On Dec. 27, 2002, at a Holiday Inn just north of Hollywood, Fla., the leader of the largest UFO sect in the world made a rather unique announcement to reporters. For years, Claude Vorilhon had been telling whoever would listen that, while hiking atop a dormant volcano in central France in 1973, he saw a spaceship touch down. Out of the ship walked a 4-foot, bearded being -- not quite human, but almost. Within minutes, the extraterrestrial cleared up centuries of debate about the origin of man: Humans -- indeed all life on Earth -- were created neither through evolution nor a divine power, but by aliens. And through science, humans would one day develop the technology to become like their creators. At least, this is what Vorilhon -- who would rename himself Rael -- says he was told.
Now, almost 30 years later, science has brought mankind closer to the legacy the extraterrestrials foretold. At the press conference, Rael announced that a company he founded had just presided over the birth of the first human clone. A 31-year-old woman had delivered by C-section a daughter who was the mother's exact genetic match. The child's name, fittingly, was Eve.
In an instant, Rael and his thousands of followers made the leap from sociological curiosity to scientific monstrosity. The language of the media blitzkrieg was grandiose. "A dramatic -- and, to many researchers, troubling -- milestone in medical history," one newspaper remarked. "A reckless application of cloning technology," warned another. "A claim worthy of a P.T. Barnum sideshow" and "an occasion for ghoulish bemusement," an editorial denounced. "'Twilight Zone'-like." "Sometimes surreal." "Like an 'X-Files' story line." "A brave new world or a spectacular hoax."
The company, Clonaid, at first agreed to settle the skepticism by submitting mother and child to DNA testing. But as weeks passed with no proof put forth, it appeared the claims of the first human clone were nothing but a bluff.
Hoax or not, Rael's announcement immeasurably elevated his fringe movement's profile. And perhaps more significantly, news of each of man's newly cloned beasts -- be it a cat, a mouse or, just last month in Italy, a horse -- has helped Rael's claims seem less and less outlandish. Our own advancements in cloning in fact mirror the process by which Rael claims that extraterrestrials eventually came to clone humans. According to Rael, the aliens cloned everything from single-cell organisms to Neanderthals, culminating in a final specimen -- us -- that most closely resembles them.
And now, as a result of our own recent experiments, Raelian logic says we have inched ever closer to cloning man -- and, by extenstion, to playing "them," or God.
Of course, the convergence of religion and sci-fi is frowned upon by most scientists. What's more, few scientific pursuits have generated more controversy than cloning. And most people still see human cloning as treachery akin to nuclear weapons. (Just because we know how to do something doesn't mean we should do it.)
Despite the opposition, the Raelians' view of cloning as the next step on mankind's path to eternal life is an idea -- a gospel -- they intend to spread.
"For them, cloning is theologically significant," says Susan Palmer, a sociologist at Montreal's Dawson College whose book about Raelianism, Alien Apocalypse, will be published next year. "The Raelians don't believe in the soul or the spirit or heaven or God. It fits with their creation message that extraterrestrials cloned human beings with their own DNA. And that's why they're promoting it."
With its conservative politics, ubiquitous Christianity and etched-in-stone reminder of the confederate South, Stone Mountain seems an unlikely home for a longtime Raelian. Which just goes to show, they're in the unlikeliest places.
The subdivision where Dereke Clements lives is mammoth: four mini-communities of townhomes and standalones, a pristinely manicured park and its own elementary school. A world unto itself -- one in which you might think a Raelian would stand out. But Clements doesn't. The only outward sign of his beliefs is the medallion he sometimes wears bearing the Raelian insignia of infinity.
Born in Eatonton, a town smack in the middle of Georgia where dairy cows number nearly as many as people, Clements grew up the traditional way -- in the Methodist church. It wasn't until he moved to L.A. in the 1970s that his spiritual leanings took a turn toward the otherworldly.
In 1977, Clements was working as a host of a radio talk show called "Santa Monica Speaks," when a man named Rael was scheduled to appear as a guest.
It was just four years after Rael's alleged encounter. At the time, Rael was a virtual nobody.
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