March 28 was a day of triumph for Rael, the 54-year-old Canadian founder of the largest UFO-based religion in the world. In a widely reported House subcommittee hearing on human cloning, he testified that his CLONAID company was planning to clone a deceased baby in the near future.
Amid the warnings of sober-suited scientists and bioethicists, Rael lent a sci-fri frisson to stories that speculated on the mind-boggling implications of cloning human beings.
“A star-shaped pendant around his neck, his hair gathered atop his head in a bun, the white-suited leader of a Canadian religious group told lawmakers Wednesday that they should no more block his plans to clone human beings than they would stop the development of antibiotics, blood transfusions, vaccines and other medical advances,” ran the lede in Aaron Zittner’s Los Angeles Times story.
Rael, reported the Ottawa Citizen, “was given all the respect due a mad scientist Wednesday when he appeared before a subcommittee that seems bent on banning human cloning.”
But dismissive as the reports were, the unknowing journalists were only assisting Rael, his Raelian Movement, and his aliens in ushering in the “Age of Apocalypse.” Raelians take attention of any kind from the media as a sign that they are dutifully fulfilling their heaven-sent mission.
The Raelians have two divinely-appointed aims: first, to “spread the message” (the glad tidings that humanity was created from the DNA of superior extraterrestrial alien scientists, or “Elohim”); and second, to “build the Embassy” (welcome Our Creators to earth in around 2035).
Unlike many new religious movements, which perceive media attention as an annoyance and even a catastrophe, the Raelians plan annual media campaigns, send out press releases, and hold theatrical press conferences. They “love-bomb” visiting journalists with beautiful women. That some of their projects have turned out to be little more than public announcements matters little to them.
Over the years, I’ve watched Guides—members of the Raelian priestly hierarchy—preside over monthly meetings by reading out the latest news reports on Rael. Most are clearly tongue-in-cheek, disrespectful, even anti-cult, yet they elicit an astoundingly enthusiastic response from the assembled rank and file. It seems that just being in the news is quite sufficient to please the Elohim, who are (so Rael assures us) benevolently hovering over their “creations” in invisible UFOs. The faster we spread the message, the sooner the Elohim will come back and bequeath to us their vast wealth of scientific knowledge.
Rael himself is a former journalist who once edited a sports car journal called Auto Pop. Claiming to have founded “the world’s only atheistic religion,” he pokes fun at the Pope, and deplores sexism and racism. His followers—50,000 strong and growing, in 84 countries around the world—share many of the assumptions and opinions of secular humanists, feminists, gay activists, and swinging singles. They virtually bristle with tolerance when they approach the media. “Respectez les differences!” is a major Raelian tenet.
“The Raelians are great material,” a journalist once told me at the end of an interview. “They worship space aliens, they’re sexy, good-looking nudists—and now they might even clone a human!”
For them, just seeing photographs of Rael on the newstands was a confirmation. “It means Our Beloved Prophet has been recognized as a world leader,” one told me. “Now that humanity can create life from its own DNA, just like Our Fathers did for us, this means the human race is undergoing elohimization! [becoming the equal of the elohim]”
Another Raelian was more cynical about the motives of the congressmen, but no less upbeat: “The only reason they invited Rael was to discredit the pro-cloning faction by saying, ‘Look, if we start cloning humans, what weirdoes will come crawling out of the woodwork!’ But when they heard what Rael had to say, they realized we Raelians are serious.”
As someone who has been studying the Raelians for over a decade, I would say they are dead serious. To succeed in cloning a human would be the fulfillment of Rael’s millennial vision, revealed to him by aliens during a private Bible lesson held aboard a UFO parked in a hollow in France’s volcanic Clermont-Ferrand mountains in December, 1973. It was then that Rael learned that the first specimens of humanity—the original “Adams” and “Eves”—were created in test tubes from the DNA of the Elohim. Having mastered the techniques of cloning, “Our Creators” are virtually immortal.
In his 1976 book, They Took Me to Their Planet, Rael describes witnessing the “re-creation” of his own body in a vat on the planet of the Elohim. In a speech in Montreal last November, he promised immortality via cloning to everyone in the room 54 or under.
The bottom line: The quaint little flying saucer group I first encountered at Montreal’s Psychic fair in 1987 has become the first organization to forge a religious rationale for cloning. It has the motivation, and perhaps the resources, to produce the first human clone.
