On December 13, 2000, four people are gathered at a Canoga Park, California, condo. They each wear a medallion featuring a galaxy-swirl pattern embedded in a Star of David. This is the symbol of the Raëlian Movement, a UFO cult founded by French race-car driver and journalist Claude Vorilhon, who now calls himself Raël.
Hanging prominently in the living room is a large, framed photograph of Raël, a bearded man, with long locks pulled up into a bun, revealing a receding hairline. Pictures of various UFOs and cartoon aliens also adorn the walls.
Jeri Conway, a tall African American man and high-ranking Raëlian guide who works in property management, leads the meeting. The other devotees include Raymond Jubinville, a French-Canadian street musician who resembles Robert Plant, and Paula Cote and David Peterson, the married Caucasian couple who are hosting the event. Aside from their medallions, the four appear to be the sort of average, upstanding citizens one might find at a Martha Stewart book signing.
After eating Chinese food served on alien-decorated paper plates, the group discusses Raëlianism with potential followers who, at this particular meeting, consist only of me and my friend. The quartet of true believers claims that there are 55,000 members worldwide, mainly in Japan, Italy and Canada.
According to Raël's book, The Message Given by Extraterrestrials, on December 13, 1973, Vorilhon was walking in France's Clermont-Ferrand volcanic mountain range when a spaceship appeared. A four-foot-tall extraterrestrial in a green, one-piece suit with almond-shaped eyes, long, black hair, a black beard and slightly greenish skin exited the spacecraft and taught Vorilhon that mankind was created in a test tube by a race of space creatures, referred to in the Old Testament as "the Elohim."
The diminutive alien told Vorilhon that he was the last of the 40 prophets chosen to spread "the message." The space traveler instructed the Frenchman to change his name to Raël and start a religious movement."The Elohim created all of the religions," says Conway, back in modern-day Canoga Park. "The original laboratory is the Garden of Eden." The devotees are celebrating the 27th anniversary of Raël's close encounter.
According to Raëlian doctrine, today is one of only four days each year that a new disciple can upload his or her genetic code to mankind's alien creators.
Raëlians hope that the Elohim will choose them to be reincarnated via cloning. According to Raëlian David Peterson, "8,475 humans from Earth will be chosen to live on the Planet of the Eternals." Peterson believes that the Elohim use computers to keep constant surveillance on every human being to determine who's worthy of replication.
Like many people, Raëlians believe that humans will soon be able to clone themselves. The Raëlians, however, are taking matters in their own hands.In February 1997, embryologist Iam Wilmut and his colleagues at the Roslin Institute in Scotland announced that they had created a lamb named Dolly, the first mammalian clone. Immediately following Wilmut's proclamation, Raël, who had been advocating human cloning for more than 20 years, formed Clonaid, a company dedicated to creating human clones.
Raël believes cloning is only the first step to achieving eternal life. "Right now, cloning is just like having a twin brother or a twin sister," says Raël in a heavy French accent. "The next step is a new technique called Accelerated Growth Process, where you can directly clone an adult copy of yourself, and the third step is where you can upload your memory and your personality into the brain of the adult clone, who is like a blank tape. Because when you reach this level, you can have eternal life in another body. That is what is exciting. I think a baby is not very exciting."
The cult leader believes that this advanced form of cloning will be possible very soon. "We are not talking about next century, but in ten to 20 years. If you are less than 50 years old, you can expect to never die."
Others aren't so happy about the prospect of replicating human life. On July 31, 2001, the House of Representatives passed a bill by a 265-162 vote banning all forms of human cloning. If the Senate passes the bill which is supported by the Bush Administration, people convicted of cloning humans could face up to ten years in prison and a $1-million fine.
Clonaid's director, a 44-year-old French biochemist and Raëlian bishop named Brigitte Boisselier, testified before a U.S. House subcommittee on cloning. Dr. Boisselier became a Raëlian in 1993 after hearing Raël speak. "I realized that he was telling the truth," she says.
This "truth" includes Raël's claim that, two years after his initial meeting with the alien, he was taken by spaceship to the Planet of the Eternals, where Yahweh introduced Raël to the 39 other prophets, including Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, and Joseph Smith, who were all cloned back to life by the Elohim.
Raël learned that he was conceived on Christmas 1945, when Yahweh had sexual intercourse with Raël's mother. "The Elohim erased [the sexual encounter] from her memory to allow her to have a normal life," explains Raël. "She had a boyfriend at the time, and she thought the boyfriend was my father."According to Raël's teachings, the human race was created by aliens 666 generations ago on what would have been April Fool's Day, 13,265 years before the birth of Christ, who is Raël's half-brother.
