Book Review - Violence and New Religious Movements

International Journal of Cultic Studies, 4, 2013, 63-69

Violence and New Religious Movements

James R. Lewis, Editor

Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart

New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. ISBN-10: 0199735611; ISBN-13: 978-0199735617 (paperback), $26.23 ( 443 pages.

Violence and New Religious Movements, edited by James R Lewis, is a collection of 20 articles by 22 scholars. The ambitious project offers a limited sample of new religious movements (NRMs), also called minority religions, sects, and cults, but with a broad analysis of aspects of violence as expressed, imagined, and attracted by NRMs. In other words, this highly nuanced if sketchy collection is not merely about violent cults or movements. The authors collectively offer a complex phenomenon that includes harsh societal reactions to generally nonviolent strangers in its midst; it also describes group-generated violence to insiders and outsiders. Moreover, the outside perception or rumor of violence can be the cause of defensive reactions by the targeted group, thus creating a kind of self-fulfilling, outsider prophecy—like the oddball teenager who finally snaps after being bullied for a year. Other groups that have some hallmarks of suicidal or homicidal potential may never act on violent doctrinal beliefs. And others may become victims of violence merely because they arise in a totalitarian surround or regime that feels threatened by insurrection or mere disobedience. The reader should come away with a clearer idea that, to understand an NRM, per se, one must view it as a dynamic, uniquely focused grouping to be studied and appreciated according to actual evidence in context and not impressions, stereotypes, or preconceived notions.

James Lewis introduces the chapters with some self-disclosure as a former member of the 3HO (Happy Healthy Holy Organization) founded by Yogi Bhajan (died 2004), in 1969 a maverick Sikh meditation teacher from India—perfect timing for the coming post-Hippie era when young folk were looking for non-drug-induced, mind-expanding techniques. Lewis alleges (p. 5) that NRM critics “collectively referred to as the anticult movement (ACM) … regularly portray a wide variety of alternative religions, if not all NRMs, as potentially violent.” Many of the authors follow the narrow Lewis stereotype of the purported ACM throughout the book (e.g., Richardson, p. 46; Elsberg, p. 343; Aitamurto, p. 246); while others, refreshingly, are less dependent on a constricted bias about a wide-ranging social, religious, and psychological critique of NRMs, even within established cult-awareness organizations (e.g., Peste, Chapter 10; Crovetto, Chapter 12; Rochford, Chapter 13). Constance Elsberg describes 3HO (Chapter 16) as one NRM that had strong traits of a potentially violent group (the Indian Sikhs that 3HO mimics have a proud warrior tradition); yet it never acted violently toward society or its members—unless, of course, one regards forced sex by Yogi Bhajan on at least two of his “holy wives” (p. 342) as violent. Lewis uses research and his personal experience with 3HO to reassure us that, despite appearances and critics, 3HO and most other emergent religions have been relatively benign actors in society.

Part I. Theorizing NRM Violence has three chapters by prominent writers in the NRM field: David G. Bromley offers a sociological overview in “Deciphering the NRM-Violence Connection”; James T. Richardson offers insight from his specialty of forensics and sociology but with somewhat dated information in “Minority Religions and the Context of Violence.” Richardson also has a penchant for sociological spin: “The Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) was accused of stock-piling weapons, attracting considerable attention some years ago” (p. 35). According to court testimony and many eye witnesses, CUT (a.k.a. Summit Lighthouse) did stockpile a truckload of weapons in bunkers in Idaho as early as 1973 before it stockpiled even more weapons, some illegally purchased and transported to Montana 15 years later, which is the period Richardson refers to. In “Reciprocal Totalism: The Toxic Interdependence of Anticult and Cult Violence,” Dick Anthony, Thomas Robbins, and Steven Barrie-Anthony offer an interesting if somewhat equivocal notion that violent projections beget violence, while they tend to minimize the responsibility that extremist groups have for unnecessarily irritating their neighbors or triggering the sequence that ends in violent outcomes. But I get their point: Overreaction by cult critics and law enforcement can have dire, self-fulfilling consequences with already edgy, paranoid groups (the Branch Davidian debacle at Waco in 1993 is a prime example discussed in this book). In his introduction, Lewis does assign some of the blame for social conflict to the inherent “radical attributes and millennialism, totalism, and charisma” of many NRMs (pp. 26–27).

