Mon 22 May 00 18:37
Steve Quarrella
Cult violence

Surprised by Cult Violence? Don't Be

By Norm Sperling
AltaVista Science Editor

The murder/suicide last Friday of more than 500 members of a cult in Uganda once again provided a shocking wake-up call to the dangers of fringe groups.

But is it so shocking that acts like this happen? Many of us have seen this coming for a while. Anybody remember Heaven's Gate -- the group with poisonous cocktail and black Nikes? How about Aum Shinrikyo -- the attackers of that Tokyo subway station five years ago? And what about the Order of the Solar Temple, which committed murders and suicides in 1994, 1995 and 1997?

How many times do you have to be surprised before you're not surprised anymore?

As a scientist, I'm particularly sensitive to the issue of cults. When I taught astronomy at Berkeley, my students would bring leaflets from cults to class and ask me if what these groups claimed was true. Typically, the questions came in the form of: "If the planets are aligning, does that mean there will be massive earthquakes here?" Usually I could inform them about contrary evidence. But it left a great impression on me that society doesn't pay enough attention to such fringe groups.

I know, these recent murder/suicides happened outside the country. But a real threat from cults exists today in the United States. With freedom of religion canonized in the First Amendment, cults are able to practice their own "religions" pretty much the way they want.

Right now, about 5,000 cults take advantage of this climate to practice in the United States, says Margaret Singer, an emeritus adjunct professor of psychology at Berkeley.

The vast majority of these groups do not commit murder and suicide. But that's no reason to ignore the ones that do. Since 1978, Singer says there have been 23 major events of cult violence -- that's a lot more than most people remember.

Most cults too are anything but secretive. Their posters and preachers abound around the colleges where I taught. Cult leaflets and posters are pushed everywhere, announcing meetings for new recruits. Yet, sadly, the mass media only focus on cult leaders and their groups when they recruit relatives of famous people -- or after big tragedies. By then, it's too late.

Make no mistake, all cults -- to some degree or other -- prey on the minds of the weak and those with vulnerable constitutions. Largely, they seek money and power. That's why so many cult leaders order followers to sell their possessions. Once shorn of their other resources, participants depend all the more on the group and its leaders.

It's disheartening to watch people give away their money and souls to groups that are clearly selling false explanations. But unless we pay more attention to this problem, these cults will continue to thrive.

And then we shouldn't be surprised when tragedy strikes again.

AltaVista Science Editor Norm Sperling developed the Astroscan telescope and The Stars Above starfinder. He is based in Palo Alto and can be reached at norman.sperling@altavista.com

* Origin: Jesus thinks you are a jerk. (1:124/9005)


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