This Is How The Raëlism Cult Started

If you ask a follower of Raëlism, they will probably tell you that their "religion" started in 1973 when their leader, Raël, first made contact with the Elohim. These Elohim aren't the same Elohim described in the Bible — a name for God meaning "majesty," per Britannica. That is, unless you believe, as Raëlians do, that humanity's creators are a technologically advanced species of extraterrestrials who created humans in laboratories about 25,000 years ago, per the Religion Media Centre. And if you're already thinking, "Hey, this is like that show 'Ancient Aliens,' except someone made it into a cult" — basically yes. Or as Raëlians once summarized their beliefs, per Newsweek, they're all about, "Intelligent Design for Atheists: Extraterrestrials Created All Life On Earth."

And who exactly figured all this out and was tasked to relate the innermost secrets of human origins and cosmic order to the rest of the world? Why, French-Canadian Claude Maurice Marcel Vorilhon, of course. As Newsweek explains, Vorilhon underwent a marked career turn from "sports car journalist" to white-clad guru (pictured above) in 1973 after having the type of "I was visited by a celestial entity" encounter described by many a prophet and cult leader. Vorilhon changed his name to Raël and two years later claimed that he was whisked away to the Elohim home world. There, he discovered that Yahweh was his direct father and Jesus his half-brother. Also: something-something Buddhism, Joseph Smith, an alien embassy on Earth, and orgies. 

The Raël Daël

On one hand, Raëlism hits many of the same bullet points as other cults, such as referring to its leader as the latest incarnation in a predictable list of prophets that includes Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Joseph Smith, and so forth, per Third Mill. There's also a bit of the usual apocalyptic preoccupations, but this time they're remixed into a technological version of the biblical Second Coming, with "Jesus" being an extraterrestrial landing party due to arrive at the Elohim Embassy in Jerusalem. Raëlism swaps all supernatural elements of biblical stories for technological ones: The Garden of Eden was an alien laboratory; Noah's Ark was an alien spaceship containing genetic material; the Flood was the byproduct of nuclear weaponry, etc. Perhaps this strange blend of literalism and symbolism contributed to the rise and staying power of Claude Maurice Marcel Vorilhon — aka Raël.

We don't know a lot about Vorilhon's life before his turn from sports car journalist to cult leader. Pantheon says he was born in 1946, and in addition to being a journalist he was a test car driver for the magazine Autopop, which was apparently also his magazine. Vorilhon says that the Elohim aliens made him their ambassador on Earth following his initial 1973 extraterrestrial encounter, per the Religion Media Centre. The droppings of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the beginning of Earth's "Age of Apocalypse," he said, whereby humanity needed to learn to get along or face destruction.

Hooks, books, and charm

Admittedly, Claude Maurice Marcel Vorilhon's story makes for a decent sci-fi pulp yarn. A lot of it is also extremely derivative, like "make peace or face destruction." The difference in Raëlism comes from Vorilhon — Raël — himself. And to clarify: Vorilhon never went anywhere. He started in 1973 and he's still trotting along now in his mid-70s. 

In Newsweek in 2020, a Raëlian named Houari explains the relative success of Raëlism in indirect terms. Vorilhon isn't wholly original, but he tells his story well. "He was different," Houari. "He was very impressive. ... Raël 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.'" Raël is also described by religion sociologist Susan J. Palmer as "intense," "enthusiastic," and having "leadership qualities. According to Newsweek, he is "never lacking in charisma or authority."

By such powers alone Raëlism claims to have grown to over 90,000 members worldwide across 45-plus years, although Raëlian Leaks reported that actual numbers are likely closer to 20,000 as of 2017. But in the cult's early days, Vorilhon needed a hook. Books like the bluntly-named "Le Livre Qui Dit La Verité" ("The Book Which Tells the Truth") in 1974 and its equally bluntly-named follow-up "Les Extra-terrestres M'ont Emmené sur Leur Planète" ("Extraterrestrials Took Me to Their Planet") in 1977 could only take things so far. Enter the cult-maker's ultimate recruitment solution: orgies.

Nude dance, brain masturbation, and peeing out hatred

Before we get to the orgies, it pays to mention another thing that helped get Raëlism started: rituals. Like any cult leader worth their manipulative salt, Raël demanded a denunciation of one's former beliefs before entering his special group, per Third Mill. He also invented an initiation rite familiar enough to Christians: baptism. However, because in Raëlism all divine things get a tech twist, its baptism enacts the "transmission of the cellular plan" to the Elohim aliens. In other words, it's believed to pass a member's DNA makeup along to humanity's extraterrestrial makers.

And then there's sex, which goes far in answering, "How did this whole thing get started?" Raëlian Kasyo told Newsweek, "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. The sex cult is one of the images, because we're all about freedom." Such "freedom" could be glimpsed at the Raëlism's Happiness Academy, which involved nude interpretative dance, "masturbat[ing] the brain" through sounds (per Raelian bishop Thomas Kaenzig), "pee[ing] out" one's hatred by drinking a lot of water (per Raelian bishop Nicole Bertrand), and tongue sex with apples ("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," per Kaenzig). Also, Raëlism is okay with women going topless on the pretense of equality with men. 

Making old things old again

By all accounts it seems like Claude Maurice Marcel Vorilhon just eased into the whole cult thing starting with his claims of extraterrestrial encounters in the 1970s and then incorporated formalized organizational rituals into Raëlism from there. A 2000 article on JSTOR from Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions discusses some of the reasons that Raëlism — aka, the "flying saucer religion" — caught on, which we've already alluded to in this article. Particularly, Raëlism makes old things new — it frames the familiar in terms of the "fears and dramas of the modern world." It also portrays itself as forward-minded while being "fundamentalist" because it believes its way is the one, right way.

Speaking of fundamentalism, the Religion Media Centre says that Raëlism asks for the same kind of 10% tithe that certain traditional Christian congregations ask for. It also demands that members abstain from alcohol and drugs (including caffeine, like Mormons). Raëlism also has ranks like Scientology: from 0 to 6. And because of course, only Vorilhon has reached or could reach rank 6. There's even a sham vote system every seven years that reelects a person for this highest position — this vote is guided by Raël and only ever reelects Raël. Such guidelines will likely appeal to those attracted to Raëlism, as they'd be seen to dispel doubt and confusion. They do not, however, make any old thing new.