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Chercheurs de dieux dans l’espace public - Frontier Religions in Public Space

Pauline Côté

Deuxième partie / Part II. Monde vécu, scandale public - Personal experience, public controversy

Ambushing the apocalypse: sects, suicide and stigma in the media

Susan Palmer

Texte intégral

1In November, 1998, I received a call from a journalist writing a piece for the New York Times Magazine. He wanted me to direct him to any apocalyptic groups that were “acting up” as the Y2K approached, preferably groups that had set specific dates, that were potentially violent. I was loth to hand over names of obscure NRMs whose cooperation and trust I had cultivated over several years. Moreover, I balked at naming some fascinating groups I had not yet visited, for fear of the media’s devastation of the research field. I resented the pressure to describe communities I perceived as essentially harmless and theologically creative as dangerous. As for dates, I foresaw that the groups’ ludic apocalypticism - their speculative game of tossing a series of dates into the air - would be misinterpreted as dense, obstinate fundamentalism, inviting public ridicule.

  • 1 This article appeared as “Apocalypse Now. No, Really. Now!” by Alex Heard and Peter Klebnikov, The (...)

2I vaccilated, then compromised by naming a few well-researched NRMs, and was left with the uneasy feeling that I had lost my credibility as a “cult expert” with the New York Times1.

  • 2 Edited by Thomas Robbins and Susan Palmer, 1997. New York:Routledge.

3Since Millennium, Messiahs and Mayhem came out2,I have often been invited to assist the media in the “ambush” of wild religions. Journalists organize hunting expeditions and enlist talking heads as coolie-come safari-beaters, to drop their academic baggage and rush on ahead to whack the bushes, causing apocalyptic cults to charge out and “act up” in front of the cameras.

4Last year I fended off a CBC news hostess who invited herself, and her camera crew, to accompany me on what I call my “magical mystery tour of Quebec”. This involves a drive up the 15 North to visit the mystical pope of St Jovite, dropping by the burnt-out shell of the Solar Temple’s chalet in Morin Heights, then touring the Aumistes’ eclectic architecture near St. Lucie. Then we head towards l’Estrie to view the Berets Blancs’ antique printing presses, and end upthat weathered unfounded rumours at Rael’s UFOland past Valcourt. The news hostess was particularly intrigued by my costume changes en route, planned to suit each “Rome” I was about to enter. My vanity was piqued, and I actually weighed the educational value of the enterprise, but since all these groups detest the media and it has taken me some time to convince them a religious studies researcher is not some sub-species of journalist, I realized a frivolous news report would undermine the delicate rapport we had established.

1. The “Cult Victim” as Comedian

5“Doomsday cults” have become popular entertainment. Even embittered career apostates tire of their own tales and morphose into comedians. Gabrielle Lavallée, former plural wife of Roch «Moses» Theriault, plays Cassandra on every Quebec talk show featuring “les sects” - her truncated arm a grim testament to the depredations of prophets.

6Even Solar Temple survivor, Hermann Delorme, is disgusted with the media, who have lionized him ever since he was busted by the SQ’s swat team for buying guns with silencers for Luc Jouret. (Luc had told him the templars needed to practise target shooting in their backyards and didn’t want to disturb the neighbours.) When I asked him to speak to my class at Concordia University, he declined:

I’ve just about had it with the media. This producer I’ve worked with phoned me up again and I told her I’d said everything I have to say about my experience in the Solar Temple, so she said, ‘I’ve got a good idea! Why don’t you walk into the room wearing your Temple robes holding a candle?’ I said, ‘I won’t do it! I’ll look ridiculous! I don’t believe in that stuff anymore!’ Half an hour later her assistant phoned me back and said he’d found the perfect solution. ‘You can walk in wearing the robes, then stop and tear them off and stomp on them!’ I said ‘Forget it! I won’t do it!

7A reading of news reports between 1993 and 2000 suggests that a new stereotypical portrait of the «apocalyptic cult» has formed in the public consciousness. Prophets throughout history have been viewed as politically subversive, but today they are viewed as psychopaths, promoting violent, suicidal or terrorist behavior. Prophecy today is antisocial, but it’s also “un-PC”. Somehow the notion that millenarian excitement somehow generates pedophilia and child abuse, as well as misogynistic and racist attitudes is firmly lodged in the public consciousness.

8Like many other scholars who specialize in the esoteric field of NRMs, I find myself baffled by all the recent reports on “suicidal cults” whose supposedly sinister plans were foiled by last-minute police arrests. There is rarely anything in the news describing concrete preparations for self-inflicted violence, and the only references to mass deaths in the leaders’ writings are Bible quotes. Tantalizing snippets of apocalyptic theory are cited in the press to show how crazy the “cult leader” is, snippets from which it is impossible to construct a meaningful suicide scenario.

9During the New Year of 1999 the news was: “Israel orders 11 cultists deported,” and I was invited into CJAD and CBC radio stations in Montreal to comment on the Concerned Christians. “Do apocalyptic cults pose a real danger as we approach Y2K?” I was asked. “Can we expect to see more of these groups, and more cult-related violence as we move into the next millennium?” I had studied the news reports: “Israeli police have detained six children and eight adult members of a Denver-based apocalyptic cult who...were planning to mark the year 2000 by committing suicide or provoking their own killings on the streets of Jerusalem.” The leader, Kim Miller, predicted he would die in Jerusalem in 1991 (Globe and Mail, January 4 1999.A1). There was no more useful information, no mention of any weapons or concrete plans to commit violence - aside passages from Revelation. As I composed my comments on the case of the Concerned Christians - which, on the surface at least, bore all the earmarks of a manufactured emergency - I began to feel worried - not so much over the apocalyptic groups themselves - but rather over the insensitive handling of these touchy communities I was encountering in the media.

