"The only difference between us and anybody else is that we believe all life was created by the Elohim, who were extra-terrestrials visiting Earth from another planet," Glenn Carter, president of the British Raëlian movement, explains to me. "The rest of our behaviour is the same as any other human being, or group."
The Raëlian movement, known to many as a "UFO religion", started in France in the 1970s. Their prophet – a French former journalist and pop star called Raël (born Claude Vorilhon) – claims that the origins of all life on Earth were explained to him during an alien encounter in 1973. The message he was given by the visitors became the Raëlian philosophy, which he released in books that include The Book Which Tells the Truth and Extraterrestrials Took Me to Their Planet.
The belief system is one that argues for personal and sexual freedom, love, science and technological advancement. Oh, and that humans were put here thousands of years ago by aliens (or "advanced humans from another planet", to be exact) as an experiment. Since then, Raël has led this "atheist religion" through social justice campaigns, televised debates and battles with bad press, amassing hundreds of thousands of devoted followers from Canada to Japan.
"We were created in the image of another humanity," Glenn tells me over a pint in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, before comparing life on Earth to the Eden Project in Cornwall. "They monitor us and wish one day to return to share their scientific knowledge [...] I discovered the philosophy in a bookshop and contacted the organisation. Eventually, they asked me to run it here," he explains.
Outside of his beliefs, Glenn is an actor known for playing Jesus in the Broadway, West End and movie versions of Jesus Christ Superstar – a career that took a hit when he accepted the presidency.
"It has affected my life incredibly through the bigotry of other people," says Glenn, now in his fifties. "I won't be employed by certain producers… I was really on the rise as a West End actor in musical theatre; I was on Broadway, winning awards, appearing in films, and the whole thing completely stopped as soon as an actress I worked with said, 'He's the guy that believes in aliens and he runs the Raëlian movement…'"
The creators the Raëlians believe in are known as the Elohim, which, according to the prophet Raël, means "those who came from the sky" in the original Hebrew it's translated from. In Christianity and Judaism, the word simply means "God", but there has been much debate and disagreement around the translation of the word. It does appear to be plural, which indicates it could possibly translate to "gods" as opposed to God.
This speculation about ancient astronauts isn't unique to Raëlism. Books like Erich von Daniken's 1968 epic Chariots of the Gods? and The Spaceships of Ezekial, written by a NASA engineer named Josef F Blumrich in 1974, popularised theories that Earth was visited long ago by extraterrestrials, and that some of those visitations even appear in religious scriptures.
Unpacking and reinterpreting stories from the Old Testament concerns much early Raëlian literature. According to Raël, the Bible and other holy books are full of alien encounters and messages, but they've been misinterpreted over time. With this in mind, they believe that the prophets from all other religions were actually preaching messages from the Elohim, too – including Raël's alleged half-brothers Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha.
"I think the best thing about the Raëlian movement is that it encourages people to be free. That's what drew me to it," says Jamie, an IT technician and recent convert, at one of their monthly meet-ups. He used to identify with Buddhist teachings, but his old Christian church said they were "bad spirituality". He tells me Raëlians remind him of the Buddhists he's met, that "they are very kind and have inner peace… The main criticism of Raëlianism is its size. Because it's very small, it's seen as a cult. People are scared of it."
Jamie was introduced to Raëlism by a veteran UK member named Sakina, while she was working as a stripper: "He came to me one night, and simply by the way I connected, and the tender way I made him feel welcome," she says, "he asked me, 'What do you feel about life?'"
The pair started talking meditation and ended up at Raëlian philosophy, with Jamie eventually subscribing to the belief system.
Unlike Sakina, however, not all Raëlians openly discuss their faith in the workplace – take Karen, for instance, who found the movement in her late fifties: "I work for the Metropolitan Police Service, which is very diverse and encourages diversity, but I know that if I was to say where I was coming from, [some people] would find that quite difficult. And, to be honest, I don't think they need to know."
I ask what her family think about her beliefs. "When I first told my husband, he was absolutely fine with it – he's an atheist himself," she says. "The only concern he had was that it might be a cult and would they be taking me away from him? Three years down the line, we're still together, nothing has changed."
What about her son? "He's 30 and finds it amusing. He doesn't believe in anything himself. When I told him about the Raëlian movement he went online and saw all these things about sex orgies… [laughs] For his mum to be involved with that kind of organisation was really funny to him. He takes it with a pinch of salt."
Sex and promiscuity have been associated with the sect for decades, salacious articles appearing in tabloid newspapers, "Raël's Girls" popping up in Playboy magazine. It's true that the philosophy promotes sexual freedom, but the members I speak to insist that sex is found in the movement no more than it is anywhere else.
"I guarantee that lots of people have had sex in the Raëlian movement with people they've met in the Raëlian movement," says Glenn. "But the same thing happens at Barclays bank, between teachers at high schools, or wherever. Nothing is organised by the Raëlian movement. It would be a waste of time because we've got so many other things to discuss and do."
Sandra is a Swedish-born Raëlian living in London. She works in the tourism business and was hosting the monthly meeting in her central London office space one Sunday morning. "It's been quite hard sometimes, in my relationship with my friends. They all felt it was so strange," she explains earnestly. "But the Raëlian values have always been my values."
