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Heaven’s Gate author to present public lecture


MONMOUTH, Ill. – In 1997, the world was shocked by the mass suicide of 39 members of an apocalyptic religious group known as Heaven’s Gate.

Twenty years later, a scholar who has studied the religious group will visit Monmouth College to speak about the event.

Benjamin Zeller will discuss “Religious Suicide and the Puzzling Case of Heaven’s Gate” at 4 p.m. Oct. 17 in the Morgan Room of Poling Hall. His talk is free and open to the public.

Zeller is the author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion and an associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College. His talk is co-sponsored by the College’s departments of sociology/anthropology, educational studies and philosophy/religious studies.

The 39 members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide in March 1997 outside of San Diego to “free their souls” to join a UFO that they believed trailed the Hale-Bopp comet, which was passing by Earth that spring.

“The leaders and members of the group very strongly and directly rejected suicide when Heaven’s Gate began in the 1970s, leaving us to wonder why they embraced it less than 20 years later,” said Zeller.

Zeller said his talk will consider several issues, including millennialism, charismatic leadership, mind-body dualism and analogous cases of religious suicides that inspired members of the movement.

Zeller will also speak to students in the “Sociology of Religion” course taught by Assistant Professor of Sociology Jonathan Coley and present artifacts from the religious group.

Coley assigned Zeller’s book to his students, and he said he’s never his students “so enthralled, so fascinated” with a book.

“People immediately wonder ... how could people ever believe in a religion like this,” said Coley. “Yet, scholars have questioned whether Heaven’s Gate was really so different from other religions.”

Coley said Heaven’s Gate followers were “fundamentally Christian” and drew on the beliefs of evangelical Protestants about the rapture and the end times, “mixed in with beliefs from ufology and science fiction.”

“So much about the group might seem zany,” said Coley, “but when you take a step back, actually, apart from the suicides, the group really reflects several trends in American religion.”

For more information about Zeller’s work, go to