10The media’s fascination with «cuit suicides» has become so intense, that several new religions have deemed it expedient to write press releases insisting that they are not planning mass suicide and explaining why selfdestruction is incompatible with their eschatologies. The Family (Release, 1994), AMORC (Bugeaud, n.d.), the Twelve Tribes, the Raelian Religion (Parent, 1994), the Aumistes and the Church of Scientology have all reacted in this way, quite independently of each other, in the wake of the mass suicides of the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate. Even so, allegations of planned mass suicides continue to stimulate police action, including arrests, detentions, searches, forced hospitalization and legal charges. The news reports I have followed concern three groups, the White Brotherhood in Kiev, the Isis Holistic Centre, the Aumistes at Mandarom, but there have been many others.

11My purpose here is to offer a critique of the media’s treatment of apocalyptic movements and to focus on the effect of journalists’ interventions on the groups themselves (or rather the human beings who participate in them). I will examine the complex symbiotic relationships between prophetic NRMs, the media and the anticult movement, and describe some of the mutually exploitative “deals” that have been forged between prophets and journalists. Finally, on the basis of my own experience as a researcher, I will raise some of the problems regarding ethics - and etiquette - that confront the scholar who is willing to assume a public role as a “cult expert” and educator, and interested in promoting a more nuanced version of the secondary reality constructions of “apocalyptic cults” that compete in the marketplace.

2. The Case of the White Brotherhood of the Ukraine

“A Religious Cult threatens mass suicide”
(Time November 22, 1993:46-47)
“Ukraine fears suicide cult”
(Sunday Times, 31 October, 1993)

12Maria Devi Christos (Marina Tsyvgun), the messianic figurehead of The White Brotherhood of the Ukraine, were arrested in November 1993 on charges of inciting her youthful following to commit suicide through starvation, and for planning a spectacular suicide and resurrection for herself. “Officials of Kiev said they would be asking Interpol for help in dealing with up to 150,000 followers of the White brotherhood expected to flock to the city in the run-up to November 24, the day the cult believes the world will end.”

13News reports offered conflicting versions of her prophecy, that in any case seemed highly mercurial. According to the “posters and four tons of leaflets” that flooded Kiev, the “countdown” that began on November 1 anticipated Konets Cveta or the End of Light: a final cataclysm to separate sinners from the saved (Ukraine Religion, from Andrew Higgins in Kiev: 28). Three revisions of “doomsday” were cited-on 24, then 14, then 11 of November. Initially, Tsyvgun said she will burn herself on the 27th and resurrect on the third day (Daily Telegraph, 8 Nov. 1993). Later, on Ukrainian television, Tsvygun claimed that the world would not end until after her death. This was interpreted by some papers as her backing off (“the day of judgement in Kiev, having been rescheduled once, is now postponed indefinitely.”)

14Marina Tsyvgun is a fascinating figure. She claims to be the second Coming of Jesus, a “living god” leading her followers, her “144,000 apostles and angels”. She had formed a charismatic duo with her husband, Krivonogov, also known as Joann Swami whose charismatic role is the second John the Baptist (The Observer, 14 Nov. 1993). He was being charged with “compelling suicide, illegal seizures of land, and violations of the law on religion”. The origin of Tsyvgun’s religious experience is oddly remniscent of Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers, who after losing five children in birth or infancy, felt her spirit “broke from her body like a baby leaping from the womb. The mother of Marina Tsvygun claimed her daughter became mentally unstable after an overdose of sedatives during a careless abortion.” Mrs. Tsvygun said Marina was never the same after her experience on the hallucinogenic drug. She had died a clinical death, but returned to life to speak of nothing but her «mission», and within months had left to join Krivonogov’s mystical sect.

15Her following is composed of “teenagers and single mothers” (“Communism seeks death or glory” Ukraine religion n.d.) and their millenarian preparations follow the age-old pattern of pilgrimage and fasting (“Followers have travelled from Belarus, Russia, Moldova, rest of Ukraine to Kiev to fulfill their suicide pact on Sunday” (The Times, 12 Nov.1993). It is unclear why these youth are not eating, their behaviour is described variously as hunger strikes to protest incarceration of leader, religious “fasting,” and “voluntary starvation” for the mass suicide planned to mark their messiah’s death and herald the day of judgement (The Times, 13 Nov. 1993). It is also suggested their loss of appetite was caused by drugs.

16Most news reports portray these youth as victims; others demonize them: “one of the ministry’s publications warns children not to look into the eyes of sect members for fear of being placed in a trance.” Conspiracy theories and pollution fears abound as do rumours of drugs that explain the mass conversions and obstinate commitment of thousands of Ukrainian youth: “Evidence also mounted [we are never told what the evidence actually is that is “mounting”] that “mind-altering drugs” were responsible for the cults’ massive following among young people.” There were “increasing signs” [these signs are never itemized] that “cult members...had been brainwashed by as yet unidentifiable drugs”. The suspicion was that Krivonogov, who had apparently worked in two Kiev institutes had fed followers with a “truth drug” developed as part of research into psychological warfare (Daily Telegraph, 1 November 1993). One Interior Ministry spokeman Alexander Naumov, even alleged that “until 1991 [K] had worked for about 3 years in a special laboratory at Kiev’s cybernetic institute where they concentrated on developing psychological trance weapons. He mentions that one of the cult’s rites involved a mystery tablet of water known as the “water of the river Jordan.”

