The suicides of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate sect, motivated by the believe that their deaths would result in their salvation by a spaceship tailing a comet, has prompted condemnation by followers of conventional religions. Christian ministers warn that salvation is possible only through Jesus and not through astrally hitching a ride on a flying saucer. It is important, however, to take a rational look at all supernatural belief systems and to retain critical thinking even when one's own beliefs come under scrutiny.
The essential belief of Christian fundamentalism is that regardless of how good a person you are, you will go to hell forever if you don't believe in Jesus. This means that my mother, a Hungarian Jewish Auschwitz survivor who did not believe in Jesus, is now in hell. Yet if Hitler, before he died, had made a sincere decision that Jesus was his savior, he would now be in heaven.
With all due respect to my Christian friends, the notion that good people who reject Jesus are damned but evil people who finally accept Jesus are saved is much more pernicious and much more of an affront to basic principles of justice and fair play than the idea that some UFO is waiting to whisk us away to a better life after we die. I remember hearing the Rev. Billy Graham say on countless occasions that goodness alone, without Jesus, cannot save a person, I always wanted to ask him why his God is such an egomaniac as to care more about whom we worship than how we treat each other.
Many people who ridicule the beliefs of the Heaven's Gate followers take the Bible to be literally true. They scoff at the belief that a spaceship was waiting to pick up the souls of the 39 suicides but readily accept that there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden. They uncritically believe that God turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt for doing no more than observing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
However crazy their beliefs were, the Heaven's Gate devotees apparently did not have the same hateful prejudices against other human beings as does the New Testament. In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, Paul says that Jews are displeasing to God. There is also no evidence that the followers of Marshall Applewhite were into the same kind of child abuse that the Old Testament condones. In Deuteronomy 21:18-21, parents of a stubborn and rebellious sons are commanded to have him stoned to death.
When a follower of one religion condemns the differing spiritual practices of another, that person is saying, "My unprovable beliefs are superior to your unprovable beliefs."
Believers in conventional religious dogma conveniently ignore that most of the alleged miracles stopped at least 2,000 years ago. Why not shore up the faith of us moderns by having the sun stand still for a day or having some modern Moses part a few oceans? Miracles that happened a long time ago need to be repeated today under verifiable conditions. After all, there was no CBS affiliate in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago to declare: "Jesus resurrects; film at 11."
Humankind has always had a problem with irrational supernatural believers. Whether it is through salvation through UFO or salvation through some invisible and unproven god, it is time that we, as a rational beings on the threshold of the 21st century, begin to reexamine all of superstitious beliefs, be they those of New Age sects or those of conventional religion.
Edward Tabash, a Beverly Hills lawyer, is Chair of the Outreach Committee for the Center for Inquiry - West, the Southern California Branch of the Council of Secular Humanism.
L.A. Times, April 4, 1997