Drawing on Cowan and Bromley’s concept of the ‘unseen order’, discuss the teachings and practices of two or more groups this trimester. How significant is the 'unseen order' to the groups' teachings and wider reception?
According to Cowan and Bromley, the unseen order is an important aspect of many, if not all, religions including New Religious Movements (NRMs). While the fact it is 'unseen' leaves its meaning open to some level of interpretation, it is possible to speculate on its existence by examining the teachings and practices of any given religion. In this essay I will examine what I believe the unseen order is, for both Scientology and Heaven's Gate, as well as its significance for these two religions. With respect to the unseen order I will discuss how it affects the teachings and practices of the Church of Scientology and Heaven's Gate as well as its influence on the wider reception of these two NRMs. Throughout the essay I will provide examples of how Heaven's Gate and Scientology are similar in some respects and how they differ in others.
Foremost, it would be impossible to begin this essay without first describing in detail what the 'unseen order' is. As Cowan and Bromley note, "William James defined 'the life of religion' as 'the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto'." In other words, the unseen order is the aspect of religious life which determines one's perceived sense of goodness. In my opinion it also involves belief in something beyond 'normal reality' that is mysterious and cannot be measured by scientific means. Its existence and belief thereof, is what forms the practices and behaviours of the group, regardless of whether those beliefs are accepted by members of general society. Belief in an unseen order can be a private matter but when shared or accepted by others, forms the foundation of a religion. According to Cowan and Bromley, the common vision of an unseen order has an important impact that manifests in two ways: 1) It motivates the way believers behave and how a religion is formed. This then provides an interpretation of life and an explanation of one's supreme goodness within the order. 2) It connects a religious group via their established practices and behaviours in ways that are undeniably meaningful and real to the practitioner and their fellow adherents.
Heaven's Gate is a New Religious Movement that was formed by Bonnie Lu Nettles (Ti) and Marshall Applewhite (Do). Founded in 1972 and culminating in the planned suicide of its 39 members in March 1997, the unseen order of Heaven's Gate involved many teachings and practices as well as a belief in extra-terrestrial dimensions. Patricia L. Goerman describes the belief system of Heaven's Gate thus: "In its maturity, the group's belief system essentially stated that the leaders of the group, Bo and Peep, or Ti and Do as they were later known, were sent to the 'Human Level' from the 'Next Level' to prepare and guide prospective candidates through their journey into this higher evolutionary existence." That is to say, being human was perceived by Heaven's Gate as a lesser evolutionary state and what general society might refer to as aliens are, according to this religion, more evolved beings.
Goerman further explains that for Heaven's Gate parishioners, its founders, Nettles (Ti) and Applewhite (Do), were individuals who held personal lineage with Jesus Christ. They believed that Jesus was a former member of what Heaven's Gate called the Evolutionary Level Beyond Human (also called the Next Level) and that, Ti and Do, were his successors. According to the teachings of Heaven's Gate, the Next Level was a physical plane wherein members would no longer be human and would instead inhabit a non-gender Next Level Body that was devoid of digestive or reproductive organs. Furthermore, adherents of Heaven's Gate believed that UFOs were real and were piloted by Next Level beings, who were misinterpreted as aliens. In addition, the unseen order of Heaven's Gate included the conviction that some members of society had been implanted by Next Level beings and that was what drew them to Heaven's Gate. In other words, they were a chosen few. There were various ways in which a belief in this unseen order manifested. One of the more significant was in a Heaven's Gate practice called "The Process".
The Process was the means by which participants would become prepared and therefore able to enter the Evolutionary Level Above Human. Irrespective of whether they had received an implant or not, members worked through a series of set questions that resulted in deprogramming which minimised the 'negative' traits of judgement, criticism and sexuality, in preparation for life in the next realm. They referred to their parish as The Classroom as it required one to learn how to shed their old beliefs and behaviours in favour of a genderless, sexless, non-judgemental identity that was considered to be indicative of Next Level beings. All of this may sound far-fetched, but some of the concepts of the unseen order of Heaven's Gate are mirrored in the Church of Scientology.
Officially founded in 19546 by Lafayette Ron Hubbard (L. Ron Hubbard), Scientology, according to its official website, "Is a religion that offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and one’s relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Supreme Being." This explanatory statement already gives rise their unseen order. Namely that there is a Supreme Being and various planes of existence including the physical and spiritual. As with Heaven's Gate, the existence of Scientology relied on people adhering to the work of its founder. According to Cowan and Bromley, " Without Hubbard the Church of Scientology would not exist." The principles and philosophies put forth by Hubbard, are based on his definition of Scientology which is: "Knowing how to know." This omnipotent understanding is the aim of the unseen order; to obtain a deep understanding of the self. However, as with every unseen order, its existence relies on the beliefs and practices being accepted by its majority members.
