I don’t know much about the Raëlian Movement, but what I’ve learned suggests that Raelians are plenty weird. Their faith is based on Earth’s life having been created by space aliens, so they’re creationists, and they have all kinds of strange views, including a form of baptism that alters your genetic makeup but prepares you for your eventual judgment by the aliens. They’re a small sect, cult, or religion (whatever you want to call them): Wikipedia estimates that there are only about 90,000 members worldwide.
On the other hand, the sect has some good liberal views: they are pro-gay, in favor of food derived from GMOs, and anti-Catholic. The last view is probably one that gave rise to the “research” paper I’ll highlight today. Yes, a Raëlian group did some research, and I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand simply because of who did it (if that were the case, I’d dismiss the Human Genome Project simply because it was headed by born-again Christian Francis Collins). As always, we must evaluate the data on their own.
Damien Marsic and Mehran Sam, identified as belonging to the Association of Raelian Scientists (in Las Vegas), have published a paper in a place called “Scientific Raelian”; the paper’s title is “DNA analysis of consecrated sacramental wafers refutes Catholic transubstantiation claim.”
This is in fact a piece of research I’ve always wanted someone to do. Since Catholics believe in transubstantiation (the wafer and wine become the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist) and not consubstantiation (the wafer and wine are partly made of Jesus, and partly of grapes and wheat), an analysis of a consecrated wafer should show that its substance is entirely that of the human body.
Now we know that a wafer and wine don’t change into a beaker of blood and a gobbet of flesh after they’re blessed, but one other strategy is to look at the DNA in these substances. Perhaps (or so the Raelian investigators thought), they’d find human DNA—Jesus’s—in the wafer and wine. Their rationale for the work is this:
Using science to test a religious claim
It could be argued whether supernatural claims can or should be tested by science. The famous view advocated by Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria”  has been extensively criticized by both scientists such as Richard Dawkins  or Yonathan Fishman  and philosophers like Russell Blackford . The transubstantiation claim by the Catholic Church is particularly relevant because of the doctrine’s insistence that the transformation of bread into the body of Christ is not symbolic but a physical reality. The claim is both fantastical and easy to test. However, the main reason for this study was to answer requests by former Catholics recovering from dogmatic indoctrination in the hope that it would help others develop informed opinions on the validity of religious dogmas.
And so Marsic and Sam did a study. They purloined five consecrated wafers (they discuss the ethics of this, and decide that it’s okay), and analyzed the DNA of the consecrated wafers as well as that of a “control” group of unconsecrated wafers, a “human DNA” control group from cultured cells, and a negative control (nothing added to the PCR [DNA amplification] reagents).
They then amplified the DNA from diagnostic stretches of each sample, and, as molecular geneticists do, ran it out on gels to see what it looked like. The DNA of each sample was amplified with either “wheat primers” (DNA fragments taken from wheat that will amplify only DNA that matches the wheat sequences) or “human primers” (ditto, but using human DNA templates). They then stained for DNA. The figure below (with caption from the paper) tells the tale.
M is simply a stock group of DNA fragments of known size, whose position on the gel is used to gauge the size of the DNA fragments in adjacent lanes.
NC is just the reagents without any DNA. It shows no DNA at all, as it should.
HC is human control DNA. As you see, it amplifies with the human-specific primers, on the left, but not the wheat-specific primers, on the right; this is as it should be.
WC is the unconsecrated wafer control. As you see, it amplifies with both human and wheat primers (two bands on the “WC” lane in the left amplified with human primers), indicating the presence of some human DNA in the wheat control. This suggests, and it seems likely, that the purchased unconsecrated wafers were contaminated with human DNA when they were being handled. This happens sometimes: it doesn’t take much foreign DNA to show up as a strong band indicative of contamination; this happened to me when I was amplifying Drosophila DNA during an ancient sabbatical in Princeton, and got my own DNA instead).
