The Web, the Cults and the Church

Wherever he roams on the World Wide Web, Rick Bauer finds people obsessed with computers, science fiction, entertainment, the supernatural, conspiracies and UFOs -- not necessarily in that order.

Whenever the leader of Freedom House Ministries visits churches or their Web pages he finds that they have almost nothing to say about computers, science fiction, entertainment, the supernatural, conspiracies and UFOs. Meanwhile, the Web sites of less conventional spiritual entrepreneurs often include provocative stuff about -- that's right -- computers, science fiction, entertainment, the supernatural, conspiracies and UFOs.

Do the math. No wonder the Heaven's Gate media blitz has so many traditional religious leaders acting as if Satan designed the Internet for the expressed purpose of stealing and slaughtering sheep. No wonder old-fashioned shepherds feel so threatened: they appear to know zilch when it comes to talking about the lives of many Americans in the digital age.

"There's so much soft-headedness in the church," said Bauer, who is both a computer-systems professional and a Harvard Divinity School-educated researcher on new religious movements. "Church people aren't dealing with reality. ... If churches won't address the interests and obsessions of real people - especially the young - then the cults and the alternative religions will. ... What we're hearing right now is a wake-up call. To me, these cults represent the church's unpaid bills."

Anyone on this planet -- or living elsewhere in the universe -- has probably heard many details of the life and death of Marshall Applewhite and 38 other androgynous members of his Heaven's Gate movement. They told customers of their computer-consulting business that they were part of a Christian monastery, while using their Web pages to spread a gospel that was equal parts Star Trek and the book of Revelation.

One Applewhite manifesto sets the tone: "Two thousand years ago, a crew of members of the Kingdom of Heaven ... determined that a percentage of the human 'plants' of the present civilization of this Garden (Earth) had developed enough that some of those bodies might be ready to be used as 'containers' for soul deposits." Eventually, an extra-terrestrial "left behind His body in that Next Level" and occupied a human body "called Jesus."

There was much more, including talk of the war between the good aliens and the "Luciferians" who lead Judeo-Christian groups that do not understand spaceships, metaphysics, alternative lifestyles and other "fringe" topics. Actually, this kind of "X-Files on steroids" theology isn't all that unusual on the Web, said Bauer. He first became familiar with Applewhite's work when he read about Heaven's Gate in the online commentaries of other UFO-related cults.

It is sad -- yet predictable -- that many religious leaders and politicians appear ready to blame the Internet for this tragedy, said Bauer, who is based in Bowie, Md. Global computer networks are, of course, an effective way to find isolated listeners and communicate highly detailed, personal messages. This may be a boon to cult leaders, but it is also good news for parents, pastors and others building support networks to help people escape from cults, he said.

Thus, Bauer found himself on ABC News' "This Week" talk show last weekend defending the free-speech rights of people on both sides of this tense standoff. His message: It's just as wrong for traditional religious leaders to try to silence "cult" leaders as it is for alternative religious leaders to try to silence "anti-cult" professionals, such as himself. Meanwhile, the freewheeling nature of Internet life will almost certainly frustrate and frighten everyone.

As a rule, said Bauer, religious groups just can't seem to decide whether they love mass media or hate them.

"We see this over and over, with radio and television, with movies and popular music and now with the Internet," he said. "Either our churches can't grasp the impact that a new form of technology has on people's lives, or they panic and start saying that the new medium is part of a Satanic plot. ... It's so much easier to blame the technology, instead of asking questions about what the church is doing or not doing."