Violence in New Religious Movements

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1.Introduction

The Jonestown massacre of 1978, the Waco debacle of 1993, the mass murder-suicide of the Solar Temple in 1994, the Aum Shunrikyo subway poisonings in 1995 and the suicide of thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997 are possibly the most well-known and shocking cases of cult violence.

The relationship between NRMs and violence has now been in the public interest for a long time - pushed and nourished by multiple incidents of mass violence like collective suicides, acts of terrorism, murders and various other acts. These events have raised a number of questions on the dangers, real or supposed, of these groups, for individuals as well as for society. Opinions diverge however on these actions and numerous hypotheses have been put forward to explain them. If certain authors explain them by dysfunctions inherent to such groups, others prefer to say that we are dealing here with the social construction of a marginal problem.

In this essay we will try to understand what circumstances and conditions have driven these NRMs to act violently and to make them famous for the violent way they have come to an end, more than for anything else. To understand these tragic actions we will first have a look at the apocalyptic beliefs of NRMs which play an important role in their way of becoming violent. Secondly, we will examine in how much the charismatic leadership is responsible for these outcomes and thirdly how social encapsulation fosters the violent outcome. At last, some insights from social psychology may help to reconstruct what went wrong and why so many people have died.

2.Exogenous and endogenous factors

Criminality and insanity are being loomed large in the media binge that always follows a violent ending of an NRM. “How else could one account for the implausibility of people choosing to die for their religious beliefs in our seemingly secular age?” Journalists usually emphasize the dreadful and often lethal outcome; but these are only fragments and rumors which circulate in the press as facts. To fully understand how or why these tragic events happen, we have to take a more systematic approach of study of the groups involved. Researchers have found out that each tragedy is “the result of the confluence of a rather idiosyncratic set of factors” so therefore it is not easy to draw general conclusions. But nevertheless there are some incidents that seem to have been similar in all the NRMs concerning violence. Robbins and Anthony point out that the outbreak of violence can be traced back to a “diverse array” of external circumstances, the ‘exogenous factors’ and “internal processes”, called ‘endogenous factors’. They illustrate their point with the examples of The Peoples Temple which only required the turn up of a congressman at Jonestown to cause the deathly ending, whereas in Waco the BATF had to break down the walls of the compound with armored vehicles and the insertion of CS gas to cause the violent ending. Therefore the amount of exogenous factors was much smaller at Jonestown compared to Waco, or the other way round, Waco was less internally instable then the community in Jonestown. Analysts have now, after having surveyed the limited literature available, continuously linked the three most important features of NRMs to the outbreak of violence: 1)Apocalyptic beliefs or at least world-rejecting beliefs;

2)Heavy investments in charismatic leadership;
3)Processes of social encapsulation that may lead to problems of symbolic boundary maintenance. These three endogenous factors are said to cause some of the essential conditions that apparently are necessary to lead to tragic incidents of violence in NRMs. 3.Apocalyptic Beliefs

500, 999, 1100, 1200, 1245, 1260, 1420 1528, 1656, 1734, 1844, 1874 - all these years were supposed to bring ‘the end’! The number of self-proclaimed ‘prophets’ is endless and has existed since Jesus promised that he would return...
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