Contemporary Ignorance Encourages Cults (April 1997)

As media ponder the motivation of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide–in which Marshall Applewhite and 38 followers committed suicide, their bodies discovered in Rancho Santa Fe, California on March 27–the answer seems obvious.

The cult’s website spelled out “What Our Purpose Is,” invoking Jesus and various bible verses as it describes the “Kingdom of Heaven,” a biblical term. The cult echoed the New Testament idea of the body as a vessel, calling bodies “containers for soul deposits,” while adding its 20th-century variations such as belief in UFOs. The cult also drew on the Book of Revelation in its description of antichrist “Luciferians.” Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian minister, once enrolled at Union Theological Seminary and worked throughout his early career in churches.

When it was revealed that many of the male followers of the celibate cult had been castrated, some flabbergasted reporters again asked “why?”–yet Jesus openly recommended castration and celibacy (Matthew 19:22).

Jesus was one of the first apocalyptic cult figures, insisting he was the way to heaven, had absolute truth and his followers, who must not question him, were chosen. The New Testament regarded astrological signs as portents of the apocalypse. The mass suicide occurred just before Easter and on the same week the Hale-Bopp comet was streaking across the sky and an eclipse occurred (as at the supposed crucifixion of Jesus).

Hale, one of the discovers of the Hale-Bopp comet, was quoted saying he was not surprised at such an event in an era of superstition and irrationality. Ironically, the weekly news magazines that could not understand the death-cult phenomenon featured their traditional Easter religious cover stories, including TIME’s issue “Does Heaven Exist?” releasing a survey asserting that 96% of Americans believe in life after death!

An Associated Press story which went over the national wires quoted Foundation president Anne Gaylor, pointing out that 37% of Americans believe the bible to be literally true. “When you reflect that this belief includes walking on water, rising from the dead, talking donkeys, magic wands and rods, giants, angels, ghosts, devils, disembodied voices, unclean spirits and curing blindness with spit (to name a few bizarre biblical assertions), it represents an enormous mass of ignorance,” she said.

“Should we truly be surprised when the Heaven’s Gate leaders hoodwinked their followers? The leap from biblical belief to the absurdities of this particular Christian cult is a small one.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation