Beam Us Up, Hale-Bopp
(Printed in the Towanda Daily Review on April 3, 1997.)
Most of the articles and columns written about the recent Heaven's Gate suicides describe the event as tragic, violent, and insane. The Heaven's Gate group believed that the soul, once rid of its body or "container", would be allowed to board a spacecraft traveling in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. They firmly believed the comet to be a sign, a "celestial omen", that signaled that it was time for them to "ascend to the Level Above Human."
Were they insane? Perhaps not; there is no way to disprove their claims. Their souls may now be on that heavenly spacecraft enjoying rewards that include a view that Hale or Bopp would die for.
Were they a "cult"? That depends on the definition, which traditionally includes "extremist or false beliefs." Thus, most religions may consider other religions to be cults, the degree of "cultism" depending on the differences in their respective beliefs and faiths.
There are approximately 2,000 distinct religious groups in America (NY Times), which probably account for at least half that many different deities, each of which is claimed to be the one and only true deity. Thus, each group discounts the existence of all the other proposed deities except theirs, and holds their beliefs and dogmatic interpretations to be solely valid. As an example, an AP report noted that Mark Applewhite, the son of the Heaven's Gate leader whom he hadn't seen for 35 years, commented that he and his family are born-again Christians "with the real ticket to heaven."
The interesting part is that none -- not one -- of the religious groups make claims that can be disproved. Claims for the existence of heaven, hell, angels, witches, devils, miracles, reincarnation, ghosts, comet-pacing spacecraft, ascension to the Level Above Human, and magical crystals may be valid. Their existence can't be disproved, though proof of existence is never available. The "real ticket" requires faith.
Do I believe that the souls of the Heaven's Gate group made it to their heavenly destination? Not unless I get a post card from Hale-Bopp with 39 signatures (which would have to be verified.) I can't prove that they didn't succeed. However, in the absence of evidence on their part since they made the extraordinary claim, my vote is that the closest they're going to get to Hale-Bopp is 122 million miles (at least for this pass.)
Am I comparing the tenets of the Heaven's Gate group to those of other religions? Several features are similar, except that "the crucial safety brake in most theologies is that the believer himself cannot choose the moment of ascension. Only the central deity can do that." (NY Times 3/29/97) But given the widely varying interpretations of the same or similar canonical texts by each religion, and the modifications of interpretation over time within any given religion, the permanency of the exceptions may be as substantial as the tail of Hale-Bopp.
John L. Ferri
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