Rael’s March appearance before the House subcommittee was the apotheosis of two decades of cultivating and contriving news coverage. To be sure, the course of true love never runs smooth—particularly this mutually-exploitative affair between movement and media that lies at the heart of the Raelians’ mission.
From the very beginning, Rael relied on newspapers to spread the message. After his alleged encounter with the aliens, the Frenchman who was christened Claude Vorilhon collected a handful of followers and contacted the French media to promote his 1975 book, The Book Which Tells the Truth, The Message Given to Me by Extra-Terrestrials.
A Paris lecture series elicited some tongue-in-cheek news stories—but over a thousand people showed up and many of them joined up. Rael became a popular figure on Paris talk shows like Samedi Soir and his movement blossomed, producing its own quarterly magazine, Apocalypse.
Before 1991, the media tended to treat the Raelians as harmless nuts. Rael became adept at deflecting the insults and insinuations of TV hosts. Appearing on “Geraldo” in late 1991, he seemed oblivious to host Geraldo Rivera’s habitually aggressive and derisive manner. Then a French journalist signed up for the week-long nudist Sensual Meditation Camp, and covertly taped couples making love in the tents. This was played over the radio, and subsequent news stories presented the Raelian Movement as an unbridled sex orgy where brainwashing was perpetrated and perversions were encouraged.
Now Rael became a classic “big bad cult leader,” portrayed in news stories as a sexual libertine enjoying a luxurious life at his followers’ expense. Raelians were stigmatized by the French media as fascists, satanists, pedophiles, and even as anti-Semites (although Rael clearly states that Jews are more intelligent with superior DNA because they are a cross-breed of Elohim and mortal women). In the daily faxes that ADFI, France’s powerful anti-cult organization, sends out to every major newspaper in France, the Raelians are a primary target.
Rael retaliated in 1992 by establishing FIREPHIM, an organization dedicated to fighting “religious racism.” Journalists who indulged in ad hominem attacks on Rael suddenly had hundreds of Raelians demonstrating outside their offices. Like Scientology, the Raelian Movement International (as it is known in Europe) launched a string of libel and defamation suits against journalists, newspapers, and publishers—and occasionally won.
A Swiss newspaper that called Raelians “rat heads” was sued for defamation. Another suit was brought against journalist Stephane Baillargeon for writing in the Montreal daily Le Devoir that the Raelians defended pedophiles and that certain ex-Raeliens claimed the “gourou” liked very young girls. (After some negotiation, Le Devoir published a letter from Rael condemning the charge as “ignominious defamation” and asserting that the Raelian Movement had “always condemned pedophilia and promoted respect for laws that justly forbid the practices that are always the fault of unbalanced individuals.”) In 1996 Rael won a judgment of $6,300 against two French journalists who claimed he preached racism.
The biggest media brouhaha arose in 1992 when Rael appeared on the French TV talk show “Ciel mon Mardi,” hosted by the popular journalist Christophe Dechavanne. Towards the end of the show (where Rael’s liberal views on sex were critiqued by a priest, a social worker, and a psychologist), an ex-Raelian suddenly appeared and unleashed a diatribe claiming that Rael was holding his wife and children prisoner, had engineered the breakup of his family, and personally presided over child sacrifice and pederastic orgies at the Sensual Meditation camp.
This apostate, Jean Parraga, was elegantly dressed and played the role of the concerned father and heartbroken husband. What was not mentioned was his criminal record as a drug dealer and car thief, and his attempt to shoot Rael to death in August 1992.
The Raelians inundated Dechevannes’s TV station with letters of protest from all over the world. Dechevannes retaliated by suing Rael for “incitement to violence” and the judge appointed to the case decided to call Rael in for questioning. Rael then agreed to ask his members to stop sending letters, but demanded a public apology, and the two parties agreed to drop the feud.
But the show permanently branded Rael in France as a depraved cult leader. Subsequent news reports were so negative that Rael found it expedient to join his followers in Quebec and become a Canadian citizen. In Quebec, the movement has prospered.
During the early 1990s, the Raelians set aside the first week of April as “Planetary Week,” launching a annual actions calculated to attract media attention. The first successful action was Operation Condom in 1992, a protest against the Quebec Catholic School Commission’s decision to veto condom machines in their high schools. The “condom-mobile”—a pink van decorated with flying saucers and condoms—drove up to every Catholic high school in Quebec. The Guides, dressed in white padded suits with swastika medallions, would jump out and distribute 10,000 condoms to bemused teens on recess, who proceeded to return to their classes wearing large pink buttons that read “Oui aux Condoms a l’École” (“Yes to condoms in school”).
