a CANADIAN SECURITY
INTELLIGENCE SERVICE publication
Report # 2000/03
DOOMSDAY RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS
December 18, 1999
|This paper uses open sources to examine
any topic with the potential to cause threats to public or national
Often overlooked in the discussion of emerging security intelligence
issues is the challenge of contending with religious movements whose
defining characteristic is an adherence to non-traditional spiritual
belief systems. While only a small fraction of these groups could
be considered Doomsday Religious Movements espousing hostile beliefs
and having the potential to be violent, the threat they represent
is evinced by recent events involving groups such as the American
Branch Davidians, as well as Canadas Order of the Solar Temple.
Japans infamous Aum Shinrykio is a textbook example, where
the coupling of apocalyptic beliefs and a charismatic leader fixated
on enemies culminated in a nerve-gas attack intended to cause mass
casualties in the hope of precipitating a world war and completing
its apocalyptic prophecy. By examining the many characteristics
of these movements, this paper intends to discuss which types of
groups could be prone to violence and which factors indicate a groups
move to actualize this violence. The conclusions presented here
are solely the result of a review of unclassified information available
in the public domain.
Definitions and History
According to relevant literature, millennialism is
the belief that human suffering will soon be eliminated in an imminent
apocalyptic scenario, ensuring that the collective salvation of
humanity is accomplished. Millennialism is an enduring pattern in
many religious traditions, and it has been reported that 35 percent
of Americans believe that the Apocalypse will take place at some
point. Cults throughout history have thought that critical dates
will bring the fulfillment of their beliefs (e.g. Solar Temple members
believe in the supernatural power of solstices and equinoxes). The
year 2000 AD as the turning of the millenium is a central date in
the doctrines of many modern cults.
Millennialist beliefs are shared by a variety of groups, but not
all foresee a violent turning of the millennium; in fact, many see
it as the catalyst for peaceful and harmonious change. Those groups
which espouse violence have been called Doomsday Religious Movements
in this paper for the purpose of clarity. The approaching year 2000
AD has stimulated millennial anxiety and heightened concern that
its unfolding will bring an increase in potential threats by groups
that would choose to assert their apocalyptic beliefs through violence.
Characteristics of Doomsday Religious Movements
Although the large number of groups which could be considered a
Doomsday Religious Movement presupposes a variety of beliefs, there
are some commonalities in both doctrine and action which can be
delineated in order to anticipate which groups might pose a physical
threat to public safety.
1. Apocalyptic Beliefs: Movements often believe in
doctrines which are similar to that of mainstream religions, yet
the convergence of some of these doctrines expressed through rites
helps to shape a violent theological world view characterized by
an inherent volatility.
Dualism - The belief that the world is fractured into two
opposing camps of Good and Evil, which confers a profound significance
on small social and political conflicts as evidence of this great
cosmic struggle, and which could precipitate a violent response.
The persecuted chosen - Movements view themselves as prophetic
vanguards belonging to a chosen elite but feel persecuted by wicked
and tyrannical forces, which push the group to make concrete preparations
to defend their sacred status.
Imminence - Because movements believe the apocalypse is
unfolding before their very eyes, the last days are
experienced as psychologically imminent and pressure them to take
immediate action to ensure their salvation.
Determinism - Since a group devoutly believes it will be
the ultimate winner of the final battle, if it believes a catastrophic
scenario is being actualized, the group may feel it has no choice
but to try to trigger the apocalypse through violence.
Salvation through conflict / enemy eradication - As salvation
depends entirely upon direct participation in the apocalyptic struggle,
a group is always on the verge of anticipating confrontation, which
justifies action to eliminate evil and eradicate enemies.
2. Charismatic Leadership: Millenarian beliefs are
associated with volatility when embodied in and disseminated by
charismatic leaders who wish to portray themselves as messiahs,
identify the millennial destiny of humankind with their own personal
evolution and demonize opposition to their personal aggrandizement.
Control over members - Groups monopolize members daily
lives and circumscribe their belief systems within rigid doctrines,
insulating them from the influence of broader social constraints.
The leader is then well positioned to ask his followers to commit
acts they would not normally engage in, albeit violent ones.
