Religious Scholars Ponder Timing of Cult Suicides

New York Times/March 28, 1997
By Jane Gross

It is a season of signs and wonders, of comets and lunar eclipses, of the vernal equinox and the holiest days on the Christian calendar.

How many of these converging events, not to mention the approaching millennium, influenced the mass suicide discovered Wednesday in a Spanish-style mansion in Southern California?

This was the question that religious scholars pondered Thursday as they traded theories on the Internet, tried mostly unsuccessfully to sign on to the Heaven's Gate Web site and took their turns as instant celebrities on CNN and "Nightline."

"There is a confluence of so many important dates," said J. Gordon Melton, who runs the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., and is the author of several encyclopedic works on religion in general and cults in particular.

"Even Buddha's birthday is not that far away. It's hard to say which of these correlations were particularly made."

Melton's confusion was echoed by Robert S. Ellwood, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, who said, "We'll have to wait for more information to see if they were consciously aware of the synchronicity or not."

There was evidence aplenty that the 39 men and women, who lived and died communally, timed their suicides to the dazzling Hale-Bopp comet, which they apparently believed was trailed by a spaceship that would transport them to a happier and holier world, beyond the bounds of flesh and time.

In this belief, they seem to be close cousins of the Solar Temple cult, which scholars say embraced a stew of beliefs borrowed from New Age philosophy, the Western occult tradition, gnosticism and other apocalyptic religions. Solar Temple members, also professing a desire to flee the world of matter for the world of the spirit, have taken their own lives in three mass suicides recently, in Switzerland, France and Canada.

Scholars speculated Thursday that both the Solar Temple, in its most recent suicide in Quebec on Sunday, and the group in Rancho Sante Fe were moved to act by certain stirring natural events and profound dates on the calendar.

Some guessed that once autopsies were performed in San Diego, it would turn out that the computer-cult had taken their lives either at the start of the spring equinox, which occurred March 20, a Thursday, or the lunar eclipse, which occurred March 23, a Sunday.

Others surmised that it was no accident that they died draped in shrouds of purple, the color traditionally associated with Lent.

And then there is the approach of the year 2000.

"This transition, this major transition in the calendar, stimulates people's religious imaginations." said Catherine Wessinger, an associate professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Ms. Wessinger continued: "All religions are concerned with well-being, in our earthly life or after we die. Some believe the only way to achieve well-being is in heaven. Others dream the impossible dream, that complete and total well-being can be achieved here on earth. These significant dates get more people hoping for terrestrial salvation. And if they are frustrated, they shift to the other realm."

But talk of the vernal equinox, the eclipse or the millennium are just guesses. The connection to the comet, on the other hand, was explicit, in Internet chat-rooms frequented by New Age thinkers and in videotapes left behind by the California cult. And without condoning their dreadful mass death, religious scholars noted that such celestial wonders have fascinated people from the beginning of time.

"These events have inspired strange interpretations in human beings as long as there have been human beings," said James T. Richardson, a professor at the University of Nevada at Reno. "We are not as far as we'd like to think from primitive tribes. The Star of Bethlehem was probably a comet or a supernova. But people imbued it with great meaning, meaning that dominates all of Western culture today."

Ms. Wessinger agreed. "Throughout history, signs in the sky have been interpreted as omens," she said, citing the Branch Davidians' conviction that a guitar-shaped nebula was a sign that David Koresh, their leader, was the true Messiah.

Arnold Markowitz, director of the cult hot-line and clinic at the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in New York City, counsels the families of cult members. Markowitz noted that the leaders of such groups took advantage of these primitive longings.

"They're always looking for signs and they use them in the service of their dangerous belief systems," he said, citing a young member of the Unification Church who told his family that he was compelled to become a Moonie, as members of the sect are often called, after having a dream about the moon.

One common thread among many of the cults that have lately come on the scene, like the San Diego group and the Solar Temple, is a belief in unidentified flying objects that can transport them from this world to the next.

"Space aliens, UFOs are playing the role that angels, God, Satan used to play," Ms. Wessinger said. "They are unseen, superhuman powers who can hurt us or help us."

Ellwood, the religion professor, harked back to as essay about flying saucers by Carl Jung. Jung called them "technologic angels," the professor explained, "because they have an otherworldly quality."

"They are sublime, transcendent beings that fulfill the same function as angels," he said, "but adopted to a technologic civilization."

And that is what Ellwood said he found fascinating, albeit tragic, about this week's quiet death scene.

"These people come from a '90s kind of culture, with all its hardware and world views," he said. "But they have hewed to the traditional apocalyptic scenario: that radical changes are imminent and foretold by signs in the heavens."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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