What is more important are samples 1-5, which are the five consecrated wafers. Looking at lanes 1-5 on the left side of the figure, the wafers show no evidence of having human DNA (except for a faint band in sample 5, probably again suggesting human handling), but they show strong evidence of having wheat DNA, as you can see from the dense wheat-primer-amplified bands in lanes 1-5 on the right, matching the wheat control in size.
Fig. 1. Agarose gel electrophoregram of PCR amplification products. M: 50 bp DNA ladder; NC: negative control; HC: human control; WC: wheat control; 1 to 5: consecrated scramental bread samples. Left: reactions using human-specific primers; right: reactions using wheat-specific primers.
Conclusion: consecrated wafers do not contain human DNA, though they could sometimes acquire a bit of it by being handled. After being consecrated, all their DNA still comes from wheat.
Now you could argue that testing DNA doesn’t tell you whether Jesus is in the wafers, but if they still look and taste like wheat, and still have wheat DNA, on what basis can you then claim that the wafers have become the body of Christ? As the authors note:
As believers themselves agree that the appearance, taste and texture of sacramental bread are retained after consecration, it is unclear what the “substance” that is allegedly transformed could be. If the host still looks like bread and tastes like bread after having been consecrated, the molecules responsible for the taste and texture can not have been affected. This leaves DNA as the most probable candidate. Indeed, if wheat DNA in a piece of bread could be replaced by human DNA, the change would not affect the bread’s texture or taste. On the other hand, it could be argued that DNA represents the actual “substance” of any biological material because it contains the information that defines that material and could be used to create a copy of it. Therefore, testing the transubstantiation claim by DNA analysis seems a quite reasonable approach to take.
And, of course, if the wafer did have human DNA, Catholics would proclaim that as a miracle: strong evidence for the truth of transubstantiation. Negative results, though, have to be explained away, and not by saying that transubstantiation is a fiction.
Since the Catholics claim that transubstantiation is real, how would they deal with findings like this? Well, they do what they always do: waffle and then say “it’s a mystery that surpasses our understanding.”
For example, Wikipedia says this:
According to the Catholic Church, when the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest at Mass, they cease to be bread and wine, and become instead the Most Precious Body and Blood of Christ. The empirical appearances and attributes are not changed, but the underlying reality is. The consecration of the bread (known afterwards as the Host) and wine represents the separation of Jesus’ body from his blood at Calvary; thus, this separation also represents the death of Christ. However, since according to Catholic dogma Christ has risen, the Church teaches that his body and blood are no longer truly separated, even if the appearances of the bread and the wine are. Where one is, the other must be. This is called the doctrine of concommitance.
To justify why the bread and wine still look like noms and not blood and flesh, the Church relies on something called “substance theory,” which claims that something can change its nature without changing its substance. In other words, the wafer and wine really are Jesus but you can’t detect that in any way. This kind of philosophical weaseling is more or less what you expect from the Church.
Here are more weasel words from the Catholic Education Resource Center (CERC):
Yes, the bread and wine do not change in characteristics [sic] they still look the same, taste and smell the same, and hold the same shape. However, the reality, “the what it is,” the substance does change.
And the ultimate excuse comes from the CERC entry on “The literal truth”:
The incarnational nature of the sacraments also sheds some interesting light on human nature. At first glance, the transformations effected in the sacraments seem wildly out of sync with man’s identity as a “rational animal,” and especially with modern technological man. At best, what the Church claims occurs in the sacraments seems to reflect “magical thinking” and a distinctly unmodern cast of mind. A closer look, however, reveals an intimate fit between the deepest desires of the human heart and what actually happens in the sacraments.
Yes, at first it looks bogus, like “magic,” but “a closer look” shows that the transubstantiation really occurs because we want it to. This is why the Raelian experiment will be ignored by the Church, but also why we should ignore the Church’s pronouncements about reality, for they reflect sets of claims that are untestable but satisfy our emotional needs. The words, “A closer look, however, reveals an intimate fit between the deepest desires of the human heart and what actually happens in the sacraments,” shows the ability of the Church to maintain its claims by simply making stuff up.
h/t: Dan Dennett, Grania Spingies