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Cult Culture

By Gloria Mitchell   April 2, 1997

This past Saturday, the Comet Hale-Bopp Home Page at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab topped 1.2 million hits; the rush of interest is presumably due in part to the fact that lots of people have now gotten a chance to see Hale-Bopp, but it's probably attributable, too, to the association between the recent mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. and the belief that the comet is associated with some sort of spaceship traveling our solar system.

Granted, it doesn't seem terribly logical to conceive of a UFO trailing Hale-Bopp, much less to associate such a UFO with eternal salvation. Of all the things a UFO could do, following a comet around some remote solar system seems awfully dull. I mean, if humans could travel the cosmos, what would we be doing? We'd want to jet around at warp factor nine, getting in trouble and looking for attractive, sexually compatible alien life forms. We'd be like intergalactic mall rats.

Even if there are aliens out there who are a bit more mature, who drive Volvo spaceships and always floss between their tentacles before bedtime, I can't imagine they'd go to the trouble of plucking assorted souls off the surfaces of every podunk planet they happened to come across.

But logic, of course, is beside the point. There's no questioning the motives of extraterrestrial saviors. Like Santa Claus, or like just about anyone in whom we wish to believe, they care deeply about us, know all about our transgressions and triumphs, and have the power to pass judgment and confer rewards. So many people operate on similar beliefs that it wouldn't be fair to single out the UFO crowd as a bunch of wackos just on that count.

When a group of them commits mass suicide, though, the wacko factor zooms. Beliefs about UFOs and aliens start to seem terribly dangerous when it looks like they have the power to make people kill themselves. Indeed, with something so extraordinary, and scary, as the discovery of 39 suicide victims, anything associated with it starts to look menacing--including the Internet.

The Heaven's Gate group had a Web site, posted to newsgroups and ran a business concern in Internet consulting. Given those associations, we can expect the wacko factor of the Net to climb in coming weeks, with news magazines running sidebars detailing the horrors of the Internet as cult recruiting ground.

The possibility that cults can draw members over the Internet is a selling point for Cybersitter, but I'm hoping that everyone else will have the sense not to get too hung up on the connection. If the Internet's going to bear a share of the blame every time someone with a Web site does something weird, it's going to look very sinister very soon.

After all, the Branch Davidians have an official Web site. So do the Scientologists and the Moonies. On the other hand, there are also plenty of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Muslims, Jews and Baha'is online. (The Presbyterians even have Shockwave.)

And really, the fact that so many faiths and philosophies can be broadcast to the world without the expense of printing up tracts or buying TV time is pretty cool. We've already heard from the richest proselytizers around (certainly Pat Robertson doesn't have any trouble getting his message across). It's refreshing to read religious views from some other perspectives, even when (maybe especially when) they are, by their own admissions, wackos.

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