BUFFALO, N.Y. — The group congregated silently around the doors leading into the ballroom. All eyes looked toward the floor. We were 12 hours into the fast from food, talking, technology, sex and eye contact.
Once the doors opened, a tranquil flood of meditative music poured from the ballroom. The Raelians and I processed in, one by one, with six Raelian guides on either side. Dressed in long white clothing from head to toe, each guide smiled, their faces lit by candles in their palms.
It was only 8 a.m. – the first day at the Happiness Academy.
Intelligent Design for Atheists
A few months before boarding the nine-hour bus to the Raelians’ annual North American seminar in Buffalo, I came across an online posting that read, “Intelligent Design for Atheists: Extraterrestrials Created All Life On Earth” – a free lecture in Jersey City, N.J.
After a few visits to Jersey City to meet with a local Raelian organizer named Houari, he began to reveal the philosophy behind this science-loving UFO religion. A shorter man in his late 30’s with a stocky build and slicked back hair, Houari greeted me with enthusiasm.
His military green tee boasted a bright yellow logo, the official emblem of the Raelian Movement: the Star of David, intertwined with the swastika.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It has nothing to do with Jews or Nazis.”
The star points upward and downward, representing infinity, he said. And the swastika? It represents time, which is cyclic – it never ends, it only changes. This is the logo that Rael, the founder of the movement, saw on the spacecraft in his first UFO encounter in France.
Houari laid out the basics. There is no “God,” he said — but only the “Elohim.”
According to Raelian teaching, the true translation of Elohim is “those who came from the sky.” The Elohim are a group of extraterrestrial scientists who intelligently designed the human race.
In 1973, then 27-year-old French sports car journalist Claude Vorhilon had an encounter with one of these extraterrestrial beings that changed the trajectory of his life. “Listen to me carefully,” said Yahweh, the alien, to Claude, who recalled this encounter in his book Intelligent Design.
“You will tell all human beings about this meeting, but you will tell them the truth about what they are, and about what we are,” the extraterrestrial said. Claude was given the name “Rael” and started spreading the message.
In 1975, Rael claims to have been taken to the planet of the Elohim, where it was revealed to him that Yahweh is his biological father and that Jesus is his half-brother. Years later, followers in Asia began to refer to him as the Maitreya, which, in the Buddhist faith, is the name of the promised one who will be the successor of the Buddha.
The Raelians have a particular mission on earth: create an “embassy” for the Elohim so that, when these space scientists return, they have a place to get to work in order to offer guidance for the advancement of humankind.
Decades later, at 73 years old, Rael is still the face of one of the most controversial, perplexing, and fascinating UFO religions in the world which claims over 90,000 members in 90 countries — though skeptics suspect the number to be closer to 20,000.
It was a fascinating story. But a religion? To reel in a bunch of atheists, this Rael must be pretty convincing.
“He was different. He was very impressive,” Houari said. “You could tell something impacted him that strongly for him to say ‘this is how it is and how it should be.’”
Rael, the tan-skinned, white robe-wearing messenger speaks slowly and intentionally, never lacking in charisma or authority. He knows how to work a crowd.
“Rael fits the perfect modern-day criteria of how you would act if someone would say, ‘I need you to relay this message to humanity, go ahead and do it,’” Houari said.
Susan J. Palmer, a religion sociologist, paints a conflicting picture of Rael, however.
“He’s not a very well educated person and he doesn’t write very well either,” Palmer said of Rael. “But he certainly has leadership qualities. He’s very intense and enthusiastic, and actually very creative.”
Palmer is the author of 12 books on new religious movements, including Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion. Having spent 15 years observing and writing about the Raelians, many consider her an expert on the movement.
Though a gentle spirit, Rael is pretty ruthless in kicking out dissidents and demarking them, Palmer said.
“He’s kind of an interesting paradox, it’s kind of hard to figure him out,” she said.
Houari passed along the contact of his guide, Kasyo Perrier, a level four Raelian. The scale, based on each member’s leadership and organizational involvement, goes up to six – with level five Raelians serving as bishops. Rael, the messenger of the Elohim, sits alone at level six.
The Happiness Academy
The Raelians are all over the internet. There is ample information about their free love philosophy, the sensationalized press coverage of their meetings and their human cloning organization, Clonaid. In 2002, Raelians claimed they had cloned the first human baby, “Eve,” causing an international media stir.
There was much to ask Kasyo, the Raelian guide from France working as a massage therapist in Boston.
