New Religious Movements and Violence
Abstract and Keywords
Research relevant to teaching about NRMs and violence suggests that internal and external factors, and their interaction contribute to the occasional involvement of religious movements in violent episodes. Charismatic leadership, “totalistic” organization, and apocalyptic beliefs are among internal factors that have been implicated in violence, while external situational pressures include persecution and confrontational interaction with opponents. Teaching students about the situated connections between religious movements and violence presents special educational opportunities as well as challenges. An effective teaching program may help students understand both that elements of violence connected to NRMs have their parallels in wider social processes, e.g., in families, and that religion has the potential to exacerbate conflict. Due consideration needs to be given to defining violence, to theoretical explanations of violence, to historical and comparative cases, and to a series of basic questions about violence and religion in order to give students a basis for seeking to explain contemporary cases of NRM violence, extending even to the consideration of religious terrorism.
Contemporary interest in violence involving new religious movements (NRMs) is an understandable consequence of various sensational incidents in recent decades. “Benchmark cases,” note Bromley and Melton (2002: 2–3), “consist of the Manson Family murders in 1969, the Peoples Temple murder‐suicides in Jonestown [Guyana] in 1978, the Branch Davidian murder‐suicides at Mt. Carmel outside Waco in 1993, the Solar Temple murder‐suicides in Switzerland and Canada in 1994, the Aum Shinrikyo murders in Tokyo in 1995, and the Heaven's Gate collective suicides in California in 1997.” The murder‐suicides involving the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Uganda in 2000 probably also should be included, although the destruction of the group was so complete that there is little information on which to base analysis. In this essay, we discuss the basic explanatory issues that arise in connection with these and other episodes of collective violence involving NRMs and esoteric spiritual movements. We then consider how to teach about the issues involved.
Explaining Violence: Cases, Theories, Factors
To introduce the substantive issues relevant to teaching about NRMs and violence, we first survey the kinds of incidents involved, next briefly summarize three alternative theoretical approaches to explaining such incidents, and then turn to detailed consideration of the causal factors and social processes held to be at work.
(p. 246 ) Benchmark Cases
Religion is hardly a stranger to violence. Europe, for example, has witnessed numerous incidents over the centuries, including the medieval crusades, lethal persecutions of heretics and “witches,” and incidents during the Protestant Reformation. Most spectacularly, among the persecuted Old Believer sect in late seventeenth‐ and early eighteenth‐century Muscovy, thousands perished in a series of mass‐suicide immolations (Robbins 2000).
• The earliest spectacular episode of cult violence in recent decades involved murders committed in the late 1960s near Hollywood by followers given orders by Charles Manson, a charismatic drifter who had a history of brushes with the law. Manson's “religious” status was ambiguous and the body count was very low compared to later events, but the incident became a bellwether.
• Almost a decade later, in 1978, leftist minister Jim Jones's Peoples Temple communal settlement of nearly 1,000 people in Jonestown, Guyana, received an unwelcome visit from a delegation of journalists and “concerned relatives” led by U.S. congressman Leo Ryan, who had received alarming reports about “concentration camp” conditions there. Sharpshooters from Jonestown murdered Congressman Ryan, three newsmen, and a defector shortly after they left Jonestown. The community, fearing reprisals and adhering to a rehearsed script, staged a mass suicide in which 913 people died (largely but not in all cases voluntarily), most of them by drinking a poisoned fruit‐flavored punch (Hall 2004b; Maaga 1998).
• The Branch Davidian sect was a fringe offshoot of the Seventh‐Day Adventist Church led by the messianic young David Koresh. He and his followers amassed a stockpile of weapons at their Mount Carmel compound near Waco, Texas. In February 1993, agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, tipped off by sect opponents, initiated a raid of the compound to search for weapons and possibly make arrests. But the Davidians received advance warning of the raid, and the poorly planned “dynamic entry” by federal agents precipitated a shootout in which a number of BATF agents and sect members died, leaving Koresh, other Davidians, and several agents wounded. FBI agents replaced the BATF agents, and a siege ensued. During an assault by the FBI meant to end the siege some seven weeks later, over eighty persons perished when the compound burned to the ground in a fire that was probably (there is some dissensus) set by the Davidians (Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh 2000).
• The Order of the Solar Temple was a somewhat different group—mystical illuminati living in Quebec and Western Europe, led by the older mystagogue Joseph DiMambro and the youthful New Age homeopathic doctor Luc Jouret. Threatened with internal dissent and apostasy, and perceiving external opposition signaled by some arrests (p. 247 ) and a government investigation, the group engaged in murder and collective suicide in France and Switzerland in 1994 and 1995. In some instances, believers committed suicide months after the leaders already had died. The Templars claimed to be undertaking a “transit” to the dog star Sirius and to eternal life (Hall and Schuyler 1998; Introvigne and Mayer 2002).
• In 1995, members of Shoku Asahara's Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) sect introduced poison gas into the Tokyo subway system. “This attack was intended primarily as a preemptive strike against the police,” who were belatedly investigating murders and less drastic violent acts that the group was alleged to have carried out against both members and opponents (Reader 2000b: 204). Asahara had come to perceive a vast conspiracy of the American and Japanese governments, Jews, Freemasons, and others against his movement.
• In 1997, thirty‐nine members of a UFO cult, Heaven's Gate, poisoned themselves in a suburb of San Diego. The arrival of a comet had convinced the leader, Do, that a spacecraft was ready to transport them from Earth to a Heavenly Kingdom in which they would be reunited with co‐leader Ti, who had died in 1985.
• As for the least understood episode, in March 2000 in Uganda, the leaders of an apocalyptic group that recruited primarily former Roman Catholics, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments systematically orchestrated the murder through poison, stabbing, and strangulation of approximately 400 members, many of them dissidents who had requested return of their donations. In a second phase of killings, participants gathered in a barricaded building for a party that culminated in an explosion and a fire (Melton and Bromley 2002b).
The violence in these benchmark cases is horrific. However, large‐scale violence involving modern NRMs is relatively rare. Among thousands of novel movements, “the vast majority,” notes James Richardson, “does not teach or practice violence, even if they accept millennial beliefs” (2001: 109). Confrontations of some sort between unconventional sects and the state are not infrequent, notes Stuart Wright, but out of 130 episodes in the 1990s, “only three of the cases … culminated in collective religious violence” (Wright 2002: 12).
