The first Raelian has just moved to Manhattan, and she's on a mission to multiply. She is hosting her first "sensual meditation" class next week, spreading the extraterrestrial good news on the Upper West Side-and bringing the group's controversial stance on cloning to New York.
One of Raelianism's goals, unraveling the secret to immortality, has embroiled its many scientific followers in the cloning debate. Dr. Brigitte Boissellier, a former biochemistry professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York, brought the Raelians much notoriety last month, insisting that despite heavy opposition to the idea of human cloning among bioethicists and throughout the scientific community, she will persevere in her attempts to clone human beings. Like all Raelians, Dr. Boissellier believes that advanced methods of human cloning will lead to immortality. After all, the Elohim-aliens who created all life on earth-became immortal this way.
Dr. Boissellier is currently leading a three-person Raelian research team, including a geneticist, a biochemist, and a gynecologist, that has been experimenting with cattle cloning and "is making progress toward human cell cloning." She says five more scientists will be joining her lab this fall.
At present in New York City, the Raelians are mounting a membership drive (they were handing out literature last weekend in Central Park, and making plans to open their homes to group meetings). Marie-Helene Parent, 43, is small-framed, wearing tight black satin bell-bottoms and a clingy, short tee. She cuddles into a white cotton-candy couch as she fields questions about her UFO-based faith, which she has been involved in for half her life.
What is the nature and intent of the Elohim? Why is human cloning a mandatory goal? Why is Dr. Boissellier a Raelian? What are Parent's intentions in New York? And, most bizarre, why are Raelians better looking than, say, the average Moonie?
Parent puckers up her glossy, red full lips, takes a deep breath, pauses, and ponders. Finally, she replies in a soft French accent. "To create a painting," she says, referring to one of the many lively works on the walls of her West 52nd Street apartment, "is like an orgasm [accent on the a]."
"The Elohim created us, like we create paintings. We were created out of pleasure, and therefore our destiny is supposed to be pleasure. The more in touch we are with our senses, beauty, and passions, the more one we are with our creators, infinity, and with ourselves." Because of the emphasis on aesthetic and physical pleasures, Raelians devote time to toning and polishing their looks.
"Raelians do seem to be a good-looking group," says Susan Palmer, a Canadian sociologist who is writing a book about them. "Good-looking people may get more positive feedback, and they stay. Also, Rael [the Raelians' leader; see first sidebar] advises not having children until you're totally self-realized (and if you want to be cloned eventually, then you have to make the choice between the two forms of reproduction). And they eat holistic food and promote exercise and don't drink alcohol or coffee so they stay healthier."
So with Raelianism's sexy PR, Parent may not have a hard time recruiting members in the city, despite the religion's central basic assumptions: the existence and cosmic dominance of loving extraterrestrials. Parent, who helped bring nearly 100 Raelians into the fold in Florida over the last seven years, is confident that she will have even greater success convincing New Yorkers to believe that highly artistic, science-minded, sextraterrestrials created our world, and that-through cloning-we will achieve immortality.
Rael's message has captured the imagination of an eclectic following, including sex industry workers and artists. As for the scientific community, Dr. Boissellier finds it easy to explain Raelianism's appeal. "The more scientists look at the human genome and the more we see how sophisticated it is, the harder it becomes to believe that it all happened by chance through evolution," she explains. "So evolutionary theory is considered less and less viable among scientists, and more and more are joining the Raelians."
She says that after she discovered Raelianism eight years ago, she began reading about ancient gods and the Bible. "I am a scholar," she says. "I need it all to make rational sense. And Raelianism is the first creation story to make sense to me." She says that an estimated 20 percent of the religion's membership comes from the scientific community.
In contrast, young Asian members seem to be attracted to Raelianism's interconnected religious theology and its implicit social rebelliousness. In a telephone interview from Japan, where he was conducting a seminar, the group's founder, the former Claude Vorilhon, 54, now known as "Rael," explained that "the Japanese at the conference come from such beautiful, open religious backgrounds. They have a poster of Buddha hanging up next to a cross, and next to a Raelian star." They appreciate the way Raelianism includes all the major faiths in its worldview, he says.
Susan Palmer says that many of the Asian Raelians she met work in the sex industry. "They respond to the open sexual mores of the group," she explains. A much tinier group of Raelians are Jews-about 60 live in Jerusalem-but they remain a central focus.
"In a sense, all Raelians are Jews," says Rael. "The Raelians have a particular interest in Israel because our goal is to rebuild the third temple," in the form of a government-sanctioned embassy for extraterrestrials. "It says in the Bible that whoever devotes themselves to the building of the third temple is a real Jew. So we are therefore more Jewish than most born Jews." The Raelians have the means to begin building, but are waiting for Israel to legitimize their request. If Israel doesn't cooperate by 2035, Rael teaches that the Elohim will stop protecting Israel from its surrounding neighbors. And if a more alien-friendly country agrees to build the embassy at any time before then, Israel's extraterrestrial-spiritual protection will be lifted.
Rael had Jewish ties before his encounter with the Elohim. "My mother had thought that her Jewish boyfriend had impregnated her, and that he was my father," he says. His family welcomed the new explanation. "When I told my mother and grandmother the true story, my grandmother was relieved because she said that she had seen UFOs lingering around the house over the years and had never told anyone."
Despite the fact that he is a race-car enthusiast who claims an intimate, even familial relationship with extraterrestrials, and that he is a devout atheist with a messiah complex and a Jewish identity, Rael comes across as clear-headed and gentle. As Palmer puts it, "I have always seen Rael as a well-meaning, exciting, intelligent leader. But I have a friend who is a psychiatrist who went to go hear him speak and said he seemed totally paranoid and schizophrenic with his whole God-complex."