On April 1, 2001, approximately 30 Raëlians congregate at Lake Meade, just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, to celebrate the test-tube birth of mankind.
Unlike at the Canoga Park celebration, there are some new Raëlians present who upload their genetic code to the Elohim. Clonaid director Boisselier, in her role as Raëlian bishop, places her hand in water and presses her palm against the foreheads of the new devotees. One woman goes into hysterics, crying at the beauty of it all. Afterward, the converts must sign a letter of apostasy, denying all other faiths.
The Raëlians also agree to have a chunk of their skull sent to Raël after they die. "Instead of taking a lot of room for cemeteries, we just keep one square centimeter of the forehead, and everything else is given to science," says Raël. "We keep it in a safety box, well protected. It can be used by human beings for cloning; it is not for the Elohim. The Elohim know the personality and the genetic code of every human being, and if you worked for peace and love for the good of humanity, then after death the Elohim will give you an opportunity to have another life through cloning. If you do bad, you go back to dust."
Clonaid was merely a post-office box in the Bahamas until, according to Boisselier, the French government pressured officials there not to allow a human cloning company in their country. Clonaid then opened a secret lab in the United States. The company's first customers were Mark Hunt, an ex-state senator from West Virginia, and his wife, Tracy. Their ten-month-old son, Andrew, had died in September 1999, after undergoing heart surgery. The Hunts helped finance Clonaid's work by investing $500,000.
With the money, Boisselier hired three more scientists: another biochemist, a geneticist, and an OB/GYN familiar with in vitro fertilization.
Because cloning entails much trial and error, resulting in miscarriages and deformities, Clonaid has secured 50 Raëlian woman, including Boisselier's own 22-year-old daughter, Marina Cocolios, as volunteers to carry any cloned embryos that might result from Boisselier's efforts.
Female Raëlians have also offered to donate their eggs for a project called Ovulaid, a service where would-be parents can meet the egg donors and determine the genetic make-up of their child.
Unfortunately for Clonaid, the federal government has impeded the group's progress. Agents from the Food and Drug Administration visited the biochemist at her secret cloning lab, which turned out to be a schoolroom in rural West Virginia. Despite its rustic setting, the lab contained sophisticated equipment.
"Basically, we inspected the lab, and she signed a statement saying she would not attempt human cloning in the United States until it's decided in court or by a law," says FDA spokesperson Lenore Gelb.
Boisselier says that if the anti-cloning bill becomes law, she will fight all the way to the Supreme Court. "I do believe it's a fundamental right to be able to use your genes the way you want. Meanwhile, we have moved our main lab outside of the U.S."
In the meantime, the Hunts have backed out of having their son cloned by the Raëlians, complaining that Boisselier is a "press hog" who hasn't even come close to cloning their child. Boisselier claims that more than 2,000 others have come forward to be cloned but, because of the investigation, she has no timetable on when their first clone will be born.
Mike Kropveld, executive director of Info-Cult, a resource center on cultic thinking in Quebec, concurs with the Hunts that the Raëlians are more interested in publicity than productivity. "For years, Raël's been trying to make it into the American market," says Kropveld, who believes that there are most likely only five to ten thousand full-fledged Raëlians on the celestial books. "He's really trying to make it in the media. They're always sending out press releases. He doesn't really appear to concern himself too much about what kind of coverage they get, as long as they get covered."
Kropveld seriously doubts that the Raëlians will ever clone a human being. "Let's put it this way: History with this movement tends to demonstrate [a lack of results]. Raël doesn't have a clue about cloning, and now that mankind has some capabilities, he's pushing the idea. Here is an individual who likes to be talked about."
Prior to Clonaid, most media coverage of the Raëlians focused on the group's sexual beliefs and practices. While the Raëlians contend that they are wrongly presented in the press as a "sex cult," they seem to simultaneously invite and dismiss the reputation. In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Raël denies that the group is centered on eroticism, then boasts that a 65-year-old Catholic nun "discovered sexual pleasure in her tent with a boyfriend" at a Raëlian retreat. Raël also enjoys posing for photographs with his nubile, topless disciples. The group's literature features pictures of nude women who appear to be in the midst of ogasmic throes.