Certain observers (e.g., Singer and Lalich 1995) have tended to exaggerate proneness to violence on the part of novel cults, asserting that such groups are intrinsically unstable and prone to violence. Charismatic leadership, which characterizes many new movements, is often associated with violence. Although this view is not entirely erroneous, it requires qualification. “Since a high proportion of new religious movements begin with a charismatic leader and a small band of followers, and since most established groups often preserve a measure of charismatic authority, it is problematic to assert a direct causal relationship between charismatic leadership and violence” (Melton and Bromley 2002a: 46).
(p. 248 ) Generalized assertions are further complicated by the difficulty of distinguishing between new movements and more established or institutionalized religions. Most “new” religions are not entirely novel. They are likely to have borrowed key cultural and organizational elements from one or another existing tradition. Thus, Hare Krishna is a Hindu sect, Aum Shinrikyo draws largely on Buddhism with an admixture of Christian elements, and the Branch Davidians are ultimately an offshoot of the Seventh‐Day Adventist Church. It is also important to note that established religions themselves are sometimes directly involved in violence (Hall 2003). The ambiguous contrasts between new religions and established traditions complicate any approach that links new religions per se to violence.
Nor is the violence solely in one direction. In the United States, there have certainly been cases of spectacular violence carried out by emergent religious movements—for example, the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre by Mormons of settlers traveling across Utah Territory in the 1840s, the power struggle waged against competitors by Ervil LeBaron's polygamist Church of the Lamb, and conflicts between the Nation of Islam and rival organizations. But these rare instances are widely outnumbered by cases of violence perpetrated against new groups—for example, Quakers publicly hanged in colonial New England and the famous massacre of spirit dancers associated with a Native American revitalization movement at Wounded Knee. At present, over 2,000 religious groups operate in the United States, at least half of which have come into existence since 1960, along with many “quasi‐religious” New Age and religiotherapy groups. Nevertheless, since 1960 fewer than two dozen U.S. groups have been involved in suicide or homicide events producing multiple deaths. On the other hand, there are numerous cases in which new movements have been the victims of armed attack, member abduction, or police harassment. The usual response of targeted groups is not to strike out violently but to initiate civil and criminal legal proceedings.
Why, then, is there such a strong connection between NRMs and violence in the public mind? In large part, the answer has to do with how the general public learns about NRMs. As Bromley (2004) has noted, new religious movements often encounter immediate, intense opposition from a variety of sources, including established religions mounting a counter‐cult movement and secular anti‐cult movements. Both kinds of opposition tend to characterize new movements as dangerously unstable and predisposed to violence. In turn, the number and significance of major episodes of new religious violence have become magnified by institutional and media responses and by public opinion. Violent episodes involving participants as either victims or perpetrators in novel religious movements are generally deemed more newsworthy and more directly connected to their religious organizations than are incidents involving persons with more traditional religious affiliations. Moreover, unsubstantiated rumors of impending violence by new religions often receive substantial media attention, while there are less likely to be reports about disconfirmed rumors, such as those concerning Chen Tao, a Taiwanese millennialist (p. 249 ) movement in Texas or the Concerned Christians in Colorado (Melton and Bromley 2002a). A misleading impression of substantial violence has thus been generated by selective attention to actual or alleged violent incidents, and by the tendency to attribute the causes of violence to the “cultic” quality of NRMs. By contrast, mainline religious groups are less likely to be perceived as implicated in problematic behavior on the part of members or ex‐members. Yet fringe members of these groups may sometimes take part in violence connected to social issues such as abortion or racial integration. In short, violence is stereotypically generalized in relation to NRMs disproportionately to its actual occurrence. Nevertheless, episodes of violence involving NRMs are distinctive and sometimes stunning, and they cry out for explanation.
Theoretical Explanations of Movement Violence
A central theoretical issue concerns whether internal or external factors are the primary causes of violent episodes. Does collective violence arise as a function of the deviant organizational and social psychological features of so‐called cults, or is the external social response to controversial movements the key factor that leads to violence, both by and against stigmatized groups? Behind this issue is a second one: what meanings do participants in such groups—and people outside them—give to their actions? And how do such meanings shape unfolding events that involve violence?
In accounting for violence, some scholars, as well as journalists and anti‐cult activists, have emphasized the importance of internal movement traits. Others, both scholars and “cult apologists,” have given more emphasis to external contextual factors. Today, most scholars recognize that neither internal nor external factors are typically causally sufficient in themselves, and that they usually interact to produce violent outcomes. Assuming such interaction and excluding one‐sided explanations, we briefly describe three alternative explanatory approaches.
The first, a model proposed by psychiatrist Marc Galanter (1999), is based on analysis of the Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven's Gate. It identifies three internal conditions that interact with one external contingency to increase the potential for violence: (1) the isolation of the group, (2) the grandiosity and paranoia of the leader, (3) the leader's absolute dominion over his followers, and (4) government mismanagement of interaction with the group. Geographic or behavioral isolation (a trait shared by many nonviolent communal sects) cuts the group and its leadership off from external feedback and monitoring of group actions, increasing the likelihood of extreme behavior by members operating exclusively on the basis of their own internally constructed definitions of situations. Such isolation may be reinforced by the second factor, grandiose paranoia of the leader, which conditions the third factor, a leader's effort to maintain absolute control over his movement. Galanter's external factor, government mismanagement, represents a rather broad category of public acts (and negligence). Most notably, violence can be provoked by undue (p. 250 ) aggressiveness and repression by state officials, or by the clumsiness of state intervention—for example, alleged blunders of the BATF and FBI in confronting the Davidians at Mt. Carmel (Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh 2000).
The second approach, advanced by Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh (2000), uses analysis of how apocalyptic meanings play out in unfolding historical time to compare incidents involving the Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, the Solar Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, and Heaven's Gate. The authors propose that an apocalyptic worldview, charismatic leadership, and strong solidarity heighten the potential for violence. However, actual violence is held to occur on the basis of distinctive cultural structures of apocalyptic meaning. Their analysis suggests two alternative ideal‐typical trajectories. In a “warring apocalypse of religious conflict,” a spiral of escalating tension emerges between a movement group and external opponents, the latter who succeed at recruiting journalists and government officials to their cause. In the alternative trajectory, a “mystical apocalypse of deathly transcendence” emerges if a retreatist “mystical” group such as Heaven's Gate elects collective suicide. From the group's perspective, it moves to an eternal realm of existence.