Claiming to have millions of members, the unseen order of Scientology rests on a belief that the mind is at the core of all human suffering and that by clearing one's past-life experiences, practitioners can reach the ultimate level of 'Operating Thetan', which could be likened to the Next Level state of Heaven's Gate. Just as with Heaven's Gate, Scientology believes we would be better off with a general cleansing of human nature's ills. For Heaven's Gate that included sexuality, criticism and gender, for the Scientology community it refers to war, crime, drugs and prejudice9. As with the Heaven's Gate "Process", the unseen order of Scientology is rooted in a practice called "Auditing". Auditing involves being asked a series of pre-set questions with the objective of deleting past psychological memories in order to become free from human and social conditioning and become what Scientologists refer to as "Clear". The "Process" of Heaven's Gate and "Auditing" of Scientology are motivated by the same purpose: to remove what is perceived to be one's humanness which is understood by both Scientology and Heaven's Gate to be an impedance to one's fullest potential. In the case of Heaven's Gate, that involves leaving one's body and for Scientology it is a means towards spiritual freedom.
Despite these similarities, Scientology and Heaven's Gate deviate when it comes to matters of life and death. The notion of a next life, or reincarnation is believed by both NRMs, however, for Heaven's Gate the unseen order can be best understood as requiring one to discard one's human vessel (the body) in order to fulfil one's mission of entering the Next Level. Scientology requires no such practice. Although the idea of reincarnation is shared, Scientology does not require its participants to end their life in order to achieve the level of Operating Thetan. It does, however, require consistent Auditing in order to reach higher and higher levels of Clearing. Rather than leave the body, Scientology requires practitioners to undo their old programming by undergoing various courses, readings and steps that serve to reach a level of awareness similar to that which Buddhism refers to as enlightenment. To quote the Church of Scientology; “In this spiritual state it is possible for the Thetan to possess complete spiritual ability, freedom, independence and serenity, to be freed from the endless cycle of birth and death, and to have full awareness and ability independent of the body”.11 Another example of how Scientology and Heaven's Gate differ with regards to the unseen order is not only the life-or-death means through which a parishioner can attain ultimate freedom, but in its financial model.
In order to move through the "Process" in Scientology, one is required to pay a fee that, according to Australian ex-Rugby star and disconnected Scientologist, Joe Raeiche, is anywhere between $35,000 and $75,000 per project. Heaven's Gate, on the other hand, charged nothing. The unseen order then, seems to hold greater personal benefit to L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology than Heaven's Gate did to its founders, Applewhite and Nettles. To an outsider, it might seem that the mysterious foundations of Heaven's Gate was more morally in line with other religions, whereas Scientology appears more business like. But to its followers, the attainment of higher personal, psychological and spiritual achievement appears to hold, or have held, greater significance than whether or not payment was required. To expand: even if finances prevented one from continuing along the ranks of Scientology, does that mean one would instantaneously agree to ending one's life for free? Of course not. The unseen order, as Cowan and Bromley state, is largely based on how meaningful it is to its members. Could it be that for Heaven's Gate, their life was a dispensable asset and finances an uninteresting commodity, and by contrast, for Scientologists, money and physical life are held in equally high esteem. In my opinion, neither of those explanations encompass the entire truth.
Rather, it is important to listen to the insiders and allow them to recount their versions of why their chosen religion is important to them. Deceased members of Heaven's Gate can be witnessed via video recordings made prior to their deaths. One member recounts how they felt called to join Heaven's Gate after hearing a talk led by Ti and Do. "I knew inside me. I felt I had known [what they were saying] and it was a recognition."13 For this now deceased member, there was a deeply felt understanding and acceptance of the teachings of Heaven's Gate. That included the reality of suicide. Whether or not we as outsiders deem this to be extreme or bizarre does not alter the fact that for at least 39 people, the act of suicide was part of the unseen order and was completely acceptable. Many of the Heaven's Gate members who shared their thoughts before ending their lives, can be heard claiming how joyful and happy they are to be moving on to the Next Level. Similarly, observing from the outside in, it is easy to judge and scathe the financial and psychological tactics of Scientology. But to its current members, these practices provide a form of positive significance that we cannot fully understand. Even if we take the view of concession or acceptance, it does not meet the level of either Scientology or Heaven's Gate's consenting practitioners.
The effect, therefore of the unseen order on both Heaven's Gate and Scientology can be said to be just like that of any religion of which we do not belong: it appears mysterious, incredulous, and in some cases, questionable. But that is not the case to the people for whom it speaks. The methods by which this unseen order attracts new parishioners is also something we as outsiders can scrutinise, but will probably never fully agree with its insiders, partly, in the case of Scientology because we may be neither not drawn to it, or cannot afford it, and in the case of Heaven's Gate, because the religion no longer exists. At least not in a form that can accept new living members.
In my opinion it is not just the unseen order that is significant in the practice and teachings of any given NRM, is it also what led the members to seek out an NRM in the first place. As L. L. Dawson says14 in Chapter 3 of Comprehending Cults, there are three common themes that might affect the attraction of people to NRMs. They are "(1) changes in values, (2) changes in social structure, and (3) changes in the role and character of religious institutions." This is important because it is rarely just the unseen order that draws people to any religion. Since the 1960s, America's counterculture has included members of society who feel the need to push back against traditional religions that offer what might be perceived as outdated solutions to modern problems. Therefore, I believe that in addition to feelings of acceptance and spiritual meaning, both Heaven's Gate, Scientology and other NRMs offer people something that other religions cannot. To say that the unseen order is the only thing of significance is to overlook the complexities, not just of religion itself, but of human nature and the formation of a person's belief system and social ideals.
