The recent suicides of the Heaven's Gate 39 met with nothing but horror, condemnation and ridicule from the American media and public. Time issues a special report — “Inside the Web of Death”; the Sheriff in charge is upset that he can't find anything to charge them with — or anyone left alive to charge; Jay Leno and Letterman make stupid, insensitive jokes; blurred and ghastly photos of Applewhite, the Cult's leader, adorn the covers of magazines and serious warnings about cults, recalling Jonestown and Waco, are issued by writers advising anxious parents to beware of sinister influences on their young. Stressed are Applewhite's homosexuality and the fact that some of the cult members were castrated. (The sex angle — even in a group that tried to overcome sexuality.)
One would think from all this fuss that no American should conceive of believing the nonsensical idea that people are more than their bodies and that after death they go on to a higher plane. And that to reach a state of elevated being, they should subdue their more animalistic urgings.
Yet this is what forms the basis of most religions — a denial of death, a belief that humans enjoy an afterlife, and that somehow, whether by virtue, the performance of certain rituals, or mere faith, they will somehow escape their inevitable mortality and spend eternity in a heaven of bliss. For Eternal Life is the tenet of most religions, and castration or chastity has been the goal of ascetics ever since religion theory has been recorded.
Before voicing horror or scorn over the voluntary deaths of people who believed that by dying they could transform themselves into higher beings and enter heaven in a spaceship in the wake of Hale-Bopp's comet, perhaps we ought to compare their beliefs with those of our established religions:
Some believe we rise up intact from the grave and ascend to Heaven en masse on Judgment Day. This bizarre concept is held by some Christians even today. Reincarnationists hold the weird belief that their souls will somehow be transferred to other living beings, animal or human, after death. Taoists once believed that when they died they would enter an afterlife ruled by a fairy queen or by a Jade Emperor. Confucians worship their ancestors.
Religion has also given us some pretty strange rituals. Human and animal sacrifices. Commemoration of the death of a god through virtual cannibalism. Circumcision. Long, enervating fasts. Self-flagellation. Peculiar prohibitions of certain foods, clothes and even hairstyles. The presumed ability to atone for a community's sins by transferring them to animals or human scapegoats.
Before we condemn or deride the beliefs held by “cults,” people should read more about the established religions we hold in such a reverence.
Religions are one of the prime causes behind the bloodiest chapters in mankind's history. Not just in the days of the Inquisition or the Crusades, or in bygone persecutions of non-believers and bloodbaths against dissenters, but up to the present day in Ireland, Bosnia, and Cyprus and elsewhere.
Ever since man became conscious of self and aware of his eventual death; ever since he has failed to acknowledge that his mind is incapable of understanding nature, whether in his environment or in himself, he has created myths to explain the inexplicable. He invented gods, rituals and laws and visualizes heavens and hells for his own ends. Under it all is an atavistic, tribal mentality terrified of death and of anything that threatens his familiar idols — his “way of life.”
Differences between cults and religions are hard to define. Some cults which practice celibacy, like the Shakers, eventually die out. (Which is what would have happened to the Heaven's Gate group had they waited long enough.) Others, like Islam, Judaism and Christianity increase their numbers only to later split off into various schisms and denominations that sometimes fight each other as fiercely as if they had different origins.
They are all The One True Faith, and, except for the occasional pacifistic groups they contain, they will kill anyone who thinks otherwise.
Perhaps the easiest way to distinguish a cult from a religion is that it doesn't have respectability, millions of followers, elaborate places of worship, real estate, political influence or tax-free status.
(I heard that another way to tell a cult from a religion is that a cult doesn't have a university or a football team.)