In the days of the ancient Greeks, members of the Dionysian cult danced drunkenly around slaughtered animals and held alfresco orgies. In the 16th century, barricading themselves in the city of Munster, an Anabaptist sect espoused polygamy and mass beheadings for "dissidents". More recently, in Jonestown and Waco, we saw how belief in other-worldly beings and sexual licentiousness mixed into a spooky "faith" that held some desperadoes in thrall - enough to commit mass suicide.
With precedents such as these, we should be more than ready for the likes of the Raelian cult, with its ululating members stripping off for orgiastic dalliance, and its charismatic leader claiming the top totty for himself. But there is reason to be alarmed, all the same. Most cults dabble in the supernatural and, as a contemporary extension of this, sci-fi scenarios. Nowadays, advances in technology - and the lamentably loose regulations that oversee these advances - allow sects, for a price, to put their "beliefs" into practice. The Raelians, who believe that cloning will lead to everlasting life and perpetual orgasm, can now try to realise their ambition. Indeed, they claim to have done so: their Clonaid group says it has cloned a baby, Eve.
Already, the troubling ramifications of this "historic first" have emerged. An American couple, obsessed with cloning their dead ten-month-old son, revealed that they'd been cruelly conned by Clonaid to the tune of £300,000. Despite these accusations, four British couples have already approached the Raelians to volunteer for further cloning.
Ethicists have pointed to other moral dilemmas exposed by cloning: when a beloved dies, do we have the right to replace them with someone who is technically their "twin"? Do we have the right to produce children who will regard themselves as mere "copies" of other human beings? Is it good for a child to grow up knowing that they were "created" in order to fill the hole in their parents' photo album? The worry is that these moral questions are being ignored by megalomaniac cult leaders and scientists alike: the former want to create a new Jerusalem, the latter want to beat their peers to the trophy "first clone".
Free love rituals and elderly "visionaries" who prey on nubile young beauties are innocuous enough. But wealthy wacky sects risk accelerating the pace of scientific progress well beyond what we have planned for - and fully understand.