  • 3 Marat Shterin is a distinguished scholar in Russia, and a Ph D candidate in Sociology at the Londo (...)

17The only follow-ups to the story was a news report in March 1995 that announced the trial of Tsyvgun and Krivonogov had commenced. According to Marat Shterin3, Tsvygun was released from prison in 1998 and is still in close contact with some of her followers. She divorced Krivonogov while in prison, and a schism has formed in the movement, her followers blaming him for the 1993 persecution in Kiev, that resulted from his “false prophecy” and “pride.” To date there have been no suicides among the Brotherhood.

18The White Brotherhood controversy occurred in 1993, but after the Solar Temple’s tragedy in 1994, «cult suicide» speculations have proliferated, notably the singular case of the Isis Holistic Centre, a small and hitherto obscure group that mutated into a hybrid between the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate in the popular imagination.

3. The Case of the Isis Holistic Centre

“Suicide-bound cultists ‘brainwashed’: Tenerife cops say Solar Temple followers believed world would end, UFO would save them” (The Gazette, Montreal. Saturday January 10, 1998:A17)

19In January 1998, there was a police raid in Tenerife that supposedly forestalled another “Solar Temple mass suicide.” The police arrested “cult leader,” 57-year-old German psychoanalyst Heidi Fittkau-Garthe, who was charged with attempted murder and inducement to suicide and held without bail. Her followers, 29 Germans and a Spaniard and 5 children were questioned after her house was searched, and were quoted saying she calls herself Aida, from a reincarnation 5000 years ago, wears white and is “touched by the hand of God” (The Guardian, 9 January 1998).

20The same Guardian article reports “the authorities said 30 members of the cult planned to kill themselves before 8 p.m. yesterday, when they believed the world would end. They told the police that a spaceship would collect their bodies from Teide [volcanic] mountain on Tenerife.” This data was gleaned from on interview with an official in the Canary Islands a Mr. Lopez Ojeda who was quoted saying “the police believe the sect was an offshoot of the Solar Temple.” The report notes, “Ms. Fittkau-Garthe could be jailed from four to eight years”. The article ends with a grim listing of the victims killed in the 1994-1995 series of Solar Temple’s suicide/homicide. The fact that five children were present was emphasized, and the grizzly fate of Solar Temple children was recalled in several new reports (Evening Standard, “Cult Children in Suicide Bid” P.2 Thursday January 8 1999).

21While the police say they foiled the plot during a “last supper” at the leader’s chalet, further investigations and statements from Dr. Fittkau-Garthe’s lawyer seemed to indicate that the “mass suicide” plans turned out to be preparations for a “friendly dinner” and the “poisonous chemicals” were flower essences and homeopathic medecines.

22It seems the scandal may have been started by Fittkau-Garthe’s brother in Dusseldorf, as the news tells us “police were tipped off by her brother” and “Interpol had received a warning last month from detectives in Germany that there may be a suicide attempt”.

23It turned out the Isis Holistic Center had no connection whatsoever with the Templar orders, but its leader was a former member of an international Hindu-based sect, the Brahmakumaris, founded by a Sindhi businessman in the 1940s. The Brahmakumaris are fervently apocalyptic and believe the world will be destroyed, then their women will rule as goddesses in the Golden Age (Babb, 1984). This, however, does not resemble the media’s account of the IHC’s apocalyptic scenario.

24While news reports gleefully predict the accused four-to-eight-year jail sentence, they do not bother to report the outcome of the trial, that resulted in Heide Fittkau-Garthe’s favour.

4. The Case of Mandarom

“Un suicide collectif n’est pas exclu au mandarom, selon d’anciennes adeptes.” La Presse, December 1995 :B8).

  • 4 Interview with Ekta.

25Another NRM that weathered unfounded rumours of mass suicide plots, was the Aumistes, or Knights of the Golden Lotus, who occupy their “Holy City” called Mandarom near Castellane in the French Alps. After their leader died, the police reinforced their surveillance over the place for at least two weeks and insisted on overseeing the group’s meetings and memorial services. When the Aumistes objected to these intrusions, the police explained that “there is a rumour that you may commit suicide like the Solar Temple”4.

26In France the Aumistes are known as one of “les sectes les plus dangereuses”. Their reputation appears to have originated in a 1995 press conference held by their leader, Gilbert Bourdin. He dressed up in orange and yellow robes with a mirrored head-dress, decked himself with religious symbols, and announced that he was Hamsah Manarah, the “Cosmoplanetary Messiah” - a fusion of the Second Coming, Muslim Mahdi, Jewish Messiah, and Buddha reincarnated - who had come to unite all faiths into one, to prevent global destruction and usher in the Golden Age. The journalists’take on the story was, to say the least, irreverent.

27Introvigne (1996) notes that in the wake of the Solar Temple “carnage,” anticult stories proliferated in French magazines and newspapers and more than half these articles were illustrated with photographs of Mandarom, dubbed the ‘most dangerous sect’ simply because it happened to be the most garishly photogenic.

