Journal of Religion and Violence


published on August 2, 2018

George D. Chryssides

Suicide, Suicidology, and Heaven’s Gate

There are insufficient examples of collective religious suicides such as Heaven’s Gate (1997) to enable firm explanation when considered on their own. One must therefore look beyond such religious groups, drawing on the contribution of suicidology. Since Durkheim’s analysis of suicide relates principally to individuals, the phenomenon of suicide pacts affords a better model for explaining the phenomenon. Suicide pacts typically involve using poison, and the Heaven’s Gate group employed Derek Humphry’s precise recommendations for this. Suicide pacts involve mutual trust, and hence discussion is given to the way in which a charismatic leader secures group loyalty, typically asserting superhuman status, drawing on a pool of potential supporters, securing assent rather than discussion, and isolating the group from conventional reality. Although the ideas of leader Marshall Herff Applewhite seem irrational compared with conventional worldviews, his teachings had an inner logic that the group found persuasive.