Miami Herald, Jan. 2, 2003
BY MONICA RHOR
MONTREAL – The roadside sign rises sharp and stark on the curving country road. Like a bolt from heaven, neon green letters strike the eye and proclaim: “UFOland.”
Glowing against a bank of white snow and the darkening winter sky, the words — punctuated by a drawing of a flying saucer — pull visitors into a serene, nearly ordinary campground.
Nearly. Except for the odd, tear-shaped buildings, designed to evoke the form of alien spacecraft. And the UFOland stamp, tattooed in bold letters across the building walls. And the billboard stating, in French and English: “The Messiah is Alive Amongst Us.”
Then, it is clear. This is no ordinary place. This is UFOland, home and headquarters to the Raelian Movement — a Montreal-based religious sect that claims to have created the world’s first cloned human. An independent television journalist is arranging tests of the baby they call ”Eve,” who they say was born to an American mother at an undisclosed location.
The announcement, made last week in a Hollywood Holiday Inn, raised eyebrows, sparked ethical debate and piqued international interest in the religion founded by former French journalist and race-car driver, Claude Vorilhon, who says space aliens visited him in 1973 and revealed that they created humans through genetic engineering.
In the word according to Vorilhon, who goes by the name of Rael, the aliens gave him a special mission: to prepare humans for the second coming of their extraterrestrial creators by teaching a message of sexual freedom, sensual pleasure and love of science.
More than 55,000 people in 84 countries have accepted that message and been baptized into the Raelian religion, sect officials say. But it is here, in the province of Quebec, that Raelians seem to flourish.
In cosmopolitan Montreal, Nicole Bertrand, a Level 5 guide — a rank akin to a Bishop — can wear her Raelian medallion openly at her job, in public and around her Catholic family. In France, where she was a spokeswoman for the religion, Bertrand says she was fired from a large consulting contract because of her Raelism.
In UFOland, a few kilometers outside the tiny village of Valcourt, and a 90-minute drive northeast of Montreal, hundreds of Raelians gather for two weeks every summer for meetings, seminars and sensual meditation sessions. And they are not alone. Although the campgrounds are now closed and empty for the winter, tourists also travel to UFOland’s museum during warmer months. They are drawn by curiosity, a taste for the absurd or an interest in extraterrestrials.
”At the beginning, people come to have fun. They want to put the Raelian movement down,” acknowledged Daniel Heroux, 44, a composer and part-time UFOland tour guide. “But during the visit, they change their mind. In each room, they can find the answer to a lot of questions. At the end, most of the time, they leave with friendlier minds.”
The rooms include what Heroux calls ”The Bunker” — a paean to UFO sightings around the world, documented in a series of plaques hanging on walls painted to resemble steel. In the center of the room, a metal sculpture of a globe, dotted with twinkling lights, turns slowly on its axis.
The showpiece of UFOland, however, is the full-size replica of the flying saucer that Rael says he boarded in 1973 and again in 1975. The silver structure — shaped like a cup turned upside down on a platter — is placed in a cavernous hall, with black walls and a ceiling swirling with an illustration of the galaxy. Next to the spaceship: a 26-foot-high model of a DNA strand.
In more than 200 tours, says Heroux, a tall man with piercing blue eyes and a shaved head, he has faced only one hostile visitor.
In a province where locals pride themselves on open minds and tolerant attitudes, that is no surprise.
”Raelians are seen by people here as harmless eccentrics, and viewed with a tongue-in-cheek tolerance,” said Susan Palmer, a Montreal sociologist and college professor who studies new religions and has written two books about Raelism.
Once steadfastly Catholic, Montreal and its province have seen a large drop-out rate among traditional church-goers. That paved the way for an enthusiastic response to Raelism and its philosophy in the mid-1980s — especially among young, upwardly mobile residents thirsty for experimental viewpoints, Palmer said.
”They are avant-garde PC, against racism and sexism. They believe in sexual freedom,” said Palmer, who has researched the Raelist movement for 15 years.
Nicole Bertrand, now 54, was an early follower.
In 1977, Bertrand had a good job as a math teacher, a boyfriend, a nice car — and a nagging feeling that she was missing the answer to life.
Then, a colleague handed her Rael’s book, The Message given by Extra-Terrestrials.
”I read it in one night. And I saw the answer. It was so simple,” said Bertrand, her greenish-blue eyes sparkling as she recalled that night. Before she became a Raelian, Bertrand spent two years researching Rael’s claims and logic.
In Raelism, she found a religion that rejects pure faith in favor of proven science, sees immortality as a natural outgrowth of genetic engineering and preaches sensual pleasure, not suffering, as the cornerstone of life on earth.
In 1981, Bertrand became the first female guide of the Raelist Movement — a rank that allows her to baptize others.
As she speaks, in the corner of The Second Cup, a Montreal coffee shop, Bertrand makes no effort to hide her zeal or the twisting star symbol of the Raelians that hangs on a chain around her neck.
Still, Bertrand is quick to point out, Raelians are not a commune-based cult. And anyone looking for the ”mix of weird science, loony religion and kinky sex” described by one local newspaper would be disappointed.
”We have normal lives. We have jobs. What we do for the movement, we do at night or on the weekends, like someone who volunteers for the Red Cross,” said Bertrand, whose Jewish boyfriend accepts her beliefs. “The only time we are all sleeping together at the same camp is at our big gathering in July.”
The sect’s practice of sensual meditation and the existence of the Order of Angels — Raelian women who have pledged to give themselves to the extraterrestrial creators — have spawned rumors of sexual abandon.
Bertrand, however, says such visions are exaggerated. In Raelism, any type of pleasure is encouraged — including the choice of multiple sexual partners. But Bertrand says that’s not total abandon.
Daniel Heroux, the composer and tour guide who became a Raelian in 1980, says sensual meditation has expanded his consciousness and sharpened his music.
”Now, I don’t need to smoke. I don’t need to take drugs. I don’t need to get drunk,” said Heroux, who opened the gates of UFOland this week for a private tour. “We are made for pleasure. With sensual meditation, I get the same buzz I get when I smoked. And it is free.”
Heroux, swathed in a white coat, said he feels the same type of high inside the replica of the UFO, which measures 23 feet in diameter. The interior is dark and empty, save for two inflatable plastic chairs.
In a certain spot, just at the top of a silver staircase, Heroux plants his feet and hums loudly. The sound echoes off the curved walls and vibrate through his body.
”It is like having full contact with everything around you,” said Heroux, who like Bertrand, was drawn to Raelism because of its emphasis on science, rather than belief. “For me, it is like whooo! whooo! I want each day to have a life of beauty, of poetry, of excellence.”
Not all, however, is paradise. In Montreal, Raelism has run afoul of the Catholic Church after members handed out pro-abortion literature near Catholic high schools and urged students to renounce their faith. In November, someone crashed a truck through the UFOland gates and into a community center.
Heroux says his Raelism drove a wedge between himself and long-time friends and collaborators.
”When you become Raelian, you have to be prepared to be laughed at, to lose your job, to lose friends and family,” admitted Bertrand. “It is difficult for many people. But for me, I am what I am. I cannot be other.”