In Part II. The “Big Five” (Plus One), we find articles about Peoples Temple and Jonestown by Rebecca Moore, the Branch Davidians by Stuart A. Wright, Order of the Solar Temple by Henrik Bogdan, Aum Shinrikyo by Martin Repp, Heaven’s Gate by Benjamin E. Zeller, and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Africa by Jean-Francois Mayer. The reason for the “big five” designation comes from a proliferation of media coverage and books after a tragic outcome, although we heard very little about these groups outside of regional coverage and incidental ex-member complaints prior to tragedy. Opportunistically, naive cult critics will point to The “Big Five” Plus One as the potential end of everything called a “cult,” and this is what irks scholars who paint the so-called ACM with stereotyping and fear mongering. But I found this section enlightening, if for nothing else, for the consideration of underlying nuances that cult critics often overlook. Stuart Wright with his in-depth analysis of the Branch Davidian holocaust reminds us that

we may never know how the fire started at Mount Carmel … Waco has become something of a Rorschach test for social actors, telling us more about their politics and values than about the actual chain of events that led to the annihilation of this religious community. (p. 127)

Part III covers Select Religious Groups Involved in Violence, including murder among members in a Swedish Pentecostal community called Knutby Filadelfia (Jonathan Peste, Chapter 10), and the Rodnovers, a Slavic neopagan movement with “warriors” and traits similar to Wicca, Druidism, and Asatru found mainly in Russia. The Rodnoverie includes disparate groups and individuals with a spiritual connection to ancient pagan gods and various degrees of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic sympathies. “Rodnoverie is not a religion that would actively propagate violence, but there are Rodnovers who have committed horrendous violent acts” (Kaarina Aitamurto, p. 245).

Part III continues with “Ananda Marga, PROUT (Progressive Utilization Theory), and the Use of Force,” by Helen Crovetto, who offers an excellent summary about the history of this quasifascist movement. Founded by P. R. Sarkar (1921–1990) using Manichean principles of a “never-ending struggle between good and evil” (p. 264) that underscore the Margiis’ “ideological totalism” as the answer to all the world’s problems (p. 267). Sarkar preached that violence is useful for establishing a proper society that he called “benevolent dictatorship of the Sadvipras” (p. 259), or spiritual elites of his choosing. Crovetto assures us that Sarkar and the Margiis were not inclined to terrorism but to “revolution” (p. 268). Any “incidents of extraorganizational violence … were an aberration” (p. 268) while Sarkar was in prison. Next, E. Burke Rochford, Jr. discusses “Violence, Charisma, and the Transformation of New Vrindaban,” the most famous if not representative commune of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in West Virginia. Rochford is a reliable scholar who has studied this movement for decades. The internal violence at New Vrindaban included murders and a severe head beating of the leader, Kirtanananda (Keith Hamm), in 1985 by an irate Krishna devotee that caused a serious change in Hamm’s mental status; this, in turn, led to an increase in criminal behaviors including drug distribution, racketeering, and sexual abuse. This progression added to the havoc in ISKCON and its eventual denouement. Rochford offers a useful analysis of how charisma coupled with mismanaged authority can lead to internal conflict in a new religion, and how internal reform can reduce the conflict and potential violence with outsiders.

Part IV covers Rhetorics of Violence and Peaceful Denouements in four new movements: “The Nation of Islam and Violence” (Martha F. Lee); “Cultural Capital, Social Networks, and Collective Violence at Rajneeshpuram” (Marion S. Goldman); “‘Strong as Steel, Steady as Stone’: Skirting Pitfalls in 3HO/Sikh Dharma” (Constance Elsberg); and “‘Smite Him Hip and Thigh’: Satanism, Violence, and Transgression” (Jesper Aagaard Petersen). The takeaway from Part IV can be summarized as the tendency for many radical movements to do more posturing toward than actively attacking perceived enemies both within and without the movement. However, this tendency does not preclude isolated incidents of murder, as when alleged agents of the Nation of Islam shot and killed Malcolm X in 1965. A persistent perception of satanism includes a vile disregard for morals, laws, and the sanctity of life; yet most satanists by that name are better understood as self-centered sensationalists and relatively intelligent rationalists with no desire to go to jail. Satanism occurs in three basic categories, according to Jesper Petersen: as rationalist, esoteric, and reactive. “The mythical realties of esotericism, hellfire clubs, devil worship, and fascist aesthetics are a necessary backdrop to rationalist practices of lesser and greater magic, artistic transgression, and personal empowerment” (pp. 370–371). Jesper cautions us to recall that human evil and murderous behavior erupt at soccer games and among Christian witch trials far more readily than among self-proclaimed satanists. The “other” is the evil in all of us.

