The man in the photo above is an artist named Luke Roberts. He’s standing beneath a piece of public artwork he built for the Brisbane City Council, which he says was designed to look like a UFO to symbolise the city’s migrant population. But after a pause he admits it also looks like a UFO because he believes extraterrestrials spawned the human race.
I’ve come to Brisbane to learn about this belief system, known as Raelism, and to meet Luke, who is probably Australia’s most prominent member. He’s been a Raelian for the best part of two decades, although he says it’ll be the next two that are probably the most eventful. That’s because Earth has until 2035 to build an embassy to receive humanity’s extraterrestrial ancestors, or face extinction.
We’ll come back to that. But first we’ll start with the Raelian movement, which all began in France.
In 1974, a sports writer and race driver named Claude Vorilhon published an account of meeting an extraterrestrial. In The Book Which Tells the Truth, Claude claimed he was walking to work one morning when he saw a tall, Asian-featured humanoid exiting a UFO. The humanoid told Vorilhon it was part of an ancient race called the Elohim, and they’d designed humanity via DNA synthesis. They’d then watched us from afar over the eons, occasionally sending visitors who had been misinterpreted as angels or prophets. And now the Elohim wanted to return, but only if Earth was sufficiently peaceful.
Claude Vorilhon says he was also asked to start calling himself Rael, which means “Ambassador of the Elohim,” and an ambassador is what he became.
Rael began preaching love, peace, and equality through a series of books, and slowly gathered up followers. By the early 1990s membership was in the tens of thousands, and two French brothers named Jarel and Alcy Aymonier (sons of Vorilhon’s original book publisher) travelled to Australia to set up a franchise. They began by hosting talks around Sydney and Newcastle, but as the group grew talks were held around the country. This was how in 2001 Luke Roberts became involved.
“It was a philosophy that just made sense to me,” he says. “An understanding of total equality with a scientific background.”
By this point in the story, Luke and I had moved to a café to find some shade. We sit in a courtyard, drinking juice and sweating, and Luke speaks softly with lots of pauses to get his words right. I look at his necklace, which features a Star of David around a Swastika. It’s a pretty intense symbol, but Luke tells me the Swastika predates the Nazis by a long way. It’s actually “an ancient symbol of love, peace, and infinity,” he says, which is why the Raelians use this Star of David/Swastika mashup as their emblem.
He then tucks his necklace inside his shirt and we move on.
Luke tells me he was raised as a Catholic in a tiny Queensland town called Alpha, knowing he was gay from a young age. “I was brought up to believe homosexuality was a sort of disease, to be eradicated from the planet,” he explains. “So when it came to a religion, I wasn’t going to put up with any nonsense related to homosexuality.”
He found that the Raelian movement was pretty open to his sexuality, which makes sense if you consider the human race was spawned by genderless humanoids who don't care who shags who.
“It is the only religion that has female, gay, and transgender priests,” he says. “It’s the most tolerant religion you’re ever likely to find.”
Today Luke estimates there are around 250 baptised Raelians around Australia, but admits that it’s hard to keep tally as their activities mostly take place online or overseas.
“We had more local followers in the early 2000s,” he says. “In terms of people who are actually active today I think maybe it would be between 50 and 100.”
In essence, the Raelian Movement these days has a two-pronged focus on propagating international peace while trying to build an embassy. Without global peace (or the embassy) they say our ancestors won’t return, so you can understand why these things need to be done before 2035.
In terms of trying to achieve global peace, Raelians spent much of 2017 lobbying governments to ratify the treaty for the abolishment of nuclear weapons. Their leader, Maitreya Rael—who published the original Raelian text and now lives in Japan—has written extensively about how nuclear weapons represent the largest threat to humanity, and therefore prevent us from meeting our makers.
Then there’s another peacekeeping initiative, this time in Africa, which at first seems a bit more bizarre. The Movement runs a medical clinic in Burkina Faso called Clitoraid, which performs reverse female-circumcision operations. “Female circumcision is about suppressing women,” says Luke. And Clitoraid is about empowering women by undoing these operations.”
But of course their most ambitious project, after world peace and disseminating sexual equality, is to build a UFO embassy in Jerusalem. The Raelians believe that if humanity were to make this happen, the feat would signal our preparedness to meet our ancestors. But so far the difficulty of securing four square kilometres of prime Israeli real estate has proven difficult.
Luke explains there have been several requests to the Israeli Government for land but all have failed. One possible reason is that that Raelian Star of David/Swastika symbol thing is offensive to everyone in Israel. Luke says this is a reason that Raelians in Israel have been using a different, sanitised version, which Luke wears on his finger as a ring. But in any case, Maitreya Rael announced in 2015 that Jerusalem might not be the right place after all.
“Ideally it was to be built in Jerusalem,” Luke says, “but it now appears to be the last place where the Elohim want the Embassy to be, mainly because of Israel’s behaviour towards Palestine.”
So they’ve since broadened their search to any country that is prepared to contribute sufficient land. For a while Russia was on the shortlist, but apparently the Elohim prefer a warm country, “ideally.”
At this point, I have to ask what the backup plan is if the embassy doesn’t get built. Oddly, he seems apathetic. “Most probably, no one will be alive on Earth to worry about it,” he says. “We’re on the edge of a nuclear catastrophe. The UN’s ban treaty has been open for ratification since September 2017 and Australia, as well as a list of nations, is totally ignoring it.”
It’s a problem that feels very much part of the zeitgeist. It’s stuff that keeps me awake too but I consider myself too cool for religion or UFOs—so I’m doing far, far less than Luke. And in this way I quite admire the guy. He makes art. He has a belief system. And he’s managed to combine the two in a way that makes him happy while doing his best to help.
We finish the afternoon at his latest sculpture, which is a giant steel flower topped with LED petals that glow red at night. He tells me that it’s a poinsettia, which is the floral emblem of Brisbane, and then he spends a few minutes dusting off its base. “What does it mean?” I ask, watching him.
“It aims to inspire optimism,” he says. “That and to evoke a sense of the transcendental.”
And then the lights started to come on and like his other sculpture; the whole thing looks a bit spacey. Spacey and transcendental, right in the middle of Brisbane.