The third approach is David Bromley's model of “dramatic denouements” (2002). Bromley envisions movement–society conflicts as unfolding social interactions that potentially move through three stages: (1) latent tension, (2) nascent conflict, and (3) intensified conflict. At each stage the parties in conflict have the options of further contestation, accommodation, or retreat. Given the alternatives, most conflicts do not reach the high intensity that can trigger mass violence. However, if conflict does intensify, the contesting parties tend to radicalize, heightening their mobilization and seeking to form coalitions with third parties against an assumed common enemy, now perceived to be dangerous or sinister rather than merely troublesome. These conditions may yield a “dramatic denouement”—a climactic moment in which one or both parties embark on a decisive “project of final reckoning” intended to restore their sense of moral order. Such projects take the form of either (1) an exodus or collective withdrawal from the sphere of conflict (e.g., the Mormons' migrating from Illinois to unsettled Utah, the Peoples Temple relocating to Jonestown in tropical Guyana); or (2) a battle in which one or more contenders rejects the mutual existence of both parties and seeks to restore moral order through coercion. Either way, each side presumes moral superiority and repudiates the continued existence of both parties in the same social space.
Because all three of these approaches incorporate both internal and external types of factors, we now consider such factors in greater detail.
Internal Group Characteristics Facilitating Violence
Religious movements that become caught up in violence often share key features as social groups, including apocalypticism, charismatic leadership, totalistic organization, and internal conflict. After considering such features, we will briefly note the limitations of explanations based solely on group characteristics.
(p. 251 ) Apocalypticism
Wessinger (1997) has analyzed apocalyptic expectations as embodying ideas of “catastrophic millennialism,” in which evil is perceived as rampant in a world where everything is getting worse. For salvation and the elimination of evil, “the world as we know it has to be destroyed and created anew by God” (Wessinger 1997: 50; cf. Hall 1978: 68–82). Religious movements that become involved in violent episodes almost always promote millenarian or apocalyptic worldviews that call for participants to live extraordinary lives. Sometimes, apocalyptic movement participants may draw antinomian implications, in part because the posited end of the established order implies that received norms and institutions are not binding in the face of a “higher cause.” Strongly apocalyptic movements also may anticipate that violence and persecution will be directed against their own group as the vanguard of the new order, and therefore go into a “survivalist” mode, stockpiling arms and engaging in paramilitary practices.
Anthony and Robbins (1978) have specified a basic motif that predominates in some apocalyptic movements. In what they term exemplary dualism, contemporary sociopolitical or socioreligious forces are perceived in terms of an absolute contrast between good and evil. Conflicts that might otherwise appear mundane become imbued with ultimate meaning. Thus, the besieged Branch Davidians regarded federal agents as the biblical Babylonians, or forces of darkness. Similarly, Constance Jones notes that Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones saw “the United States, its institutions, and even its standards of beauty … as the ‘beast’—totally irredeemable—to be overcome by the redeeming remnant,” thus preparing Temple members “for sacrifice, struggle, and an apocalyptic final showdown” (Jones 1989: 212). On quite a different front, Kaplan (2001: 491) argues, the extremist fringe of the antiabortion movement concluded that “abortion was symptomatic of the fact these were indeed the Last Days and that God's judgment on a fallen world was rapidly approaching.”
Generally speaking, the actions of apocalyptic groups depend on how they position themselves in relation to apocalyptic time, and this positioning can shift over the course of a group's history. Some post‐apocalyptic groups style themselves as having survived or otherwise escaped the apocalypse, to a “heaven‐on‐earth.” But if movements position themselves before the apocalypse, they may seek to convert others to salvation before the end days, or they may prepare for struggle against “the Beast” (Hall 1978; Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh 2000). In the United States, Christian apocalyptic movements are usually theologically “premillennial,” teaching that the Second Coming of Christ must precede the Millennial Kingdom because sinful humanity is not capable of creating the kingdom on it own. In the time of the “Tribulation,” the tyrannical Antichrist will rule by violence until he is overthrown by Christ. Pre‐Tribulationist pre‐millennialists expect to be “raptured,” or taken to Jesus before the Tribulation. By contrast, post‐Tribulationists expect that their own salvation will come only after the Tribulation, which they must endure. This latter theology puts a premium on discipline, group cohesion, and preparation (p. 252 ) for violent conflict. Post‐Tribulationist groups are more likely to be communal, totalist, paramilitarist, and “survivalist” (cf. Barkun 1997). Christian Identity fundamentalists, who adhere to racist beliefs demonizing Jews and degrading blacks, are equivalent to post‐Tribulationists. They view the United States as already controlled by a demonic “Zionist occupation government,” and “have no hope of supernatural escape via the rapture.” Thus they stockpile “arms and supplies as they await the end” (Kaplan 2001: 483). At the extreme, a pre‐apocalyptic religious movement may declare a “holy war” against the established order (Hall 2004a).
Prophecy and Charismatic Leadership
To gain legitimacy with an audience, apocalyptic prophecies typically require a messianic prophet. Yet movements led by messianic prophets are often volatile because, as Max Weber observed, charismatic authority is inherently precarious, since it lacks written codes or customary practices and it depends on a charismatic leader's special “gift of grace,” which may appear ephemeral. The unstable character of charisma has been said to increase the potential for violence. Thus, Johnson (1979) analyzes how Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones sensed his authority to be slipping, and how his responses led to new threats to his charisma. In a different way, Palmer (1996) has explained the decline of the Solar Temple on the basis of the diminishing charisma of the aging and quite possibly ill Joseph DiMambro.
Other research suggests that charismatic leaders may become unbalanced as their movements develop if they lack egalitarian interaction with colleagues who can provide critical feedback. They can also become isolated and thus may succumb more easily to dark impulses (Wallis and Bruce 1986). Charismatic leaders sometimes become distinctly authoritarian. In turn, Robert Lifton suggests, authoritarian gurus are psychologically sustained by “functional megalomania.” The guru depends on the support of disciples to maintain his stability. His “self often teeters on the edge of fragmentation, paranoia, and overall psychological breakdown” (Lifton 1999: 13). Such breakdown of the leader's identity almost by definition increases volatility, though not necessarily violence.
Whatever we make of such arguments, it is important to keep in mind that charisma is not inevitably associated with violence; indeed, there have been very important nonviolent charismatic leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Dawson (2002: 81) asserts that it is not charismatic leadership per se but rather its mismanagement that leads to dangerous volatility. This is a valid point, for there are multiple pathways by which charisma becomes routinized. However, it is also important to recognize, as Dawson acknowledges, that institutional mismanagement itself is ultimately “rooted in the problematic legitimacy of charisma” (2002: 81).
Lack of Institutionalization
Charismatic authority in its pure form is incompatible with institutional restraints on the arbitrary caprice of the leader. Almost by definition it resists accountability beyond its immediate audience. (p. 253 ) Even within the range of accountibility within a group, members may gradually become conditioned to accept arbitrary and bizarre behavior on the part of their leader. These circumstances, Wallis and Bruce (1986) argue, weaken any constraints on deviant practices and even violence in movements with pronounced charismatic leadership—for example, Synanon, the Peoples Temple, and the Manson Family.
Volatility can also stem from a lack of institutionalized supports for charismatic leaders, who experience “a more or less permanent legitimation crisis” (Dawson 2002: 255). As charismatic movements institutionalize, they may develop an administrative staff that strives to expand its authority. The leader sometimes resists this tendency by “crisis mongering,” thus keeping the movement in turmoil such that stable institutional structures cannot be consolidated.
However, institutionalization also may have the opposite effect, diminishing the movement's volatility. Comparing the ill‐fated Peoples Temple with the controversial Unification Church, Galanter (1999: 121–25) argues that, although the latter movement experienced substantial tension at its boundaries, volatility was inhibited by both decentralization and the emergence of a middle‐management cadre that insulated the rank and file from the impulsivity of the leader. Larger sects such as Scientology or the Unification Church have not become violent in part because they have developed bureaucratic structures that mute the impact of a leader's eccentricities. However, since the Peoples Temple developed both an administrative staff and a bureaucratic structure (Hall 2004b: chap. 6), such features in themselves clearly do not prevent violence.
The likelihood of violence may be enhanced by a totalistic organizational pattern, which tends to isolate participants from the broader society and insulate them from non‐movement influences. According to Lifton (1999), encapsulated members may become “overcommitted” to the group. Sensational claims of cultist mind control tend to misrepresent this phenomenon, which seems better explained by the social situations that sects can set up. Totalist “milieu control” reinforces the arbitrary commands of the leader, which “encapsulated” participants cannot easily resist. Totalistic movements exert pressure on members to identify with the group and to conform to narrow group norms at the expense of wider cultural standards. As a researcher who studied the murderous Aum Shinrikyo cult suggests, when members become more committed to such a group, its religious authority rather than converts' earlier values increasingly guide their behavior (Pye 1996). Nonconforming members will generally defect or be expelled. Those who remain in a group weaken their extra‐group ties and thus their potential “normative dissonance” (Mills 1982). In turn, inhibitions against extreme behavior may erode if such behavior is directed at stigmatized enemies of the group.
Social System Dynamics
Overall, Galanter (1999) has argued, factors that increase the possibility of violence may be understood in relation to a theoretical framework that characterizes a religious movement as a social system. Galanter (p. 254 ) analyzes what he alternatively terms “cults” and “charismatic groups.” Like any social system, such groups depend on fulfillment of key system functions such as boundary control, feedback, internal monitoring, and goal attainment. To be self‐regulating, a group system requires an element of negative or critical feedback. However, in the short term, negative feedback may challenge group beliefs and thereby lead to the demoralization of members. There is thus in most functioning social groups a temptation to suppress negative feedback, even though such suppression would ultimately undermine the system. This contradiction—intrinsic to social systems—may be particularly potent in ideological groups, which necessarily put a premium on solidarity and consensus.
As social systems, religious movements often have a distinctive goal that organizes a good deal of group activity—making converts. Sometimes, however, a movement may become disinclined to pursue aggressive outreach, and it will shift efforts from outreach to internal monitoring and surveillance. This development often increases tension at the group's boundaries—that is through conflict with forces in the group's environment. The actions of religious communal movements such as the Peoples Temple that suddenly decamp and withdraw to an isolated retreat may both reflect and increase boundary tension. Hall (2004b: chap. 10) and Galanter (1999) argue that at Jonestown, growth in external monitoring of the Peoples Temple increased Jim Jones's paranoia and precipitated increased internal monitoring and security measures. Themes of apocalyptic doom became increasingly prominent. Negative feedback was more and more discouraged. The group's leadership increasingly worked to prevent penetration of the system's boundaries. Congressman Ryan, visiting in the company of journalists and the delegation of “concerned relatives,” appeared to signal the disruption of the group's boundary control, and the events during this visit precipitated the final catastrophe.
Our survey of research analyzing internal factors demonstrates what Richardson (2001: 108–109) has observed, that “violence is usually viewed as a characteristic of group culture.” Richardson, who is critical of this approach, characterizes it as “characterological.” Perhaps its key explanatory weakness is that highlighted traits such as apocalypticism or charismatic leadership are shared by a significantly larger set of movements than the subset of violent groups. Thus, such explanations in and of themselves are insufficient. For this reason, it is important to consider other explanations.
Persecution, External Tensions, and Relational Dynamics
“Given the high level of tension with society under which some unconventional groups have been forced to operate,” notes Gordon Melton, “it is not surprising that the violent tendencies of some cult leaders have emerged.” Violence generally erupts, he continues, “only after a period of heightened conflict” in which “both sides” have contributed to escalation (1985: 57–58). Nor are the internal features of a group discussed above immune from external influence. Thus, in his analysis of the nineteenth‐century Mormon Wars, Grant Underwood (2000: 55) maintains that persecution is the most vital factor “propelling a (p. 255 ) movement to emphasize an apocalyptic rhetoric of judgment and vengeance. … Persecution is … the incubator of apocalypticism.”
The role of external conflict and persecution in violent confrontations has been explicitly theorized in interactionist accounts that explore the relational dynamics between movements and their environments. Scholars pursuing this line of analysis observe that new movements often engage in deviant practices, both of religion and of lifestyle. They may employ unconventional means to raise funds, recruit followers, maintain their organization, and defend themselves. In doing so they tend to attract negative reactions from outsiders, which in turn increase tension. Thus, “violence is usually embedded in the relationship between new religions and their opponents, and should not be viewed as something necessarily inherent in the structure and organization of either” (Richardson 2001: 22).
Apocalypse, Religious Conflict, and Transcendence
Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh's broadly interactionist analysis incorporates both internalist and externalist considerations. To focus on explaining violence, the authors disavow either apologetics or passing judgment. They identify two alternative apocalyptic cultural structures at work in the cases of Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, the Solar Temple, and Heaven's Gate. One is predominantly external, the other, predominantly internal. According to their model of “apocalyptic religious conflict,” violence is especially likely in solidary apocalyptic groups. However, these widely shared features do not in themselves explain the violence. Rather, violence tends to emerge out of escalating conflict between a group and external opponents situated within an encompassing established social order. Alliances emerge between apostates and distraught relatives and the broader cultural opponents of cults, who together work to bring to their cause news reporters, government officials, and politicians. If a movement's leaders perceive external challenges as threatening their legitimacy, their prophecy, and the very capacity for movement continuation, they may refuse to submit to external definitions of reality or authority, strike out violently against opponents, and then carry out a collective suicide.
Although there are differences in the specifics of how conflict with outsiders unfolds, the model offers a useful basis for understanding four cases: the Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, and the Solar Temple. However, aspects of two cases do not approximate the model of apocalyptic conflict. In the Solar Temple, there was indeed external opposition, but it “did not pose any imminent threat,” and some believers undertook the ritualized collective suicide that their leaders called “the Transit” months after the initial carnage in which the leaders died. As for Heaven's Gate, the group “did not direct any violence outward, and their deaths lacked any obvious connection to external conflict” (Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh 2000: 12–14). As Bromley (2002: 40) observes, the relative salience of internal and external factors varies from case to case: “The Branch Davidians represent the best example of the primacy of external factors and Heaven's Gate … the primacy of internal factors.” Using an inductive method, Hall and his colleague propose (p. 256 ) an alternative cultural structure of apocalyptic meaning at work in the absence of strong external conflict. In what they term “a mystical apocalypse of deathly transcendence, … flight from the Apocalypse on Earth through the ritualized practice of collective suicide would supposedly achieve other‐worldly grace.” In this analysis, the Solar Temple reflects a mixture of cultural structures, with aspects of both apocalyptic conflict and mystical apocalyptic transcendence in evidence, while Heaven's Gate more closely approximates the latter structure alone (2000: 192; on Heaven's Gate, cf. Davis 2000).
Deviance Amplification and Dramatic Denouements
When controversial, novel, or esoteric movements become embroiled in conflict, they often are labeled or stigmatized. Some scholars have argued that such developments heighten the potential for violence. This process has been theorized using the interactionist concept of deviance amplification—a spiraling process of escalating hostility between a culturally deviant group and agents of the wider society. According to this theory, if both parties become enmeshed in escalating mutual recrimination, an explosive denouement is increasingly likely to ensue unless a process of de‐amplification intervenes. Michael Barkun (1997) has applied this approach to conflicts involving Scientology and Christian Identity churches.
Explosive culminations of the spirals of deviance amplification are delineated in David Bromley's model of dramatic denouements, discussed above, as “those rare moments when antagonistic human groups seek extraordinary climactic clarity and closure” (2002: 40). Essential to dramatic denouements is the emergence of reciprocal stereotyping in which opponents depict cults as authoritarian, unstable, and naturally violent, while within NRMs, external social‐control agents become viewed as inherently persecutory and repressive. Alarmist reciprocal stereotypes of “dangerous cults” and authoritarian repression push both controversial movements and official control agents, as well as “concerned citizens” and volunteer activists, toward increasingly apocalyptic outlooks (Bromley 2002; Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh 2000). Such polarization produces threatening acts, symbolic degradation of opponents, and further internal radicalization. In turn, Bromley argues, the movement relationship to the wider society is destabilized as a result of increased secrecy, the elimination of potentially mediating third parties, and organizational consolidation or fragmentation. If unchecked, conflict between a movement and elements of the wider social order reaches a point where one or both parties decide that their core identity is so threatened that dynamic action is necessary. The “dispute escalation” may now result in bloodshed, and a violent catastrophe is a possible outcome.
Bromley analyzed both instances of explosive escalation and the alternative outcome, accommodation. Although belligerent stereotypes enhance the likelihood of violence, beleaguered movements typically initiate some mode of accommodation “in response to both internal pressures toward a more settled lifestyle and contestation by oppositional and regulatory groups” (Bromley 2002: 24). Accommodating groups may eliminate, reduce, or mitigate provocative (p. 257 ) behaviors such as sexual experimentation, paramilitarism, and regimented totalism.
Movement Fragility and Violence
Catherine Wessinger (2000) argues that certain groups develop a condition of “fragility” that gives them a particular susceptibility to violent encounters. Although fragility might be regarded as an internal factor, it seems empirical that apocalyptic beliefs, charismatic leadership, totalistic organization, and other internal factors interact with external environmental pressures to produce fragility. Thus, what Wessinger terms “catastrophic millennialism” is generally linked to “radical dualism.” Catastrophic millennialists see evil pervading the world, and often feel a strong imperative to confront and confound evil forces. But this is not simply a sentiment internal to apocalyptic religious movements. “The 1993 confrontation between the Branch Davidians and law enforcement agents involved dualistic thinking on both sides—the Branch Davidians regarded the federal agents as agents of demonic Babylon and FBI agents regarding Davidian leader David Koresh as a demonic criminal and con man.” Radical dualism can easily slide into paranoia, and millenarian dualism can have “the effect of dehumanizing the other outside the group.” In the midst of a fierce struggle, apocalyptic dualists may “even sanction the murder of those who are dehumanized” (Wessinger 2002: 133). Factors contributing to a movement's fragility may include intragroup dissidence; undermining of the leader's charisma or psychological stability; failure of the movement to attain its goals, including recruitment; traumatic key defections; and intensified tension at the group's boundary (external conflict). In Wessinger's view (2002: 222), this pattern is exemplified by the demise of the Order of the Social Temple.
The Relation between Internal and External Factors in Explanations of Violence
Both internal and external factors seem relevant to explaining violence connected with NRMs, including, in the trajectory of conflict, escalatory vs. accommodative outcomes. Today most scholars—in contrast to some journalists and activists—acknowledge that the two kinds of factors dynamically interact. Nevertheless, there are subtle differences in emphasis. For certain cases, sociologists such as Bromley, Hall, and Richardson have pointed to the salience of the external provocative societal response to stigmatized cults. However, as Massimo Introvigne comments in his study of the Solar Temple suicides, “when internal factors are sufficiently strong, even moderate opposition is transformed into a narrative of persecution” (Introvigne 2000: 157). Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh agree, directly pursuing the question raised by their analysis of the Solar Temple of whether there could be “religious mass suicide in the absence of apocalyptic confrontation” (2000: 148).
Interactionist concepts such as deviance amplification, stigmatization, apocalyptic religious conflict, and dramatic denouements remind us that violence is (p. 258 ) usually situationally contingent rather than structurally inevitable. It tends to be a product of the interaction of parties with partly conflicting or incompatible goals. However, occasionally, individuals and groups may act out violence with little in the way of environmental influences and regardless of the nuances of social response. To date, there is no single general explanation of violence associated with NRMs. Rather, multiple factors and trajectories have been identified.
Teaching about New Religious Movements and Violence
As we have seen, the issue of violence in new religious movements has provoked great public controversies and a diverse scholarship. There is also an abundance of accessible historical documents, videos, and other materials. Thus, the basic resources for teaching are at hand. Yet the controversies have consequences for the question of how to teach about religion and violence. On the one hand, teaching about violence requires sensitivity to students' preconceptions and feelings that the subject matter may bring to the surface. On the other hand, violence—broadly defined—is at the heart of many controversies about new religious movements and, considering the topic, can encourage students' development of critical thinking and analytic skills. Overall, the sensitivity of the issues and the scholarly debates around new religions and violence can raise existential challenges to students' identities and worldviews. Therefore, successful pedagogy depends on, first, a thoughtful philosophy of the classroom. On this basis, it is then possible to consider (1) framing the issue of violence, (2) topical themes, and (3) special pedagogical tools.
A Philosophy of Teaching about NRMs and Violence
Any course is more likely to succeed when a classroom atmosphere encourages students to engage in open discussion based on a standard of civic participation and respect for others. Students all too easily undergo a cognitive withdrawal if they regard an approach to a subject as threatening; or alternatively, they can be presumptuous about the truths they hold to be self‐evident and other students can feel shut out (see the chapter by Eugene Gallagher in this volume). The trick, then, is to coax students out of the safe place of silence while acculturating them to civic norms of classroom discussion.
General exercises for courses on religion can be especially important when addressing a vexed topic such as violence. One simple exercise is to have students write down unsigned brief statements about their beliefs concerning religion and the divine, and then shuffle the answers and read them back to the class. Typically, students thereby confront the radical diversity of views existing among their peers.
A course instructor is also well served by setting several goals for a module or course on violence and NRMs. These goals can be divided into basic pedagogical ones and substantive goals related to the specific curriculum. Basic goals ought to be addressed early on: (p. 259 )
• Get students to recognize how controversial the subject is.
• Have students examine their own preconceptions and stereotypes—for example, about cults.
• Teach students to read critically across authors and disciplines.
More substantive goals concern what knowledge and understandings are taken away from the course or module, and they thus ought to be mapped across the entire course or module.
• Consider the problem of how to define violence and understand how differences in definitions yield alternative understandings of violence that occurs in relation to NRMs.
• Demonstrate that different disciplines and intellectual approaches (for example, religious studies, history, psychology, and sociology) ask different questions, even about the “same” phenomenon of violence.
• Use historical and cross‐cultural comparison to deepen students' understanding of how violence in relation to NRMs is connected to larger social structures and processes.
• Move beyond classifying theories and explanations of religious violence to evaluate empirically the specific mechanisms and processes they propose.
• Explore the question of whether violence is “intrinsic” to NRMs or, for that matter, religion more generally.
• Consider the issue of exceptionalism—that is, how and in what ways NRMs are highly unusual phenomena or, conversely, what parallels there are such that violence happens for similar reasons in relation to NRMs as it does elsewhere.
There are many ways for a course or module to meet these goals. Here, we propose possible strategies. For a successful course, the basic goals listed above require attention at the beginning; we therefore consider that a central framing issue be addressed early on. Substantive goals can then be approached via what we will call topical themes and pedagogical tools.
Framing the Issue of Violence
As Gallagher (this volume) points out, students often come to a course on NRMs bearing a “hermeneutic of suspicion” regarding cults. Violence often figures prominently in fueling this predisposition, and thus the study of violence offers a teaching moment for moving toward establishing a classroom atmosphere in which such a predisposition can be bracketed in the interests of open and rigorous discussion. Framing the issue of violence at the outset can encourage this shift.
Although defining violence might seem simple, it turns out to be a vexed task, for definitions of violence are often confounded with the question of whether violence is legitimate or not, and legitimacy is a social construction. The taking of another person's life has a different valence according to whether (p. 260 ) the killing is deemed murder, war, accident, self‐defense, capital punishment, or negligence. Also, conceptions of violence are often culturally freighted, such that people operating within their own cultural framework do not regard certain actions (e.g., circumcision, spanking of children, foot‐binding, dental braces) as violent, whereas similar actions outside their own culture will seem violent (Jackman 2001). Definitions are further confounded by questions about physical versus verbal or psychological violence, about whether desecration of sacred symbols is violence, about the threat of violence via intimidation, and about whether social manipulation constitutes violence.
Violence is a subject in its own right. However, it is also the basic framing topic for considering NRMs and violence. To initiate a course or module, one of three alternative devices might be used:
1. Propose a definition of violence and ask students to consider whether a given action qualifies as violence under the definition. One strategy would be to use Jackman's somewhat controversial definition that violence encompasses “actions that inflict, threaten, or cause injury.” Violent actions, she continues, may be “corporal, written, or verbal,” and the injuries may be “corporal, psychological, material, or social” (2001: 443).
2. Ask students to write an (unsigned) definition of violence that they think should be used in the course, then collect and redistribute the definitions, and discuss them. You can energize the discussion by drawing on conventional definitions that focus on physical harm to persons and, sometimes, property or by putting forward Jackman's definition.
3. Devise a list of actions that might occur in relation to a NRM, with checkboxes for “violent? no/yes,” and “acceptable? no/yes.” For example, the following items might be included:
• Pressuring a nonmember to join group
• Promising nonmember material/spiritual rewards for joining
• Requiring public or private confession of actions against group rules or values
• Giving public verbal chastisement to participant for wrongdoing
• Publicly distributing written chastisement
• Requiring isolation from friends as punishment
• Performing mild physical punishment, such as spanking
• Exerting social pressure on a member not to leave the group
• Physically preventing a member from leaving the group
• Engaging in voluntary self‐chastisement
• Engaging in voluntary infliction of physical pain to oneself
• Providing opportunities for another person voluntarily to place himself or herself in physical danger, or even danger of death
• Requiring or forcing another person to place himself or herself in physical danger, or even danger of death
• Physically harming a member who fails to conform to group norms
• Physically harming an outside person who is engaged in a forceful attempt to remove a member from the group against the member's will
Ask students to complete the checklist. Collect and collate the responses, or simply engage the students in a discussion of the rationales for their answers, raising possible definitions of violence along the way.
With any of these exercises, lively discussion likely will bring students to understand the complexity of the issues. Major points from the discussion can be noted and used later as benchmarks that connect to teaching moments in the discussion of particular cases, theories, or explanations. The point ought not to be reaching any definitive conclusion but, rather, establishing a classroom atmosphere in which students can approach the question of violence in an intellectually open and honest way. In broader courses, it may be easy to connect the framing issue of violence to previous course discussions; in a stand‐alone course on religion and violence, teaching moments should come to the fore in the subsequent treatment of topical themes.
