For adherents of the Raëlian Movement, the religious sect that claims it cloned two baby girls, human cloning means more than a scientific achievement.

Of course, there are plenty of skeptics to the group's claim that it has succeeded in cloning. One is journalist Michael Guillen, assigned by the group to oversee proof of the cloning. He dropped out of the project yesterday, saying it may be an "elaborate hoax."

If it is, the group has still accomplished a major coup: its name is headline material now. In 1998 the group claimed it would open a cloning lab in the Bahamas. They later admitted it was a hoax. Their founder wrote, "For a minimal investment, it got us media coverage worth more than $15 million."

However, if the Raëlians have cloned a human, it is for them a step toward eternal life.

"Once we can clone exact replicas of ourselves, the next step will be to transfer our memory and personality into our newly cloned brains," reads the website of the movement's scientific arm. "Thus, man's ultimate dream of eternal life, which past religions only promised after death in mythical paradise, [is now] a scientific reality."

Cloning is not only important to Raëlians as a means of immortality. They also believe that an extraterrestrial race called the Elohim created humans by using cloning.

Raëlians do not believe in God, the soul, or salvation. Their founder, Raël, is antagonistic toward established religions. However, their teachings do have a religious overtone. Movement leaders call their philosophy a crossroads of spirituality and science.

In Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, coauthor Kenneth Samples writes that the Raëlian Movement is the largest UFO religion in the world. He estimates the group has 20,000 to 30,000 members.  (In comparison, the next largest UFO sect, The Aetherius Society, has 5,000 to 10,000 members.)

The Raëlians have headquarters in France, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Africa, and the United States. Raël now lives in Quebec, which has become a default home for the sect. In the 1990s, the province gave the group religious status. Near Montreal, the Raëlians operate UFOland, a space alien museum housed in what it advertises as the "largest building using bales of hay in the world."

How did it start?

French journalist Claude Vorilhon established the Raëlian sect in 1973 after claiming he spent six days in a spaceship with an Elohim visitor. The alien said that Vorilhon, whom he renamed Raël, was the last of 40 half-human, half-alien prophets. The others—who live together on a distant planet—include Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Joseph Smith, and Mohammed.

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This is far from the only instance of religious figures appearing in Raëlian myth. The group is untraditional among UFO religions in directly rejecting monotheistic realities. In fact, Newsweek reports that "Raël's self-proclaimed mission is to tear down the myth of God." Therefore, Raëlians offer new explanations for dozens of religious claims. Examples include:

  • Raël argues that Elohim, the Hebrew word for God, was mistranslated in the Bible and actually means "those who came from the sky."

  • The star of Bethlehem is explained to be a spaceship hovering in the air.

  • The Garden of Eden, Raël says, was actually an Elohim lab from which humans were ejected for fighting.

What is Raël's objective?

Raël claims the Elohim commissioned him to inform humans how they were created and to warn society about nuclear dangers. Adherents also prepare for the return of the alien creators.

Raël says that when the extraterrestrials come back to Earth, they will solve "all the problems of today." However, they cannot return until there is world peace and humans are scientifically sophisticated enough not to "foolishly adore them as gods." They also require an embassy in Jerusalem. Raël's negotiations with Israel haven't been successful.

Because Raël preaches that there is no soul, he says the only way for Raëlians to achieve eternal life is by cloning. (The sect founded Clonaid in 1997 to offer cloning to private individuals.) When the aliens return, Raël says, Elohim technology will be used to transport an individual's personality and memories to a newly cloned body. In fact, when members join the group, they sign a waiver stating that they want a section of their skull to be removed after death to aid in the process.

"Rather than redemption in Jesus Christ, UFO religions show that there is salvation from above but it comes in the form of a spaceship," said Samples in an interview with CT. "The worldview of these groups is outlandish. Heaven's Gate showed that these religions are not just peculiar, funny, and strange—they are dangerous."

How does it draw people?

Samples, vice-president of Christian apologetics organization Reasons to Believe, said that two things make the Raëlians attractive to adherents. First, the religion has very few rules on behavior. The only demand that the aliens make on humans is that they "be happy."

Adherents are encouraged to question their values and awaken their minds to "learn to be ourselves and enjoy the here and now." Instruction in these techniques takes place at "sensual meditation" seminars.

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"When it comes to sexuality, they are very liberated and promiscuous," Samples said. "Virtually any sexual encounter goes. That goes for Rael himself, who says he had sex with various alien robots. The sect is popular with young people who see this as a religion of exploration."

A second attractive trait of the sect, Samples said, is that it sees itself on the cutting edge of science. "If they are the mover and shaker behind the first cloning of a human being, that projects their idea that they are a group that makes things happen in science and technology," he told CT. "If they can overcome their cultic label, this will seem attractive to some people."

But if the cloning claims are not proven, Samples points out that a Raëlian objective is still met thanks to extensive media coverage given to their unsubstantiated claims.

"Remember: their goal is that they have this message from aliens to communicate with humanity, so they see themselves as completing the prime directive by getting people's attention," he says. "This subject is real lightning in a bottle. People are very curious, even if they think the beliefs are strange."

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.