Raël details the origins of his free-love philosophy in his book. After meeting his fellow prophets on the Elohim Planet, a robot showed Raël to his room and asked him if he wanted a female companion. When Raël answered in the affirmative, he was presented with a beautiful, brunet, biological sex robot. Then a blonde appeared, followed by a redhead, a "magnificent black woman," a "very fine, slender Chinese female," and finally another Asian woman, this one voluptuous. Because Raël could not decide which of the beautiful robots to bed, the Elohim allowed him to take all six. "I had the most unforgettable bath that I had ever had in the company of those charming robots, totally submissive to all my desires," recalls Raël.
Raël foresees a day when all humans will be able to have sex with robots. "Of course, the feminists will not like it," says Raël. "But nobody has any feelings against using a washing machine or a dishwasher." Raël says that while there is much sex among the movement's members, freedom of sexuality also includes the freedom not to have sex.
Raëlians are programmed not to be jealous. They are taught that, if they are truly happy with themselves, they will want their partner to be happy, and if happiness means the partner must sleep around, the partner should be allowed to do so.
While Raël copulates with many of his female followers, the ewes in his flock are not required to perform sex acts on their messiah. "I am getting old," says Raël. "I am less attractive than before. I'm 54 now. There are a lot of young men in the movement who are very beautiful."
Every July, hundreds of Raëlians meet in Quebec, where the group owns land. The gathering puts Raël's free-love theories into practice. "It is a one-week seminar," says Raël. "We teach everything about the Message and being happy. There is a 24-hour fast to cleanse the body and the mind, a lot of parties, many shows and people just happy together. There are a lot of beautiful women naked. The rest of the time, people enjoy swimming in the lake."
The classes include sensual massage and coed painting sessions, where devotees rub paint on each other's naked bodies. Between teachings, the Raëlians play nude volleyball.
"I was in an exclusive relationship when I became a Raëlian," says Florence, a Frenchwoman who presently resides in San Francisco. "I started a new life. I was not the same Florence that I had been even a few months earlier, and then I discovered I was bisexual."
On the Canadian property, Raël's condo is connected to UFOland. The small theme park is basically a building that houses a replica of the spaceship that transported Raël (which some members insist is a working model) and a 26-foot sculpture of the human DNA structure.
Raël moved from his native France to Quebec to escape what he says is religious persecution at the hands of the French government. "They try to make rumors about pedophilia, which we are against. We are for sexual freedom for adults only. Any time you are in favor of sexual freedom, people try to say you favor pedophilia."
While Raël opposes pedophilia, ten years ago he married the 16-year-old daughter of one of his disciples. "She was less than 18 when I met her, and I did not want to go to jail; so we got married," says Rael. "When she reached the legal age, we divorced, because we are against marriage."
Married or not, the couple enjoys an open relationship. Or, at least, Raël enjoys the relationship's openness. "She is not a very sexual person; so she is very happy if I can find what she does not enjoy so much with other people. She's happy with once a week, and I need more; so I find it somewhere else."
Although Raëlians believe that the human race was created on April 1, the Raëlian calendar begins on August 6, 1945, the day that the United States bombed Hiroshima. According to the Raëlians, the event brought about the Age of Apocalypse.
To usher in Raëlian year 56 AH (After Hiroshima), Bishop Guide Jeri Conway is throwing a New Year's Eve barbecue and pool party at his Simi Valley, California, home. Fresh from their Quebec retreat, the 20 Raëlians in attendance seem to be in excellent spirits. Raymond Jubinville, the French-Canadian from the Canoga Park get-together, arrives with a girl whom he met at the Quebec event. Raymond seems to take Raël's free-love message seriously. He strips down to a Speedo-type swimsuit and rubs his new friend's pubis through her bathing suit while ogling another female.
Holding court poolside is old-school Raëlian Phillip Lambro, age 64. Lambro is a composer who has scored such films as Murph the Surf and Chinatown. (Unfortunately for Lambro, the producers of Chinatown replaced his score with that of another composer.)
Lambro says he has been a de-facto Raëlian since he was five years old, when people in space would talk to him. Lambro came across Raël's tome at a New Age bookstore in the late '70s. Lambro says that when he first spoke to Raël, the guru said, "Get me on American television." (According to Raël, the Elohim told him that television is "the most important aid you have to reach a long and lasting world peace.")
For the past 17 years, Lambro has been trying to make a movie version of Raël's life story. "All I need is $175 million; this is a huge story. This is bigger than Star Wars. I'm aiming for four hours. Look how many movies and television and books have been done on Jesus. Raël is the present-day Jesus. I would like Paul Verhoeven to direct it, but Raël wants Steven Spielberg."