Episode 7

Through the Eyes of a Cult

March 24, 2015

Sam Harris discusses the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult and argues that we all have something important to learn from them about the power of belief.

The following videos are discussed:

Audio Transcript:

Welcome to the Making Sense podcast. This is Sam Harris.

Today I’m going to talk about cults, mostly. I’ve been in a cultish frame of mind in the last week—and getting over bronchitis, so my apologies for my voice being even raspier than it usually is. But I’ve been paying attention to cults for some reason, and I’ve focused on two that have been around for a while, Heaven’s Gate and Scientology.

I recently saw the film Going Clear based on Lawrence Wright’s book by that name. The book is well worth-reading, and the film is really a devastating takedown of Scientology. I can’t imagine it won’t do the organization lasting harm if enough people see it. It exposes how goofy L. Ron Hubbard was and how sinister his organization soon became under him and his successors. So, do see that film. It’s playing on HBO and had a theatrical release, as well.

But I’ve mostly been thinking about the Heaven’s Gate cult which, as you might recall, about 18 years ago came to the world’s attention because 39 members—including the chief member, a man named Marshall Applewhite who was known as “Doe” to his devotees—all took their lives in a mansion near San Diego. They all donned identical pairs of Nikes and drank a cocktail of phenobarbital and vodka, I believe, and then got in their bunk beds and covered themselves with purple shrouds and departed, they imagined, for a spaceship that was following in the tail of the comet Hale-Bopp. So this was a rather horrifying and peculiar news item. I think it remains the largest mass-suicide in US history, although I recall that my reaction at the time was a little less than reverential. I remember sitting on my couch watching this first footage that came out of this house, with everyone on their bunk beds with their Nikes, and hearing the voiceover announcer say, “And in their freezer, they had nothing but quart after quart of Starbuck’s Java Chip ice cream.” I remember sitting on my couch alone and saying, out loud, to myself, “Wait a minute. Starbucks makes ice cream?” And then I leapt to my feet and drove straight to the supermarket and bought some Java Chip ice cream.

So I guess we all draw from these tragedies the lessons we need at the time. Obviously I’ve become more sympathetic to the plight of these people in the intervening years, and more interested in the phenomenon of cults, and have drawn other lessons from this one. In any case, the most fascinating thing about Heaven’s Gate is that the members of this “class,” as they called it, left final video testimonies as to why they were doing what they were doing, and how satisfied they were to be doing it. And this is, of course, analogous to the video testimonies one often finds from Jihadist suicide bombers. But these people were very aware of how inscrutable their behavior was going to seem to their loved ones, and to the rest of the society in which they were living, and they really made their best effort to defend their actions if not explain them, and to simply bear witness—and demand that the world bear witness—to the psychological fact that they were absolutely unconflicted in doing what they were doing. They felt immense gratitude for the experience of living for decades with their fellow cult members with whom they’d formed an obvious bond, and for the guidance of Doe and Ti—the woman who had been his partner and died a decade earlier. These were people who, for the most part, were clearly happy and approaching their deaths with genuine enthusiasm. They were gleeful about the prospect of departing this world and arriving elsewhere in the galaxy.

So these videos are an amazing document, and I was tempted to put some audio in this podcast, but there really is no substitute for seeing the video themselves, so I will embed those on my blog. There’s about 2 hours of video—there’s additional hours of Doe himself giving his final testimony, and that’s also fascinating to watch. But the videos of the cult members are really profoundly strange and unnerving when you see just how sanguine they are about their whole project—which is, on its face, the most profligate misuse of human life imaginable. These are people who lived in total isolation, for decades, under the sway of obviously crazy ideas, depriving themselves of most of life’s experience. These are people who’d abandoned children. They’d abandoned the rest of their families, and abandoned every other human project that we might deem worthy of a person’s attention and energy, and then killed themselves in the most carefree state of mind. And it was entirely the result of what they believed about the nature of the soul, about the kingdom of heaven, about the hideous condition of this world, and about the coming apocalypse that Doe assured them was imminent and that this represented the last chance to migrate to the kingdom of heaven. If they didn’t seize it now, everything would be lost.

