When you dress all in white with a large star medallion and talk of a new religion that includes elements contained in a Chris de Burgh song and a Monty Python film, you get used to being laughed at.
But when this particular self-declared prophet found his prediction that cloning would become a reality had been fulfilled, “His Holiness Rael” found his speeches promising eternal life were being taken seriously – by some at least. The Raelian Movement now claims to have convinced some 60,000 people worldwide. And Edinburgh – as home to the first mammal clone, Dolly the Sheep – has become something of a spiritual capital.
But it was the claim two years ago by a Raelian bishop and scientist Dr Brigitte Boisselier, who joined the movement after the birth of Dolly, that she had cloned a human which really caught the world’s attention.
While hard evidence has yet to emerge to counter the sneers, Dr Boisselier said yesterday that she planned to produce the relevant DNA tests once her lawyers assure her she will not face extradition and prosecution in her native France.
In the plush surroundings of the Sheraton Grand Hotel on Edinburgh’s Festival Square, His Holiness – as his followers insist he must be called – espoused his philosophy from a couch draped in white cloth to match his clothing.
But His Holiness – formerly French motor-racing journalist Claude Vorilhon – has a disarmingly simple explanation for his dress code: “I like white.”
Raelians believe that life on earth was begun by scientists from outer space. So when Chris de Burgh sang “A spaceman came travelling on his ship from afar”, he was quite right.
His Holiness views the cloning of humanity as step one towards eternal life. Step two is the creation of an artificial womb – allowing a foetus to be kept in a box as per Monty Python’s Life of Brian – which can grow a human being to the age of 18 in a matter of hours. Step three is the ability to take someone’s memories and “download” these into the clone.
People may laugh, but His Holiness has heard it before.
“My first public speech was 30 years ago – mammal cloning is coming, human cloning is coming very soon. Most of the people were laughing, then came Dolly,” he said.
“It proved that I was [telling the] truth about what I was saying. That’s why we selected Edinburgh [for this visit].
“When you start to create life, the myth of God crumbles. When you start to travel in space, that helps also.”
One day, Raelians believe, humans will become just as clever as the space aliens who created us.
“That’s what we are doing now. Cloning is just the first step,” His Holiness said.
Playing God by cloning humans or creating “designer babies” is something many find alarming. But advances in DNA offer hope to couples such as Alan and Louise Masterton, from Dundee, who have four sons and have been campaigning to be allowed to choose the gender of their child.
Dr Boisselier, who heads a company called Clonaid, which she stressed was not connected to the Raelian Movement, offered to help them do so.
“Everyone has the right to chose the gender of their child. They own their own genes and nobody else has the right to limit them as long as nobody is being hurt,” she said.
The Mastertons, who wish to have a baby girl following the death of their three-year-old daughter, might be tempted, as might others offered the promise of eternal life.
However, Harry Griffin, head of the Roslin Institute where Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996, has previously dismissed Clonaid and the Raelians’ claim to fame – that human cloning is a reality – saying there is “no reason to believe this is anything other than a long-drawn-out publicity stunt”.
And for Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Catholic Church, the Raelians are not simply a laughing matter.
“They make comments about human cloning and research in that area, but they are very expert at hoodwinking the media and I would treat these claims with extreme scepticism,” he said.
“There is no evidence anywhere in the world that a human clone can be implanted and carried to term. And we think it would be morally reprehensible.”