Both Rajneesh (a.k.a. Osho) and Yogi Bhajan of 3HO had armed security and body guards by midcareer as cult leaders, but no one actually attacked these groups or leaders. Lead “sannyasins” of the Rajneesh cult did poison local folks with salmonella and did often harass and terrorize fifty or so local residents of the tiny town of Antelope, Oregon, with the Rajneeshpuram police force. “There was an armed communal city that was in high tension with the surrounding culture, but the group did not disintegrate because of extreme collective conflict” (Goldman, p. 320). Of course, if the “surrounding culture” had been in Iran or China, the outcome may have been quite different.

Part V. Violence Against NRMs explores what happens when the surrounding culture reacts to cults with violence. “State Fostered Violence Against the Falun Gong in China,” by James T. Richardson and Bryan Edelman, offers a good synopsis of the history of Falun Gong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reaction to it. The authors are quick to point out that Chinese officials by 2001 adopted the more strident Western anticult (ACM) narratives about destructive cults and brainwashing to define Falun Gong members as both mentally imbalanced and socially dangerous. “Most of the claims put forth by the ACM lack empirical verification or general acceptance within the scientific community” (p. 388). By marginalizing Falun Gong in this way despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, the Chinese government could ramp up its persecution and imprisonment of tens of thousands of members to effectively compromise if not shut down the cult in China. Nevertheless, activist Falun members in the West continue to garner support for their cause. The leader and founder, Li Hongzhi, fled China and has been in New York. Not discussed by the authors are essential Falun teachings that combine traditional beliefs about “chi” energy and Hongzhi’s fanciful claims that true Falun devotees will manifest magical powers such as levitation and telepathic awareness of world news.

The second and last article in Part V, “Deprogramming Violence: The Logic, Perpetration, and Outcomes of Coercive Intervention,” by Anson Shupe, deserves special attention, if not for its provocative use of atrocity tales, then for errors in fact. By way of disclosure here, I have a long history as a deprogrammer and an exit counselor, by any other name, since November of 1980 when I first talked five people out of devotion to controversial NRMs, including a small, Christian cult and the large New Age sect that I was in for more than a year. I managed to accomplish that feat alone with no coercion and for no pay whatsoever. Those coincidental interventions changed five lives for the good by individual acclaim even years after the intervention. After some years of unpaid assistance to help folks both to leave and to recover from cults, I entered the field of arranged interventions with deprogrammers by 1986 as a fee-for-service agent for the first time.

I came into the activity late or in its second phase, 9 years after legal warrants (conservatorships) for coercive intervention of cult members effectively ceased after a decision in Katz v. Superior Court (1977).[1] The unstable field of deprogrammers was already dwindling by the mid-1980s as the result of multiple prosecutions and fickle career security; and, as Shupe indicates, most had changed to an “exit counseling” approach that avoided illegal detainment of a cult member at any time during the intervention process. For a limited time (1986 to 1992) in a minor percentage of my caseload, I participated in what Shupe calls coercive deprogramming—the kind that can get you into legal trouble for improper detainment. Along with two other deprogrammers, I did stand trial in 1993 in Idaho for an intervention that failed in 1991—a jury acquitted me of all charges including misdemeanors. Shupe draws from the plaintiff’s testimony in this Idaho case to support his argument about violent deprogramming.

Anson Shupe is notable as the expert witness in a civil case brought by Scientology operatives against the former, original Cult Awareness Network (CAN). During his testimony, Shupe argued that if anything was a cult, it was CAN, but he minimized such attribution to controversial NRMs extant in America. The Church of Scientology lawyers won that case for an ex-member of a Bible cult who was kidnapped at age 18 for deprogramming by his mother and a deprogrammer allegedly “referred” by CAN. The result was, as Shupe mentions (p. 408), that CAN lost in court and had to claim bankruptcy, thus opening the entire nonprofit office with its files, phone number, and logo for a legal sale. The primary bidder was Scientology; so in a most ironic twist of fate, a cult became the operator of the Cult Awareness Network in 1996. The CAN phone number was ubiquitous in books and contact information about cults up to that point, so many hundreds of folks were sorely misled and upset—many called me after contacting “CAN” for years after 1996 with their horror stories. I co-presented a paper about the history of cult intervention in the late 1990s in New York at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. Shupe was on the panel.

