CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

February 7, 2002 New religions proliferate around the world: Susan Palmer



Susan Palmer

Susan Palmer, in front of the Cosmoplanetary Messiah, erected in the French Alps by the Mandarom, a Hindu-based cult. The statue, the most important of many erected by the cult, has since been destroyed by the French government.

by Barbara Black

Susan Palmer is a scholarly expert on the Raëlians, the Quebec-based new religion posited on extra-terrestrials and free love. She’s writing a book about them for Rutgers University Press, and she is often consulted by journalists.

This brings with it certain anxieties. Every misquote or mangled statistic attributed to her in the press drives a wedge between the social scientist and her subjects, with whom she has so far enjoyed a trusting and friendly relationship.

Until recently, the Raëlians have tended to view any media attention, however derisory, as good publicity, and in general, the Quebec press, like Quebecers themselves, has been remarkably warm towards the movement. Since the leader Raël, born as Claude Vorilhon, came to Quebec in 1992, the movement has flourished; Palmer puts its worldwide membership at about 55,000, most of them in Quebec, French-speaking Europe and Japan.

It has elements that appeal to post-Quiet-Revolution Quebecers, notably a scientific worldview and broad social and sexual tolerance. Adherents in the general membership have lives much like the rest of us: they obey the laws, hold down jobs, and have families. The fact that they believe that humans were created by extraterrestrial superscientists seems hardly to matter.

The Raëlians grabbed international headlines last March, when Raël was asked to testify before a U.S. congressional subcommittee hearing into human cloning.

In an article she wrote for Religion in the News, a U.S. magazine, Palmer said it was “a day of triumph” for the 54-year-old founder, who wore a white suit and a star-shaped pendant, his thinning hair done up in a bun. He was accompanied by Dr. Brigitte Boisellier, director of the Raëlians’ scientific arm, Clonaid, who assured the bemused law-makers that she is well on the way to replicating a human being.

In the United States, the movement is now recognized for tax purposes as a religion. Palmer says that last February she wrote a report to support the Raëlians’ application for similar status in Canada. It had previously been denied, on the grounds that Raëlians venerate the extraterrestrials as material beings rather than gods.

Raël left France because of negative publicity. Palmer is sharply critical of the strong anti-cult legislation that has been introduced there and in Belgium. The Europeans, she says, have different flash points from North Americans on this subject.

“We tend to be suspicious of movements that isolate themselves and live communally. The French and Belgians, because of the Solar Temple [mass suicides in 1994], focus on people who lead normal lives. An employee of a corporation there recently lost his job for practising yoga!”

Palmer is no more sympathetic to anti-cult organizations on this side of the Atlantic; she sees them as having a vested interest in the form of professional deprogrammers.

She seems to be having a picnic studying new religions. For one thing, there a lot of them. The Centre d’information des nouvelles religions has files on 800 new religions in Quebec alone.

For another, they’re a lot easier to study than the old religions. She was quoted by Toby Lester, the author of a long feature article on new religions in the February issue of the Atlantic Monthly: “Their history is really short, they don’t have that many members, their leader is usually still alive, and you can see the evolution of their rituals and their doctrines. It’s a bit like dissecting amoebas instead of zebras.”

She brings members of new religions into her classes at Dawson College and Concordia. The students in RELI 298, Cults and Religious Controversy in North America, recently met Hare Krishna devotees, and last year she presented them with Marina, Dr. Bousillier’s comely daughter, who is on the shortlist of cloning mothers for the Raëlians.

Recommended reading for the course includes Armageddon in Waco, Moon Sister, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women’s Roles in New Religions (by Palmer), and Millennialism, Persecution and Violence.

So far, none of her students (to her knowledge) have gone from the classroom to a cult. She feels she is arming them with knowledge at a time when they are searching for new ways of living and thinking.

They are learning about their own culture in an unusual context, too. Sometimes a student will make a link between a practice in a new religion and something the student knows from his or her own parents and grandparents.

Palmer herself moves easily among the practitioners of the new religions, and like other scholars, visits with her colleagues around the world, comparing the latest news.

To put new religious movements, or NRMs, in a global perspective, the ones we hear about, like the Raëlians, Moonies, Scientologists or the Falun Gong, are miniscule compared to, say, the Naqshabandiya order of Sufi Islam, which has 50 million or so members. As the old religions fracture and reform (Christianity has hundreds of offshoots) and new ones spring up, scholars are unlikely ever to run out of material.