So these videos really are quite unique and, above all, they offer an insight into just what it is like to be totally convinced of paradise. The most shocking thing about this—well there are a few things. One is the undeniable fact that most of these people were clearly happy. You struggle to detect in their faces and in their speech some clue to their deeper psychopathology. And in many cases, I think you will come up entirely empty. Now, these people bear all the signs of having spent, as most of them had, twenty plus years living in total isolation from the world. Most of them had been part of this cult since the mid-Seventies—and this was in 1997 that they killed themselves. They all wore identical terrible haircuts and all had androgynous clothing that they buttoned up to the neck. I believe they shared all of their clothing in common, including underwear—so they had a dogma of non-attachment that was operating here that led to a kind of self-effacement at the level of their presentation. They all wore equally terrible eyeglasses, those who needed them—like they all wandered into a Lenscrafters and asked for the worst pair of glasses that could possibly be pulled out of the box. So there’s something about these people, they are misfits of a sort, and it’s tempting to imagine that they were socially marginalized to a degree that somehow explains how they were recruited into this circumstance and, therefore, how they met their end. But that’s not to say that these aren’t happy, intelligent, relatively high-functioning people who could have succeeded in other contexts in life. And I think that’s obviously true of some of them.

One thing that’s clear is that many of these people were parents who entirely abandoned their children to join Doe and Ti and submit their lives to this experiment which, when you look at the details, is rather shocking to consider. It’s shocking especially because when you listen to the teachings of Doe (you can also watch hours of video where he describes all that he knows about the workings of the universe), some of this video, at least an hour of it, is his final testament given with the full knowledge that they’re going to commit suicide in the coming days. And in watching Do’s performance here, I think you’ll also look in vain for an obvious reason why people would give their lives over to this man. A few things are conspicuous. One is the total absence of compelling intellectual content. This is not a brilliant person. He is not bowling you over with his ability to connect ideas or to turn phrases. The only clue to his powers of mesmerism is his quality of eye contact, which, as I discuss at one point in my book Waking Up, is a feature you find in gurus in general and in people who are making heroic efforts to persuade. And in Doe, this is conspicuous. The man rarely blinks. He’s looking at a camera lens for this video, but one can well imagine that this is the style of eye contact he used when talking to people directly. Maybe I’ll offer a brief digression on this topic, there’s actually a section in my book Waking Up where I talk about eye contact and I’ll just read it to you:

A person’s eyes convey a powerful illusion of inner life. The illusion is true, but it is an illusion all the same. When we look into the eyes of another human being, we seem to see the light of consciousness radiating from the eyes themselves—there is a glint of joy or judgment, perhaps. But every inflection of mood or personality—even the most basic indication that the person is alive—comes not from the eyes but from the surrounding muscles of the face. If a person’s eyes look clouded by madness or fatigue, the muscles orbicularis oculi are to blame. And if a person appears to radiate the wisdom of the ages, the effect comes not from the eyes but from what he or she is doing with them. Nevertheless, the illusion is a powerful one, and there is no question that the subjective experience of inner radiance can be communicated with the gaze.

It is not an accident, therefore, that gurus often show an unusual commitment to maintaining eye contact. In the best case, this behavior emerges from a genuine comfort in the presence of other people and deep interest in their well-being. Given such a frame of mind, there may simply be no reason to look away. But maintaining eye contact can also become a way of “acting spiritual” and, therefore, an intrusive affectation. There are also people who maintain rigid eye lock not from an attitude of openness and interest or from any attempt to appear open and interested but as an aggressive and narcissistic show of dominance. Psychopaths tend to make exceptionally good eye contact.

Whatever the motive behind it, there can be tremendous power in an unwavering gaze. Most readers will know what I’m talking about, but if you want to witness a glorious example of the assertive grandiosity that a person’s eyes can convey, watch a few interviews with Osho. I never met Osho, but I have met many people like him. And the way he plays the game of eye contact is simply hilarious.

I confess that there was a period in my life, after I first plunged into matters spiritual, when I became a nuisance in this respect. Wherever I went, no matter how superficial the exchange, I gazed into the eyes of everyone I met as though they were my long-lost lover. No doubt, many people found this more than a bit creepy. Others considered it a stark provocation. But it also precipitated exchanges with complete strangers that were fascinating. With some regularity people of both sexes seemed to become bewitched by me on the basis of a single conversation. Had I been peddling some consoling philosophy and been eager to gather students, I suspect that I could have made a proper mess of things. I definitely glimpsed the path that many spiritual imposters have taken throughout history.

Interestingly, when one functions in this mode, one quickly recognizes all the other people who are playing the same game. I had many encounters wherein I would meet the eyes of a person across the room, and suddenly we were playing War of the Warlocks: two strangers holding each other’s gaze well past the point that our primate genes or cultural conditioning would ordinarily countenance. Play this game long enough and you begin to have some very strange encounters.