Sandra found the religion through her interest in musical theatre, a fan of Glenn's who decided to email him on a whim. Eight years later she is an active member, organising events and getting involved in Free Meditation campaigns around the UK.
It's difficult to find anything written about the community that doesn't dismissively brand it a "cult" – old VICE coverage included. I ask Glenn how this feels. "It's offensive – it's literally like using the N-word to describe a black person," he says, perhaps underestimating the weight of using "literally" in this comparison. "The word 'cult' means, in its original sense, 'system of religious worship'. So, Christianity is a cult because it's a system of religious worship. So is Judaism, Islam and every religion you can name! It's designed to colour people's opinions of you, but that's just their own stupid insecurities."
These thoughts are echoed by Tomi, a long-haired Raëlian rocker who lives in Liverpool: "It's a way to discredit us, because the old religions and the establishment, they are afraid of this message. We are a true revolution in all aspects of life."
Tomi is the president of the Romanian Raëlian branch and has appeared all over Romanian TV. When I first met him in London he embraced me passionately and said, "You are my brother," a metal Raëlian symbol hanging from his neck. Shortly after, we stood in a circle with some other followers, closed our eyes and attempted to make contact with the Elohim. The "transmission" was somewhere between a guided meditation and a good old-fashioned prayer, and although we got no response from the Elohim, everybody was thankful afterwards.
After early coverage of the movement and a multitude of TV interviews with their founder through the 1980s and 90s, the organisation could have slipped quietly out of the public eye. However, in 2002 they made international headlines when Dr Brigitte Boisselier – a Raëlian bishop with a PhD in Analytical Chemistry – claimed the group had cloned a human baby. The movement are big advocates for cloning, setting up the organisation Clonaid in 1997, dedicated to their quest for immortality. "Raëlians believe there is no afterlife at all," Glenn tells me. "The only afterlife is the one that science could create for you."
As the president of UK Raëlians, Glenn appeared on TV a lot at that time to defend cloning from an ethical and philosophical standpoint. This claim, and the debates that followed, drew a lot of attention to the religion, and even inspired a piss-taking sketch on Saturday Night Live. "Cloning is happening all the time, every day," says Glenn, confidently. "The only difference between stem-cell therapies and reproductive human cloning is that, in stem-cell therapies, you end the life that is developing, you harvest the cells and you don't allow it to grow."
Dr Boisselier never provided proof that Clonaid had cloned baby "Eve", and at the time the whole saga was criticised as a hoax by both journalists and scientists. When asked, Glenn can't say for certain if it really happened either.
As well as Clonaid, Raëlians also started an anti-FGM charity called Clitoraid, campaigned to rehabilitate the swastika (a symbol they use as their own, placed inside the star of David), staged topless protests for equality, supported gay Pride events worldwide and even tried to sue the Pope over child sexual abuse in the Vatican. Some of their tactics in the fight for social justice have, admittedly, not helped their reputation – like the time they handed out 10,000 condoms to students in Montreal to protest the Catholic School Commission's decision to veto high school condom machines. However, this doesn't stop them from fighting the good fight. "Fuck the oppression that society puts on us," says Glenn.
When I ask about UFO encounters, some members come forward with their stories – all fairly classic lights-in-the-sky anecdotes, but without the usual fear and bewilderment. "Each time, I had a huge sensation of warmth, and sometimes a little tear," Sakina tells me, wistfully. "To witness it was such a beautiful thing."
The Raëlian idea that we're being watched from above isn't just one for religious circles; even scientists and astronomers have entertained the idea known as the "zoo hypothesis".
On my last visit to the group, we gather on the 13th of December – at a restaurant in London’s Docklands, called Area 51 Tex Mex – to celebrate the anniversary of the prophet's first alien encounter. We watch a video from one of their Happiness Academy events – essentially a big Raëlian get-together – and, although the nudity in it probably doesn't help their "sex cult" reputation, I can't deny it looks way more fun than any Sunday service I've attended.
As well as being a "religion-for-atheists" where freedom reigns supreme, Raëlism's lasting pull is also identified as its championing of science.
"I've always been into the science part of it," Sandra tells me. "Finding spirituality together with science really spoke to me." She then goes onto casually tell me that "evolution was disproved in 1993", citing Dr Michael Behe and his theory of Irreducible Complexity – a theory positing that humanity is the result of intelligent design, and one that has been rejected by the majority of the scientific community.
As the meeting draws to a close, I ask how it feels to regularly watch their white-clad prophet, Raël, face laughter and ridicule from journalists and TV audiences. "For me, it is hard. We have all experienced that in some way," says Sandra. "We are quite 'out-there', and that makes people insecure. I just try to have compassion for the people that think in that way."
Raëlism is not without its unanswered questions and ambiguities – and its past isn't entirely unblemished, but which religion is? Where other spiritual groups have grown and (sometimes literally) died out, imploded or been abandoned, this philosophy is seemingly more robust. The movement may never entirely shake off their "sex cult" reputation or be taken seriously as a religion, but the members I meet don't seem to mind too much. In fact, they're all too happy and devoted to care.