The lethal delusion of cults has repeatedly been on public display.
The Rev. Jim Jones steered 900 fervent believers into mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Many swallowed cyanide and gave it to their children.
David Koresh led 80 adherents to fiery death at his bible prophecy compound at Waco, Texas.
Ervil LeBaron, leader of the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God, ordered his 13 wives, 54 children and various lieutenants to kill “false prophets” and dissenters in the Southwest. Since LeBaron died in prison in 1981, several of his disciples have been murdered in sect rivalry.
In western Switzerland, 48 members of a sect known as the Solar Temple, and also as the Cross and the Rose, died in a mass murder-suicide. Many of the victims were found in a secret underground chapel lined with mirrors. Bodies in ceremonial robes were in a circle, feet together, heads outward, most with plastic bags tied over their heads, which bore bullet wounds. Other victims were in three ski chalets. Several dead children were lying together. The tragedy was found by officers rushing to fight fires that had been ignited by remote-control devices. Farewell letters said the believers were “leaving this Earth” to escape “hypocrisies and oppression of this world.”
Simultaneously, in Quebec, fire ignited by a timer killed four people at a different branch of the Solar Temple. The Canadian group had been stockpiling weapons to prepare for the end of the world. The cult leader had pleaded guilty to weapons conspiracy in 1993 and had gone to Switzerland.
Good Lord! What possesses some people, to make them believe crackpot gurus so intensely that they’re willing to kill rivals, strangers, their own children and themselves? This recurring pattern defies comprehension.
There may be as many as 2,000 religious groups in North America that can be classified as cults, according to Connecticut analyst Kevin Garvey. (A cult differs from other churches in that it’s usually controlled by a single charismatic leader, and the members isolate themselves from the world.) If only 1 percent of those 2,000 resort to killing, that’s still a serious threat.
How can society be protected from potentially dangerous “fringies” — and what can be done to rescue the naive, vulnerable people who are drawn into such groups? The only effective method is constant warnings that should be disseminated as widely as possible. Maybe they’ll dissuade some trusting souls from joining secretive sects that end up as horror stories.
This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of Free Inquiry and was republished on Feb. 1, 2021, at Patheos/Daylight Atheism.
Photo: Nancy Wong / CC 4.0 | Jonestown: Jonestown Institute