By Robert Marquand and Daniel B. Wood, writers of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Mass-suicides by cults espousing a "spiritual" vision may come out of the darker skies of the news like an awful, unexpected comet.
The 39 suicides in San Diego by what experts are calling a "UFO cult" may be one grisly outcome of a growing subculture of gnostic and millennial cults worldwide.
Experts point to several forces driving the trend, including a sense of alienation among many of today's youths, a need for belonging, and a search for meaning. It often all coalesces around one powerful charismatic leader who espouses a "vision." Some of these groups may increasingly "act out" their visions as 2000 approaches. "As we approach the millennium, we are going to see more and more groups whose interpretation of the apocalypse is either confrontational or suicidal," says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass. The final actions taken by the San Diego group, in fact, may be tied to comet Hale-Bopp - with cult members believing their deaths would transport them to a starship trailing the comet, which has been visible in the night skies since January. The San Diego suicides, as with the recent Solar Temple cult and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, are another public study in the power of suggestion among humans in groups, say experts. These incidents illustrate the lengths to which people will go to sacrifice in the service of an idea they feel is religious or spiritual. "It is a lesson again to all of us in how strongly the power of what we believe can be enforced by those around us," says Allen Stone, an expert on law and psychiatry at Harvard University, who studied the Branch Davidians. "It shows how our ability to separate truth from the beliefs of the group are often fragile." While there are some 5,000 estimated cults in the US, many more than during the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide of 900 people, the San Diego group, whose computer Web page is known as www.Higher Source, is part of a growing New Age cultic strain tied to belief in higher beings that are living and traveling in space and making contact with humans on Earth. Since the 1950s, an increasing number of people have come to believe that UFOs are real and that aliens are in regular contact with humans, even conducting experiments on them, or helping to guide them into more enlightened states of being, says Richard Lucas, editor of Nova Religio, a journal in Deland, Fla., on alternative religious movements. Enormously popular new TV shows such as the "X Files," "Millennium," and "Dark Skies" - many with their own quasi-cultic following - show the power of new narratives in American culture that highlight struggles on Earth between celestial forces of light and dark, and visions of aliens or higher beings among humans. "It's very much something drawn from a generation fed by 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars,' " says David Reed, professor of pastoral theology at the University of Toronto, who has studied the cults. "The people in these cults have had their world view altered. They have reconstructed a spiritual world that draws from popular culture." UFO or celestial cult believers often move in and out of fringe Christian groups or radical political, technological, and militia movements. Some are tied to a strong belief in an apocalyptic "end time." From the time members, who are often intelligent and competent, enter a cult, they achieve a special status as part of a spiritual family which has access to hidden or revealed "wisdom" that is unavailable to other members of the human race. Higher Source, for example, referred to its members as "brothers" and "sisters." Cut off from normal daily contact outside the cult, adherents are heavily influenced by peer pressure. …