Classroom consideration of NRMs and violence is open to a variety of treatments, depending on the character of the course, the length of time devoted to the subject, the size of the class, and how course activities and assignments are organized. Here, we assume that the course has had an initial framing discussion about violence. In what follows, we lay out a general list of topical themes. You might decide to treat all the themes fully within a course or, in a shorter module, avoid trying to pack too much in and treat certain topical themes as preparatory, then focus on a particular theme. Whatever themes get treated, they need to be addressed in ways that bring in alternative scholarly viewpoints.
Historical and Comparative Perspectives
Most students initially will not associate religion with violence, partly because they rarely have experienced such a correlation personally, as an understandable consequence of the relative containment of religion as a settled institutional pattern within (post)modern societies. It is therefore useful to initiate the study of religious movements and violence by raising, however briefly, historical and comparative cases. Hall's (2003) overview differentiates alternative types of violence associated with religion historically—for example, violence that occurs as an outcome of competition between religious groups—and the religious sanctification of violence undertaken by a colonial state or empire. Some kinds of violence—for example, psychological abuse of members—can occur in both institutionally settled religions and emergent religious movements. Most important for our purposes, emergent religious movements often come into both personal and institutional conflict with a wider society that sometimes results in violence—for example, struggles over the allegiance of group members, efforts by proclaimed agents of (p. 262 ) a society at large to regulate or suppress a movement, and religious‐movement violence toward either the wider society or its own members.
There is a wealth of scholarship on historical and comparative cases (Candland 1992; Hall 2003). The key here is to draw on accessible and teachable studies. Of particular note, Brian Wilson's (1973) study of millennialism points to many instances of violence, while Robbins (2000) examines a case—the Old Believers in late seventeenth‐century Russia—that has relevance for contemporary collective suicides. Walzer's (1965) classic study of the Protestant Reformation is replete with discussions of violence, and Behringer (1987/1997) provides one of many fascinating studies of witchcraft persecution. For cross‐cultural comparison, Peter Partner (1997) offers a readable account of holy wars in Christianity and Islam. For North America specifically, studies about Mormons and their persecution is a useful historical case. With lectures (and possibly readings) on one or two such historical and comparative cases, an instructor can open students up to seeing seemingly familiar cases in a different light.
Basic Questions about Religious Movements and Violence
Having established some historical and comparative context for considering violence, the next pedagogical step is to lay out basic clusters of questions about violence and NRMs to keep in mind when exploring contemporary cases and explanations. Raising these questions does not require answering them, nor need it entail reference to specific readings or cases, except perhaps by example. Instead, the questions serve as benchmarks against which subsequent discussions of cases and explanations can be compared. Indeed, a simple and effective teaching strategy is to pose the questions to the students and have a freewheeling debate, perhaps asking students to link their views and arguments to discussions of historical and comparative cases. Three basic clusters of questions seem important to address:
1. For any particular kind of violence, is it something that happens more widely that also happens in NRMs? Or is it something quite distinctive to NRMs that is highly unlikely to happen outside such groups (and if so, why)? If such violence can be found more widely—for example, in more conventional kinds of religious groups or in other kinds of organizations—are there particular features of NRMs that make such violence more likely to happen in relation to NRMs? What features?
2. Are NRMs as a general category of social group especially prone to violence of a particular kind? If so, what are the features of NRMs that make them violence‐prone? Or is violence relatively rare in NRMs? In other words, what is the overall rate of (a given type of) violence in NRMs?
3. Are there different types of NRMs, with some types having certain characteristics that make them especially likely to experience (a given type of) violence? Or do all NRMs share certain characteristics that make them equally prone to violence?
(p. 263 ) Raising these questions should accomplish two related pedagogical goals: first, to ensure that students consider violence associated with NRMs in relation to the overall universe of NRMs (and indeed, other kinds of both religious and nonreligious organizations), rather than sampling on the dependent variable by looking just at cases of NRM violence; and second, to openly consider the tremendous variation in NRMs and whether certain specific characteristics or types are associated with violence.
Contemporary Cases of Extreme Violence
Most undergraduates more readily address analytic and theoretic issues by studying particular cases, especially if the cases are already well known or situated within culturally familiar circumstances. Therefore, the comparative study of contemporary cases of violence works well as the core of a module or course on NRMs and violence. Given the substantial scholarship on contemporary cases, it is a relatively simple matter to pick two to five cases and develop an in‐depth analysis of each. Using lectures alone, an instructor could treat one case per class meeting. Or, with discussion and supplementary course materials such as readings, videos, films, or tape recordings, the number of class meetings devoted to a particular case can be expanded. Indeed, it would be possible to base an entire course on core discussions of two or three cases of violence—for example, using materials on the Peoples Temple and Jonestown (Hall 2004b; http://jonestown.sdsu.edu), the Branch Davidians (Wright 1995); the Solar Temple (Lewis 2005); or Aum Shinrikyo (Reader 2000b). Alternatively, a survey of cases can employ one of the comparative studies—for example, Wessinger (2000) or Hall, Schuyler, and Trinh (2000).
Alternative Explanations of Violence
It is relatively easy to layer onto the comparative study of contemporary cases discussion of how to account for violence. Indeed, most of the case studies and comparative works explicitly or implicitly advance explanations, and thus consideration of cases ought to address what the explanations are and whether they accord with evidence. For large‐scale violence, the central issue considered in the literature—discussed in the first part of this chapter—concerns the importance of internal propensities of NRM groups (e.g., charismatic leadership, apocalyptic ideology, group fragility) versus external factors (including violence or proto‐violence against a group) versus interactive processes. One way to draw students out concerning alternative explanations is to ask them whether any given factor is necessary (the violence would not happen without the presence of this factor, though this factor alone might not bring violence about) or sufficient (this factor in itself makes violence virtually inevitable). In these discussions, the instructor can provoke debate by introducing as examples groups that possess certain characteristics without violence occurring (e.g., the highly apocalyptic Shakers, or groups with failed prophecy and no violence, or NRMs such as Scientology that experience very strong cultural opposition from society at large without becoming violent).
(p. 264 ) Persisting and Emerging Issues
Beyond the topical themes considered so far, there are a number of issues that might be considered to conclude a course or module on NRMs and violence. Because these themes go beyond widely cited scholarship, an instructor could simply raise them briefly in a concluding lecture, drawing on recent relevant scholarly or news publications. Four issues seem particularly worth raising:
1. Millennialism. In popular culture, especially popular religious culture, calendrical time is often pegged to apocalyptic events that are depicted as violent. Has this sort of expectation been borne out? For example, was the millennial moment of 2001 associated with violence in NRMs? Is or is not calendrical time important? Why?
