The Kansas City Star, Mar. 6, 2003
By LISA GUTIERREZ, The Kansas City Star
He lives in a tidy gray ranch house on a quiet street in Raytown, just blocks away from his daughter and three grandchildren.
He’s 67, a retired electrician born in small-town Missouri who watches his salt intake, meditates and keeps two cats around for company.
And George Roehr just happens to believe that extraterrestrials created life on Earth.
He’s always had problems believing in God, so this “just made a lot of sense to me,” Roehr said recently at his home. “That we are the only life form in the whole universe doesn’t make sense.”
What makes sense to him is the Raelian religion. Roehr joined the Canadian-based sect about eight years ago, drawn by its teachings that humans are not indigenous to this earth, that all life here was created by benevolent extraterrestrials, and that the aliens will return, which is why followers want to build an embassy in Jerusalem by the year 2005.
Raelians (say it “rye-ELL-ians”) also believe that cloning is the key to eternal life. Immortality through science.
Although the movement has been around since the 1970s — and claims to have 60,000 members in 84 countries — it had made few headlines. Then in December, Clonaid, the Raelian-founded company, announced it had cloned the world’s first human baby. Eve, they called her.
The claim stoked an already heated cloning debate, an argument that flared up last week when the House passed a bill supported by the Bush administration to ban all human cloning. The debate now moves to the Senate.
Critics condemned Clonaid’s announcement as scientific hokum, and, as yet, the company has not offered proof. According to Raelian officials, Eve’s family was afraid of losing the baby in legal wrangling over the controversy and decided not to provide a DNA sample. The movement has since announced that two more cloned babies have been born outside the United States.
Undeterred by critics, Raelian founder Claude Vorilhon told CNN, “It’s a good step, but my ultimate goal is to give humanity eternal life through cloning.”
To that end, Raelian members agree to let a mortician cut out a piece of bone in their forehead when they die to be frozen and stored for future cloning.
George Roehr has arranged with a local funeral home to do just that when he dies.
He said he is one of only two Raelians in Missouri and knows of none in Kansas. (California has the most in America.) He joined through his son, Ricky Roehr, Ruskin High class of 1976, who Vorilhon appointed president of the U.S. Raelian movement six years ago.
“My mission is the same as every other Raelian, just spread this message, a message of hope, a message of love, of truth, of understanding,” Ricky Roehr, 44, said in a telephone interview from his home in Las Vegas.
George Roehr is largely private about his membership in the controversial sect, declining to be photographed for this story. But members elsewhere offer lectures or appear in public wearing signs testifying to their belief.
However committed they are to make available their message of space aliens and UFOs, members are told to avoid pressure tactics.
“Our philosophy is, when we talk to people about this and they don’t believe it, we don’t try to convince them,” he said.
To be a Raelian means to practice meditation and visualization techniques. There are no services to attend, no God to worship. Members worldwide keep in touch over the Internet and by visiting UFO Land, the movement’s headquarters outside Montreal.
Around his neck, George Roehr wears a silver medallion of the Raelian symbol — a modified Star of David representing the infinity of time and space.
He is astonished that in the years he’s worn it, no grocery store clerks have ever asked about it, though a woman he met recently while shopping for a recliner tried to save his soul for Jesus.
“I don’t believe in fairy tales. I don’t believe in abracadabra,” he said. “I believe in science.”
It came down from the heavens
Claude Vorilhon, Frenchman and former race car driver and racing journalist, founded the Raelian religion in the 1970s after meeting, he says, extraterrestrials on a dormant volcano in south central France.
Vorilhon, who recently asked members to address him as “His Holiness,” told of a flying saucer descending from the sky that misty morning.
From the craft alighted an extraterrestrial — 4 feet tall with long black hair and slightly almond-shaped eyes, wearing a green, one-piece suit with a bubblelike halo of shimmery air surrounding his head.
“I was not afraid but rather filled with joy to be living through such a great moment,” Vorilhon has written. “I bitterly regretted not having brought my camera with me.”
Vorilhon, renamed “Rael” by the aliens, tells of several meetings with the alien, who translated parts of the Bible and took him to their planet to visit. Raelians call these extraterrestrials the Elohim, the Hebrew word for gods.