28The Aumistes are vegetarians who meditate, perform daily rituals with incense and tonkas, and study an ecclectic blend of oriental philosphies organized under Martinism, Theosophy and western occultism. Their aim was to build eight temples in order to usher in the Golden Age. They are small, around 100 in France, 300 in Quebec and 30-50 monks and nuns presiding over Mandarom.

29They do not take drugs, stockpile weapons, practise “free love” nor plan mass suicide and appear to be no more “dangerous” than any other vegetarian meditators.

30Nevertheless, their recent history manifests a level of controversy and downright persecution that is extraordinary. Mandarom has been raided repeatedly between 1992 and 1995 by armed tax and police officers. In January, 1995, 40 paramilitary gendarmes wearing bullet-proof vests cut off all roads to the Mandarom Shambhasalem monastery. Bourdin denounced the investigation as persecution, claiming he had written 21 books, but sold few. The Knights of the Golden Lotus complained that police regularly flew helicopters over the monastery, and that the army chose to practise its dive bombing drills right over their heads in the middle of the night. These tactics have escalated since the Solar Temple tragedy in 1994. (“France probes cult tax records” Reuter News Service, January 24 1995, reported in Cult Awareness Network News, February 1995:4).

31Two television networks, TFI and France 2, cooperating with the french anticult movement, ADFI, launched a campaign portraying Mandarom as a concentration camp. An ecological activist, Robert Ferrato joined forces with ADFI to impede the building of the eight Pyramid temple, claiming Mandarom disrupted the ecological balance of the mountain. He proposed to disestablish the Holy City, evict the monks and nuns, but to keep the picturesque city of Mandarom intact as a museum of the “horror of the cults”. (“Europe scrutinizes Sects,” New York Times International, June 20, 1996).

  • 5 Personal communication.

32A reporter for the TFI network, Bernard Nicolas, played a key role in helping a former member remember her rape at the hands of Bourdin ten years ago. Bourdin was arrested on rape charges the same day that the Council of state was to have rendered its final decision regarding the building of the 8th temple. Bourdin won the case, thanks to his tatooes. When the plaintiff was asked if her alleged assailant had any distinguishing marks on his body, she couldn’t recall any. Bourdin then disrobed to reveal his entire body tatooed with esoteric symbols for warding off the black witches of Martinique5. The charges were dismissed, but Nicholas has since assisted other women to recover memories of rape.

33On December 5, 1994 the gendarmes, a judge of instruction and a procureur came to inspect Mandarom’s buildings and statues in relation to Robert Ferrate’s ecological objections to the planned construction of the Pyramid Temple (Le Devoir Nov. 27, 1994:A4). When the building permit was withdrawn, ecologist Ferrate was quoted saying, “at last the laws of the Republic are respected! It is proven today that...the Cosmoplanetary Messiah is not above urban bylaws. It is urgent now that the problem of dangerous cults are rapidly alleviated by Parliament.” The news article concludes by noting that Luc Jouret, responsible for the death of fifty-three OST members, had contact with the Knights of the Golden Lotus. (“Les Chevaliers du Lotus d’or ne pourront pas construire leur temple” La Presse, 21 December, 1994).

34Alain Decourt, grandfather of an Aumiste’s seven-year-old daughter, led a demonstration in front of Mandarom and was interviewed on national television. He claimed he rarely saw his grandaughter, and feared “les massacres de Waco ou du Temple Solaire se perpetuent”.

  • 6 Interview with Ekta, September 1999.

35Luc Jouret’s mysterious affiliation with the Aumistes is mentioned in several media reports between 1994 and 1996, adding fuel to the rumour the Aumistes are planning a mass suicide (Le Journal de Montréal, 12 December 1994). The facts behind this rumour are as follows. Jouret came to St. André, a town near Castellane in August 20, 1992 and sent a series of faxes and telephone phone calls to His Holiness, seeking permission to attend the first ceremony for the building of the Pyramid temple, that took place on August 22. Jouret was not present at that occasion, but of course he may have been among the 1200-odd visitors that tour Mandarom every summer of whom no record is kept6, since Mandorom is a “Disneyland of Sectes”, according to journalist Michel Tauriac (Figaro Magazine, June 1991).

36The suicide theme is woven throughout news reports on the Aumistes. Under one headline, “French worry about next moves of ‘Cosmic Christ”’, the report states French officials are “worried that another violent disaster may be in the making”. The two OST suicide pacts are mentioned, then we are told Bourdin “has come under public scrutiny as a man who reportedly exercises total control over his followers.”

5. How Prophets Exploit the Media

37Media interest in “doomsday cults” can serve to stimulate and validate a group’s millenarian excitement. This by-product of media attention is, of course, quite unforeseen and unintended by the journalists involved, but many of the prophets they interview exploit them in a calculating fashion as a megaphone for their prophecies. News reports can, unwittingly, assist in spreading the gospel and warning the world of approaching mayhem. They can also magnify and bolster a prophet’s charisma. To behold the face of their beloved messiah in a newspaper or magazine will thrill and impress followers, and may even generate new disciples.

38Ever since Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth sold 30 million copies, it has been clear that premillennialists scrupulously study the world news for “signs of the times”. Is it surprising, therefore, that they also want their prophets’ prophecies to appear in the news alongside the other “signs of the times”?

39Over years of attendance at the Raelian Movement’s meetings in Montreal, I have watched the guides read out headlines and circulate news clips about their prophet and messiah Rael, who claims his mother was beamed aboard a UFO and inseminated after the explosion at Hiroshima, so that the extraterrestrials could send a “messenger” to humanity at the onset of the “Age of Apocalype.” The assembled Raelians clap and whistle, and the fact that the tone of these reports are tongue-in-cheek, downright disrespectful or outright hostile doesn’t phase them a bit. After all, Rael received a mandate from the alien visitors to “spread the message,” so any news is good news. Raelians are reassured they are making an impact on society, so that (according to their slogan) “Together we can change the world!”

40The Raelians hold an annual Planetary Week when they stage demonstrations calculated to stir up a media blitz, as in 1992 when they drove the “condomobile” around the Quebec high schools during recess, and their Priest Guides, dressed in white padded suits with swastika medallions passed out 10,000 free condom packets (decorated with flying saucers) to the bemused teenagers whose Catholic School Board had just voted against installing condom machines in the lavatories. The newspapers had a photo-fest - the pink van decorated with UFOs and condoms, the transexual Priestguide who headed the operation, the chubby teens’ puzzled expressions as they examined the packets...but did they realize they were helping the Raelians prepare humanity for the Elohim’s mass landing?

41Some prophets are masters at manipulating the media. Farrakhan launched the Million Man March that was more than just a social statement; it was a millenarian fantasy pageant - a partial fulfillment of Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Black Man in America - that appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek.

42Even going on the Jerry Springer Show, which means assenting to an ordeal of ritual humiliation at the hands of Jerry’s well-trained camera crew and clacker audience, can be turned to a prophet’s advantage. A striking instance of this was the show featuring the Reverend Chris Korda, a beautiful transvestite prophet, founder of the cybernetic Church of Euthanasia. Naturally, Jerry expressed sanctimonious horror at three of Korda’s four “pillars of faith”: cannibalism, suicide, abortion (Jerry gingerly sidestepped “sodomy” - presumably wary of offending gays). Korda, crossing her elegant ladies’legs, wearing a sexy 50’s-style shift and Jackie O hairdo, delivered her well-rehearsed radical ecological message in her rapid staccato tenor. But she was also prepared for the obligatory muzzle. She and her three henchmen had brought placards and props, so that when Jerry began firing false accusations at her and ignored her efforts to respond, her team silently and eloquently held up the plastic chicken affixed to a crucifix, and a banner recommending that the TV audience “EAT A QUEER FOETUS FOR JESUS”. In this way, they managed to communicate their doomsday message quite efficiently despite overwhelming odds.

43Thus, media attention can not only strengthen a group’s morale, it can actually reinforce members’ conviction that the end of the world is indeed at hand, and their prophet is “making a difference”.

6. How the Media Can Trigger Violence

44Media attention is not always welcome, however. It can stimulate sinister undercurrents within a group’s apocalyptic theology and sometimes trigger a violent response. Prophets tend to flip-flop between optimistic scenarios of gradual salvation for all humanity, and pessimistic predictions of cataclysm. Public ridicule has been known to drive small prophetic groups underground, to the consternation of relatives. Critical news reports have at times had a combustible effect on the core group’s fiery visions and prompted them to assist in bringing on the endtime!

45This occurred in the case of Heaven’s Gate during September 1975 when “The Two” (later known as Ti and Do) gave a public lecture in Waldport, Oregon and attracted 230 converts for their “human individual metamorphosis”. The event was sensationalized in nationwide news coverage, that played up the enormous sacrifices demanded of converts, and ridiculed The Twos’ claim to be the “two witnesses” of Revelation who will be slain and then resurrected before Jesus’ Return. The Two cancelled all future lectures, and announced that they were «withdrawing into the wilderness» and that “the harvest is closed.” They hid until 1976 when they re-emerged in Wyoming and announced that “the demonstration” (the assassination/resurrection of the Two Witnesses) had been called off, because their “assassination” by the press had more than adequately fulfilled that prophecy! (Balch, 1995).

46From this time on, Ti and Do saw the outside world as hostile and contaminating, and their followers were obliged to cut off contact with friends and relatives - conditions which made it possible for Ti and Do to communicate their otherworldy vision of reality. Eventually, 36 “classmates” found it quite plausible to “drop the body” in order to board the space ship trailing Hale Bopp.

47A reading of the suicide notes (“Testament”) written by the leaders of the Solar Temple, makes it clear that at least one of the factors that convinced Luc Jouret that the Templars’ mission to “wake up humanity” had failed (at least this time round) was the negative press he had been receiving in France, Martinique and Quebec, that had made it necessary to cancel his conference series. The fourth letter, “To those who love justice,” complained bitterly of biased news reportage of the arms scandal involving Luc Jouret and Hydro Quebec official, Jacques Vinet: “Why does the mass media, who organized the scandal in collaboration with judicial and political authorities, obstinately refrain from clearly stating the decisions of the Court in regard to the three persons accused?”

48Announcing “we have decided to withdraw ourselves from this world with all lucidity and in full consciousness,” the leaders of the Solar Temple suddenly abandoned their more “upbeat” plan to use the organic farming commune in St-Anne-de-Perade, Que., as a “Noah’s Ark” of “consciousness” and ritual magic to save the planet, and decided to abort mission earth and “return to Sirius,” setting explosive devices, drugging and shooting fellow templars who “are conscious, but do not realize it yet”.

49But while media attention has, at times, sparked violent responses from apocalyptic groups, publicity can - and should be - a healthy thing. Public knowledge can shield defectors (and future “joiners”) against certain dangers posed by upstart religions with criminal tendencies.

50A chilling tale emerged from the court case involving the Japanese prophet, Asahara who ordered his top aides to throw sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway. The tale involves a major TV network known as TBS that could have provided safety to an early critic of Aum Shinrikyo (Asahara’s religious organization) and a warning to the public at large.

51Sakamoto Tsutsumi, a lawyer representing an ex-member, presented a serious threat to the group, for he had discovered a fool-proof way to “get” Asahara on charges of fraud. The blind prophet had been selling phials of his own blood at an exhorbitant price to his followers, the group’s literature claiming it had been sent to a university laboratory and was found to contain a “a unique form of DNA which could be passed to disciples through the initiation. Sakamoto found that no such test had been made” Reader, 2000:170)

52In October 1989, the lawyer went to TBS for a taped interview, in the course of which he exposed the nefarious activities of Aum Shinrikyo, an interview that was scheduled to be shown on an afternoon newsentertainment show. Senior officials of Aum Shinrikyo visited the network and negotiated a private showing of the interview the day before it was to be aired, and convinced the TV producers to withdraw it.

53According to the prosecuting lawyer in the case, Asahara said, “this lawyer is a problem. We must poa [kill] him,” snapping his fingers. Six of his followers broke into the lawyer’s apartment at 3 a.m., kidnapped him, his wife and baby son, murdered them and hid the bodies.

54Now it is a strict policy never to show programs to concerned parties before they are broadcast. Questions were raised in court probing the relationship between the TV network and Aum Shinrikyo and whether there had been a TBS no taishitsu [TBS coverup]. Why wasn’t the cancelled interview reported to the police after the lawyer’s family disappeared in suspicious circumstances? The opinion was expressed in court that if the interview had been aired, as promised, it would have been poindess - and too obvious - to silence the lawyer.

55TBS executives appeared before Japan’s Diet, where it was suggested that the network had formed cozy ties with the “cult” and used producers with close cult ties in order to gain access for exclusive stories-such as an interview with Asahara right after the lawyer’s murder. TBS programming was cut. Presumably, this is a uniquely Japanese situation that “couldn’t happen over here”.

56Now, I am not blaming the press for driving cults to violence, nor proposing that journalists should steer clear of “doomsday cults”, I am merely suggesting that the media needs to be educated - to develop more awareness of what and who they are dealing with; and to try to treat the “ultimate concerns” of unconventional religions, however bizarre and irrational they appear to nonbelievers, with more respect.

7. Kangaroo Courts in the Media

57When new religious prophets begin to attract attention and arouse controversy, it is not uncommon for an interested party - a parent seeking custody, a former member, a rival business, to level serious allegations against the prophet. These allegations/charges may be the “sticky” kind that are at once socially stigmatizing and yet impossible to disprove - bygone rapes, child molestations, suicidal intentions. One finds a disturbing tendency in these news reports to assume the accused is guilt simply because he or she is weird. The journalist acts like a prosecuting lawyer in laying forth the “evidence” that encourages the public to brand the accused as guilty. The most primitive parody of “justice” follows, in which three kinds of “evidence” are presented.

58First, common symbols are trotted out. Since NRMs emerge out of a cultic milieu where they draw upon a rich subterranean “stew” of occult symbols and rituals, one finds the dwarf star Sirius and the sanskrit chant “AUM” cropping up over and over again in many new religious systems. The press pounces upon these as “proof” the group is planning mass suicide or terrorist attacks. The Aumistes’ unfortunate resemblance to the name of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo did not pass unnoticed. Since the Solar Temple perpetrated their homicidal “flight” to Sirius, the dog star has become inauspicious. Quebec’s New Age group, the Vortex of the Star of David practises fasting to facilitate an “ascension” to Sirius. Not surprisingly, a father seeking custody of his son who exhibited sudden weight loss, found it useful to compare the Vortex to the Solar Temple.

59A second strategy of the prosecuting journalist is to prove a prophet’s guilt is through the accumulation of unrelated charges. In a manner similar to the 1993 news stories about David Koresh, that raised allegations of polygamy, child beating, and statutory rape to bolster the plausibility of the ATFs illegal weapons charges. The journalist will mention a slew of alleged “crimes” and mideneanours that are quite irrelevant and unrelated. By sheer weight of numbers, the message is conveyed that this “cult leader” person is certainly deviant, and hence probably guilty.

60Finally, bizarre snippets of the group’s apocalyptic beliefs will be quoted out of context, to convey the impression that the leader is nuts, hence probably guilty. When Gilbert Bourdin was arrested on June 12, 1995, one newspaper outlined the rape charges, then concluded with zany tidbits of Bourdin’s wildest prophecies: “Bourdin claims to have shortened the Gulf war by freezing the region’s karma. He also claims to be shielding Earth from alien invaders.” (“High in French Alps, cult attracts followers - and government scrutiny” by William J. Kole, Associated Press, Feb.5, 1996, reprinted in The Cult Observer, Feb. 1996:4-5).