“What would you say to someone who is, maybe, let’s say, concerned about some of the Raelian beliefs or practices?” I awkwardly asked Kasyo.
“What, about the sex cult?” she asked.
I shrugged, blushing with a nervous laugh.
“We’re here to be happy. We try to save humanity if it can be saved, in a way that is bringing love and peace,” she said. “The sex cult is one of the images, because we’re all about freedom. The journalists are focused on one thing: ‘oh freedom, so they have orgies.’”
“If you come to Happiness Academy you’ll see for yourself,” she said. “It’s not like that at all.”
Nine hours later, I was in Buffalo for the 2019 North American Happiness Academy.
The Millennium Buffalo Hotel was warm and welcoming on a rainy Sunday night in upstate New York. There were people moving quickly inside the hotel.
“Is this the way to Happiness Academy?”
“Oui, oui, come,” they said, leading into a room with more old people and more French-Canadian accents.
Kasyo was the first to greet me inside with a big hug and guided me to the registration table.
She presented me to those in the room: “We have a spy among us!” she said.
After an impromptu dance party to “Celebrate” by Kool and the Gang, the Raelians settled in for the first teaching from Rael. He would not be joining the seminar in person. His teachings would be played on a projector screen.
About 100 Raelians attended the seminar from all over — Florida, Utah, Minnesota, and a few foreign countries. Most were Canadian, however.
“What should I expect this week?” I asked.
“Love and happiness,” one Raelian replied.
After the opening ceremonies, the Raelians departed to their rooms, starting a 24-hour fast. I sneaked across the street to the local Mighty Taco. I hadn’t eaten all day – it would have to be a 23-hour fast for me.
Morning: Nude Dancing and Meditation
The entrance into the ballroom with the Raelian guides was a splash of cold water in the face.
The group sat relaxed in their seats in the low-lit ballroom, being eased into calm by the trance-like melody that filtering out of the speakers. And then, out of the corner of the room came Jasmin, the South Korean guide. She was nude — except for a skin-color undergarment and a translucent, netted fabric that she draped over her body.
She performed an interpretive dance as the crowd watched in silence.
Later on, I asked Susan J. Palmer if this was just your run-of-the-mill morning with the Raelians.
“Really?” she said, after hearing about the nude dancing scenario. “No, I’ve never seen anything like that. But I believe it.”
Jasmin later admitted that the routine was an unusual undertaking for her.
“That is the first time I’ve done anything like that,” she said. “I was very nervous.”
Though the group seems to lack the qualifications of a “sex cult,” nudity is nothing new in the Raelian movement. Rael even initiated the annual “Go Topless” protest, a street demonstration that takes place in several cities across the country on or around Aug. 26, Women’s Equality Day. Kasyo Perrier, the guide from Boston, is the organizer and leader of NYC’s Go Topless parade.
“As long as men can go topless,” Rael said, “Women should have the same constitutional right or men should also be forced to wear something that hides their chests.”
The next activity was a series of sound meditations led by Thomas Kaenzig, a Raelian bishop from Switzerland with a ponytail and pointy sideburns, resembling a character from “Star Trek.” He’s the National Guide for the U.S. Raelian Movement. The meditations are quite peaceful – sit with posture, relax, and feel the sound vibrations running through the body.
“Through these sounds we can basically masturbate the brain,” Thomas explained, “and it releases many, many chemicals and we feel really wonderful.”
The Raelians sure have a peculiar way of explaining things.
By drinking lots of water, Raelian bishop Nicole Bertrand explained, we would be able to “pee out our hatred,” leaving room for only “love and peace.”
Thomas then beckoned all Happiness Academy first-timers to introduce themselves in front of the entire seminar, during which I explained that I was a journalist writing for Religion Unplugged and that I was “very happy to be here.”
There was one other non-Raelian at the Happiness Academy: Esteban Gonzales, a laid-back and cautious individual who introduced himself as a 24-year-old chemical engineer from New Jersey.
Esteban didn’t seem that into it — he wasn’t participating in the walking meditations, which had the Raelians slowly swaying side to side while whispering, “I am love, I am peace.”
“So what do you think about all this?” I whispered to Esteban, approaching him as he sat towards the back row of the audience.
“It’s pretty different,” he said.
It would be interesting to hear how he ended up here, but it was time to hear the messages again from a virtual Rael. I signaled to Esteban that we would chat later.
