteen-year-old from Beijing, complained that while he was conducting field research, three different women had propositioned him outright or tried to arrange a date; he was shocked because "they were at least forty and old enough to be my mother!"
An eighteen-year-old Jewish girl from a strict Orthodox family interviewed an assistant guide who gave her a pep talk on the joys of sex, followed by a eulogy on her beauty. She confessed to me that the incident so disturbed her, she "kept worrying about it and couldn't sleep for a week."
On a field trip to the November 1989 monthly meeting, we observed how the Raelians celebrate their sexual adventurism. A pair of French guides stood up and announced they were looking for Canadian girls to marry so they could stay in the country. Then a local bishop took the mike and said: "Let us congratulate Philador. For one whole year she has been with the same man!" A pretty dark Quebecoise beamed while the Raelians applauded. Nikos, my chubby Greek student, was puzzled. "What's the big deal about that?" he whispered to me. "I've had the same girlfriend for three years, and no one ever congratulates me!"
I found the Raelian Movement fascinatingly original and undergoing unpredictable spurts of growth-a refreshing change from the meditation ashrams and Christian communes I had researched. Every time we dropped in on one of the meetings, held on the third Sunday of each month, there would be a subtle new twist to Raël's theology, a new project or missionary strategy, or an added ritual. I watched priests and bishops get promoted or demoted with dizzying speed. Raël himself would suddenly materialize in a cloud of charisma, like the devil leaping out of smoke in a miracle play, and take us on a journey. He would give us a guided-visualization tour of an alien planet or a utopian vision of a better future via cloning, or he would outline his new plan for demonstrations against nuclear testing and deforestation or treat us to one of his stand-up comic routines that satirized the U.S. president, monogamous jealous husbands, and the pope.
I was about to embark on a fifteen-year adventure as a researcher, teacher, and writer. As P. C. Wren (a turn-of-the-century novelist whose French Foreign Legion books I devoured in my teens) often reiterated: "Truth is stranger than fiction." I was an avid reader of sci-fi at the time and had written a few short stories for the fanzines (they were always rejected). But soon my academic articles on the Raelians were in demand.
UFO religions are even stranger than science fiction.
For years I enjoyed unlimited access to the Raelians' fascinating, rapidly evolving UFO movement. I attended many of the monthly meetings with my students in tow. We distributed membership questionnaires, wrote field reports, and conducted interviews. Every term I invited the guides to my classes at Dawson College and at Concordia University, where they gave well-organized, stimulating presentations and were peppered with questions from my curious students. I found the Raelians fun to be with, full of vitality, humorous and playful. As for Raël, his creativity seemed limitless. I wrote six articles and chapters and several encyclopedia entries on the Raelians, and it was my policy to show them to one of the bishops before they were published. While NRM scholars have noticed that new religions don't particularly appreciate our academic analyses of their passionate spirituality-and the Raelians are no exception-I was nevertheless impressed by the freedom they gave me to say whatever I wanted. I worked closely with the female bishop Nicole Bertrand, who on reading my chapter "Woman as Playmate" exclaimed: "Well, Suzanne, I find it so interesting reading an outsider's view of us that is objective, not negative, but somehow naive. I find it quite ... amusing, ... refreshing!"
Nicole corrected many small mistakes in spelling and dates and filled me in on the historical detail-but she never tried to edit my statements or control my opinions.
Then, in 2002, just as I was finishing the first draft of this book, I discovered I had been blacklisted by the Raelians. The tale of how this came about is, as Sherlock Holmes would say, "a singular one."
I blame it on the media. Journalists kept misquoting me or distorting my meaning. For a while I stopped calling journalists back, but then two journalists I had never even spoken to misquoted me.
At first I felt upset and angry at what I perceived to be an injustice, but in the process of trying to understand what had happened, I learned a great deal. The blacklisting forced me to think more deeply about my responsibilities as a researcher; I tried to empathize with Raël and to gauge his reactions (no easy task). In the end I decided my "excommunication" as a researcher said more about developmental phases in NRMs than it did about Raël or about me.
Around 1996 I first sensed changes afoot that impeded my access as a researcher. The venue for the monthly meeting used to be the Holiday Inn, where the Raelians rented a conference room-and essentially held a conference. In those early meetings I could watch the priests and bishops sitting in the front row, interacting with each other-joking, sparring, sitting on each other's laps. I could overhear them planning the meeting as it progressed. By 1997 the Raelians had rented a rather seedy old theater on St. Catherine East (the local red-light district). There they staged a carefully orchestrated show to train their ambitious young animators (level 3 in the Raelian six-step executive hierarchy) and to attract new members.
I sat passively in the dark stalls with the audience, watching video clips from Cirque du Soleil. Sexy young animators strutted across the stage in stiletto boots, breathing into handheld mikes. The trick of cultivating Raelian stage charisma was to appear entirely relaxed, to allow long, pregnant silences, and to share risqué jokes with the audience. The meetings had become a training ground where ambitious young leaders could hone their public-speaking skills to get promoted up the pyramid. Some of the bishops still led the sensual meditation, but the real leaders were now working behind the scenes, so the decision-making processes were now obscured by a slick opaque patina of media savvy.
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