On this day in 1931, Marshall Applewhite was born. I suspect you don’t know the name, but the photo on the left probably gives it away. He was the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult and the guy who organized the group’s memorable mass suicide in 1997. I learned a lot while reading about him. We mostly have the wrong idea about Heaven’s Gate. Because of the tennis shoes and the whole thing about Comet Hale–Bopp and the spaceship that was following it, people think that it was some kind of nerd cult. But it was really just a garden variety end times belief system. Like most cults, it combined a lot of different elements, including lots of Christianity — especially from Revelation.
What I find most interesting is what these kinds of cults say about all of our searches for meaning and the ways in which our society does not provide much nourishment in that regard. I just read Neil Postman’s excellent, The End of Education. Unlike most books about education, it isn’t about “how”; it is about “why.” And in our approach education, just as in our approach to life, we don’t have much to say in terms of “why.”
The American (and increasingly the world) notion of a meaningful life doesn’t offer much. It’s pretty much what Schopenhauer discussed in The World as Will and Idea: “momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium [everyone against everyone], everything a hunter and everything hunted, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum [forever and ever] or until once again the crust of the planet breaks.” Is it any wonder that people grab onto simplistic life narratives about asceticism leading a pure existence in a science fiction nirvana?
I don’t see Applewhite as an evil man. I think he was as lost as his followers. But in a sense, they were not as lost as much of society. They rejected the hollowness of the American Dream. But they replaced it with something even more hollow: nihilism. It’s sad. Just the same, I can’t feel too superior. Until today, about the only thing I knew about them was that they died wearing Nike™ shoes. It’s a fitting, if ironic, testament to their rejection of the world that we mostly remember them for their brand loyalty.
Happy birthday Marshall Applewhite.