Dawson goes on to say that in the '60s and '70s, NRMs became popular as a response to "A moral ambiguity." The author posits that disillusioned youth found their way into NRMs because they provided a sense of routine and acceptance that bridged the violence they had witnessed in the 70s including the aftermath of activism. The author quotes, "Tipton proposes, disoriented elements of the baby boom generation found the rules to live by and an authority they could respect that brought a measure of practical order and peace to their lives, without betraying their countercultural commitment to self-expression and 'love over money'." The question of love over money is a potent one that is linked to many ideals including communal living, whether that be part of an NRM or other social group.
In summary, it is my belief that the unseen order plays a significant role in the practices and attraction of adherents to all religions, in this case, Heaven's Gate and Scientology, and it is the unseen order that provides much of the meaning and context to its members. However, as we can see, and as can be said about all religions, the unseen order of Heaven's Gate and Scientology contain similarities and differences. Therefore, there must be more to it than that. The attraction or repulsion of a New Religious Movement, as with those who are drawn to any religion is personal to each adherent and contains features and elements that appeal on many levels. For many, there is a spiritual factor, but I believe the social and cultural climate of the time plays a part. There is also the matter of one's personal psychology and tendencies. Heaven's Gate members were willing to renounce any sexual desires in favour of androgyny, communal living and suicide. Scientologists, on the other hand, share an attraction to personal development of the mind and a willingness to pay for that. The unseen order, therefore, is not the only factor that is important to the parishioners of Heaven's Gate and Scientology. However, without a firm belief in the unseen order that forms the basic teachings and practices, neither of these religions would exist. Removing the foundational belief of the Evolutionary Level Beyond Human for Heaven's Gate, and the Operating Thetan Level for Scientology would be to remove the very reason one might join in the first place. I conclude therefore, that the unseen order is the most influential authority to adherents of Heaven's Gate and Scientology but it is not the one and only force that holds significance for its participants.
Cowan, Douglas E., and David G. Bromley. Cults and New Religions : A Brief History, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2015.
Dawson, L. L. (2006). Chapter 3: Why did new religious movements emerge? In Comprehending cults: The sociology of new religious movements (pp. 39–70). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Goerman, P. L. (2011). Chapter 5: Heaven’s gate: The dawning of a new religious movement. In Heaven’s Gate: Postmodernity and popular culture in a suicide group (pp. 57–76). Farnham, England: Ashgate.
Muesse, M. W. (1997). Religious studies and 'heaven's gate': Making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 43(33), B6-B7.
Oliver, Paul. New Religious Movements: a Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2012.
Proudfoot, Wayne. "William James on an Unseen Order(*)." Harvard Theological Review, vol. 93, no. 1, 2000, p. 51.
1 Cowan, Douglas E., and David G. Bromley. Cults and New Religions : A Brief History, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2015. 2 Cowan, Douglas E., and David G. Bromley. Cults and New Religions : A Brief History, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2015. 3 Goerman, P. L. (2011). Chapter 5: Heaven’s gate: The dawning of a new religious movement. In Heaven’s Gate: Postmodernity and popular culture in a suicide group (pp. 57–76). Farnham, England: Ashgate. 4 Ibid 5 Ibid 6 Cowan, D. E., & Bromley, D. G. (2015). Cults and new religions: A brief history (2nd ed.). Chichester, England: Wiley. Chapter_2_The_Church_of_Scientology_The_Question_of_Religion 7 https://www.scientology.org.au/what-is-scientology/#slide2 8 Cowan, D. E., & Bromley, D. G. (2015). Cults and new religions: A brief history (2nd ed.). Chichester, England: Wiley. Chapter_2_The_Church_of_Scientology_The_Question_of_Religion (p3) 9 Cowan, D. E., & Bromley, D. G. (2015). Cults and new religions: A brief history (2nd ed.). Chichester, England: Wiley. Chapter_2_The_Church_of_Scientology_The_Question_of_Religion (p7) 10 https://www.scientology.org.au/what-is-scientology/basic-principles-of-scientology/ 11 Cowan, D. E., & Bromley, D. G. (2015). Cults and new religions: A brief history (2nd ed.). Chichester, England: Wiley. Chapter_2_The_Church_of_Scientology_The_Question_of_Religion (p9) 12 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAMgg-V3vT4&ab 13 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaImyktMkU4&t=1272s&ab 14 Dawson, L. L. (2006). Chapter 3: Why did new religious movements emerge? In Comprehending cults: The sociology of new religious movements (pp. 39–70). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 15 Dawson, L. L. (2006). Chapter 3: Why did new religious movements emerge? In Comprehending cults: The sociology of new religious movements (pp. 39–70). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.