His followers often trembled in the pews when self-styled evangelist Jim Jones recounted how God had spoken directly to him. In 1977, Jones went further, claiming he was in fact the messiah and ordering his followers to abandon their corrupt lives and move to a remote jungle compound in Guyana. A year later,
914 would die in a horrendous mass murder-suicide—most from drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. But they would not be the only flock to follow their leader into death. In another chilling instance, self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh and more than 70 of his followers died when flames engulfed their headquarters in Waco,
And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
Tex., during a standoff with federal authorities in 1993. Shocking as they were, the victims’ recruitment and ultimate deaths fit a disturbing pattern—one that was grimly repeated with the multiple suicides late last month of members of the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate cults. “Their leaders are paranoid, sometimes very disturbed,” says Saul Levine, a Canadian psychiatrist who now teaches at the University of California at San Diego,
“but they fully believe that they are absolutely right.”
Each year, hundreds of Canadians join some of the 3,000 unorthodox religions of one type or another that experts say exist across North America. Some, like the Church of Scientology,
Hare Krishna or the Unification Church (Moonies), operate openly as organized religions and strongly reject any outsider characterizations of them as cults. Others, like the ragtag band once led by the murderous Roch Thériault, operate from the shadows. In 1993, Thériault was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1988 death of follower Solange Boilard at their compound 100 km northeast of Toronto; he had sliced open her abdomen
and ripped out a piece other intestines.
While it is hard for rational individuals to understand how madmen like Thériault can attract a following, many psychiatrists say there is no shortage of potential adherents, many suffering from depression or just plain loneliness. Levine, author of Radical Departures, which explains the attraction of cults, says the promise of complete acceptance
boosts the self-esteem of vulnerable people. But once inside, acolytes often face group pressure and even violence to keep reluctant members in line. ‘When you look back at Jonestown,” says Levine, “some of the people who did not go along with the mass suicide were murdered.”
Jones, Koresh, Heaven’s Gate founder Marshall Applewhite and the leaders of the Solar Temple all attracted and held new followers with a dangerous brew of biblical
philosophy and charismatic leadership. Steve Rudd, a minister with the Church of Jesus Christ in Hamilton and a consultant on cults, said the leaders all believed they were prophets who, through death, could take their followers to another level of existence. They also interpreted Chapter 24 of the Book of Matthew—in which Jesus discusses the destruction of Jerusalem and a future armageddon—as a doomsday script. With the world about to end, they told their followers, they had nothing to lose by arranging their own deaths. It is an argument most thinking people would reject, says Rudd, but it appeals to some troubled individuals who literally hand their lives over to their leaders. “All these doomsday cults believe they have a modern prophet speaking directly for God,” he says. “They believe that God is coming soon and the Earth is going to be destroyed.”
Many observers also associate the current activities of cults with the approach of a new millennium. The end of one major time period and the beginning of another tends to provoke both anxiety and utopian expectations, says University of Toronto theologian David Reed. At the turn of the 20th century, he says, idealistic spiritual groups flourished and many people anticipated the end of the world and their sudden uplifting to heaven. ‘There are perceived cosmic dimensions to the end of a century in some people’s minds,” says Reed. “There are all sorts of predictions, especially the doomsday or messianic expectations emerge that the great savior will come or that there’s going to be a major upheaval.”
Still, there is no evidence that membership in doomsday groups is growing very fast. Some cults’ terrifying use of lethal technology—the huge arsenal amassed by Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, for instance, or the deadly nerve gas released in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 by the doomsday group Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth)—has generated worldwide publicity. But Levine says it may also have created a mistaken impression in many people’s minds of a growing, widespread and immediate threat. While some of those cults’ tactics have certainly become more dramatic in recent years, their appeal remains limited mainly to small numbers of people with a tragically deep void in their lives.
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