Still, most Raelians take their leader very seriously, says Palmer, rarely deviating from his advice. Most are tithed at 3 percent of their net worth. Those in leadership positions give 10 percent. This is not considered a high price to pay in the mission for immortality. According to Nadine Gary, who does Raelian PR, at least 100 young female members have eagerly volunteered their eggs and wombs to the higher cause.
Gary says the group has a list of more than 100 people waiting to clone themselves. She says there are quite a few homosexuals on the list (the Raelians advertise that they are more open to gays than any other pro-cloning group). The Raelians feel that cloning offers gays a wonderful opportunity to have children with their own genes. "They should have the right," says Gary.
Although neither Raelians nor gay and lesbian fertility advocates were able to produce a single person interested in cloning as of yet, Claudia Stallman, director of the Lesbian and Gay Family Building Project in Binghamton, New York, says that "advocates are interested in the prospects of any technological advances that can help gays and lesbians have children."
Of course, at this point the consensus in the scientific community is that human cloning poses serious questions. About one in 10 attempts to clone mammals result in a live offspring, says Cornell University cloning pioneer Robert H. Foote. Foote, who has been cloning animals for 15 years, explains that the overwhelming majority of cloned animals have birth defects and high mortality rates. "Cloning research is vital in that it can yield breakthroughs that will benefit humanity in profound ways," he says. "But I am completely opposed to cloning humans for reproduction. It is way too dangerous, inefficient, and expensive."
Non-Raelian advocates of human cloning include mostly infertile couples who want a biologically related child and have exhausted other means, or parents yearning to replace a child they've lost. In fact, after four years of attempting to raise funds to support her research efforts, Dr. Boissellier finally received money from a couple who wished to clone their deceased 10-month-old son. The child had died after a minor operation had gone awry. Last June, the couple donated $500,000 to Clonaid, the research lab Dr. Boissellier currently directs. Recently, however, the couple decided not to go through with the procedure.
In 1997, President Clinton, following the recommendations of his Bioethics Advisory Commission, which concluded that human cloning would be unsafe and therefore unethical, signed a five-year ban on the use of federal funds for human-cloning research. But so far, only four states -California, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and Michigan-have outlawed cloning for reproductive purposes.
"I would never break the law of any state," says Dr. Boissellier. "If they legally ban cloning research in order to prohibit progress on the research, I will fight to change the laws."
Raelians are intent on cloning human cells because they believe that this is just the first, "primitive" stage of cloning. "The second stage will include cloning a person's DNA within seconds into a full-grown 18-year-old, and stage three includes mapping his brain, and downloading it into the clone," explains Dr. Boissellier. "This is how we will obtain immortality." How will we grow a DNA cell within seconds into a full-grown man or woman? "How can I say? The research hasn't been done yet. But within 50 years, we will be debating the ethics of accepting this new scientific development, I am sure."
The Raelians also have a creative, over-the-top approach to their social vision. "The Elohim teach us that gender roles keep us from understanding our true selves, and therefore our creators," explains Rael. "They are so evolved and enlightened that they have transcended gender barriers." Sexual experimentation and gender play is encouraged. For example, Raelians throw a transgendered ball each year: "Men come dressing and acting like stereotypical women, and women come dressing and acting like men," Rael explains. In this way, he adds, Raelians learn respect for the other gender, and become "inspired to act more human, and less like 'women' or 'men.' We are really quite feminist," he concludes. Raelians welcome gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals into their religion, and march in gay pride parades all over the world each year.
"The Raelians are more tolerant, progressive, and enlightened than the followers of most new religions," maintains Palmer. Despite their openness, Rael says that his followers have been heavily persecuted in France, which, he points out, is the only country with an "anti-cult ministry." Dr. Boissellier says that she has faced painful discrimination there: first losing her job due to her faith, and then losing custody of her youngest child to her non-Raelian ex-husband. "When I began publicizing my interest in cloning and my religious affiliation, my bosses asked me to leave out the Raelian part. I refused, and they fired me. I brought them to court on charges of discrimination, lost, and appealed five times until I finally won. They had to pay me six months' severance for discrimination."
Swiss business consultant Gerard Jean Pupeux, Rael's top assistant in Europe, says, "After 20 years of being a Raelian, and 15 years working in the same company, I appeared on a major national television show in December in France, discussing my religion, and was fired the next day." Clients called his office the day after the program aired and told his bosses that they would choose another company if he wasn't let go. "After every public appearance I have problems at my job," he adds. He now says he no longer agrees to do interviews in Europe, but made an exception for this article because "the United States seems far enough away" from his job.
Rael himself left France about 10 years ago due to persecution, and started the Quebec chapter, which is now one of the largest in the world. The Raelians hope to get a friendlier reception in New York. Parent is expecting 20 to 25 guests at her meditation class on Sunday: "We will close our eyes for about 30 minutes at 10 a.m., just to become aware of the infinity in ourselves, and then have telepathic communication, sharing prayer and love with the Elohim at 11. Afterward, a few of us will hit the streets with flyers and books." The only public event she has planned here so far is a three-day appearance at the New Life Expo at the New Yorker Hotel in October. "We are not really advertising now," she says. "I have a list of people's names I have collected in past visits when I came here to speak."
Parent is very excited about establishing a New York chapter. "Rael teaches us to see the positive side to everything," she notes. "I have lived in France-a country with a lot less religious tolerance than here. America is the freest country, and New Yorkers are the most open people. "And they're used to seeing just about everything."