I don’t remember consciously deciding to stop behaving this way, but stop I did.

In any case, I think Doe was probably a master of the unblinking gaze, and this may account for why he had the effect he had on people because, having read some of his writing, if you can call it that, and listened to him speak about his doctrine, there’s nothing in the text of what he says that should have compelled people to follow him, much less follow him into their graves. But he persuaded people to follow him with surprising suddenness. There’s an account of one of his earlier meetings, I think in the early Seventies, where something like twenty people from a single lecture dropped their lives and disappeared from Portland or Seattle or wherever this talk happened—leaving their kids, and their parents, and their friends just aghast—and followed this man into the wilderness. So something was going on. I don’t know if it was the cologne he was wearing or the way he was boring holes into people’s heads with his eyes, but the man had something that people found profoundly attractive.

So I think I should give a brief account of what Doe was teaching people. He claimed to be an extraterrestrial who inhabited his body, the body of Marshall Applewhite, at some point in adulthood. And he also claimed to be the same reincarnate personality who had been Jesus and who had gathered apostles, many of whom were now in the Heaven’s Gate class. So he had this project previously of trying to bring people to the Kingdom of Heaven, to the level above human, as the person of Jesus, but had failed because he had had the bad luck of getting crucified. And now he was back, delivering the wisdom of the ages. But now he could deliver it with a modern gloss. Now he could take into account the immensity of the cosmos and the existence of technology, like spacecraft, and now the Kingdom of Heaven was a place elsewhere in the physical universe that could be reached by dying at this most opportune time. Originally he had suggested that spaceships would actually land on earth and physically take people to this intergalactic space station where the level above human was being lived out by aliens, but since the spaceships didn’t land—and they had waited for years and years for spaceships to land—but since they didn’t, now the way to get to the space ship, which was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp, was to die and to leave the physical body. And all of these years of living in isolation was a preparation for the soul to take its place in this kingdom above human.

These were the teachings from the beginning. I don’t think suicide was ever spoken of in the beginning because, again, they expected aliens to land and spirit them away on flying saucers. But death was often talked about as a possible way to get to the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, cult members talked about hoping to provoke their own assassinations. In how they represented the teachings in front of fundamentalist Christians, they hoped that Christians would find their views so offensive that they would kill them and then engineer their escape to the next level. And Doe and Ti talked often—they believed that they were the two witnesses from the book of Revelation, and they thought that they would be martyred and brought to the Kingdom of Heaven that way. So death was always kind of working in the background and the idea was simply to live life in such a way as to divorce oneself from all human (“mammalian,” as he put it) appetites and prepare the soul to take a non-human form, on a spaceship.

What I think is so interesting about this phenomenon and what can be seen so clearly by looking at these tapes is the role that belief played in driving this behavior. This behavior is totally uninterpretable but for the beliefs that these people espouse—and, given these beliefs, it seems to make rather clear sense. Looking at these tapes is a corrective to the crazy denials we hear from so many journalists and pseudo-journalists and social scientists and politicians about the link between belief and action in a religious context. So many people talk about religious beliefs as though they do not lead to behavior, that they’re somehow different from other sorts of beliefs—but of course we must know this isn’t true. And yet so many people pretend to know otherwise. Well, you can’t pretend here. There’s nothing apart from belief—no other variable explains this behavior.  What these people did was as straightforward as going to the candy store, given what they believed.

So these exit interviews are a kind of microscope for the relevant psychology here, and when you map this on to the phenomenon of jihadism—in particular the kind of suicide bombing we see throughout the Muslim world—then the centrality of belief becomes obvious. And all of the obscurantism coming from people like Scott Atran and Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan stands revealed for what it is, a denial of the obvious. One can view cults as a kind of lens through which to view the phenomenon of the true believer. Of course, every religion is a kind of cult which just has more subscribers. That’s how we differentiate cults from religions. If you have millions of subscribers, you are a religion. If you have thousands—or, in this case, 40—then you are a cult.

