How strange were they?

The San Diego cultists have more in common with other religious enthusiasts than you might think

Salon/March 28, 1997
By David Futrelle

One man described traveling toward a "straight light like a pillar, most nearly resembling a rainbow, but brighter and purer" as he approached the end of his life on the earthly plane. Another described "the holy city, new Jerusalem, com[ing] down from heavens to earth. God's space and ours are finally married, integrated at last."

No, neither of these quotes has been plucked from the Web pages of the UFO-fixated Heaven's Gate cult. Actually, like most of those curious Netizens who've punched the group's URL into their browsers, I haven't been able to get close enough to their page (or its now-seemingly-defunct Romanian mirror site) to do any plucking. (An excerpt from the page is here.) Both quotes come not from some New Age Web page death cult manifesto, but from the pages of the stolid, service-oriented U.S. News and World Report, whose current cover story examines the possibility of life after death, a possibility some 39 Californians recently decided to research in greater depth themselves. The first man quoted was Plato, describing the near-death experience of a wounded soldier; the second quote comes from the dean of an Anglican cathedral, writing in the pages of Christian Century.

The reports coming out of Rancho Santa Fe suggest that the Heaven's Gate cult plopped itself down in the quiet, affluent neighborhood ("a community where new and old money mix," the Associated Press wrote, "where celebrities can get their privacy inside gated estates") like some stealthy alien invasion force. The members of this "cultish Web page design group" (as Lisa Kim of MSNBC put it) looked more or less like the rest of us, except for their buzz-cut hair and their identical black outfits. They were, by all accounts, hard workers, good at what they did, and were making a comfortable living off the Internet under the name Higher Source. "Customers of the company called Higher Source described the home's occupants as cultlike and clannish, but businesslike and proficient," the AP reported, describing the cultists with language that could have been used to describe everyone from Microsoft employees to Amway reps. "They had that look about them that maybe they were a little bit strange of appearance, but that they could probably sit down in front of a computer and really get it done," reported one satisfied customer to ABC's "Nightline." "They did a fantastic job for us." That is, before they all killed themselves and stopped returning their customers' phone calls.

Beneath this quiet exterior, news reports suggest, the Heaven's Gate members held what seem to be extravagantly eccentric beliefs. They thought they were "angels." That "planet earth [was] about to be recycled." That their deaths would allow them to "shed their containers" -- that is, their human bodies -- and "graduate from the human kingdom and enter the Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human" inside "a Next Level spacecraft" at this very moment sneaking up on Earth behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Those few who've been able to connect with the Heaven's Gate Web site can read in gory detail about everything from "The UFO Two and Their Crew" to the group's (now apparently out-of-date) "Position Against Suicide."

But the beliefs of the Heaven's Gate cultists aren't as different from those of many "mainstream" Americans as most of us would like to believe. Pat Robertson had been actively peddling his own brand of science-fiction apocalypse for some time on his television shows and in his grotesquely bad 1995 novel, "The End of the Age." Jack and Rexella Van Impe's weekly television show reports each week on the impending end of the world as we know it (and they feel fine). The space-opera theology of Scientology has captured the brains of quite a few "businesslike and proficient" Hollywood types. And innumerable New Age sects and cults have sprung up like mold on leftovers. When a slightly impatient Brian Williams quizzed a real estate salesperson who'd recently shown the cult "temple" to some slightly creeped-out buyers, demanding to know why he hadn't called the police right away, one almost expected the (obviously nonplused) realtor to respond: "Hey, it's California, for God's sake. Half the houses I show are occupied by cults. What do you expect?"

Actually, I suspect most of us realize, at some level, that the line that separates religious enthusiasm from cult zombiehood is narrower than we commonly pretend, that our own beliefs (or the beliefs of our friends) in angels, UFOs, ESP, Kennedy assassination conspiracies, you name it, differ from the elaborate sci-fi ideologies of groups like Heaven's Gate in degree, not in kind.

This is America, after all, and Americans have always been adept at spiritual invention. Our religious history is a story of fringe characters and strange revivals, with religious sects splitting and re-splitting and entire new religious groupings (Mormonism to Christian Science to the Nation of Islam) rising up seemingly out of nowhere. It's hard to distinguish outsiders from insiders; it's not clear that the distinction has much meaning anymore. "The American religious system may be said to be 'working' only when it is creating cracks within denominations, when it is producing novelty, even when it is fueling antagonisms," L. Laurence Moore wrote in his provocative book "Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans." "These things are not things which, properly understood, are going on at the edges or fringes of American life. They are what give energy to church life and substance to the claim that Americans are the most religious people on the face of the earth." It's not only in the music world, in other words, that the "alternative" has conquered the mainstream.

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