61That the media in all its hubris likes to set up a kangaroo court in the event of a cult scandal is illustrated by my own experience. In May 1999 Quebec’s mystical pope, Gregory XVII, was widely reported in the press as being “in hiding”. The RCMP had just searched his monastery in St Jovite in connection with charges of gross indecency (laid by ex-members who had been raised in the children’s wing of the monastery). I was invited to appear on a major Canadian television network to express my views on the situation, since I had visited Pope Gregory several times and written an encyclopedia entry on the order. The morning of the scheduled interview, the host’s assistant phoned and explained they had decided they weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say in general, what they needed was for me to say. “I think he’s guilty!” - in short, a “soundbite” that was a verdict. “I can’t do that!” I protested, “that’s up to the court to decide.”

62The assistant put me on hold while he conferred with his boss.... “OK, you can say he’s not guilty, that’s just as good.” A long argument ensued where I insisted that surely even mystical popes should be “presumed innocent” and, moreover, I didn’t want to get “egg on my face”. The assistant concluded our discussion by saying, “Look! We here believe he’s guilty. We’ve watched hours of taped interviews with ex-members here in the studio, and they’re crying!” Later I discovered that the mystical pope had not in fact been hiding. He happened to by traveling in France at the time of the raid, and barely managed to stand before the judge in time to avoid an arrest, thanks to a strong backwind on his Air France flight - which his monks believe was divinely sent.

8. How the Media Researches NRMs: A Stern Critique

63Media interpretations of any data concerning “cults” is both pat and precipitous. In research the interpretation should not precede the factfinding process. But journalists are often paid to do just that. Journalists rarely go in with an open mind, prepared to be surprised or actually learn something. Usually they are too rushed - the story has to be on the editor’s desk by morning. I find many of them approach their research on “cults” with a smug attitude, their “takes” are replete with hackneyed cliches and truisms. What they want from me, the “cult expert,” is to “just fill in the facts, Mam, the weirder the better”.

64Journalists often excuse their lack of research by claiming the group refused to answer their phone calls or let them go in. When I have asked some of these groups whether this were actually so, they reply no message was left on their answering machines, no requests for visits were made.

65Some journalists expect me to be their unpaid ghost writer for their schlocky stories. One Toronto journalist phoned up to say, “my editor has assigned me to do a story on a woman who is a survivor of an apocalyptic cult” and asked me to put her in touch with one of my female informants. I couldn’t and didn’t want to help her. I have interviewed several woman who participated in different “world ends,” but their experiences would not conform to the editor’s prescriptions. One woman related a long drawn-out (actually rather boring) process of prophetic recasting and reinterpretation among the core group. Another claimed the “end did happen after all - but invisibly: And I felt it deep inside - it was like WOW!” Another woman had me in stitches describing her leader’s hesitant indecision at the critical juncture. These were not grim female “victims” and noble “survivors,” but real people who had their own, idiosyncratic responses to an anomalous situation. I was annoyed by her request, and it is a good example of how the media ignores the basic guidelines for reliable research.

66Journalists embrace reductionism and oversimplification. The media exhibits a tendency to confuse mythic violence with real-life, concrete plans to take human life. All religions address the problem, the mystery of death. Every apocalyptic religion offers a solution to individual death by promising a spectacular group carnage that will end happily in collective salvation and immortality. For the FBI, how imminent this collective death is, how literally the prophecies are interpreted seems to indicate the relative danger of the situation. But does it? Here a knowledge of the history of heresy is useful. It is a dangerous and unfair assumption that any group that fits the «apocalyptic» category is heading for mass suicide or some form of erratic violence: “It’s a Jonestown waiting to happen!”

67As Beckford (1995) notes, in stories about «cults,» «conflict is the leitmotiv». The readers are reminded of the sequence of reported events into which the story can be slotted. Stories on The Family and the Church Universal in 1994 and 1995 were introduced in the following manner: “If you think Waco was bad, consider who could be next!”; “The Church Universal and Triumphant - another Waco?”; “In the wake of Waco”. This creates a dark, turbulent mood, even if the story is about some apparently bland, innocuous activity. The NOW Show on the Family began with the host saying “Family members begged us not to compare them with the Branch Davidians at Waco” - then cut to footage the flaming of Mt Carmel compound.

68Journalists exhibit a blatant disregard for research ethics in gathering material on “apocalyptic cults.” An outstanding example is the 1998 Dateline documentary on the Aquarian Foundation in Sedona Arizona. Two “undercover staffers” pretending to be prospective converts go into the “cult” wearing hidden cameras and microphones, evidently determined to prove what a jerk the leader is, and to expose his “brainwashing” procedures that supposedly extend “into the most intimate aspects of members’ lives”. This method, known in the field as “covert research” is dubious in itself, but Dateline compounds it with a foray into “ambush journalism”. In the middle of a television interview with Gabriel, prophet-channeler of extraterrestrials, the two reporters suddenly unmask themselves and confront him, accusing him, among other things, of polygamy (it turns out he had an extra-marital fling that his wife is understanding about, and has hinted that the aliens are not constrained by monogamy on their planet). In the end, the viewer is left with the impression that the prophet Gabriel, despite his Charlton Heston-style Old Testament robes, is a gentle and mature individual who responds to this hostile assault on his charisma with remarkable humour and self-restraint, whereas the journalists come across as sleazy, self-important bigots. (My students’ response when I showed this video in my Research Methods class was, «Well Miss, what do you expect? It’s Dateline!)

