I’ve been thinking a lot about Heaven’s Gate. Remember the cult?
They were the people who believed that an alien spacecraft was following behind the Hale-Bopp comet, and that in order to catch a ride on board, they would need to shed their humanly containers. Thirty-nine members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide in order to do this in 1997. I’ve been studying their history and have found it to be utterly fascinating.
At the time of the mass suicide, Americans were horrified at the scope of the tragedy and had difficulty understanding how anyone could believe that an alien spacecraft traveled the universe picking up souls. Essentially, people wondered how the hell anyone could believe this nonsense, and I remember thinking the same thing.
But lately I’ve been reconsidering my position. After all, is the belief that aliens are returning to the Earth in order to pick up souls any more difficult to believe than the belief that an omnipotent God who planted his only son into a virgin womb?
Is it any more improbable for this son of God to feed thousands of people on a single loaf of bread?
Or surviving crucifixion through resurrection?
When each religious belief is viewed objectively, outside of its tradition and trappings, one really doesn’t seem any more improbable than the other.
Of course, some may say that believing in Jesus, the parting of the Red Sea or Jewish dietary laws don’t require believers to take their on lives.
This is true, and I’d certainly be more likely to question a religious belief that requires believers to kill themselves over one one that requires three separate sets of flatware.
However, suicide is hardly something unknown to mainstream religion. The events that took place in Masada in 73 A.D., in which a Jewish sect committed suicide rather than falling to the hands of the brutal Romans, is actually cited on the Heaven’s Gate website. Is this really much different from people committing suicide in order to ascend to a higher state of being? Particularly when they believe that the body is a mere vessel for the soul?
And what about Abraham being asked to kill his son, Isaac? While the murder never took place, Abraham was prepared to murder his own son because God told him to, and this story is often told to Christians as a symbol of the faith that one must have in the Lord.
A father prepared to murder his son because an invisible being told him to do so? Is this any stranger or less brutal than the Heaven’s Gate tragedy?
It's still in the ballpark.
Here’s the thing:
The more I learn about the beliefs of various religions, the less religious I become. My wife is Jewish, so as I learned about her beliefs and traditions, I couldn’t help but think, “You guys just made all this stuff up, didn’t you? I mean, you can’t really expect me to believe any of this kosher stuff has any bearing on spirituality. Can you?”
But then I suddenly found myself thinking, “Wait a minute. Christians did the same thing, Didn’t they? All of their stuff is made up too! It’s all just a bunch of stories. And the rest of the religions are exactly the same. People are killing each other over their choice of fiction!”
Besides, religion is rarely a belief that is chosen after much reflection and introspection. Instead, it is inherited and is highly dependent upon geography and the beliefs of parents.
At its core, religion is really is the passing down of improbable and impossible stories.
All this leads me to give the believers in Heaven’s Gate the benefit of the doubt. After all, if I don't believe that the people who believe in the Son of God or the parting of the Red Sea or Jewish dietary laws are a bunch of lunatics (and I do not), why shouldn’t Heaven's Gate get the same fair treatment?
Though I must admit that mass suicide causes me to doubt the Heaven’s Gate folks a little more than a woman who keeps a kosher kitchen or a man who tithes 10% because an ancient tome tells him to.
As a result, I find myself sincerely hoping that those 39 souls who took their lives in 1997 are somewhere in outer space right now, screaming “I told you so!” to the rest of us.
It seems like a Godly thing to do.