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.
While many religious scholars are accepting of new sects, apocalyptic groups often garner criticism. Heaven's Gate, whose members committed mass suicide and made the sect extinct in 1997, believed a spaceship riding behind the comet Hale-Bopp would take them to heaven, for example.
"With groups like Heaven's Gate you might be able to use that term [cult]; they wreaked a great deal of harm," said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions and author of Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails .
From UFO Sect to Mainstream Religion?
To many Americans, though, Heaven's Gate equals Hare Krishna equals Moonies. New beliefs don't win widespread popularity here and are even less welcome than a century ago, Melton said.
Early in the 20th century, 30 percent of Americans were affiliated with a religion. Now, 80 percent claim to be members of a particular church. "The chances of [a new sect's] success are less because the pool of unaffiliated is less," Melton said.
A century ago, Americans considered Mormons cultists, in part because of their polygamous ways. But now, many prominent Americans belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Mormons (who no longer advocate polygamy) are officially mainstream.
Is such acceptance possible for Raelians?
Usually, successful new religious groups are evangelistic and aggressive about recruiting members, and maintain a fairly low level of tension with mainstream society, Melton said.
Success for the Raelians may mean dropping their affiliation with UFO-style beliefs. "Mormons as polygamists couldn't do it. Mormons not as polygamists could do it," Melton said.
While some observers say the recent publicity about Rael's cloning claims may boost the sect's profile, some scholars say the foray into science may prove calamitous for the movement.
Cloning Failure Could Test Faith
Clonaid, the Raelians' scientific arm, claims to have cloned the first human, but so far the company has not provided scientific proof. And even if it did create a clone, costly mistakes in the process could test Raelians' faith and further ostracize the group.
"In terms of their own belief system, what they're doing [cloning] is ethical, but not in terms of broader society," Flinn said. To illustrate his point of just what can go wrong, Flinn pointed to the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, who has experienced premature aging and arthritis.
For others though, greater costs of Raelians' faith could come to science itself, whether or not their cloning efforts were successful.
"This could be an important development for medical technology that's now tainted," Shermer said. "The real guys are worried Congress will panic and pass restrictive laws [on cloning] because some UFO nut says he did it."