Cults, Religion and Violence

Bromley, David G and J. Melton Gordon
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
0521668980 (pb); 0521660645 (hb)
£15.95 (pb); $45.00 (hb)
xx + 249

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Front Cover The editors of this book are veterans of the study of new religious movements (NRM). The underlying theme of most of the contributions is the need for balance in public responses to a few instances in the 1990s when NRMs were associated with multiple suicides and/or murders.

The background against which the tendency for moral panics about NRMs to arise is the Peoples Temple episode, some twenty years earlier, wherein more than 900 people died in Guiana. Several of the contributors to the present volume refer to this event, but it is not analysed in detail. More recent episodes, which constitute the prime focus of the book, are the conflagration at Waco, Texas, in 1993, the Solar Temple murders and suicides in 1994-5 in France and in Quebec, the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks launched by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995 and the Heaven's Gate suicides in 1997.

All but four of the book's twelve chapters are theoretically oriented. There is a good deal of repetition resulting from general agreement among contributors that public authorities risk making matters worse by over-reacting to perceived threats of NRM violence or mass suicide. They point to the Waco siege as illustrating danger of an amplification-of-deviance spiral costing more lives than would have been lost by a less heavy-handed response. They warn against attributing violent propensities to NRMs in general, and some of them try to develop analytical models of the factors present in a tiny minority of NRMs which have generated violence.

This is a worthy objective. There are insightful comments on the dynamics whereby in the specific episodes under study groups came to be isolated from the wider society and their leaders came to take the view that faithfulness to their cosmic mission demanded drastic actions. However, the enterprise of modelling such processes in such a way that an outsider can appreciate the quasi-inevitability of tragic outcomes is fraught with problems. To do them justice, the contributors are fully aware that ultimately it is hindsight that enables us to specify the circumstances in which such outcomes were most likely to occur, and to distinguish these cases from the ones where nothing of this kind occurred. There is a consensus that one must avoid seeking explanations purely in the social processes unfolding within the NRMs themselves: one must take into account how the actions of law-enforcement agencies and ordinary members of the public are perceived by group members and by their leaders particularly. In that sense, none of what happened was truly inevitable.

So far, so good. But there is a major problem which too few of the contributors acknowledge. This is that building a theoretical edifice on the basis of four cases is liable to strain plausibility, because it involves drawing parallels that are far-fetched. The four episodes were, after all, strikingly diverse.

Aum Shinrikyo was the only instance where it was decided to attack random outsiders. Solar Temple dissidents were murdered. Several children may have perished at Waco by the deliberate choice of adult members of the Branch Dravidian group (though this is not known for certain, as the evidence was destroyed). The 39 whose deaths marked the end of the Heaven's Gate group were all committed believers, convinced that what they were choosing was not in reality death but a peaceful transition to the Next Level. In other words, the cases are not altogether comparable.

The one contributor who squarely faces up to this issue is Robbins, who restricts himself to modestly identifying possible "sources of volatility" in NRMs. His analysis reads all the more convincingly for this cautious approach. Barker is herself the founder of a research institute devoted to dispassionately collecting and disseminating information about NRMs, and she presents a typology of cult-watching organisations, without seeking to dissect the material from the four case-studies. Bromley is sole or joint author of four of the chapters. He may also have been responsible for the unhelpful sequencing of the twelve contributions. The four narrative chapters are placed at the end, being preceded by seven theoretical pieces and followed only by an editorial epilogue (which confuses matters by adding an additional narrative, concerning the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments).

This sequence makes sense only in the light of what Bromley does in his sole- authored chapter, which is to summarise each of the four narratives at some length, in order to point up what he sees as their common features. The reader feels like asking "Why keep a dog and bark yourself?" Bromley takes the line that the Waco episode was a paradigm case for what he and Melton call "religious movement-societal violence". This phrase is intended to convey the idea that the violent deaths in each case was the outcome of mutual misunderstandings between outsiders and insiders. As Hall has already shown in previous publications and demonstrates again in this book, that is a plausible way of reading what happened at Waco. It can be applied to the other three cases only with the aid of special pleading, based on the fact that the leaders interpreted external reactions of suspicion, ridicule or indifference as evidence that a cosmic crisis was brewing and must be brought to a head. It is only in this sense that one can describe "the parties" (the NRM and the rest of the world) as being "subversive to each other" (Bromley, p.26) and claim that the Dramatic Denouement in each instance derived from the way the rest of the world responded to the actions of the NRM.

After the book was almost ready for printing there occurred the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The editors sensibly took the opportunity of adding a Prologue urging that whoever comments on the significance of Al-Qaeda should give adequate recognition to the fact that it is not just a political movement but a religious one, and relating Al-Qaeda to the longer-term history of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. This constitutes a suitable occasion for emphasising book's overall theme, that how the rest of society responds to a religious movement can play a crucial part in determining the decisions made within the movement about possible recourse to violence.

Peter McCaffery
University of Aberdeen