MAKING SENSE OF THE HEAVEN'S GATE SUICIDES
Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe
[The essence of this article appeared in
Christian Century May 7, 1997, pp. 439-440]
Most of us find the strange beliefs and ultimate suicide of the Heaven's Gate Community incomprehensible. Therefore, it is important to realize that the irrational can follow a logical pattern. This point was made years ago by British anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard in his classic study Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937). Initially, as a western educated social scientist, Evans-Pritchard rejected the witchcraft beliefs of the African peoples he studied as absurd. Later, he began to recognize that to live and work among the Azande one had to assume the reality of witchcraft. Once this was done everything fell into place and the world worked according to a strict logic. Therefore, he found that to live in an Azande village required a leap of the imagination without which it was impossible to obtain the basic necessities of life. Only by acknowledging the "reality" of witchcraft could he negotiate the basic transactions that kept him alive.
Attempting to understand the twisted logic which led 39 well educated people to commit suicide because they believed that a space craft was tailing the Hale-Bopp Comet requires a similar leap of the imagination. Usually we associate UFO's with science, possible future worlds, and hard nosed science fiction. In our discourse UFO's belong to what Isaac Asimov called the "space opera." Thus any discussion of UFO's is couched in terms of their possible scientific status and theories about extraterrestrial life. All of this seems a far cry from the pseudo-Theosophical and crypto-gnostic ideas propagated on the Higher Source Web Site.
If we think of UFO's in this way events like the Heaven's Gate suicides make no sense whatsoever. As a result many people describe such tragedies as "bizarre" and try to find an explanation in theories of brainwashing and the manipulation of gullible people by a charismatic leader. Such explanations are understandable. But, as with Evan-Pritchard's early understanding of witchcraft as absurd, they tells us nothing and actually prevents us from understanding why seemingly intelligent people reject our rationality in favor of beliefs which strike us as totally mad.
To understand the Heaven's Gate tragedy we need to recognize that the popular perception of UFO's as an idea developed from observation and hard science is far from the truth. From the first "flying saucer" craze of the early 1950's to today's UFO cults there has been a very close tie to spirituality.
The suggestion that extraterrestrials regularly visited the earth where they interfere with human life was first made by the American journalist Charles Fort (1874--1932). In a series of books, including The Book of the Dammed (1919), Fort argued that modern science represented a new kind of "priestcraft," which, he claimed, refused to admit certain inconvenient truths. The most important of these "truths" concerned evidence that extraterrestrials visit earth on a regular basis. Presenting a monistic vision of the universe Fort systematically replaced Christian ideas of creation and providence with a form of secular spirituality involving god like extra-terrestrial.
Many early science fiction writers, including such luminaries as Damon Knight (1922-) Eric Frank Russell (1905-1978)l and Sam Moskowitz (1920-) were influenced by Fort. More importantly his ideas about extraterrestrials observing and guiding human development were adapted by "Doc" E.E. Smith (1890-1965) in Triplanetary (1934) which he developed into his "Lensmen" series in 1948. This highly popular series unites numerous spiritual ideas, mythological themes into a hi-tech space opera. More recently George Lukas, consciously modelled his epic Star Wars series on the Lensmen books.
Another writer influenced by Fort was Richard Shaver (1907-1975) who created a sensation in March 1945 when his story "I Remember Lemuria" that appeared in Amazing Stories. An instant success this fantastic yarn about lost civilizations generated an intense controversy. Naturally, a whole series of sequels followed leading to the publication of the book I Remember Lemuria and The Return of Santhanas in 1948.
It is no coincidence that in 1947, American media coined the term "flying saucer" to explain a rash of UFO sightings. The first UFO books appeared in 1950, but most of these were uninteresting descriptions of strange lights in the sky. The major UFO breakthrough came in 1953 with the publication of Desmond Leslie and George Adamski's Flying Saucers Have Landed. What Smith and Shaver had hinted at in their fiction became a reality when Adamski claimed to be the first human to encountered space aliens visiting earth in UFO's.
