What the Heaven’s Gate Suicides Teach Us About Islamic Martyrdom
This op-ed appeared on HuffingtonPost.com on March 24, 2017.
It was 20 years ago this week, March 20-26, 1997, that 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult “graduated” from this life to ascend to the UFO mothership that they believed would take them to an extraterrestrial paradise. I’ll never forget it. I was on book tour for Why People Believe Weird Things, and neither I nor any of my peers who study belief systems had ever heard of the cult. It was hard to fathom. Now, as I look back 20 years later, I believe the mass suicide has a deeper lesson that goes far beyond the confines of New Age fringe cults, and has relevance to understanding the motivations of today’s suicide terrorists.
But first, let’s revisit the story. Heaven’s Gate was founded in 1975 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles after they met in a psychiatric hospital. They fell in love and believed their pairing had been foretold by extraterrestrials. In the 1980s and 1990s, they recruited several hundred followers, many of whom sold their possessions and lived in isolation, disconnected from their family and friends. They practiced living in dark rooms to simulate space travel and considered sex sinful, with six male members voluntarily undergoing castration.
In early 1997, the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp foretold to them that the coming of the UFO mothership, said to be hiding behind the comet, that would take them to what they called The Evolutionary Level Above Human (TELAH), where they would live forever in unadulterated ecstasy. This story was reinforced by Art Bell, on his popular late-night radio show Coast to Coast AM, a purveyor of conspiratorial “alternative facts” (before they were known as such). Compared to eternal bliss in this extraterrestrial heaven, life on Earth was but a temporary stage in evolution. The transition was made in three waves that week, as members drank a deadly cocktail of phenobarbital, applesauce, and vodka; also pulling plastic bags over their heads for self-asphyxiation. Authorities found them all dead in a San Diego home on March 26. The event became a media circus. […]