When you think of cults, a few things might spring to mind.
Tragedy, like the Jonestown mass suicide, the deadly Branch Davidians fire at Waco, or the Aum Shinrikyo subway gas attack in Tokyo.
Creepy sex, like the kind demanded by Keith Raniere in NXIVM or David Berg in Children of God.
And of course, UFOs. So many cults have a UFO or alien element woven into their stories that ‘UFO cult’ is a proper category containing loads of examples.
But why are UFO and alien stories so popular with cults? If we take it as a given that the beliefs of cults aren’t always strictly true, and that cult leaders invent beliefs and mythologies that their followers are likely to find fascinating and exciting, then aliens are a great fit.
We don’t yet have the technology or the fuel to definitively call bullshit on made-up stories about extraterrestrials, and a belief system that can’t technically be proven wrong is the cornerstone of any successful cult.
Add to that the fact that both cults and belief in UFOs hit their popularity peak between the '60s and the '80s, and it makes total sense — for groups that ironically don’t make much sense — that there’d be some crossover. If you already believe that UFOs might be nearby, you might be open to joining a religion that also believes that UFOs are nearby. Like:
Scientology and Xenu
Of course, Scientology isn’t a cult, it’s a large legitimate group with extremely active lawyers. That said, it’s a large legitimate group with a definite UFO element.
It’s probably best if we just take it as a coincidence that Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard (honestly why he shortened the magical ‘Lafayette’ to just ‘L’ is alien to me) got his start as a writer of pulp science fiction stories.
There’s a number of ‘levels’ that members are invited to pay to achieve in Scientology. The early, low levels are great and help people really think about their lives and overcome traumatic memories that might be holding them back. By the time you reach ‘OT III’ or the third ‘Operating Thetan’ level, you’re years and tens of thousands of dollars in.
You’re also ready to learn that a galactic overlord called Xenu solved his local overpopulation problem by sending immortal beings called ‘thetans’ to earth in spaceships that looked a lot like DC-8 aeroplanes, dropped them off near some volcanoes, nuked the volcanoes, and released the thetans to inhabit human bodies.
There’s so, so much more to the Xenu myth but according to Scientology, people like you and I just aren’t ready to understand it. To get ready, just become a Scientologist and get your credit card out.
Raelians and the Elohim
If the Raelians ring a bell, it might be because you remember that in 2002 a group claimed to have cloned the first human but then got shy about it when asked for any evidence.
Or you might have seen pictures somewhere online of the leader Rael — born Claude Vorilhon — standing in front of a model UFO in a topknot and fetching white shell suit. Raelians and Claude like attention, and aside from their many attention-grabbing causes like human cloning, a campaign to allow women to walk around with their boobs out, and their means-well crusade against female genital mutilation, the main characteristic of Raelianism is its unwavering belief in UFOs.
Raelian mythology is based loosely on Christianity, but with the primary characters replaced by aliens. God is a bunch of godlike genetic scientists called the ‘Elohim’. Creation happened in a laboratory. Noah’s ark was a spaceship stocked with animal DNA. Jesus performed most of his miracles using lasers.
Even Rael himself — the son of the Elohim and therefore half-brother to Jesus and Buddha — has been to the Elohim’s home planet in a UFO, where he had a look around and had sex with a few robots.
The existence of sex robots may go some way towards explaining why Raelianism is very, very popular with nerds.
Marshall Applewhite met Bonnie Nettles in 1972 and bonded over their mutual obsession with existence beyond the known Earth.
They started a group that was eventually known as Heaven’s Gate, and until Bonnie died of cancer in the 80s, they both led it in the belief that they were the two ‘witnesses’ mentioned in the Christian bible’s Book of Revelation.
Heaven’s Gate became notorious when 39 members of the group were found in a house in Rancho Santa Fe, having ended their own lives in identical outfits. One of the very bizarre and uncomfortable things about their death is evident in the farewell videos many members of Heaven’s Gate made in the days before their 1997 death: they were filled with joy at the prospect of ending their lives.
They fully and earnestly believed that if they timed the freedom of their souls from their bodies to coincide with the passing of Comet Hale-Bopp, a spaceship travelling in the comet’s wake would pick them up and take them to Heaven’s Gate’s version of heaven – another planet.
On that planet would be the aliens that originally created Earth as an experiment. The experiment had failed except for a handful of humans who had shed the primal characteristics of lesser beings and achieved an ‘Evolutionary Level Above Human’, those worthy of hitching a ride. Before their ‘trip’, they were obsessed with shows like Star Trek and The X Files and used UFO mythology as a form of escapism before their tragic, ultimate escape.
A vast number of cults recruit members by strongly hinting that there’s a better world available, and some of the cults that seem the most bizarre to us use other planets, often packed with aliens who are much smarter than us, to represent that better world. It’s a cheap shot – it saves cults from having to believe that humans will have to do the work to make our own world better using the local tools we have available.