Canadian journalists applauded the Raelians’ anticlerical, pro-sex, youth-lib stance. The reports in 22 newspapers were unanimously sympathetic, even pro-Raelian.
Attempting to undermine Rael’s media triumph, Montreal’s anti-cult organization InfoCult denounced his “fascist” ideas (his utopian description of the Elohim’s government and the swastikas) in an article in Le Devoir. Raelians retaliated by demonstrating outside the Info-Cult office for a week, waving placards saying “NO to (anti-sect) RACISM!” and “Protect the Rights of Religious Minorities!” In press interviews, the Guides condemned Info-Cult as “an anti-religious criminal organization.”
All in all, the Raelians’ militant demands for respect seem to have paid off. Journalists have become more cautious, and by moving from the dubious twilight of marginal religions into the hot spotlight of avant-garde science, the Raelians find their voice is taken more seriously.
The cloning enterprise first made headlines at a March 9, 1997 press conference at the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas. Rael announced he had created one company that would clone children for $200,000 and another that for $50,000 would store the cell of a child that would be cloned in the event of untimely death. Most newspapers treated Rael’s cloning venture as a scam or a freak show.
What made the project seem for real was a September 2000 press conference at Montreal’s Best Western Hotel Europa that presented a group of “cloning mothers.” Attending the press conference with some of my students, I noticed feathered necklaces around the mothers’ necks indicating that they belonged to the Order of Rael’s Angels—an elite women’s caucus within the movement. The Angels are in training with Rael to develop qualities of feminine charisma pleasing to the extraterrestrials (who revealed to Rael during the summer of 1998 that they want a cadre of beautiful women ready to welcome and entertain them when they land).
By late last year, journalists got wind of the Angels and writers for Penthouse and Hustler magazine called me in search of salacious Angel stories. I told them my research was inconclusive. I also declined the opportunity to appear in a documentary about the Angels with pornography star Grace Quark of 250 Ways to Make Love. Apparently, Rael had been so impressed with her service to humanity, he made her an honorary Angel.
On March 3, the National Post’s magazine Saturday Night ran “Pregnant with a Clone,” an article by Dan Sanger featuring the Angel Marina, who happens to be the daughter of CLONAID’s director, Dr. Brigitte Boisellier. Eloquent as well as highly photogenic, Marina has been widely touted in the Canadian press as the prospective mother—although she assured a class of mine that she was only one in fifty possibilities and probably at the end of the queue, since Rael wanted someone with a lower profile.
Sanger, meanwhile, received a stern letter from a Raelian Bishop Guide objecting to his “discriminatory, biased and disrespectful” tone and the use of terms like “wackier,” “risible” and “cult.” “Would you write this about the Dalai Lama?” the Bishop Guide asked, and threatened to bar National Post journalists from their future press conferences.
It was surprising to see such a strong reaction to an article that seemed no more disrespectful than those I’d been reading for 20 years. But today the Raelians are determined to gain social acceptance and legitimacy.
They are recognized (for tax purposes) as a religion in the U.S. and have applied for federal recognition north of the border as the Raelian Church of Canada. (Last February I wrote a report supporting the application, which had been denied on the grounds that, although Raelians indeed venerate godlike extraterrestrials, their “gods” did not fit the tax law’s criteria, since they are material rather than transcendental beings.)
In their quest for social acceptance, the cloning project is the riskiest of ventures. If CLONAID succeeds in producing a healthy baby, the company will flourish, and Rael’s prophecies will be half-fulfilled. Some young woman will become the “Third Eve” and the ensuing media storm will bolster Raelian membership. On the other hand, if the cloning fails conspicuously, unforeseen forces could come into play—bioethicists, anti-cultists, disgruntled clients, or apostate Angels—and revitalize the flagging anti-cult movement in America.
In its July 9 issue, U.S. News and World Report reported that the Food and Drug Administration had located Boisellier’s secret lab and stopped the work on cloning. The magazine also claimed that a Syracuse grand jury had opened an investigation into the lab. In follow-up news stories, FDA spokesman Larry Bachorik said that Boisellier had signed an agreement “not to attempt human cloning in the United States and not to do research using human eggs in the United States.”
For her part, Boisellier informed the media that the lab was still up and running, doing perfectly legal work with cow eggs. “And we are setting up a lab in another country where it’s legal to do the final step, I mean, the human cell nucleus transfer,” she told CNN.
In other words, stay tuned.