Designer Religion

This wasn’t your usual dinner crowd. Thirty-nine identically dressed people sat down for supper at a San Diego restaurant and ordered turkey pot pies. Then they went home and all 39 committed suicide in the bizarre hope of salvation aboard an alien spaceship. The nation is still trying to make sense of the tragedy of the Heaven’s Gate cult. Why would seemingly normal, intelligent people give their lives for such a far-fetched set of beliefs? The answer is that for many people meeting emotional needs is more important than searching for truth. Consider the views of Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist who studies cults. In U.S. News & World Report, Luhrmann writes that groups like Heaven’s Gate satisfy people’s “need for belonging... and the secret hope of finding an all-caring parent who offers protection and comfort.” These needs are not bad in themselves. The problem comes if we put psychological needs ahead of questions of truth. If we let emotions take the lead, we’re vulnerable to being misled—taken in by ideas that are false and destructive. Yet, ironically, most Americans define religion itself in purely emotional terms. As Luhrmann puts it, people enter cults because they’re “comforting and [it feels] like joining a religion.” After all, she goes on, ”Magic, God, and a belief that one belongs on a different planet [all] fit into the same category of knowledge.” This may sound outrageous, but unfortunately Luhrmann’s definition of religion is far too common—even among Christians. In many churches, the Gospel is “sold” like a consumer item: on the basis of the personal benefits it confers—inner peace, a sense of belonging or self-esteem. This idea was illustrated by a Doonesbury comic strip that shows a young couple interviewing a minister. “We’re looking for a church... where we can feel good about ourselves,” the wife says. She adds: “I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.” “On the other hand,” her husband remarks, “you do offer racquetball.” The humor works because so many churches today focus on offering a multitude of feel-good programs and activities. Yet the church’s primary mission is to proclaim the truth of the faith, no matter how it makes people feel. As David Wells puts it in his book No Place for Truth, our first concern should be “is the gospel true—objectively, absolutely true?” Of course, once we address the question of truth, then the truth does lead to emotional and personal fulfillment. The issue is what comes first: Do we search out the truth—and let that heal our emotional wounds? Or do we look for answers to our emotional needs and ignore questions of truth? If we lead with our emotions, we are just as prone as the 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult to fall into error—and even tragedy. When it comes to choosing a spiritual home, you and I should not be looking for a church that makes us feel good. We need to seek out a place that asks: What is truth? Only then will we find the path that leads to the Way, the Truth—and the Life. And only then will we have a real defense against the lure of a Heaven’s Gate.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary