The Myth of Cult Suicide

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Twenty years ago yesterday, on February 28, 1993, federal agents clashed with members of the Branch Davidians, a small religious sect based in Waco, Texas. The confrontation ended with a catastrophic fire that April, in which eighty Davidians perished in what was commonly portrayed as an act of mass cult suicide.

We can debate at length what actually happened: did they die because of deliberate decisions by the group's leaders and members, or were they killed by the federal agents storming the compound? But whichever view we take, few challenge the underlying idea that some fringe religious groups have a powerful inbuilt tendency to kill themselves en masse.

I think this Doomsday Cult view is a myth, and a deeply dangerous one.

The idea of mass cult suicide assumes that devotees follow an ideology that requires them to kill themselves as an article of faith, perhaps to bring on the apocalypse, or else to pass on to some higher state of being. Drinking the Kool Aid has become a familiar stereotype of cultish fanaticism. But however standard that image might be in the media vocabulary, it is in fact extremely rare, and very new historically.

Now, cults and fringe religions have been very commonplace, particularly in the American experience, and some have been led by truly dangerous and violent extremists. Also throughout history, people have killed themselves when a cause they deeply believe in has collapsed. After Hitler died, Josef Goebbels and his wife took their own lives and those of their six children. In such cases, fanatics leave a world that has become intolerable to them -- which is quite different from the deliberate ideological action suggested by the cult suicide theory. If matters had worked out differently, Goebbels would have been delighted to live to a ripe old age in a Nazi Europe.

But let's return to that "cult" context. Just how many undeniably authentic instances of "cult suicide" can we actually find?

The most notorious example was the Jonestown affair of 1978, when Jim Jones ordered the deaths of some eight hundred followers of his People's Temple, then based in Guyana. Many did kill themselves, but many others were executed by Jones's loyalists. In the 1990s again, we find events that precisely fit the image of doctrinally-driven mass suicide. Between 1994 and 1997, 75 members of the Order of the Solar Temple perished in a series of murders and suicides in Europe and Canada. 1997 brought the suicides of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate group, who killed themselves in order to join an alien spacecraft.

This concentration of events so close to the coming millennium placed apocalyptic cults firmly on the media agenda, with rife speculations about the mass suicides that would assuredly occur in or near the year 2000. They did not, and have not since. (In 2005, Uganda produced one case of mass deaths in a religious context, but it is hotly debated whether this was a case of murder or suicide).

"Cult suicide" can and does happen. But if in fact it is such a natural or predictable outcome of fringe religious belief, then surely we would expect it to be quite commonplace historically, and it is not. Before Jonestown, I struggle to find a vaguely comparable episode. Between, say, 1478 and 1978, there were literally thousands of small apocalyptic-minded sects in Europe and North America, and quite a few marginal movements with eccentric ideas about UFOs. To the best of my knowledge, though, none ever enacted anything like a Jonestown or Solar Temple scenario.

Put simply, groups that believe in imminent apocalypse very rarely try to provoke such a catastrophe, and we should be very cautious about ever applying a label like "Doomsday Cult."

So where, then, did the modern practice come from? The very first literary account I have ever found of cult suicide comes, astonishingly, from Gore Vidal, not normally remembered as a religious pioneer of any stripe. In his satirical 1954 novel Messiah, Vidal imagined the world falling prey to the sinister doctrines of John Cave, who induces his followers to accept mass voluntary death -- to take Cavesway. They do so by taking poison, the fictional precursor of Jonestown's cyanide-laced Kool Aid.

Wondrous as it would be to contemplate Jim Jones following in the lead of Gore Vidal, I see no evidence that Messiah ever exercised any influence in the real world. Partly, the Jonestown horrors were a replay of the Goebbels story, as the besieged Jones removed his faithful "children" from the imminent collapse of all they had known and built.

Insofar as Jones's acts were driven by any ideology, it was wholly secular. He derived his inspiration from the romantic fanaticism of the 1960s New Left, a very different kind of apocalyptic. Jones looked to the Black Panthers, and especially to the idea of revolutionary suicide derived from Huey Newton. Suicidal violence, in this view, was the ultimate form of self-sacrifice for the good of the idealized masses, a fantasy that became Holy Writ for the worldwide Left through the film Battle of Algiers.

But whatever its origins, Jonestown had a profound influence on the media, on law enforcement, and on other leaders on the cult fringe. Jonestown invented and popularized cult suicide, offering a model by which fringe believers were potentially expected to behave. And in the cases of Solar Temple and Heaven's Gate, they actually did so.

Apocalyptic movements, then, do not have any particular tendency to suicidal behavior, or indeed to violence of any kind, and it would be useful to remember that the next time the media do trumpet the dangers of a particular Doomsday Cult. Reporting the clear and present dangers from such sects is common enough, but when did you last see a report about how all the grim expectations were disappointed, so the members kept on living? Cult non-suicide scarcely makes a thrilling news story.

Media hype apart, the cult stereotype poses real-world perils. Imagine for instance a law enforcement agency confronting some fringe group in a future stand-off. The more the officials believe that an apocalyptic-minded group is naturally prone to violence, the greater the likelihood that the confrontation will end in violence. And a common belief that the sect intended to commit suicide makes it easy for those same officials to explain any catastrophic blunders.

Prophecies become self-fulfilling.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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