Scarcely anyone believes, as the leader and follower of Heaven's Gate did, that a UFO was indeed following what was billed as the comet Hale-Bopp, or that they as human beings would be selected out from among the billions for special treatment. What shocked the nation and the world was not so much the absurdity of their beliefs but the extent to which they would go to adhere to them. Incidences such as suicide bombers and soldiers going into battle and even into certain death are not unknown, but behind these actions is something concrete, such as home and family or actual politicians and laws one is in rebellion against. Many church-goers prate the belief they supposedly espouse, but would hesitate to put even their time and discomfort behind them, much less their lives. And those who would discomfit themselves for a belief are sure that their belief is not as silly as Heaven's Gate.
However, if one looks at just a few examples from Christian belief - that of the Rapture that many Christians cling to, or the Ascension where Jesus supposedly rose from the dead, or Baptism where splashing a bit of water is supposed to make the difference between a tiny babe going to heaven or hell - one sees that the Heaven's Gate crowd was scarcely alone in their silliness. These beliefs and the actions they generate have no more rationale than the beliefs that the Heaven's Gate crowd held. That said, why did the Heaven's Gate crowd arrive at such an absurd conclusion, and what led them to take the steps they did?
When looking to understand why cults do as they do, one should first examine the leaders. Cults are characterized by an isolationist life style, with the flow of information coming only from the leader and this slanted to fit his needs. The psychology that occurs is simply an extension of what goes on in the average family - what father says goes, and he has ownership over his wife and children. Dictated rules seem absurd when one only sees the devotee slavishly following them, and make sense only when one examines the leaders. They are, after all, his rules, created by him to further his comfort and reduce his distress. The sense of possession that prompts a cult leader to order his followers to follow him in death is a factor present in the average household, where it is not unheard of for the husband to threaten to kill his wife if she even thinks about leaving him.
The leader of the Heaven's Gate cult was beset with personal anxieties, which are no secret. Ashamed of his homosexual yearnings, he had himself castrated. Guilt often leads one to think of eminent death, the ultimate punishment while simultaneously the ultimate escape, and this too was a theme throughout his life. Riddled with sexual conflicts, he compulsively structured his life to avoid any temptations, and thus the rules against personal interaction and the silly rules about how to slice apples and the like. Had the cult leader espoused the beliefs of an organized religion, where their death was to take them to heaven, they would not have astonished many. That his heaven was a space ship rather than a nebulous place in the clouds put him at odds with what the church teaches, and thus he was considered a kook instead of a deeply religious man!