Throughout my deprogramming career, I never argued, for a host of reasons that I share with Shupe and his sympathizers, that coercive approaches to intervention be legalized or condoned. The concerned families and intervention specialists they hired were well aware of the risks, as perhaps half of these attempts failed to persuade the cult member to defect. The families and deprogrammers felt that intervention was their duty, not their right. Naturally, most victims of failed coercive intervention gave their own version of the atrocities they suffered during their deprogramming ordeals. Shupe, in his article, takes these atrocity reports at face value without due representation of conflicting eyewitness accounts. Of course, Shupe may be excused for this lapse since his access to those eyewitnesses has been compromised by his apologetic reputation regarding NRMs. Why would I, for example, reveal any facts of a case to a scholar who could be an easy pipeline to Scientology? However, I will underscore that Shupe’s criticism of coercive deprogramming as “violent” and potentially harmful is, on the whole, well-deserved and warranted.

No one regulated the “vigilante” (Shupe) field of deprogramming, and the purported ACM organizations had no direct control over the activities of a maverick deprogrammer. However, Shupe’s research indicates that hundreds if not thousands of deprogramming interventions originated with calls to ACM-related offices (pp. 402-403). His atrocity tales from disgruntled targets of intervention include harangues, intimidation, physical abuse (especially during the abduction phase), sexual abuse, and psychological harm to cult members who resisted deconversion. Shupe does indicate with some cynicism that positive outcomes of deprogramming received praise in many reports by ACM organizations and news articles. Most individuals who defected from a cult during coercive intervention reported minimal lingering distress regarding the “violence” associated with the process. Shupe acknowledges this disparity, which is at the crux of his argument against violence during coercive intervention. But he goes further.

Not so surprisingly, Shupe regards even legal intervention as “violent” despite the noncoercive narratives by practitioners: “It should be obvious that a gentle, voluntary, or nonviolent deprogramming is semantic waffling, a form of what in the sociology of deviance is termed neutralization and ultimately an oxymoron” (p. 411). He argues that in any intervention or exit-counseling approach, the client is the family or person who hires the interventionist and not the NRM member; therefore, there must be some level of discomfort or a feeling of an assault on the part of the member, at least initially, and especially, again, if the intervention fails. I would agree that there is discomfort and anxiety: Most of the many hundreds of noncoercive interventions I did alone with a family or spouse who hired me did result in discomfort for the cult member initially; and that lasted until we could gain some rapport and agreement. But to call this approach violent is, well, in the realm of an oxymoron, if not outright blindness to the validity of duty to inform.

I mentioned that Shupe made errors in fact as much from bias as from a failure to cite accurate resources. I easily found and noted well over a dozen errors in this article, but I will restrict my comments to several. He claims that “After the Cult Awareness Network declared bankruptcy in 1996, the North American anticult effort lost its national-level clearinghouse for deprogramming referrals” (p. 411). This statement is both misleading and simplistic according to the considerable information I had as an insider to the field. The actual occurrence of coercive deprogramming in the United States was always tiny relative to the number of cult members, and it declined after the early 1980s; then it fell precipitously after 1990 and by 1992 became negligible as a potential threat to any cult member. No new “apprentices” came into deprogramming for many years because of increased legal risks, often uncomfortable work conditions, and uncertain income, not to mention the considerable learning curve for layers of knowledge and the individual fortitude necessary to be effective in tense circumstances. This reality holds true for apprentices for the noncoercive approaches for similar reasons, leaving aside the high risk of legal prosecution. In others words, the field of intervention specialists shrinking away had almost nothing to do with CAN as a “clearinghouse” going under in 1996.

Furthermore, CAN, as well as other ACM organizations, always had divided sympathies over approaches to intervention—most individuals in the ACM were dead against breaking the law to intervene. CAN, as I knew it from 1986, had an uneasy relationship at best with those who would ever entertain a coercive approach. By 1996, the Internet had significantly begun to replace CAN’s primary role, which was to disseminate information about cultic groups.

Shupe uses many examples culled from court cases and testimonies from victims of failed coercive interventions. I am intimately familiar with several of the cases and have been aware of the others he mentioned since they occurred. He cites from a case I mentioned above that took place in Idaho, the one I went to trial over. Shupe (p. 406) describes Laverne C. as the target of intervention and a “single mother” who was “worrying about her children’s safety” during the week-long intervention that began with abduction from her home. This case is complex and is outlined in detail in a statement I made to a sociology professor who posted it on the Internet in 1996.[2] Shupe makes no reference to my public statement even though I was an eyewitness after the abduction.