9. Apocalypse? Whatever....

69Why waste time getting the theology straight when, after all, “crazy is crazy”? This sums up the research method of journalists who rarely bother to differentiate between types of eschatology. All apocalyptic dramas - Christian, Theosophical, New Age, Muslim, Hindu, Sci Fi - are smushed together. Even if Christian fundamentalists are in the limelight, words like “Armageddon”, “Judgement Day,” “doomsday,” “tribulation”, “Second Coming” will be used interchangeably-as buzz words illustrating the nutso, whacko quality of the group. The doctrinal, mythic or historical meaning of terms are discarded, but a word makes the headlines for its sound, or alliterative effect. Actually, these terms do have distinct and precise meanings, but when prophets wield these terms to communicate their mystical revelatory experiences, journalists diagnose diction as a symptom of mental illness, rather than as proof of competence in symbolic languages of venerable religious traditions which are, after all, the tools of a prophet’s trade.

10. The Best Weapon Against Dogma is a Stigma!

70While the twentieth century recedes into the past, “apocalyptic cults” nevertheless continue to exert a strong fascination over the public - a fascination which is ambivalent. News reports on these groups are written to evoke laughter, pity, comtempt or fear. Sects can get very silly during their critical moments of expectation (see the Monte Python Skit of the “End of the World”). They may strike us as endearingly eccentric, like the millionaire couple who is building an underground bunker in northern Ontario. On rare occasions millenarians turn out to be tragic victims (see Waco: the Rules of Engagement). Recently, they have unmasked themselves as mass murderers and terrorists-like the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo who tried to bring on “Harumageddon” by releasing nerve gas in the subway (Mullins, 1997). This complexity, this sheer variety, is rarely reflected in media cliche-ridden articles.

71When reporting on “apocalyptic cults” the media appear to have adopted the motto: “the best weapon against a dogma is a stigma”. The media masks its own intolerance by blowing the whistle on intolerance; by sanctimoniously alerting the public to the existence of putatively “intolerant” groups in our social midst. This establishes a moral highground where the media can hunker down with its readers and indulge in thoroughly enjoyable sessions of “cult bashing” that involve political outcasting, the venting of prejudices, and the trotting out of tired sterotypes. Bristling with outraged tolerance, secular-minded journalists condemn religious extremists for branding the bulk of humanity as sinners and excluding them from their plan of salvation. But ironically, while these news reports deplore the irrational fantasies of the apocalyptic imagination, at the same time they are busy constructing a parallel fantasy of secular apocalypticism - that “apocalyptic cults” - those crazy, criminal “Jonestowns waiting to happen” are getting ready to “act up” as we near the cusp of 2001 - or 2002.

72Certainly there are dangers lurking in some groups, for millenarian excitement can unleash antinomian impulses. The 144,000 “chosen ones” may regard outsiders as evil or subhuman. If Armageddon is about to break out, why not take a few potshots at the “enemy” before Christ returns? If the world is about to be “spaded over” why not “drop the vehicle” and make the soul leap to Heaven? But this is exactly why it is essential that we secular types should take care to separate the “sheep from the goats” and stop persecuting harmless theological innovators.

73One does not need to be a prophet to foresee future injustices, even tragedies equivalent to Waco, that are likely to arise out of the public’s deeply entrenched, low-level prejudice against “apocalyptic cults”. This prejudice is reinforced by journalists’ lack of an open-mind and long-term curiosity concerning new religions, a lack that renders them incompetent in dealing with such a slippery, complex and paradoxical phenomenon as apocalypticism. Negative press puts pressure on law enforcement to “do something,” and the stigmatization of premillenialists as brainwashed zombies who have lost their human status, can lead to serious violations of human rights.

74The Chinese government’s 1999-2000 crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners provides a particularly disturbing example of this pattern. Over fifty practitioners have died and thousands have been incarcerated in labour camps or mental hospitals. Many of the deaths, which occur in the context of torture, hunger strikes leading to forced feeding, or attempted escape from trains carrying prisoners to the camps - have been explained by the Chinese government as “suicides”. The suicide stigma is a sinister thing, whether it is used by Chinese or American authorities. The assumption is that these “cultists” have already renounced their human status and rights as individuals by embracing a morbid salvation, hence any violation of those rights is justifiable.




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French and North American Press

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Agence France-Presse (21 Décembre 1994), “Les Chevaliers du Lotus d’or ne pourront pas construire leur temple”. La Presse, D13.

Agence France-Presse (13 Décembre 1994), “Manifestation en France contre une Nouvelle secte”. La Presse.

Agence France-Presse (26 Novembre 1994), “Visite des gendarmes à des copains de Jouret”, Le Devoir A4.

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News Reports on The Concerned Christians

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(4 January 1998), Globe and Mail.

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Hockstader, Lee (January, 4, 1999), “14 form U.S. detained in Israel.” The Washington Post Foreign Service, A14.

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considered violent”. Associated Press.

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1 This article appeared as “Apocalypse Now. No, Really. Now!” by Alex Heard and Peter Klebnikov, The New York Times Magazine, December 27, 1998:40-43. I was pleasantly surprised, because it featured obscure and interesting groups, and was more descriptive than judgemental.

2 Edited by Thomas Robbins and Susan Palmer, 1997. New York:Routledge.

3 Marat Shterin is a distinguished scholar in Russia, and a Ph D candidate in Sociology at the London School of Economics.

4 Interview with Ekta.

5 Personal communication.

6 Interview with Ekta, September 1999.


Lecturer Religious Sciences Dawson College (Montreal) Religious Studies Concordia University

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