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"Cults and Cults"

     All the talk of cults and superstition in the wake of what
could be called the Heaven's Gate Massacre is annoying, because
so much of it is half-baked.
     Yet the attention of the world has been focussed away from
the normal routine of getting and spending, as Wordsworth put it,
and that is something of a relief.  Could our species yet get
     I remember trying to make a career and a life out of the
attempt to make a cult out of the Placitas Presbyterian Church. 
This was thirty years ago.  I finally had to give it up, because
no one really believed all that stuff.  No one was serious.  They
all thought I was too serious.
     My wife and I were speaking of it just the day before the
Heaven's Gate group shuffled off this mortal coil, to quote
Hamlet.  We were noting the church's reaction, when she and I
arrived at the point where we knew and could state openly that we
didn't believe a word of the doctrine.  The church people were
very upset about that!  It's dreadful!  He's lost his faith!
     The major difference between the believers in the
superstitions of the Heaven's Gate group and the Presbyterian and
Roman Catholic faithful is that the former really believed what
they said they believed, and the church people do not.  But the
latter do not want clear statements, with reasons for not
believing.  They want the pretense of belief kept intact.
     Charles Osgood compared the mass-suicide, as the media loves
to call it, to the publication of a new translation of Dante's
INFERNO -- implying clearly, that persons who commit suicide go
to hell.  I wonder if that is still official Roman Catholic
doctrine, or has it been changed, like eating meat on Friday, and
reading or translating the Bible.  The latter activities used to
be forbidden, but now are not.
     The beliefs of the Heaven's Gate group were referred to as
superstition repeatedly by TV and print reporters in the days
after the deaths of the members of the cult.  Yet hundreds of
thousands of worshippers were shown the following week-end
giving public approval to ideas and longings that are just as
superstitious, and often exactly identical to, the teachings
which persuaded the cult members.  
     The idea that this world is doomed, condemned, hopelessly
contaminated, and not worthy of our love or loyalty or effort to
improve -- it's part of the doctrine.  Millions have the belief
that the leader of their institution is not a mere human being,
and behave toward him accordingly.  We watched smiling, well-
dressed, washed and combed people chanting that they were going
leave this place and go to heaven, that they were eager to go,
ready to be on their way.  Let's go!  Let's go!  We're ready to
go! they sang.  The cult people really did what the others sing
and talk about.
     Much of the official alarm about Heaven's Gate is being
packed into the word cult.  Let's look again.  There are cults
and cults, and some don't even look like churches at all. 
Thirty-nine people in the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide,
having been duped into believing things that seem preposterous to
most outside observers.  Since that event more than 1000 persons
per day in another sort of cult have committed suicide, having
also been duped into believing things that seem preposterous to
most outside observers.
     The Heaven's Gate cult, as it is called, consisted of
persons who believed that the Kingdom of Heaven is a literal
place, that the leader of the cult was not exactly a mere human
being, that the human body which each one used as a vehicle
needed to be abandoned in order for the individual to move up to
the next level of evolutionary development, and that a space ship
related in some way to a recently discovered comet was coming to
receive the disembodied persons.  The cult members sacrificed
possessions, family and finally life itself because of this set
of beliefs.
     The dead smokers, who outnumber the dead cult members by a
factor of more than twenty-five times, per day, believed that
scientific and statistical evidence about the lethal effects of
tobacco use was false, falsified or erroneous.  They believed the
words of the chief executive officers of the giant tobacco
corporations who swore before the Congress of the United States
that tobacco was neither addictive nor harmful.  The smokers
sacrificed everything, including their breath, their health and
their very lives, for the sake of their belief in their own
exceptional invincibility.
     Since the cult members removed themselves from further life
on this planet, persons in one official capacity or another have
groped for methods to prevent other similar cults from capturing
the imagination, the reasoning ability and the loyalty of
additional innocent and unsuspecting persons.  This is probably a
lost cause, because people will believe what they want to and
need to believe.  Force does not work well in the long run in
this area.
     With an impetus remarkably weak, considering the number of
persons at risk, officials have begun to wonder how to prevent or
at least hinder the tobacco companies' need to recruit new
believers, that is, smokers.  This may also be a lost cause,
because the tobacco companies have mythologically huge quantities
of money, and now that bribery is an accepted method of
influencing and controlling government officials, attempts to
obstruct the leaders of this huge cult of smoking will meet with
great difficulty.  That cult will almost certainly continue to do
what it has been doing and is designed to do, that is, kill
people for profit.  
* * *
Copyright © 1997 Harry Willson

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