Americans have been conflicted over whether life exists on other planets. Polls in the 1960s showed that a third of Americans believed it possible; nearly 50 percent in the ’70s and ’80s thought it likely. Polls in the ’90s suggested believers had decreased to one-third of the population again.
UFO-based religions have been around since the first unidentified flying object sightings after World War II. Typically formed around a single person, they peaked in popularity at the height of the New Age movement in the 1980s.
The Raelian movement is thought to be among the last of a dozen or so left. “What they’ve done is melded together what is probably the single-best known religious mythology in the Western world, which is Christianity, with UFOs,” said Douglas Cowan, a religious studies professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
The cellular plan
The melding was irresistible for a man who grew up with no religion.
Born in West Plains, Mo., near the Arkansas border, George Roehr moved to Kansas City with his mother and brother in 1952. They lived poor, his mom working as a barmaid and sewing-factory worker, and Roehr, in a warehouse.
He joined the Air Force in the mid-1950s, where he worked on a new radar system for planes, earned his GED and went to electronics school.
After the Air Force, he took a job with Hughes Aircraft and moved to St. Louis. He also got married, but the marriage, which produced a son and daughter, lasted only a handful of years.
Returning to Kansas City in the early ’60s, he trained as an electrician and retired 35 years later.
His first indoctrination into a faith came as an adult when two Mormon elders knocked on his door in St. Louis one day. “I had a little better time believing in a modern-day prophet, Joseph Smith, than the ages-old Bible,” he said.
Roehr was a Mormon for 15 years but became disillusioned when he and church officials began to disagree over interpretations of their teachings.
Ricky Roehr, who grew up around his father’s Mormon inclination and the Lutheran faith of his mother and stepfather, phoned his dad eight years ago to tell him he’d met a Raelian.
“I knew they believed aliens created all life on Earth, I even pooh-poohed it,” said Ricky Roehr, who makes his living as a guitarist playing mostly rock ‘n’ roll. “Almost against my better judgment I bought Rael’s book. I thought, `This is probably $15 into the tank of his Rolls-Royce. He’s probably a cult leader.’ “
He studied the movement and read every religious book he could find, “just to make sure these people were who they claimed to be, because I was a little skeptical. You hear things in the media about cults and this and that…I wasn’t really a churchgoer, but I also believed that UFOs existed.”
About six years ago Ricky Roehr baptized his father into the movement in Las Vegas. In a ceremony called “transmission of the cellular plan,” he moistened his hands and put one hand on his father’s forehead and the other behind his head.
Raelians believe that at that instant, aliens hovering above the Earth read and record the DNA of the faithful.
In November of 1998, Douglas Cowan from UMKC and a group of academicians visited UFO Land, the Raelian compound outside Montreal.
“The people were very gracious, very nice, very happy to have us there,” Cowan said. “They didn’t try to recruit us.”
The group gathered first in a small antechamber with hazard tape and lights that made Cowan think of Area 51 in Nevada, the secret military facility associated with UFO stories.
Two giant doors opened to reveal a life-size model of the spaceship Vorilhon said he saw that fateful day in France. To one side hung a picture of Jesus. On the other side was a tall, free-standing model of DNA.
“What you have there are the three components of their sacred story,” Cowan said. “You have Jesus, as obviously an icon of the myth that they are reinterpreting. The spaceship, the vehicle for the reinterpretation, and DNA, the real goods, the real interpretation.”
Raelians are also known for their annual “sensual meditation” workshops, held at UFO Land. The two-week camp includes fasting, meditating and the freedom to choose sexual partners.
Participants wear colored wristbands to signal their availability and preferences — already have a partner, would like a partner, homosexual, heterosexual. Raelians believe that enlarging their capacity to experience pleasure strengthens their immune system and telepathic abilities.
And while it may not make sense to nonbelievers, cloning dovetails perfectly with the Raelian story, Cowan said.
“I think it’s their mission,” he said. “Why do churches do what they do? They do what they do to participate in what they believe is the sacred story and the mission of their founder.
“In that sense they’re not doing anything different than other religions. They just have a different story.”
The Raelian movement’s Web site is www.rael.org.