Mass Media Bunk is a commentary on articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.
By now everyone has heard of the suicides by 39 members of a UFO cult known as "Heaven's Gate," but sure to be deemed the Comet Cult by the media. The news reports focus on the cult's "weird" beliefs in such things as space ships trailing the Hale-Bopp comet coming to pick up the cult members and take them to a "higher level." This is reported with a straight face during Easter week, when millions of people around the world will be commemorating the death of God by crucifixion and his resurrection into heaven after three days in the tomb.
The cult's leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite, 65, was among the dead. His cult was a part of the UFO cult phenomenon, and apparently took the side of those who believe the aliens are good and here to help us. The other side believes the aliens are evil and busy abducting humans and mutilating cows. Applegate's group apparently wasn't taking any chances, though, for each member was insured for a million bucks against alien abduction.
"We came from the Level of Above Human in distant space and we have now exited the bodies that we were wearing for our earthly task, to return to the world from whence we came -- task completed." So reads a note allegedly left behind. But news reports note that the group, which made much of its money by designing web pages and which maintained its own web site, had posted a position against suicide. That is not quite true. They posted a message entitled "Our Position Against Suicide," but in that message they speak favorably of the mass suicide of Jews at Masada in 73 A.D. and claim that "The true meaning of "suicide" is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered." The 39 dead believed that they were being offered a trip to the "next level" in a space ship. Is that belief truly any more bizarre than belief in Jesus as God or in the resurrection of the body? I don't think so, but during this Easter season don't expect any major news organization to make this claim.
Also, the news reports already have noted that Heaven's Gate felt a union with the people killed at Waco and with the Montana Militia movement, mainly because they hated the government and were persecuted for it. Will any comparison be made with historical Christianity, Judaism or any other religion on this count? The idea that the body is just a vehicle or shell, that this life is just preparation for the next life, that worldly kingdoms are inferior to the City of God, etc., are not new ideas, nor is the idea that celibacy is a morally superior way to deal with one's sexuality and humanity. The nihilism expressed in the belief system of the Heaven's Gate cult is no different from the nihilism expressed in early Christianity and which has resurrected itself many times throughout history. St. Augustine, one of the great Christian apologists for the notion of a City of God distinct from a City of Man, was also called upon to write an essay against suicide to keep devoted Christians from killing themselves in order to get into the next world. Will our journalists note the similarities between some of the fundamental beliefs of these cult members and the beliefs of members of mainstream religions? Don't count on it. (Actually, an article in the Sacramento Bee did note some fundamental similarities between traditional Christian belief and the beliefs of the Heaven's Gate cult. However, the article was quick to note that Christianity should be considered superior because it has lasted a long time and has a large following. The same argument has been made for the validity of astrology and a flat earth.)
Of course, the main difference between the Heaven's Gate believers and mainstream religionists is the use of suicide to get out of here. That act ends not just their lives, but their cult. As one of my students so eloquently, if unintentionally, put it: suicide is self-defeating. It is said they killed themselves with a lethal cocktail of pills and alcohol. In truth, they were killed by a cocktail whose main ingredients are religion, New Age non-sense and science fiction. In themselves, religion, New Age metaphysics and science fiction are harmless enough, and even beneficial to some people, as they provide them with amusement and meaning. Given to people alienated from their society, however, this mixture can be lethal.
Finally, I may have to reconsider my belief that Scientology is not a religion. Perhaps all religions began as amusements, as bizarre tales of miracles and heroes from other worlds. The storytellers and mythmakers knew their tales were fictions and for amusement only, but perhaps some people came to take them literally and built creeds, rituals and dogmas around the stories. All that would be needed to turn a campfire amusement into a religion would be a charismatic leader. The wildest science fiction could become sacred dogma. Communal reinforcement of the alienated, and devotion to their leader, would keep the group together and, if not too kooky, allow it to expand. (Kooky, of course, is an extremely relative term.) Perhaps a cult creating dogmatic delusions out of the fabric of television programs such as Star Trek and other fantasy and science fiction amusements is not so strange after all.
