Editor’s Note: This letter to the editor of The Stamford Advocate was published on 3/30/97 in response to letters the paper had been printing from people shocked by the Heaven’s Gate cult suicides. It was meant to be a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but not everyone saw it that way. I began to get mail from people who felt strongly on this subject and on religion in general. Naturally, I was pleased with those who agreed with me and disgusted by those who didn’t. After the third or fourth letter — and the second or third fax — arrived at my home (a couple from religious fanatics who frightened me a little), I decided I wouldn’t write to the newspaper so much anymore. I didn’t want to become the sort of person (nut) who has nothing better to do than write Letters to the Editor, nor did I want hate mail from Christian zealots (nuts) who take this sort of thing way too seriously.
Why Is Anyone Surprised About Heaven’s Gate?
Why is it that so many people are shocked that a group of cultists would kill themselves in order to reach heaven? The airwaves and the print media are fanning the fear that some cult will reach out and touch our families. What are people so afraid of?
In this Easter season, you can turn on any number of Hollywood productions showing early Christians being fed to the lions or otherwise being martyred for their faith. Like Richard Burton and Jean Simmons at the end of “The Robe,” they are depicted as heroes on their way to their eternal reward, because they voluntarily gave up their lives — in effect, committing suicide to achieve salvation. Historically, Christianity is only one of thousands of religions worldwide, so the chance that it is the one true religion is one in several thousand, yet early martyrs, such as St. Stephen, were willing to lay down their lives on the remote chance that it was the truth. This is looked on as brave and noble, not a sign of mental illness, as has been said of the path chosen by the deceased Heaven’s Gate followers.
Comets have always been viewed by the faithful as harbingers of disaster, so why is anyone surprised when cultists see Hale-Bopp as an omen of great significance? Christian fundamentalists pore over every item of news for signs of the end, interpreting the most benign current events as being monumentally important, so why should we expect the Heaven’s Gate loonies to be any different? The fact is, in all of recorded human history, no comet has ever harmed mankind in any way. However, this didn’t stop people from killing themselves in 1910 when Halley’s Comet missed the earth by several million miles.
I’m not saying that I find it reasonable to believe that a UFO hiding in a comet’s tail is going to pick up the spiritual bodies of these believers. However, with all the emphasis in our society on end-of-the-world millennialism, why is anyone surprised that these sorts of things happen? You can’t turn on the T.V. without seeing some televangelist like Pat Robertson going on about the “End Times,” the “Last Days” or the “Second Coming,” all of which have been right around the corner for the last 2,000 years. From the Millerites in the 1800s to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Southern Baptists and Billy Graham in more recent times, there has always been someone trying to frighten us with the idea that the end is practically upon us. And no matter how many times these people turn out to be wrong, we never learn our lesson.
And finally, what’s so unusual about intelligent, computer-literate people who have outlandish, paranoid or unscientific beliefs. We live in a country where churches are now being established to worship the risen Elvis; where nearly half the population rejects modern biology because it conflicts with the Creation science of Genesis, which was written by people barely out of the Stone Age; where astrology is accepted by more people than astronomy; where Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theories become accepted as history; and where psychic hot lines turn a tidy profit — shouldn’t we expect even more of this sort of thing as the Millennium approaches?
Maybe, when the year 2000 has come and gone with no earth-shattering events or effects, we’ll see a decrease in superstitious behavior and the desperate grasping for the supernatural ... but I won’t be holding my breath.
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