Message is more important than messenger

The Daily

Primitive humans responded to astronomical phenomena in reverent ways.
A comet — a big, frozen cosmic dirtball flying past the Earth — had divine spiritual meaning. Comets meant the gods were angry.
Today, as the Hale-Bopp comet streaks across the horizon, humans react in more informed ways. We are interested in its beauty and history, but recognize it for what it is.
Yet, some took it as a sign of the end of the world and committed mass suicide in a mansion in a posh San Diego suburb.
The deaths of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult was a mishap made even more tragic by the inanity. A mere man convinced intelligent adults in 1997 to kill themselves wearing purple shrouds.
He convinced them that Hale-Bopp heralded a new age that they could enter only by waiting for the aliens that followed the comet to pick them up.
What makes people so blindly follow? What makes people drop everything to believe a warped doctrine? What makes intelligent, technologically savvy people become the weekly freak show for the tabloids?
Largely, charisma. People are born with a willingness to believe and follow individuals that is startling, especially evident in cases like this and Waco and Jonestown. Especially vulnerable are the young — those who desperately need something or someone to believe in and often accept the too-good-to-be-true from the mouth of someone they idolize.
The lesson from Rancho Santa Fe: Isolation is dangerous. Believe what you want — shave your head, worship rocks, give up possessions, whatever.
But cling to the message, not to any individual leader — be it Marshall Applewhite, Jim Bakker or Martin Luther King Jr.