Lack of restraint - Leaders believe themselves to be free
from religious and social laws, and operate in a social vacuum where
there is a relative absence of normal institutionalized restraints
to curb their whims. Physical segregation further distances the
group from societys mores, where its own social code is established
as the basis of all acceptable behaviour. Here authority can be
exercised arbitrarily without restraint, a situation that facilitates
Withdrawal and mobilization- While society is often repelled
by or hostile to these groups, movements are also often suspicious
of others. This tends to lead to their physical, social and psychological
withdrawal, intensifying a leaders power and increasing the
homogenization and dependency of the followers. When withdrawal
is coupled with the groups expectation that it will face hostility
and persecution, members often feel they must mobilize for endtimes
by acquiring weapons and securing defences.
3. Actions by Authorities: Violence is often not
actualized until the group comes into contact with state authorities,
which usually embody all that is evil for the movement and which
must be vanquished in order for the apocalyptic scenario to be realized.
Action on the part of state agencies will almost always elicit a
reaction, which underlining the delicacy with which the situation
must be handled.
Lack of comprehension - Authorities often fail to appreciate
the leverage they have over doomsday movements, which depend upon
them to fulfill their apocalyptic scenarios. Failure to fully comprehend
this symbolic role often results in actions that trigger violence.
Unsound negotiation - Should authorities decide to intervene
in a crisis situation, negotiators dealing with the movement must
understand its belief structure, as ignorance of the minor differences
between the beliefs of respective groups can have drastic outcomes.
Hasty action - Hasty actions can directly trigger violence
on the part of the group by forcing it to act out its endtimes
scenario, especially when its grandiose apocalyptic scenario appears
discredited under humiliating circumstances.
Spiral of amplification - Sanctions applied by authorities
are often interpreted by a movement as hostile to its existence,
which reinforces their apocalyptic beliefs and leads to further
withdrawal, mobilization and deviant actions, and which in turn
elicits heavier sanctions by authorities. This unleashes a spiral
of amplification, as each action amplifies each reaction, and the
use of violence is facilitated as the group believes that this will
ultimately actualize its doomsday scenario.
The presence of these three factors (apocalyptic beliefs, charismatic
leadership and actions by authorities), whether inherent to the
dynamics of a Doomsday Religious Movement or in response to the
actions that it engages in, translates into a predisposition towards
The Threat to Public Safety
It is difficult to ascertain the potentially violent behaviour
and threats to public safety which some movements could represent,
since there exists little information about the demographics or
attributes of these movements or their members in Canada. This is
exacerbated by the ambiguity which surrounds Doomsday Religious
Movements: their motives are often not initially comprehensible,
their actors not readily identifiable and their methods are difficult
to predict. Despite these difficulties, the inherent volatility
and unpredictability of some millennialist cults is a cause for
concern because any could pose a realistic threat to public safety
1. Threat to democratic governance: This threat emerges
when movements associate abstract enemies with concrete state entities;
when combined with volatile beliefs, this encourages a blatant disregard
for the law and overt revolt against the state. The integrity of
democratic governance is severely undercut because the methods of
these groups end with attacks, subtle or not, on government credibility.
A public perception emerges that the government cannot meet its
primary raison dêtre, namely, the protection of the
2. Weapons Acquisition
Firearms - In Canada, stricter gun control laws prevent
an accumulation of weapons comparable to the US situation, where
groups justify the stockpiling of firearms through their interpretation
of the US constitutional right to bear arms. However, this does
not preclude their acquisition through illegal channels, as demonstrated
by the case of the Order of the Solar Temple (see below).
Explosives - The possession of explosives poses an equal,
if not greater, threat than do firearms. Given this consideration,
it is plausible that a sophisticated bomb-maker could focus on the
mass murder of non-group members. Situated in the middle of a continuum
of destructive capability, explosives possessed by groups represent
mass murder waiting to happen.
Chemical and biological weapons - A still greater threat
is the acquisition and use of chemical and biological weapons. It
is feared that some doomsday-like groups may have mastered the production
of biological agents, while the Aum cult manufactured and deployed
chemical weapons. Marking the dawn of a New Age, Aums
vast biological and chemical stockpiles included, respectively,
significant amounts of botulinum toxin, one of the most powerful
poisons, and hundred of tons of deadly sarin nerve gas ingredients.
Although the chances that a group will both acquire and deploy these
weapons are slim, the Aum case proves that it is within the range
of possible action.
