Death at Heaven's Gate can shake your faith in God

The age of relativism is deeply unsettling for those of us in the Church of England, or in the Roman Catholic Church
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The Independent Online
The mass suicide in San Diego 10 days ago of 38 members of a cult known as Heaven's Gate was a disturbing event. What are the conditions in which cults proliferate?

Looking at the United States, one finds the most striking aspect is that the country has developed a remarkable diversity of faiths. While 19 out of 20 Americans believe in God, a higher proportion than in western Europe, they practise their faith through more than 2,000 different religions. In the area of New Mexico where the Heaven's Gate cult was based, before moving to California last October, there was also a Hindu retreat, a centre for Russian mysticism, a surrealist enclave, a Sufi Foundation for those who practise Islamic mysticism, and New Age encampments for what locals call "burned-out people".

The reasons for this riotous growth in religions are clear enough. Unlike European countries, the United States was founded on principles that specifically excluded the notion of a state religion. In American history there has been no national church and thus nothing comparable to the Church of England, or to the position of the Catholic church in France before 1789 and in Italy and Spain until recent times.

Immigrants into the United States brought their varying religious traditions along with their baggage; indeed, some made the journey precisely to escape persecution in their native lands. As a result, a religious marketplace has developed in which all the world's major faiths compete for members with each other and with minority beliefs. There is choice. When Europeans lose their faith, often nothing fills the void. Americans seem to shop around. In these circumstances, cults, however strange, can flourish. Anything goes. About 100 of America's religions have an interest in flying saucers. Members of the Heaven's Gate group believed that tucked in behind the Hale-Bopp comet now streaking across the sky was a spacecraft that would take them to the "level above human".

In this way the US already fulfils the Vatican's most dire forecasts. In a new analysis, Cardinal Ratzinger, who is responsible for faith and doctrine, says that we have entered an age of relativism. Whatever is proposed as a universal truth or a norm of general application is, he argues, viewed as dogmatic, authoritarian and contrary to two criteria claimed as infallible - tolerance and pluralism. Such a development weakens the message of Christianity, which is, by definition, universal.

If the Catholic Church, with its doctrines and sacraments, has only a relative value, the Cardinal asks, is not Christianity reduced to a type of humanism? On this reading, Jesus Christ becomes merely a religious genius among others, a view reinforced by the contemporary interest in the Jesus of history (of which AN Wilson's recent books on Jesus and on St Paul are a current example). In these circumstances, notes the Cardinal, to announce one's faith in the divinity of a single man becomes almost a sign of "fundamentalism" or of "fanaticism". Cardinal Ratzinger concludes by reflecting on Christianity's "fantastic loss of direction", which is demonstrated by the proliferation of different blends of Christian belief in Latin America, Africa and Asia, by the decline in regular attendance in the West, by the sheer gap between the Church's teaching and today's morality, and by the growing claim among the faithful for autonomy of conscience and behaviour.

In describing the age of relativism, the Cardinal is surely right. The United States is showing us the future so far as religious belief is concerned. Immigrant communities in western Europe have also brought their religions with them and, so to speak, have opened up the market. Buddhism has a growing appeal. Surveys show that young people are sceptical of traditional Christian teaching. Charismatic, or "happy clappy" versions of established religions are relatively successful. There is also a growing interest in astrology.

In this light, fundamentalism is a defence against plurality. Indeed, cults themselves can be as strict as a monastery. Adherents to Heaven's Gate were not allowed to watch television or read anything but the Bible. At one point members had to wear gloves at all times and communicate through written messages, with speech limited to "yes", "no" and "I don't know". A former member is quoted as saying that the group had a "procedure for every conscious moment of life".

To find oneself, in the Cardinal's phrase, in an age of relativism, is not new. In the ancient world, as the Olympian deities of the Greek pantheon lost their attraction, cults multiplied. AN Wilson points out that religions (except Judaism) were mutually tolerant of one another. Worshippers were eclectic, moving from one shrine to another without the slightest feeling of inconsistency. And, as a matter of fact, we can find examples of most of the features of Heaven's Gate in the ancient world. The priests who served the fertility goddess, Cybele, were eunuchs, as were eight of the male members of Heaven's Gate, whose castration had been carried out, according to the San Diego police, with satisfactory surgical skill. The followers of Orphism regarded the body as a prison or tomb, since it imprisoned the divine spark; likewise the leader of Heaven's Gate wrote that "bodies were merely the temporary container for the soul". As one of the cult members remarked on the farewell videotape, bodies are like automobiles and when they finally "wear out and conk out ... you ... go and get another car ... I mean that's all we're talking about. It's not a big deal".

It is a big deal for everybody else, for relatives and friends and for the rest of us. Regrettably, adults are free to give away all their possessions, cut every family tie and join a cult. They commit no crime. Society can only look on, helpless. The age of relativism is also deeply unsettling for believers in the established religions, for those who are members, as I am, of the Church of England, or of the Roman Catholic Church. It is one thing to have doubts, to waver between belief and complete disbelief. It is quite another to be faced with mix 'n' match versions of religion and with a decline into humanism, which has all the strength of weak tea. I want neither cults nor watered-down faith.

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