Israels teachings were from this past year’s Asia Happiness Academy in Okinawa, Japan. If the particular teachings could be summed up in a single word, it would be, “Illusion!”
The “Maitreya” explained how everything is an illusion: religion, nationality, color, gender — all an illusion. Even democracy is an illusion, because it “changes nothing.”
“Education is also an illusion,” Rael said.
He spouted some questionable statistics. According to Rael, 80 percent of billionaires never went to university, and 80 percent of homeless people hold a university degree. But well-known studies did not seem to line up with Rael’s findings: 84 percent of billionaires held a university degree, according to Forbes’ 2017 study.
Evening: Breaking the Fast
After a long afternoon of individual silence and contemplation, the Raelians gathered back at the same door leading into the ballroom. This time, everyone was dolled up and ready to party. But the fast wasn’t quite complete.
When the doors to the ballroom opened, Kasyo took me by the hand to a table where I sat among eight Raelians. Each plate had an apple, and Thomas led the seminar in one final meditation before the meal.
“This is a very privileged moment,” he said, in his gentle Swiss cadence, “especially with the constant stimulation, to be able to be cut off for 24 hours.”
We were set to break our fast together, but not so fast – “one sense at a time,” he said.
“Take the apple on your plate,” Thomas said, “Don’t eat it right now, but just look at it first. Close your eyes and bring the apple close to your nose. Don’t bite, just smell. As if it will be the first time you’ve smelled an apple.”
The apple did smell quite delicious – an intense, green-apple Jolly Rancher aroma. You know, like an apple.
“We’ll connect the next sense of taste. Very slowly, bring the apple to your mouth,” he said. “But you don’t bite the apple, you just use your tongue, and you lick the apple very softly. Feel the pattern of this apple. And as you lick this apple, you can feel the saliva coming. Take your time, like when you make love – make it slowly. Enjoy every moment.”
Thomas beckoned us to keep our eyes closed, and perhaps for good reason — watching people make out with an apple is not something you forget.
“Now, very slowly, you can take that first bite into this apple,” he said.
The crunch of apples broke the silence of the room.
“You’re not going to swallow,” he said. “Don’t swallow it now, let it float around. Enjoy it as if it was your first time eating an apple. Then you chew it very slowly and the juice comes out. And you enjoy it.”
Once the fast was broken, the Raelians began to reconnect with each other. We held hands with each other, rubbing our fingers along the hands of those next to us, reinvigorating our sense of touch. Finally, it was time to eat.
Vegan stir fry, hummus, and a tray of veggies were on the menu tonight at Le Restaurant de Rael. Kasyo, who was sitting next to me, was not eating.
“I’m continuing the fast,” she said.
“How long will you go?”
“I am going to try for, maybe three days or so. I need it,” she said.
I was impressed.
Reasons for Becoming Raelian
The Raelians were very candid in their conversations over dinner. Several of the Raelians explained how they found the movement, many of them revealing that they were once Roman Catholic. Jasmin, the South Korean guide, said that she had abandoned Catholicism due to the Church’s teachings on sexuality.
In “Aliens Adored,” Susan J. Palmer discovered that many guides she interviewed said that they were initially “attracted to Rael’s philosophy because it bridged the gap between the Catholic otherworldly faith they knew as children and the pragmatic, scientific worldview they espoused as adults.”
In 1998, Rael, at the request of the Elohim, created the Order of Rael’s Angels – an order exclusively for women that prepared them to “receive the extraterrestrials when they landed, to act as hostesses, companions, and lovers to the alien visitors.”
Palmer observed that this order seemed to attract many young ex-Catholic women. The Order of Rael’s Angels “struck a familiar chord, evoking childhood memories of nuns and the romance and mystery of the cloister,” Palmer wrote.
One of Palmer’s subjects explained: “When I was young, I was raised as a Catholic and would have given my life for Jesus. When I heard about the Elohim, I made the decision to follow them and give my life for them, if necessary.”
So, what then, attracted Esteban, the 24-year-old chemical engineer who never had much of a religious background?
“This stuff just seems, you know – it just hit home,” Esteban said, after spending the rest of the week at the Happiness Academy. “The more I read into it, to me it’s right up my alley, being in the field of science and all.”
“I don’t know how you felt as a journalist, maybe not without that exposure to the field. What they say just makes sense.” he said.
I discovered that both Esteban and I were introduced to the movement through our Raelian friend, Houari, in Jersey City.