3. Institutional Infiltration
Politics - Bribery has been one costly method of building
mainstream political support; the Aum cult allegedly bribed Russian
officials in exchange for a series of favours. Another
potential threat lies in members who are already involved in the
political process; the Solar Temples roster included the mayor
of a Canadian town and a provincial government official. The most
direct political linkages concern efforts to exert direct influence
over political processes. Both the Aum leader and the head of a
Peruvian Doomsday Religious Movement, the Israeli Mission of the
New Universal Fact (not associated with the Government of Israel
in any way), have campaigned for electoral office.
Business - Businesses owned by groups can both facilitate
weapons acquisition and drive membership growth; the Aum cults
multimillion dollar empire financed the purchase of weapons, justified
the possession of ingredients for chemical and biological weapons,
and provided a legitimate vehicle for widespread recruitment. Also,
the position a member occupies in an established enterprise can
augment the potential threat; several Solar Temple members were
senior employees of a public utility, whose access to sensitive
systems could have crippled the provision of a much-needed service.
4. Criminal Activity
Crimes against individuals - Crimes against individuals
not affiliated with the state may indirectly enable the above threats.
Documented crimes include successful attempts to silence
opposition from non- and ex-members, while alleged crimes finance
weapons acquisition. These acts undermine the states ability
to identify and respond to dangerous groups, where the ultimate
costs of such crimes are public safety and, thereby, the legitimacy
Transnational criminal activity - The final category of
threats pivots around alleged involvement in transnational crime.
The Solar Temple purportedly laundered money and trafficked in arms
and illegal drugs, while Aum Shinrykio allegedly supplied illegal
drugs to transnational organized crime syndicates. If these reports
are correct, any possible threats to public safety are magnified.
Identifying the Threat
Doomsday Religious Movements often provide both verbal and tangible
early warning signs that are symptomatic of a groups volatility
and propensity for violence. The challenge for government and law
enforcement is to note those early-warning signs as a group shifts
from a preoccupation with enemies to enemy eradication,
i.e. from belief to action. Such early- warning signs include:
1. Intensification of illegal activities - This early-warning
sign is most often a noticeable increase in the illegal procurement
of weapons, which often attracts the attention of locals, and signals
that the group may be making the final preparations for its destiny
in the cosmic battle of all time. This occurred at Waco, Texas,
before the confrontation with law enforcement agencies unfolded.
2. Humiliating circumstances - Should a group be
humiliated to the extent that either its leader or apocalyptic scenario
appears discredited, for example, if its prophecies fail to actualize
by a set date or if group leaders are arrested on minor charges,
then it may try to counter this defamation by violently introducing
3. Relocation to a rural area - This indicates
both a physical and psychological withdrawal, which usually precipitates
the strengthening of group solidarity and increased control over
members. A relocation betrays a groups desire to carry out
either the defence preparations or violent acts called for by its
4. Increasingly violent rhetoric - This may
indicate that the group has reached a level of critical fervour
and is ready to take the first step towards actualizing its rhetoric
and triggering an apocalyptic scenario.
5. Struggle for leadership - Owing to the unstable
nature of the leadership and the volatility of the group, any situation
which threatens the leaders control could result in violence.
Examples include the challenging of group beliefs by dissidents
and the questioning of the leaders physical health. All of
these put the power of the leadership in question, and, by extension,
its fundamental apocalyptic vision.
Annex I presents a brief table summarizing the preceding characteristics
and serves as a quick reference guide.
A Canadian Example - the Order of the Solar Temple
The Order of the Solar Temple was a group espousing millennialist
beliefs which met the preceding criteria of a Doomsday Religious
Movement. The Order had members in the US, Quebec, Switzerland and
France; in 1994, fifty-four members committed mass suicide. The
group was composed of several leaders who were very charismatic
and expert public speakers, and who also had aggrandized beliefs
about themselves. They believed in an imminent ecological apocalypse,
where members were the chosen ones to repopulate the
earth after its demise, but not before they had been persecuted
on the earthly plane by non-believers. Other attributes typical
of a Doomsday Religious Movement were the high degree of control
exercised over members, the promotion of bigamy within the group,
and the physical withdrawal to a rural area. The alleged criminal
activities of the Solar Temple (money laundering, drug and arms
trafficking) were clear threats to public safety, as was the infiltration
of political and business circles by several members.
