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UFO Mythology: The Escape to Oblivion

Special Report

Paul Kurtz

Volume 21.4, July / August 1997

Heaven’s Gate has stunned the world. Why would thirty-nine seemingly gentle and earnest people in Rancho Santa Fe, California, voluntarily commit collective suicide? They left us eerie messages on videotapes, conveying their motives: they wished to leave their “containers” (physical bodies) in order to ascend to a new plane of existence, a Level Above Human.

It was a celestial omen, Comet Hale-Bopp, that provoked their departure. For they thought that it carried with it a UFO spacecraft — an event already proclaimed on the nationally syndicated Art Bell radio show when Whitley Strieber and Courtney Brown maintained that a spaceship “extraterrestrial in origin” and under “intelligent control” was tracking the comet. According to astronomer Alan Hale, co-discoverer of the comet, what they probably saw was a star behind the comet. Interestingly, the twenty-one women and eighteen men, ranging in ages from twenty-one to seventy-two, seemed like a cross section of American citizens — though they demonstrated some degree of technical and engineering skills, and some even described themselves as “computer nerds.” They sought to convey their bizarre UFO theology on the Internet. Were these people crazy, a fringe group, overcome by paranoia? Or were there other, deeper causes at work in their behavior?

Heaven’s Gate was led by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles (who died in 1985), who taught their followers how to enter the Kingdom of God. They believed that some 2,000 years ago beings from an Evolutionary Level Above Human sent Jesus to teach people how to reach the true Kingdom of God. But these efforts failed. According to documents left on the Heaven’s Gate Web site, “In the early 1970s, two members of the Kingdom of Heaven (or what some might call two aliens from space) incarnated into two unsuspecting humans in Houston [Applewhite and Nettles]. . . .” Over the next twenty-five years Applewhite and Nettles transmitted their message to hundreds of followers. Those who killed themselves at Rancho Sante Fe (including Applewhite) — plus the two former members who subsequently attempted to take their lives on May 6, one of them succeeding — did so to achieve a higher level of existence.

Reading about the strange behavior of this cult of unreason, one is struck by the unquestioning obedience that Applewhite was able to elicit from his faithful flock. There was a rigid authoritarian code of behavior imposed upon everyone, a form of mind control. Strict rules and rituals governed all aspects of their monastic lives. They were to give up all their worldly possessions, their diets were regulated, and sex was strictly forbidden (seven members, including Applewhite, were castrated). The entire effort focused on squelching the personal self. Independent thinking was discouraged.

The followers of Heaven’s Gate lived under a siege morality; they were super-secretive, attempting to hide their personal identities. They were like nomads wandering in the wilderness, seeking the truths of a Higher Revelation from extraterrestrial semi-divine beings. What has puzzled so many commentators is the depth of their conviction that space aliens were sending envoys to Earth and abducting humans. They kept vigils at night, peering for streaks of light that might be UFOs, waiting for spacecraft to arrive.

We read on their Web page: “We suspect that many of us arrived in staged spacecraft (UFO) crashes, and many of our discarded bodies (genderless, not belonging to the human species), were retrieved by human authorities (government and military).”

This form of irrational behavior should be no surprise to the readers of the Skeptical Inquirer. I submit that the mass media deserve a large share of the blame for this UFO mythology. Book publishers and TV and movie producers have fed the public a steady diet of science fiction fantasy packaged and sold as real. Alarmed by the steady stream of irresponsible programming spewing forth claims that were patently false, last year CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), publisher of Skeptical Inquirer, established the Council for Media Integrity, calling for some balanced presentation of science. We said that, given massive media misinformation, it is difficult for large sectors of the public to distinguish between science and pseudoscience, particularly since there is a heavy dose of “quasi-documentary” films. Why worry about these programs? Because, I reply, the public, with few exceptions, does not have careful, critical knowledge of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. So far, the Council for Media Integrity’s warnings have gone largely unheeded. What drivel NBC, Fox, and other networks have produced! (A notable exception to this is ABC, which we are glad to say has called upon CSICOP skeptics to present alternative views on 20/20, Prime Time, and other shows.) TV is a powerful medium; and when it enters the home with high drama and the stamp of authenticity, it is difficult for ordinary persons to distinguish purely imaginative fantasies from reality. Many people blame the Internet. I think the media conglomerates, who sell their ideas as products, are to blame, not the Internet. We are surely not calling for censorship, only that some measure of responsibility be exercised by editors and producers. Interestingly, the Heaven’s Gaters were avid watchers of TV paranormal programs.

CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer have been dealing with UFO claims on a scientific basis for more than twenty years. We have attempted to provide, wherever we could, scientific evaluations of the claims. We have never denied that it is possible, indeed probable, that other forms of life, even intelligent life, exist in the universe. And we support any effort to verify such an exciting hypothesis. But this is different from the belief that we are now being visited by extraterrestrial beings in spacecraft, that they are abducting people, and that there is a vast government coverup of these alien invasions — a “Luciferian” conspiracy, according to Heaven’s Gate.

In my view, what we are dealing with is “the transcendental temptation,” the tendency of many human beings to leap beyond this world to other dimensions, impervious to the tests of evidence and the standards of logical coherence, the temptation to engage in magical thinking. UFO mythology is similar to the message of the classical religions where God sends his Angels as emissaries who offer salvation to those who accept the faith and obey his Prophets. Today, the chariots of the gods are UFOs. What we are witnessing in the past half century is the spawning of a New Age religion. (This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of the first flying saucers over the State of Washington in 1947.)