“I don’t know why this one event stood out to me,” Esteban said. “I wanted to meet up with different people who had different ideas. I had these thoughts in my head, but I never found a group of people that, you know, had the same thoughts – until now.”
Though he isn’t quite sure about officially joining the movement, he was impressed with Rael.
“He’s a genuine person speaking from his own experience,” Esteban said. “What he says most of the time is very relatable, and I think a lot of people unfortunately get caught up in this reality that we are born into… people don’t really question much else.”
Parting Ways with the Raelians
People began withdrawing for the night, though a few Raelians were still pounding on bongos in the ballroom. Thomas and I stepped into the hallway for an interview. He’s been a Raelian for 25 years now, but was raised in a Swiss home to an atheist father and Protestant mother. While still in Switzerland, he encountered the messages.
“I read the first two books in one night,” Thomas said. “There was no convincing. It just made sense. You see, we discover we’re Raelians, we don’t become – we’ve always been.”
Thomas said that Rael “speaks like only a prophet can speak,” and his unfiltered, often politically incorrect nature is what the world needs more of.
“Everyone is always afraid of offending somebody, but we should be able to laugh at everything,” he said. “We need people who are offensive.”
While many view Go Topless and Swastika Rehabilitation Day or even protesting the national anthem as offensive, Thomas believes these and other Raelian actions are necessary to awaken humanity.
I asked to talk briefly about Baby Eve. Thomas smiled, proceeding forth with a nod as he collected his thoughts.
“In the beginning, after Dolly the Sheep, it was a philosophical project,” he said. “There were no cloning operations. But then came a lot of big press coverage. In 1999, Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, a Raelian, came to Rael and said ‘I want to make this more than a philosophical idea.’”
Rael gave her the go-ahead, Thomas explained, but ensured that it’s not a Raelian company.
“The Raelian movement is supportive of the cloning technology, because it is the first step toward eternal life – not the mystical eternal life, but the scientific eternal life,” he said.
As far as cloning operations go, however, Rael was never a part of it.
“Don’t ask the Raelians,” he said.
So does Thomas believe that the company actually cloned the first human?
“Yes,” he said. “I trust Brigitte more than I trust anybody in the media. People say ‘why doesn’t she give more proof and information?’ Well, look at the legal consequences for her.”
Reproductive and therapuetic human cloning is a “crime against the human species” in France, where Boisselier is from, is punishable by up to 30 years in prison, and applies to French citizens worldwide regardless of where the cloning is performed.
According to Thomas, it’s only a matter of time before we meet Eve.
“Once there’s no longer a legal threat for people involved with it, once we can have a rational discussion about it, it’s just a matter of time,” he said.
It was time for me to head back to New York City.
“Leaving so soon?” asked Daniel Turcotte, a tall, dominatingly tender French Canadian, as he gave a friendly shoulder massage. Daniel is the North American Continental Guide and Rael’s assistant for the Elohim Embassy Project.
“You’ll miss all the good parts,” he said with a smile and a wink.
The Future of the Movement
The next move for the Raelians is not always clear cut.
“The thing is, I’ve found from experience that you can’t predict what happens with new religions,” Palmer said. “Every time I predict, I’m almost always wrong. You never what’s going to happen.”
Rael himself has predicted that the Elohim will return in the near future, as early as 2035.
“If they don’t come, there might be a problem,” Susan J. Palmer said. “They’ll have to revise their apocalyptic scenario.”
If Rael dies, she said, there may be a struggle over leadership.
“It will be an unusual funeral,” she said. “But I did have a talk with Rael once where he said that he is immortal.”
To the Raelians, though, a human death does not necessarily mean that Rael is mortal, Palmer said.
“His body could die here and he is immortal with his other body on another planet,” she said.
If truth is often stranger than science fiction, then UFO religions like the Raelian Movement can often be “even stranger than science fiction,” Palmer said in her book on the Raelians.
In the meantime, the Raelian Movement will continue their plans to construct an embassy for the Elohim, which will be a physical building “on an extraterritorial plot of land just like other countries have embassies in host countries,” Thomas explained.
“We are in contact with various countries in that regard,” he said. “The embassy is a sign, showing that humanity is ready to welcome our creators, so the return of the Elohim is in humanity’s hands.”
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Matthew Hendley is a broadcast journalism major at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. He interned at CBS’s 60 Minutes in New York this past fall. Follow him on Twitter @matthendley.
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