The Solar Temple mobilized for their coming apocalypse by acquiring
weapons and money. This prompted several high-profile investigations
and arrests which could have hastened the suicide. This was an early
warning sign: a humiliating circumstance running counter to their
supposed glorious salvation before the onslaught of the apocalypse.
Other events which could have enhanced the feeling of humiliation
included: an investigation initiated by the public utility into
the Orders infiltration of their company; the near bankruptcy
of the Order and the loss of investor capital; then, negative media
attention. Finally, other early- warning signs immediately preceded
the mass suicide and signalled that their potential for violence
could be soon realized: a recent change in leadership; the failing
health of one of the leaders; and foreboding, violent statements
made by members.
The violence of the incident left 48 people dead in Switzerland
and five in Quebec. Had the group believed that its salvation was
tied to a direct conflict with the enemy and the leaders
opted for enemy eradication rather than escape via mass
suicide, the risk to members of the public would have been serious.
Conclusions - Continuing Threats to Canada
The irrationality which underlines the threat posed by Doomsday
Religious Movements constitutes a different threat to public safety
than that posed by the calculated terrorism traditionally manifested
in the last 50 years, usually in support of an identified political
cause. One estimation indicates that there are 1,200 active cults
throughout the world, and that roughly 400 subscribe to doomsday
philosophies which foresee catastrophe on or around the year 2000.
While it is not known which cults have the potential for violence,
this does not imply that possible threats posed by Doomsday Religious
Movements should be ignored, as they can quickly manifest themselves
in a variety of forms. Rather, there clearly is a continuing threat
potential, given the temporal inaccuracies of the turning of the
millennium (various scientific and religious accounts offer competing
evidence as to when the new millennium will actually begin) and
the tendency for groups to be unpredictable and give early-warning
signs of their potential for violence, as well as ambiguities in
their structure, dynamics and attributes.
The Apocalyptic Cult Checklist
EARLY WARNING SIGNS
- the persecuted chosen
- salvation through conflict
- control over members
- lack of restraint
Actions by Authorities
- lack of comprehension
- unsound negotiation
- hasty action
- spiral of amplification
- chemical / biological weapons
- crimes against individuals
- transnational crime
- Intensification of illegal activities
- Humiliating circumstances
- Relocation to a rural area
- Increasingly violent rhetoric
- Struggle for leadership
References and Suggested Reading
The Center for Millennial Studieswww.mille.org
Cult Awareness and Information Centrewww.caic.org.au
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerancewww.religioustolerance.org
Bainbridge, William S. (1997). The Sociology of Religious Movements.
New York: Routledge.
Bromley, David G. & Jeffrey K. Hadden, eds. (1993). The
Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich, CT and London:
Association for the Sociology of religion and JAI Press.
Dawson, Lorne L., ed. (1996). Cults in Context: Readings in
the Study of New Religious Movements. Toronto: Scholar's Press.
Gesy, Lawrence J. (1993). Destructive Cults and Movements.
Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
Introvigne, Massimo. (1996). Les Veilleurs de l'Apocalypse:
Millénarisme et nouvelles religions au seuil de l'an 2000.
Paris: Claire Vigne.
Kaplan, Jeffrey. (1997). Radical Religion in America: Millennial
Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah. Syracuse,
NY: Syracuse University Press.
Lewis, James R. (1998). The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and
New Religions. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Miller, Timothy. (1991). When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic
Fate of New Religious Movements. New York: State University
of New York Press.
Robbins, Thomas & Susan Palmer, eds. (1997) Millennium,
Messiah, and Mayhem. New York: Routledge.
Saliba, John A. (1995). Perspectives on New Religious Movements.
London: Geoffrey Chapman.
Scotland, Nigel. (1995). Charismatics and the Next Millennium.
Hodder & Stoughton.
Stark, Rodney & William Sims Bainbridge. (1996). Religion,
Deviance, and Social Control. New York: Routledge.
Storr, Anthony. (1997). Feet of Clay - Saints, Sinners, and
Madmen: A Study of Gurus. New York: The Free Press.
Strozier, Charles B. (1994). Apocalypse: On the Psychology of
Fundamentalism in America. Boston: Beacon Press.
Wilson, Bryan & Jamie Cresswell, eds. (1999). New Religious
Movements: Challenge and Response. London: Routledge.
SECURITY INTELLIGENCE SERVICE
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