Cult Coverage

As pretty much a First Amendment absolutist, I’m the last person to suggest the suppression of news, but when so-called legitimate news sources begin spouting a story straight out of the tabloids, I have to at least wonder about my commitment.

Why on Earth is the Raelian cult being given so much press? I’m all in favor of the proliferation of nontraditional religions — I do hold an (honorary) Doctorate from the Universal Life Church, after all — but it’s not the group itself that appears to merit all the fuss. It’s the claim, completely unsubstantiated, that they (or perhaps more accurately, the Rael-controlled Clonaid company) have cloned the first two human children, with three more on the way.

Were any legitimate scientific enterprise to make such a claim, they would at the least be expected to offer some sort of evidence to back up the assertion. Anything. The Raelians have not done so. All we have to go on is their word.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised — in large part, making objectively unverifiable claims is the province of religion. Regardless, the story should never have seen the light of day — what is the likelihood that a fringe group has somehow been able to bypass all of the technical obstacles to cloning a human being (not to mention the legal ones) where more established scientific outfits have not?

This story is getting press coverage for one reason, and one reason only: Religion.

On one hand you have a religious organization whose tenets seem patently ridiculous, and yet has inspired many seemingly intelligent followers. The most zealous of (mainstream) religious adherents tend to be the most vocal in their condemnations of anything that even remotely threatens their belief system (witness the Catholic League’s crusade against the Kevin Smith film Dogma, to pick a contemporary example). Those who are actually secure in their beliefs have no such need — I’ve happily debated religious and philosophical issues with several such folks.

On the other, you have a real hot-button issue with religious implications: Cloning. Were we to allow cloning, would we be “playing God”? While there are a few objective ethical issues here that haven’t been dealt with before (the alarming failure rate of cloning attempts, for example), most can be obviated by adopting the simple axiom that cloned people should be treated as any others — just as so-called “test tube babies” were a generation before. Other, thornier issues can be foreseen (should partial clones be created to develop tissue replacements for an existing person, for example), but at its base, we are dealing with a religious issue: Does a clone (or any other artificially generated person) have a soul? It’s a similar debate to those that have cropped up around any number of other issues: contraception, abortion, artificial insemination. Anything that deviates from the norm — particularly as regards reproduction — is automatically a “red flag” to many.

The current administration has announced that they will work toward a ban on human cloning, an announcement made to coincide with Wednesday’s “pro-life” vs. “pro-choiceprotests in the nation’s capital; while I think an outright ban is excessive, I do understand that the issue is a complex one, with multiple, objectively justifiable viewpoints.

Put it all together, and a story that in and of itself doesn’t warrant a third-page mention in the Weekly World News gets AP coverage. Yes, we’re making a mountain out of much less than a molehill. The cult has no more credibility in its claims than I would were I to assert that my children were clones. But because of the inherently religious nature of the cloning debate, the idea that members of some other religion might have actually done it — no matter how infinitesimal the possibility — has set people on edge.

The real story isn’t the birth of “baby Eve,” but the visceral reaction mainstream America is having to the possibility. If anything, it shows the fundamental absence of religious tolerance in our society, in spite of protestations to the contrary. If my commitment to the second clause of the First Amendment seems to be faltering, my dedication to the first remains steadfast.


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