If Claude Vorilhon is right, Dec. 13, 1973, was a big day for the planet Earth.
That's when 4-foot, dark-haired, olive-skinned extraterrestrials appeared to Vorilhon at a volcano in France and told him they created human life in their image using DNA, he says.
The scientifically advanced visitors, known as Elohim, supposedly stayed in contact with humans through the years via prophets such as Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, says Vorilhon, now 56 and a former car-racing journalist.
Now known as Rael, Vorilhon seeks to spread a message of science and spirituality and build an embassy for the extraterrestrials in Jerusalem. Last week, much of the world was introduced to the Quebec-based Raelian movement when the group claimed to have created the first human clone — a step toward achieving eternal life, they believe.
Since then, Raelians have been widely ridiculed as cultists. Indeed, many practices and beliefs of this sect stray far from the mainstream: the UFO theme park, the emphasis on open sexuality, and the leader himself, who wears his hair in a bun perched on his balding head.
But just how much more far-fetched is Raelianism from other faiths? Just the thought of comparing Raelian beliefs to Christianity, Judaism or Islam surely raises sacrilegious flags for many, despite the freedom of religion encoded in the Constitution.
Many religious scholars, though, see a broader definition of religion — and the Raelians fit it, they say, just as Scientologists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons do.
Instead of the word "cult," considered by religious scholars to be the most derogatory term of their field, modern sects are known as "new religious movements" in academic lingo. Just because a belief system is young does not make it wrong, scholars say.
After all, the Romans once considered Christians superstitious for not worshipping the emperor, said Frank K. Flinn, religion professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "Yesterday's cult is tomorrow's religion," he said.
People Who Believe Weird Things
Flinn, who several times has appeared as an expert trial witness to present a legal definition of religion, says he identifies three essential characteristics of a religion. It must possess a system of beliefs that explain the ultimate meaning of life, must teach religious practices and norms for behavior and conduct rites and ceremonies, and must unite a body of believers.
The Raelian movement fits this definition, he said. According to their Web site, Raelians claim 55,000 worldwide followers, although this number has not been independently verified.
Not everyone, of course, is so generous to the Raelians.
"This is from this one guy Rael's one hallucinogenic experience. It's a cult of personality. He's a pretty dynamic, persuasive fellow," said Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society and author of Why People Believe Weird Things . "I've never seen any verification of his 55,000 members."
The Raelians are just the latest fringe religious group to make headlines in recent years and raise questions about what constitutes religion and what makes a cult.
Scientologists have caused a stir with celebrity believers such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, bitter legal battles and accusations of abuse and corruption. The Hare Krishnas defended themselves against brainwashing allegations and gained a reputation for soliciting new members in airport terminals.