Now, it’s true that being in a tiny minority, and having to set yourself in opposition to the rest of your culture and to the religion of your birth, will tend to select for the truest of the true believers—the most credulous and most committed people. So cult members have, almost by definition, something in common with what we call “religious extremists” in the context of a religion. The buy-in is greater for a cult. To drop everything for a religion focused on UFOs, as was the case for Heaven’s Gate, takes a certain kind of person. And when you look at these people, you see some of the aberration of all of that. These are like the most fanatical people at a Star Trek convention who also happen to believe in the rapture. The Venn Diagram of cognitive commitments here is Trekky and people who took the Left Behind novels seriously. But you also should also remember that you’re watching people who are about to die. These are people who are planning to commit suicide in the next few days and they’re telling you why and they’re telling you how this fits into their worldview. And it is fascinating to see and quite tragic when you think about how these people used their lives—when you think of the children and the parents, and the other family members they abandoned—and when you finally grok the fact that these weren’t all mentally ill people. They were merely in the grip of specific ideas.

What’s interesting about the behavior of this group of people, in fact, is that up until they killed themselves what they were doing was not that far from things that I’ve done (at least for months at a time, never for years). During my twenties, I spent about two years on silent meditation retreats in increments of up to three months and these were without question some of the most productive and valuable months of my life. And the best meditation teachers that I ever studied with were people who had truly spent decades in isolation, in some cases twenty years in a cave. So it’s not isolation itself that is synonymous with the wastage of one’s life. What one believes one is doing in isolation matters a lot. If you go into isolation for a year, and you hole yourself up in an apartment in some city with a dozen Barbie dolls and think that by the power of your concentration on these objects you’re going to turn them into real little girls—okay, you’re just a crazy pervert. Isolation can obviously become a circumstance of unethical delusion. In the case of Heaven’s Gate, it was clearly a circumstance of delusion. All of their discipline was anchored to the project of attenuating their humanity so fully that they would be welcome aboard a spaceship. And part of this project was consummated by the men by going to Tijuana and having themselves castrated. Eight of the men in this group, including Doe, the leader, had themselves castrated so that they could best resist the siren song of their own endocrine system and forget about sexuality altogether. And because of what they believed about the soul and where they were going after the death of their bodies, they felt truly lucky to be who they were. They were leaving a sinking ship and felt compassion for all of the confused people like ourselves who didn’t have the good sense to get off it.

But the horror, of course, is that they were wrong. Their beliefs were almost certainly false in every respect, and this is the horror of religion generally. This is the horror of Islamism and jihadism. And, again, what is central to the phenomenon—the thing that makes it horrible and yet so captivating to true believers—is this promise of paradise. It’s the idea that most of what is good in any individual’s existence is the part that comes after death. That is really the claim that, just, leeches all of the value out of this world.

For instance, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, wrote on the side of the boat where he was finally captured, “Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that?” That’s what we’re dealing with, this expectation of paradise.

I recently read an interview with a former ISIS fighter who spoke about the same thing. He talked about being motivated by his concern for the afterlife, which he called “the surest part of life.” The surest part of life. Paradise is the thing that you can most count on. It is the repository of most value. But, of course, it’s not the surest part of life at all. It’s at best an hypothesis, founded on nothing. But this is exactly the sentiment you get from the Heaven’s Gate members. They’re talking about how happy they will be when they finally get to the level above human, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Look at what is going on in the Middle East—look at the behavior of a group like ISIS, look at the Western recruits who, by the thousands, are coming to fight alongside these guys, and recognize that, whatever the diversity of their backgrounds, whatever the variables we are told account for this behavior, simply realize that these people also believe what they say they believe, and that belief, in their case too, is the primary driver of behavior. These people, who in the case of ISIS are murdering apostates and seeking to murder vast numbers of their enemies, are just as eager to die, just as unconflicted about the apparent misuse of their lives in this world, just as expectant of eternity as the class members of Heaven’s Gate were. And when you have that epiphany, you’ll be in a position to see how confused most people are by current events.

So much of what passes for an analysis of Islamism and jihadism, at this moment, skates across this psychological fact, or denies it outright, looking for other reasons for the phenomenon. And whatever contributions these other reasons might make—whatever contributions U.S. foreign policy, or the legacy of colonialism, or the lack of integration of Muslims in Western Europe might play—the basic fact, the fact at the core of the phenomenon, held and held deeply, is the belief in paradise. The belief that death is an illusion and that this world, therefore, can be forsaken—in fact, its purpose is to be forsaken.  Unless one has some countervailing philosophy that demands a truly ethical engagement with this world, a belief in paradise makes a person capable of anything. Nothing can go wrong. You can blow up crowds of children, and you’re doing them a favor. That’s what makes this type of religious certainty so terrifying.

But the impulse to deny its power—to deny that it is even operating—is more terrifying still. In lying about the motivations of these people, we are sleepwalking towards a precipice. Perhaps it’s time we all woke up.