Rick Ross is no scientist, but he does know cults, and from what he knows of the Raelians, he is comfortable rendering a verdict on their claim to have cloned a human being: "I am deeply skeptical," said Ross, a cult expert.
"This is a group with a history of public relations stunts," said Ross, who lives in Jersey City where he operates several Web sites that help to educate the public and de-program people who have left cults. "This is not new."
In fact, earlier this year, Rael -- or rather, Claude Vorilhon, the former French journalist who changed names and started Raelianism in the 1970s -- was in the news for passing out small wooden crosses in Canada, where he spends the summers (he winters in Florida), and calling on Catholics to burn them as a protest over this year's clergy abuse scandal. (The ex-Catholics were then invited to become Raelians.)
And before Rael founded Clonaid in 1997, he earned headlines by establishing an "embassy" for visitors from outer space.
The alien embassy idea was no coincidence. Rael says that he met little green space aliens while visiting a French volcano in the 1970s, and they took him to a planet where they introduced him to Buddha and Jesus. The extraterrestrials also told him they created life on Earth through genetic engineering, and that cloning was, as Rael says, "the key to eternal life."
"Nothing can stop science," Rael has said.
Nothing can stop Rael, either, it would seem. Whatever one makes of his religious claims, experts like Rick Ross insist that his is little more than a "stereotypical cult," though a highly polished one.
Ross has been a nationally recognized cult expert for 20 years -- he has been described as "America's No. 1 cult-buster" -- and he helped former members of David Koresh's cult that went up in flames in Waco in 1993. He has testified in numerous court cases, assisted law enforcement agencies dealing with cults, and lectured at colleges and universities around the country.
Increasingly, however, Ross has been called on to explain the Raelians, as Rael has succeeded in raising his profile in the public square despite his odd-sounding claims.
"The clear and defining element of a cult would be that it is personality driven, and that the claims of the living leader of the group are the central, core focus of the group," Ross said. In this case, the leader is Rael, or Vorilhon, and the clone claim plays perfectly into that strategy, Ross said.
"The whole pitch of publicity stunts that Claude Vorilhon has staged over the years is to feed his ego and to gain attention, which is part of an effort at a self-fulfilling prophecy," Ross said. "He has told his followers he is a person of world importance ... He has these, in my opinion, publicity stunts that bring him attention, bring him media coverage, and then he can turn to his followers and say, 'You see how important I am?' It reaffirms their faith and strengthens their resolve to serve him."
Such devotion also masks the fact that Rael most certainly has far fewer than the 55,000 followers he claims. Most experts think the number is a few thousand, at best. But they are loyal, and they buy Rael's book and tapes and paraphernalia off his Web site, and allow him to live a lavish lifestyle and to finance projects like Clonaid.
"If you can find a group of people willing to give you free labor, you can become rich in a relatively short period of time," said Ross. "That seems to be the case with Rael. He has the money at his disposal which could conceivably finance something like this (cloning)."
And Ross and others say that this week's clone claim, as absurd as it may sound, could once again benefit Rael, even if it is proved false through DNA tests that are expected next week.
"I think it is going to attract people," said Ross, who said that he had received several e-mail requests yesterday from people wanting information on how to join the Raelians. He also said that many people are desperate for a child or a clone of a child -- infertile couples, gay couples, or parents of a dead child -- and will grasp at any straw.
"How much money do you think they could raise from such claims?" he said. "This could be viable in one sense as a fund-raising ploy."