The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Dying To Go To Heaven

March 27, 2017

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.

Marshall Applewhite

An image of Marshall Applewhite during a video broadcast produced by Heaven’s Gate (religious group)

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. […]

Continue reading at HuffingtonPost.com

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17 Comments to “Dying To Go To Heaven”

  1. XXXXXXXX Says:

    What BS! There is no such thing as a suicide bomber, Muslim or otherwise. This scenario was dreamed up and foisted on the public by American propagandists to justify American conquest of the Middle East and repressive police state laws at home. These so-called “suicide bombings” have mostly been faked with drugged or deceived patsies tricked into their deaths to make the story look convincing.

  2. Belinda Says:

    It’s a little difficult to envisage a faked suicide bombing. But yes, these sad, deluded people are tricked into their deaths – by religious ideologies that sell them a fake promise of an eternal afterlife in return for perpetrating an atrocity in this one. Patsies indeed.

  3. bruce Says:

    @XXXXXXXXX, Did you contribute to the book “Why people believe weird things”?

  4. Nix Says:

    Hey, XXXXXXXX, I think you typed in the wrong address. This isn’t infowars. Please remove the tinfoil hat and take a deep breath.

  5. Dr. Sidethink Says:

    tinfoil hats do not work.
    If you use one your head gets hot anyway

  6. BillG Says:

    I know this is oxy-moronic: please ignore the trolls who use exes’ or Dr.Doesnthink. Not unlike sheep, they don’t actually challenge their thoughts – only get there jollies to rile others.
    Here’s a novel thought, contribute some real thought and dignity instead of your trite claptrap??

  7. Rickvid in Seattle Says:

    I think of St. Stephan, the first Christian martyr, who, as he was being stoned to death, saw a heavenly vision of Jesus at the right hand of God. In allowing himself to be killed for his faith, he was an actual martyr. These Islamists murder in order to attain some vision of paradise. They are not martyrs in any sense of the word, rather murderers, or homicide bombers. Maybe if more saw them as the vile scum they are, attitudes would change.

  8. Damon Says:

    Please turn off comments

  9. Dr. Sidethink Says:

    tinfoil hats do not work.
    If you use one your head gets hot anyway know this is oxy-moronic: please ignore the trolls who use exes’ or Dr.Doesnthink. Not unlike sheep, they don’t actually challenge their thoughts – only get there jollies to rile others.
    Here’s a novel thought, contribute some real thought and dignity instead of your trite claptrap??

    I am rubber and you are glue
    It bounces off me and sticks to you

    he said, descending to the level of rhetoric

    does that come with fries ???

  10. Chris Says:

    It seems virgin of semi-virginal young men have always been a good target for enlistment for suicide type activities or war in general. Nothing makes a young man’s mind fog over more than the idea of unlimited sex with numerous hot women. This is why most suicide activities l believe are done by men as women need to manipulated by other means.

  11. CommonSense Says:

    I cannot believe the absurdity of this premise. Here is the OBVIOUS reason why they did the acts on 9/11. First off, there is NO war over religion. ALL wars start with people wanting money or power. They USE religion as a way to get this. No one cannot name a SINGLE conflict where it cannot be traced by someone wanting more money, more power, more material goods, etc.

    Second, most of the hijackers were people with a technical degree. Thanks to outsourcing (more BS that really should not be allowed), they were unemployed and had no lives. So, if someone came to them and said for a few years, you can go to America, get escorts, drink, etc., and at the end of that period you need to do one final act, I am sure they jumped at the chance as they felt they had no future.

    This has NOTHING to do with martyrdom. I am becoming far less impressed with Michael Shermer on a daily basis. I am sure if we also look into cults, these people are misguided as they are missing something in their lives, and are then accepted by the CULT – which makes them feel wanted.

    SAME reasons for inner city gangs selling/using drugs. They have no future so why not have nice things and money and enjoy life until they are killed.

    For supposedly loving science – look no further than the animal kingdom who fight over power (ie dominant lion) and food (money) as the perfect example.

    Obviously, common sense does not prevail. I also fear that due to money, science is no longer insulated from politics and now goes for money versus working on REAL science.

  12. Bob Pease Says:

    ” I also fear that due to money, science is no longer insulated from politiI also fear that due to money, science is no longer insulated from politics and now goes for money versus working on REAL science.cs and now goes for money versus working on REAL science.”

    I also would like Mike to post stuff more relevant to ideology
    that appears anti- scientific or politically danferous

  13. Chris Says:

    In general people do “X” because they BELIEVE they will feel better after doing “X” than they would feel if they had not done it.

    “X” might be anything from drinking a cup of coffee, robbing a bank, being a Heaven’s Gate suicide, flying a plane into the World Trade Centre, or being a suicide bomber.

    If I was terminally ill and in considerable pain I might, as an athiest, kill myself (Do “X”) because I believed feeling nothing is better that suffering more pain.

    If you strongly believe that some drastic action would result in you being in an alien space ship or being generously rewarded by an all-powerful god who promises an everlasting idyllic afterlife the fact that to maximize your “reward” you had to kill yourself and possibly others is no obstacle.

    Of course your belief will turn out to be ill-founded – but once you are dead you can never know you were misguided and the god you worship does not exist.

    Depending on how you died those who share your belief will consider you to be a martyr while those who do not share your belief will call you a murderer or a terrorist.

    Of course if some deceitful persons fool someone into carrying a bomb the bomber is a victim of murder as well as the others who die. This leads to confusion when the media and/or politicians describe such victims as suicide bombers.

  14. Zorba Says:

    To dissagree is in fact agreeing on the fact that real thought is boundless in its adventure, and that no one answer can hold true as the one and only soulution to these scenario’s. The word that would unite us all and we are all missing is HYPOTHESIS. Thank You, And You’re welcome.

  15. James Says:

    “No such thing as a suicide bomber”; “No wars are fought over religion”. Skeptic readers?

  16. Brian Charles Fleming Says:

    Shermer’s last words: “…Muslim moderates and reformers, along with religious people of all faiths, must debunk the false fact that heaven awaits those who kill themselves, especially if they take the lives of others.”

    Is Shermer saying that religious people should change their narratives about heaven? They have no knowledge of heaven, let alone who gets in and why. Maybe religious people could start by admitting that.

  17. Barbara Harwood Says:

    The difference between and cult and a religion is how many people belong to it. Most cults are offshoots of religions. While most religions have a “Golden Rule” at their heart, a cult is often the brain child of somebody with an agenda of a more personal nature. Trying to convert somebody to your own way of thinking will not work if you kill him. If the people really knew what lay beyond this life, they probably would not be so willing to find out so soon.