December 7, 2012
As a child Diane Brisebois was brought up Catholic. But, like any teenager, she rebelled when she hit adolescence.
She began to question the validity of Christianity. Unable to find a satisfactory explanation for the existence of God, she searched for something that did make sense to her.
This led her to discover the Raëlian Movement in 1976 and she has been a member ever since. Now she has assumed a leadership role with responsibilities in Ontario and Manitoba.
“I saw the pyramids and I was interested in understanding how these people, who were supposedly very primitive, had high enough technology to build these huge pyramids,” Brisebois said. “It’s like they were expecting somebody from the sky. It opened my mind to think that we’re not the only ones out there.”
Founded in 1974 by French journalist Claude Vorilhon, the Raëlians believe the human race was created by a group of extraterrestrial beings known as the Elohim.
“The Elohim sent prophets to different times and different epochs in order to help the people at the time to survive and to live better,” Brisebois said. “They sent Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Joseph Smith and all the other prophets to start religions.”
According to Susan Palmer, a sociology professor at Dawson College, one night Vorilhon says a UFO containing one of the Elohim visited him. They told him he was the prophet Raël and that he was to be the saviour of mankind.
Palmer has been studying the movement since 1986 and insists it should be called a new religious movement, not a cult.
“A cult is basically a stigmatizing word of abuse,” Palmer said. “So obviously they don’t like being called a cult. But a new religious movement talks about the same thing, only it’s an academic term that doesn’t judge.”
Anyone is allowed to join, but to be more than superficially involved with the organization a $300 yearly membership fee is required. It is also encouraged that members sign an act of apostasy to disassociate themselves from any religion they previously belonged to.
For the Toronto human resources worker it is worth the price. Brisebois loves her life and believes that by following the teachings of Raël, that life can be extended.
“Raël said it is possible to become eternal if you do good things for humanity,” Brisebois said. “To me that makes sense because if you do good things and help contribute to the evolution of mankind in a positive way, then you should be given the chance to live longer. So that’s the way I’ve chosen to live my life.”
But this idea of controlling human life also created a great deal of controversy. In 2002 a company called Clonaid, created by the Raëlian Movement, claimed to have cloned a human child.
Info-Cult, a non-profit organization operating in Quebec dedicated to providing information to the public about new religious movements, has been following the Raëlians for years.
According to Mike Kropveld, executive director of Info-Cult, stirring up controversy may have been part of Raël’s plan.
“I think you have a leader that probably believes in the adage ‘No publicity is bad publicity,’” Kropveld said. “I think he likes to be talked about and so if you look at a lot of the things they do, they’re very provocative and often geared towards getting media attention.”
This is not the only time the Raëlians have caused a public scandal. They have also been involved with encouraging Catholic students to burn crosses and to reclaim the swastika as their organizations symbol.
While Clonaid is one of the more extreme examples, the Raëlian Movement operates a vast network of ancillary groups. Many are directed towards the empowerment of women, like Clitoraid.
“We are currently in the process of creating a hospital in Burkina Faso, Africa,” Brisebois said. “The goal is to help women who have been mutilated receive genital reconstruction so that they can have their dignity back.”
It is difficult to judge just how pervasive the movement is because, as Palmer says, all religions lie about how many devotees they have. Kropveld agrees.
“They claim about 70,000 or 80,000 members now. But the question with any movement that claims membership is what they consider a member,” Kropveld said. “I think there’s a very fluid definition of what that means in terms of the Raëlian Movement.”
But in terms of everyday life, Brisebois doesn’t see much difference. Raëlians don’t live in secluded communes. According to her, they are active members of society at large.
“For me what it means is to live consciously. My philosophy is living healthy and exercising on a regular basis,” Brisebois said. “But in my free time I choose to spend it by being part of this organization and to plan activities and to spread the message itself.”