Postscript [4-18-97]: Actually, it has turned out that a significant amount of mass media coverage of this cult has compared it to other religions in just the ways I predicted it would not. In fact, there has been a reaction by some in the media to the "religion bashing" of liberals. Frank Rich, in a commentary in the New York Times, expresses this reaction in a piece called "When religion is mind control." He thinks that too much focus has been put on the belief system of the cult and not enough on the charismatic leader and the methods of mind control practiced by this and other "true" cults (as opposed to "true" religions, which, I gather, he thinks do not use mind control). What this mind control consists of, apparently, is stripping the individual of his or her sense of individuality; isolating him or her from the rest of the world so that he or she can express beliefs in rote fashion but can't express a personal opinion about anything.
I don't know, but my reading of the Bible has Jesus telling his followers that he will divide father from son and mother from daughter, brother from sister, etc. His followers have been willing to die for him to gain eternal bliss in heaven. Islam has many stories of devout muslims willing to die for Allah. Other "real" religions have similar tales to tell. If these cult characters are brainwashed, then so are the devout followers of mainstream religions.
April 8, 1997. Montel Williams in probably one of the most shameless displays of gullibility or dishonesty (hard to tell which) by a talk show host, hosted for the duration of his show (broadcast here in Atlanta,GA on Tuesday April 8, 1997) 'World Reknowned Psychic' Sylvia Browne. Throughout the show, Ms. Browne answered questions from members of the audience about the whereabouts of missing loved ones, financial future, and thoughts of dead loved ones. At one point in the show a woman asked Ms. Browne to solve the mystery of her 'haunted house'. Thank goodness, Ms. Browne was able to point out that the ghoul who haunted this woman's house had been brought in by a toy!!! Most amazing about the show, was not Ms. Browne's supposed ability, but that among the studio audience, not one question was of a skeptical nature, not one! Furthermore, Williams did not have on a representative of the opposing side on (something which is customary on some of the better more credible talk shows). One must wonder if Williams saturated the audience with only people who uncritically accepted psychic phenomena, or he edited the final product. At the end of the show a list of Ms. Browne's future lecture appearances was shown.
[submitted by Daniel Bredy]
Oct. 11, 1996. USA Weekend Magazine, "America's Religious Mosaic," by Bill Moyers, who is quickly establishing himself as the PBS guru for pseudoscience (Chinese medicine) and religion (first, Joseph Campbell, and now his "Genesis: A Living Conversation"), though he has a long way to go to catch up to Deepak Chopra. Mr. Moyers is seen smiling against a religious mosaic backdrop on the cover of USA Weekend, which proclaims THE RESURGENCE OF FAITH. In bold letters at the head of the article, Moyers is quoted as saying "Religion is breaking out everywhere." Imagine, an epidemic of religion! What a concept! The Gallup Organization is brought in to back up the claim that religion is spreading like wildfire. However, in what has become all too common among pollsters, Gallup reports not just on whether people are practicing a religion, but on whether we think the influence of religion is increasing. The percentage of Americans who say the influence of religion is increasing has gone up 12% in the last three years. But, despite the claims of religion's growth, the facts don't bear out the hype. The article itself gives the data for "estimated membership of principal religions in the USA & Canada" as rising 4.8% between 1990 and 1995 (from 249.7 million to 261.7 million). The population of the USA & Canada rose about 5.8% during that time (from about 277 million to about 293 million). So, if the numbers for religious membership is correct, membership has not even kept pace with population increase. Also, the article itself states that weekly attendance of religious services has stayed about the same for the past thirty years: at about 40%. If fewer than half the population attend a religious service at least once a week and religious membership isn't even keeping up with population increases, it seems a bit of an exaggeration to claim that there is "resurgence of religion in America," as Moyers does.
Robert Todd Carroll
|Last updated 09/02/08|