Cults and Violence

David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton (eds.) Cults, Religion and Violence. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

This collection of essays centres around the fate of four modern 'New Religious Movements': the Branch Davidians, the Solar Temple, Aum Shinrikyo and Heaven's Gate. These are organisations which found themselves in escalating conflict with the wider world, which led to what Bromley calls 'dramatic denouements', either catastrophic implosion or explosion. This conflict often involved substantial mutual demonisation; the 'cult' accused of various nefarious activities by outer society, and the resulting persecution being interpreted as being assault by the fallen and hence radically evil world.

The various contributors search for meaning in these events, and the factors in the various groups which led to these developments. This is not easy because these groups were very disparate, only the Branch Davidians started out with a classical apocalyptic world view; the Solar Temple for example started out as just another 'metaphysical' self improvement group.

Though the various authors look to ideological sources for common threads, the real unifying thread seems more to be the increasingly paranoid behaviour of the group leaders. Murder and suicide are ways of saving face, and of imposing control to the last. In this sense all of these groups act as freelance private enterprise totalitarian statelets, often far more oppressive than any nation state. They would then act as the link between the purely domestic tyranny and the tyrannies of legal states. Their dramatic denouements are large scale versions of the child massacres by enraged patriarchs, of which there is currently a veritable epidemic in Britain, the group being the surrogate children of the patriarch.

The prologue to this book deals with September 11, and the reminder that the movements responsible for this are primarily religious cults aiming at global purification. The obvious parallel with Al Qaeda would with Aum Shinrikyo, in that their hostility is projected outwards against wider society. Both leaders suf< ' feted humiliating rebuffs by their cultures; Ashara formed a political party which failed even to reach a Natural Law Party level of voting, and Bin Laden was rejected by the leadership of Saudi Arabia. Despite their cultural backgrounds their conspiracy theories are derivative from the European radical right. -- Peter Rogerson.

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