2. Temporal variation. The incidents of large‐scale violence associated with NRMs in the industrialized world seem to ebb and flow. Are there factors (such as the degree of competition among religions, the maturing and institutionalization of NRMs, the erosion of the anti‐cult movement, and institutional learning of both NRMs and state authorities) that explain variation in the number of incidents of violence over time?
3. Historicity and globalization. Although many of the relatively recent benchmark cases of violence connected with NRMs happened within industrial countries in North America, Europe, and Japan, a number of other societies also have experienced either persecution of NRMs (e.g., Falun Gong in China and evangelizing sects in Russia), violence within NRMs (e.g., the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Uganda in 2000), or other kinds of violence (e.g., violence as a tool of competition between emerging sects in China; see Kahn 2004). Thus, the question arises: is violence associated with NRMs connected to broader historical dynamics of social change? (See the chapter by Lorne Dawson in this volume.)
4. Religion and terrorism. Especially in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a multidisciplinary debate has intensified about the relation between religion—notably Islam—and terrorism (Appleby 2000; Hall 2004a; Juergensmeyer 2000; Lifton 2003; Lincoln 2003). However, many political scientists and sociologists remain skeptical that religion has anything to do with terrorism per se. Thus, a course on NRMs and violence might consider whether its discussions yield insights into contemporary “religious terrorism.”
By exploring topical themes, we have sought to show a way that various aspects of a discussion of violence and NRMs can be arrayed. Each of the themes just considered is open to relatively brief treatment or expansive development. Yet effective teaching requires aligning themes with a packaged set of readings and class activities that consolidate the module or course.
(p. 265 ) Bundling materials and activities for a course or module on NRMs and violence is not a radically different pedagogical project from other kinds of course preparation. The key matter concerns how to array a mix of lectures, discussions, exercises, readings, media screenings, and other course activities in relation to a set of course meetings. We have already discussed how to frame a course and its thematic content. Here we simply add to that mix several specific ideas about course materials and activities.
Readings, of course, ought to be a central feature of college courses. Given today's student, the challenge is to include academic writings that challenge students intellectually while not putting them off by abstract or stilted style. Analytic discussion of actual events “on the ground” is the typical focus of a course on violence, and this orientation easily engages students. Given the range in quality of writings about NRMs—especially popular writings—the most formidable challenge here is to educate students in their critical use. The choice of required and suggested readings for a course will set the tone. However, if students are asked to conduct independent library research, they typically select various nonscholarly books and articles—ones that an instructor might well regard as objects of analysis (e.g., a book titled Evil Web: A True Story of Cult Abuse and Courage) rather than research studies. Nonacademic writings can be useful, but they often need to be treated as data rather than analysis—that is, as historical and cultural materials that are objects of study.
One effective way to structure students' elective reading selections is to ask them, for any paper or project, to develop an initial list of analytic scholarly sources, defined as books published by university presses (and major academically oriented presses) and scholarly journals that include footnotes or references. Just getting students to make this distinction can be a major task and achievement! Yet the goal should hardly be to exclude nonacademic writings. There is now a wealth of materials generated from: personal experiences, the increasing bureaucratic orientation of many NRMs, litigation, news coverage, the public controversies, and interests in documentary, docudrama, and other types of narrative engagements with the subject of NRMs and violence. More than many other subjects, then, the study of NRMs and violence lends itself to using a variety of materials, including:
• NRM documents about theology, eschatology, organization, history, etc., as well as more time‐ and event‐related documents ranging from newsletters to letters to editors, court documents, and correspondence
• Family‐ and cultural‐opponent documents, including both general ones and those concerning specific groups and conflicts with those groups
• Newspaper articles
• Official reports by government bodies, associations, and the like
• Films and television programs, sometimes available on CD
Often, such materials can be found on the Internet (see the chapter by Douglas Cowan in this volume).
(p. 266 ) Case‐Study Archival Analysis
Another useful pedagogical tool is to provide students with a set of archival documents about a particular group, and then ask them to analyze and discuss the documents, either in a short paper or in a classroom discussion. This exercise requires students to step outside their own preconceptions and approach an issue with a fresh mind, so it is best used before students read scholarly discussions of the group. The instructor then can follow up with scholarly readings and engage the students in relating the archival evidence to the readings.
The key to success with such an exercise is to find a good set of archival materials about a particular incident of violence. Fortunately, one Web site, “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” (http://jonestown.sdsu.edu), features an on‐line archive of primary sources and tape recordings transcripts under its “About Jonestown” link.
A Film/Discussion Unit
Popular films are of interest for how they represent violence associated with NRMs (for the general issue of NRM public images, see the chapter by Richardson and Introvigne in this volume). Although showing a DVD early in the course is probably not a good idea, using one after basic analytic issues have been raised can help concretize discussion. There are two possibilities widely available through video stores or on‐line via a Google search. The more analytically respectable film is the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997). By contrast, Guyana Tragedy (1980), with a cast that includes Powers Boothe, James Earl Jones, and Meg Foster, is a popularized dramatic rendering of the murders and mass suicide at Jonestown.
A useful way to draw students into a discussion of societal responses to concerns about violence in NRMs is to organize a classroom exercise in which students play social roles in relation to a fictional but realistic situation. For example, an instructor might hold a “dangerous cult” exercise. In it, students are told that a number of members of a shadowy cult known as God's Chosen Few have committed suicide at their isolated compound in Idaho. Students are then appointed to competing FBI task forces, each given a mandate to define a “dangerous cult” to distinguish it from other kinds of religious organizations and come up with plans for dealing with such groups, including whether and how they should be monitored, by whom, when intervention should be carried out, and by whom. Students from the different task forces then report on their conclusions and discuss them with other teams. Similar exercises could be designed based on scenarios involving distraught parents whose children have joined an NRM that they believe is drifting toward violence, or members of an NRM who feel themselves persecuted by outsiders.
Use of the teaching strategies and pedagogical tools described above will vary according to course or module length, enrollment, and other considerations, but (p. 267 ) given the controversial issues explored in the first part of this chapter, we think that a variety of course activities ought to be included, and even lectures should be done in a format that encourages questions and discussion. Perhaps students will become inspired to a sociological imagination about religion, and even pursue the further study of these complex processes. We certainly hope so.
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