Contrary to Shupe’s characterization, Laverne C. was yet married to a military man who was at home with their four sons at the time of the abduction—he was downstairs watching television and had no idea that his mother-in-law and sister-in-law had planned to abduct his wife. A security person and not a “deprogrammer” (Shupe, p. 406) posed as a pizza delivery man, and he pulled LaVerne C. from the doorway. The sister-in-law immediately ran into the house to explain to the husband and the children what had happened. The husband had no idea where they took his wife. He had no responsibility for the abduction, as he testified in court. There were no deprogrammers in Idaho during the first days of this desperate effort by a worried mother. Laverne C. knew very well that her children were safe the entire time. However, her marriage was not going well—her husband was against her reengagement with cult members while he was away for a 6-month training tour in 1991. And, after he returned, Laverne C. was already involved with a cult member whom she would marry later. The mother and sister were hoping not only to save a marriage, but also to curtail harm (social, intellectual, financial, and spiritual if not physical) from a radical, New Age sect that was armed for protection and predicting imminent doom. Shupe minimizes the radical, even crazy behaviors of this large sect, CUT.

Shupe (p. 406) mentions the case of Karen L., who was abducted by a security team (not deprogrammers) hired by her parents for an intervention in 1990. We realize that the distinction between security and deprogrammer is uninteresting under the eyes of the law because all are “accessories” to the alleged crime; but a scholar should maintain more precision when describing actors in an event. Shupe does not: “Her parents, who were afraid she was falling under the influence of the late Dr. Frederick Lenz’s Rama seminars (sic), hired deprogrammers to abduct her in the parking lot of Seattle’s SeaPac airport…” Again, I was a deprogrammer on that case (I appeared on a Philadelphia television show in 1992 with Karen L. after the fact, so this is public knowledge). Karen was not “falling under the influence” of Rama, as all his “students” called Lenz; rather, she was a hard-core devotee for many years at the time and had totally cut off her family to comply with Lenz’s paranoid teachings. The parents had to go through considerable effort to detect where she was living and working that year.

Also, Lenz was alive at the time of the failed intervention—he committed ritual suicide in 1998 by a massive overdose and attempted to take his girlfriend and two Scottie dogs with him. Happily, the girlfriend and the dogs survived after treatment; after a massive overdose, Lenz apparently fell face first into a bay behind his home and drowned despite a desperate attempt by his heavily drugged and frantic girlfriend (he had her take around 50 or more barbiturate or benzodiazepine tabs in what she described as a suicide pact) to haul him out. Shupe says nothing about the “back-stage” activity[3] of Rama Seminars that alarmed the parents of Karen L. Shupe thus ignores the sexual, psychological, and drug violence Lenz perpetrated on many of his students—I interviewed and counseled at least ten male and eight female students of Lenz in the late 1980s after they defected. Of course, none of this harmful behavior by Lenz justifies violence against any of his followers; but the effort to prevent harm is at issue here. Violence becomes a relative term when the intent is to prevent ongoing harm.

To avoid belaboring errors and biases (I noted many dozens throughout this book)—I think we get the point—let us move on. We all get the general idea of NRMs and violence if it is mass suicide and abuse of any kind under the direction of a cult leader, or the result of an assault by a reactive force or an unethical deprogrammer on cult members. And we can easily grasp why some ex-members emphasize atrocities much as recent divorcees might rant about their lying ex-spouses, seeing only the negative, or why an anticult group uses atrocity tales to further an agenda to put an end to cults. If anything, there is a sober end to this book. Lewis explains that this collection is only a beginning, or an invitation for further research, with suggestions for approaches. Having moved to Europe, he is keenly aware of the different approaches to NRMs within different nations. Whereas scholarship on NRMs among his peers may have become stale or overly self-referencing in North America, Lewis writes, “In northern Europe by contrast—particularly in the Scandinavian countries and the UK—the field appears to be flourishing, with many new scholars working on NRMs…” Sorely missing from this volume are a few notable US and Canadian scholars of NRMs (e.g., Janja Lalich, Benjamin Zablocki, Stephen Kent) who would offer contrasting approaches; but we can grasp, as Jesper Petersen reminds us in Chapter 17, that even satanists entertain the notion of “the other” within their ranks.

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 4, 2013 

[1] The Court of Appeal in Katz overturned the conservatorship orders, holding that in the absence of actions rendering the adult believers “gravely disabled,” the processes of the state could not “be used to deprive the believer of his freedom of action and to subject him to involuntary treatment.” [46 Cal.3d 1116] (73 Cal.App.3d at pp. 988–989),

[2] “A ‘Deprogrammer’s’ Viewpoint,”, 1996.