Significantly, both Adamski and Leslie, like Fort and Shaver before them, were well known metaphysical thinkers with Theosophical roots. Long before they harnessed science fiction to transform theosophical concepts into pseudo-scientific claims about UFO's these writers were deeply immersed in occult literature. Thus from the beginning UFO stories were entangled with religious beliefs of Theosophical origin supported by rich occult mythologies.
Following the success of Leslie and Adamski's a host of other spiritually inclined writers made similar claims. The most important of these was Eric von Daniken whose Chariots of the Gods? (1968) purports to be a serious study of strange evidence suggesting spacemen once visited the earth. The influence of Shaver on von Danken is clear. Later in The Gold of the Gods (1972) von Daniken dropped his pseudo-scientific stance to reveal his true religious interests. Other books, like Brad Steiger's Gods of Aquarius (1976) and Jaques Vallee's Messengers of Deception (1979) elaborated on these themes which blur the distinction between science and religion, empirical reality and the occult.
Television series like Star Trek, The X Files, and numerous Hollywood films multiply the impact of science fiction books by creating a situation where even an adventure story like The Rock contains a ritualistic mention of extraterrestrials, UFO landings, and a Government cover-up. No wonder survey research shows that between 70 and 75% of North Americans believe in extra-terrestrials and UFO's. Add to these figures the much smaller, but growing, number of people who claim contact with UFO's and/or abduction by space aliens and the plot thickens.
The best know UFO type religion was Ron L. Hubbbard's (1911-1986) Scientology. Hubbard's first works were adventure stories. But, in 1938 he published "The Dangerous Dimension" in the July issue of Astounding other stories followed making him one of the magazines most prolific writers. In 1950 he published Dianetics which he proclaimed as a "new science of the mind." One the earliest and most enthusiastic converts to this new technology was none other than Astounding's charismatic editor John W. Campbell who did all he could to promote Hubbard's views through his popular science fiction magazine. Other science fiction writers such as Katherine MacLean, James Blish, and Kurt van Vogt were drawn into the enthusiasm although later all moved away from the movement Hubbard created. Sceptics like Isaac Asimov looked on with amusement while Lester del Ray attempted to warn people about Hubbard's "absurdities" in the rival magazine Marvel Science Stories.
From Hubbard's books and counselling techniques Scientology developed into a full fledged religion in 1954. Following its founding various other new religions were founded by people who had dabbled in Scientology. The most successful of these were EST and Eckankar.
At the same time numerous other UFO cults emerged. These include the Wallace Halsey's Christ Brotherhood, the Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara made famous by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter in When Prophecy Fails (1955), and George King's Aetherius Society founded in 1955. Today the Unarius movement, which expects salvation in 2001, and the Realians, who say that 2035 is a more likely date, are a most influential of these movements. More recently UFO beliefs gained ground among fundamentalist Christians through the writings of men like Tex Marrs and Gary North who give UFO's a demonic spin to create what could almost be called anti-UFO cults based on cosmic conspiracy theories that threaten their version of Christianity.
Behind all of these movements and belief lies a mythology of creation which rejects evolution as a scientific concept but, except in the fundamentalist case, cannot return to a Biblical view of creation. Therefore, UFO's become both a vehicle of creation, providence and final salvation in a spiritualized universe which resembles early Gnosticism. Modern Gnostics object to the theology of groups like the Heaven's Gate Community being labelled "Gnostic." And it is certainly very different from most modern groups which claim this heritage. Yet in many ways the new theologies are strikingly similar to the Gnosticism described by Kurt Rudolph in his classic studies of the topic.
What seems clear therefore is that we are dealing with a deep human longing for roots, and certainty, and escape from earthy existence. People entering such movements find Kierkagaard's either/or as equally unacceptable as belief in chance evolution. Therefore, lost worlds and other civilizations provide an escape from the material aspects of creation to manufacture what Paul Tillich would have easily recognized as idols expressing ultimate concern through the deification of spiritual longings.