No one knows how many among us have bet their lives on the gleaming promise of apocalyptic cults, but even if their numbers are tiny we can't ignore what their beliefs imply about the civilization we share with them. The Rancho Santa Fe suicides in California will demand attention for many years, not only because of the 39 deaths but because the cults reflect social phenomena we know all too well. What makes them creepy is not their strangeness but their familiarity. They're a distorted mirror, a maniac's parody, of society.
Cultists adopt valuable beliefs, like community and loyalty, and ingeniously twist them to produce midget dictatorships. They observe the forceful leaders and obedient crews on TV shows about outer space, then replicate those power relationships in the secrecy of their compounds. They borrow mass-media visions, like the bug-eyed, oval-domed extra-terrestrials who migrated from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the Web site of Heaven's Gate. In the manifestos of the cults, we can recognize the half-whining, half-threatening tone of paranoia generated by that vast network reaching from Kennedy assassination buffs to people who think The X-Files is revealed truth. For theology, the cult leaders go shopping at a garage sale of western ideas, bringing home everything from the Gospels to business-success rhetoric, putting them to perverse ends.
Even so, the Heaven's Gate believers left behind on their Web site a depressing and flatfooted account of themselves. They boasted of their skill as site designers, able to program in Java, C++, and Visual Basic, but their content is less impressive. On the computer screen, without the mad charisma of their leader, these heaven-seekers are earthbound--they're like all those spirits who speak through channellers from the Great Beyond and never once report anything interesting. In dying they "shed their containers"--a brutally simple-minded term that tries to sound both natural (a snake shedding its skin) and industrial.
Marshall Applewhite wrote his promise of heaven in dismal cliches, offering potential followers "a window of opportunity," warning them against "buying into" the "programming" of those who rejected his leadership. He was a messiah of such stunted imagination that he called his personal gospel the "Bottom Line." He called Jesus a "Next Level Representative," like some guy working in sales.
The Internet has been cited as one root of this particular evil--though, if the cultists had been selling flowers we wouldn't (as a letter to the Ottawa Citizen pointed out) see headlines saying "Police probe floral link to mass suicide." In truth, the Internet is as safe (and as dangerous) as the public library. The cults have come to life in the context of a society, new in history, that simultaneously discounts authority, clarity, morality, and science. You can blame it on computers, you can blame it on Marshall McLuhan, you can blame it on post-modernism, or you can Blame It On the Bossa Nova. Whatever the cause, many of our fellow citizens live in a place where fantasy and reality can't be separated. They nourish themselves on a stew of undigested ideas and unconsidered notions. Rock videos are the perfect emblems of this world view--bargain-basement surrealism designed not to be understood by anyone, even those who produce it. Our society glories in, and profits from, confusion.
This attitude, which elevates incoherence to a virtue, often appears at the edges of popular culture, when something like thought struggles to emerge. Consider a close-to-hand example, the coverlines published last week on the re-launched Canadian magazine, Shift: "The world has shifted. It happened after the Wall came down, after the Net went up, after Kurt pulled the trigger, after apartheid, after AIDS, after borders, age and truth. It's still shifting. It's about change. And change is good."
In the long history of human foolishness, has anyone ever packed more nonsense into 40 words? The Heaven's Gate leaders also spewed out unprocessed, contradictory notions, just like the editors of Shift, but the cultists then imposed arbitrary solutions. Re-inventing gnostic heresy, they tried resolving the conflict between impure body and pure mind by surgical castration. They solved the problem of transcendence by killing themselves--in Holy Week.
The people who embrace these cults, viciously abandoning their families, may seem both cruel and irrational. Yet in one sense they are reason's children. For two centuries, western civilization has laboured to teach them that they can work out for themselves all the eternal questions raised by science and philosophy. Mass culture has spread the happy thought that one citizen's opinion is as good as another's--and anything else is elitism. So Applewhite's view of the future, if it feels right, carries as much legitimacy as ancient religion or hard-won science.
In a lecture at the University of Toronto last fall, the Yale intellectual historian Peter Gay argued that we still need the principles of the 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers, such as Rousseau and Voltaire. They secularized scholarship and taught humanity that history is not fate-directed or God-directed. Above all, they taught that every idea, with "no sacred exceptions," can be called into question. So, too, can all human authority. Unfortunately, the result so far is hardly an age of reason, as (Gay noted) UFO cults demonstrate.
Responding to that lecture, Harry Frankfurt, a Descartes scholar at Princeton, suggested that the compass of the Enlightenment doesn't always steer us to the truth. "Advising people to explain everything rationally sounds like a good idea," Frankfurt said, but it opens a Pandora's Box of problems. People waiting for UFOs believe they are affirming their autonomy rather than accepting authority, as the Enlightenment teaches. They also sincerely believe they are thinking. "They believe in reason," Frankfurt said. "They just don't know how to do it." A little problem the Enlightenment left behind.