Leaders want people who are intelligent enough to contribute to the group and, in the future, to win over the minds of others. Curious youths, living away from home and searching for answers in those tender years, are ripe for the plucking. It’s Cult Recruitment 101.
Daniel Maldonado was first introduced to Rael, leader of the Raelian Movement, as a teenager growing up in the grimy housing projects of New York’s Upper West Side. The atheistic extraterrestrial sect, which believes that every prophet from Moses to Mohammed was a visitor from a superior alien race called Elohim, first attracted the boy because it filled in so many of the mystic gaps in his Catholic education.
Raelians argue that Elohim, through science, created life on Earth about 25,000 years ago. The group believes in using similar technology to revolutionize the human existence, including cloning for immortality and the betterment of mankind. The science behind the teachings fit with Maldonado’s own rigorous education about the universe, physics, and humanity. “Little by little, it all added up to the Raelian philosophy,” he says.
Elohim officially acknowledged Maldonado, now 21, on a sunny autumn day in New York last year, at an intimate gathering in a gay support center downtown. The date, December 13, was significant: It marked the anniversary of Rael’s first encounter with the extraterrestrial race at a volcano in France in 1973. The 4-foot-tall green creatures reportedly told the sportswriter and racecar driver, then named Claude Vorilhon, that he must change his name to Rael and prepare the world for their imminent return. So far he has reached roughly 55,000 people, according to the group’s own estimates.
Ten Raelians watched as a trained bishop, or “guide,” baptized Maldonado and another convert in a ceremony called “the transmission of the cellular plan.” At exactly 3pm, when the Elohim were said to have their antennae facing the east coast of the United States, the regional leader dipped his hands into a plastic bowl of water and placed them on the front and back of Maldonado’s head, which then became a conductor to beam the boy’s unique genetic code to the all-seeing beings above. “Elohim has recognized you,” the guide whispered, leaning in for a charged hug from the newest member of the group.
After the ceremony, the endearing assortment of New Age sensualists and Trekkie types discussed “paradism,” their belief that in the near future a new class of clones and robots will perform all labor. According to Raelians, not only will this harmonize society, but it will also leave plenty of time for some of their more hedonistic pursuits, such as the Cosmic Orgasm, a kind of sexual nirvana achieved through meditation and erotic massage, and Go Topless Day, which is exactly what it sounds like. Nothing is taboo, so long as all parties are satisfied—and Raelians strive for universal satisfaction.
“It wasn’t no normal day,” Maldonado says of the baptism, which could only happen once he was deemed mature enough to choose the religion for himself, and to sign an Act of Apostasy renouncing all others. “I’ve been thinking a little different, a little less selfish, like I need to fix things.”
Maldonado’s situation is different than most in that his group membership was voluntary. “People who join cults can go home to their families and friends, and live like they did before,” says Collins, who was born into the UC. “Those of us who grew up in cults, we had no other life. When I left, there were none of these online support groups. You were out on our own, you would lose the majority of your friends, and the cult would often demonize you.”
At first, Collins relied on a handful of friends she met while attending an independent college. It wasn’t until she married outside of the church, in a Methodist ceremony to a man she loved, that the fallen Moonie truly found herself. It was the first step toward creating her very own stable family. “And there was no beating the sins out of each other,” she says, laughing.
Buhring, of COG, spent her formative years away from her parents, surrounded by sex. After a childhood of enduring the worst kinds of adult encounters, she discovered what it really meant to be a grown-up in the simple splendor of outside life: opening a bank account, renting an apartment, savoring a warm cup of coffee alone in a café, free from the regimented schedule of the cult that stole her innocence. “I felt this incredible sense of maturity and freedom,” Buhring says of the first year following her willful excommunication. “It’s like being blind your whole life, and suddenly you see. At first you don’t understand what it is you are seeing, but as you start to understand, the beauty of it all becomes overwhelming. You can sit for hours and just smile, taking it all in. That, I think, was my coming of age. That’s when I finally became an adult.”
Artwork by Garrett Pruter.