The dangerous cult of follow my leader

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The Independent Online
THREE reasons are usually given when a cult implodes: isolation, apocalpytic fervour and a charismatic leader. However, if they were all that was needed, far more new religions would end in mass suicide like this week's in Switzerland. One additional factor is needed, which by its nature is unpredictable.

What isn't a determining influence is a cult's wackiness. Experts stress that the apparent reasonableness or otherwise of a religious group's beliefs has very little to do with the development of sociopathic tendencies. That is one reason why few serious scholars will use the term 'cult' in public, preferring the carefully neutral phrase 'New Religious Movements'.

Many of the groups currently characterised as eccentric religions could have been characterised as 'cults' in their early stages. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, were formed in the expectation that the end of the world was due in 1914. They had a charismatic leader. Yet they survived the First World War in surprisingly good shape, and no one would now call them a cult.

Apocalyptic beliefs are more than anything what define Jehovah's Witnesses. Yet, paradoxically, their faith in the end of the world has given them stability. Their apocalyptic beliefs are too deep and too sincere for dramatic action, according to Joel Elliott of the University of North Carolina, an expert on Jehovah's Witnesses. 'There is a basic conviction among the Witnesses that there is nothing humans can do to make the world better,' he says.

The groups that have committed suicide have been less convinced of their own impotence. In the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana, there was an expectation that the right human actions could hasten the millennium, according to Mr Elliott. Their belief that ritual suicide would hasten a socialist millennium had been acquired from the writings of the Black Panther Huey Newton.

Belief in a different apocalypse seems to be growing more common among evangelical Christians as the century nears its end. The phenomenon described by the sociologist Dr Andrew Walker as 'pre- millennial tension' provides a fertile breeding ground for cults. The Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, who set fire to their compound in February 1993, were an apocalyptic offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists, from whom the Jehovah's Witnesses had earlier split.

The Adventists themselves emerged from the chagrin felt by many American evangelical Christians when the world failed to end in 1842, an event referred to as the Great Disappointment. However, an undated expectation of a fairly imminent end to the world has become common among evangelicals since the apparent fulfilment of biblical prophecies about the return of Israel in 1947. Fundamentalist Christians were among the most powerful backers of the Israeli lobby in the United States, though their expectation of a final battle between Israel and a Russian army on the plain of Har-Megiddo (Armageddon) outside Jericho seems for the moment to have been disappointed.

The second factor that predisposes towards catastrophe is isolation. Some degree of alienation from the surrounding world is necessary for any religion to be considered odd or cultish. It need not be the extreme physical isolation of a compound or an island, either. The Plymouth Brethren, for example, could hardly be more exclusive, yet they are not given to mass suicides.

Professor Eileen Barker of the LSE, who is the foremost British authority on these movements, points out: 'Worries are seldom expressed about the tens of thousands of people of Asian origin who are associated with the Hare Krishna movement. The parents who become anxious are those whose sons or daughters become one of the few hundred Anglo- Saxon devotees who have dedicated their lives to Krishna Consciousness.'

In a Home Office sponsored study, Professor Barker wrote: 'Many of the practices said to characterise a destructive cult have at some time or another been practised by religions that are usually considered perfectly respectable.'

However, if the members of a community come to feel that they have been cut off or rejected by the outside world altogether, the normal mechanisms for checking their beliefs about reality against those of the outside world break down. The Jonestown commune in Guyana and the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco were both fairly isolated physically, as was 'Rajneeshpuram' in Oregon, where conspiracies to murder were alleged among the followers of the Bhagwan Rajneesh.

The third thing necessary for catastrophe is a prophet. Apocalyptic beliefs must be articulated by a leader whose authority is almost absolute. James Jones in Jonestown is the classic example of such a figure. Yet most religions have had single authoritarian founders. Joseph Smith, who established the Mormons, and his successor Brigham Young led their followers to Utah, not to mass suicide.

The vital unpredictable factor is what the leader himself believes. He must conclude that his own best way out lies in suicide and mass murder. Whatever distorted reasoning leads to this conclusion, it must seem to be to the leader's advantage to kill himself as well as all his followers. That, more than any other factor, explains why such massacres are so rare.

(Photograph omitted)