There are many other signs that UFO mythology has become a space-age religion and that it is not based on scientific evidence so much as emotional commitment. Witness the revival of astrology today; or the growth of Scientology, which proposes space-age reincarnation to their Thetans and attracts famous movie stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta; or the Order of the Solar Temple, in which seventy-four people committed suicide in Switzerland, Quebec, and France, waiting to be transported to the star Sirius, nine light-years away. Perhaps one of the most graphic illustrations of this phenomenon is what occurred on April 21, 1997, when the cremated remains of twenty-four people, including Gene Roddenberry (father of Star Trek), Timothy Leary (former Harvard guru), and Gerard O'Neill (scientific promoter of space colonies), were catapulted into space from the Grand Canary island off of the Moroccan coast aboard an American Pegasus rocket. This celestial burial is symptomatic of the New Age religion, in which our sacred church is outer space. The religious temptation enters when romantic expectations outreach empirical capacities.

Science is based on factual observation and verification. It was perhaps best illustrated by the discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp. That the comet has been captured by the paranormal imagination and transformed into a religious symbol is unfortunate. Alan Hale deplored this extrapolation of his observations. Yet the transcendental temptation can at times be so powerful that it knows no bounds.

Incidentally, the paranormal — which means, literally, that which is alongside of or beside normal scientific explanation — was involved in other aspects of the Heaven’s Gate theology. The members expressed beliefs in astrology, tarot cards, psychic channeling, telepathy, resurrection, and reincarnation. That is why it is often difficult to ferret out and examine these claims dispassionately, for New Agers are dealing with faith, credulity, and a deep desire to believe, rather than with falsifiable facts; and they are resistant to any attempt to apply critical thinking to such spiritual questions.

Quotations from the Heaven’s Gate videotape are instructive. Those who committed suicide affirmed that: “We are looking forward to this. We are happy and excited.” “I think everyone in this class wants something more than this human world has to offer.” “I just can't wait to get up there.” These testimonials sound like those of born-again fundamentalists who are waiting for the Rapture and whose beliefs are self-validating. These confirmations of faith are not necessarily true; they are accepted because they have a profound impact on the believers’ lives. Heaven’s Gate gave meaning and purpose to the lives of its followers. As such, it performed an existential, psychological function similar to that of other religious belief systems. Obedience to a charismatic leader offered a kind of sociological unity similar to that provided by traditional belief systems.

One might well ask, what is the difference between the myth of salvation of Heaven’s Gate and many orthodox religious belief systems that likewise promise salvation to the countless millions who suppress their sexual passions, submit to ritual and dogma, and abandon their personal autonomy, all in quest of immortality? Their behavior is similar to the more than nine hundred Jewish Zealots who committed suicide at Masada in 73 c.e., or the early Christians who willingly died for the faith, or the young Muslim Palestinians today who strap explosives to their bodies and blow themselves to kingdom come in the hope of attaining heaven. I recently visited Cairo and the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, where a ship of the dead had been uncovered. The Pharaohs had equipped a vessel to take them to the underworld, hoping thereby to achieve immortality after death. This has been transformed into a UFO craft in modern-day lingo.

The bizarre apocalyptic theology of Heaven’s Gate is interpreted by its critics as absurd and ridiculous; yet it was taken deadly serious by its devotees, and a significant part of the UFO scenario is now accepted by large sectors of the public.

In one sense the New Age paranormal religions are no more fanciful than the old-time religions. Considered cults in their own day, they were passed down from generation to generation, but perhaps they are no less queer than the new paranormal cults. No doubt many in our culture will not agree with my application of skepticism to traditional religion — CSICOP itself has avoided criticizing the classical systems of religious belief, since its focus is on empirical scientific inquiry, not faith.

I am struck by the fact that the Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Chassidic Jews were considered radical fringe groups when first proclaimed; today they are part of the conventional religious landscape, and growing by leaps and bounds. Perhaps the major difference between the established religions and the new cults of unreason is that the former religions have deeper roots in human history.

The Aum Shinri Kyo cult in Japan, which in 1995 released poison gas into a crowded subway station, killing twelve people, was made up of highly educated young people, many with advanced degrees. Unable to apply their critical thinking outside of their specialties, they accepted the concocted promises of their guru. Thus an unbridled cult of unreason can attract otherwise rational people.

The one thing I have discovered in more than two decades of studying paranormal claims is that a system of beliefs does not have to be true in order to be believed, and that the validation of such intensely held beliefs is in the eyes of the believer. There are profound psychological and sociological motives at work here. The desire to escape the trials and tribulations of this life and the desire to transcend death are common features of the salvation myths of many religious creeds. And they appear with special power and eloquence in the case of the misguided acolytes of Heaven’s Gate, who, fed by an irresponsible media that dramatizes UFO mythology as true, found solace in a New Age religion of salvation, a religion whose path led them to oblivion.

Paul Kurtz

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Professor Paul Kurtz is the founder of the Center for Inquiry, CFI's former chairman, the former Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine, and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Kurtz has spent much of his life on the critical examination of religion, but believes that naturalists need to emphasize and build positive alternatives to religion. For Kurtz, it is not enough to reject God, but to affirm the positive implications of the secular humanist perspective.