Are new religious movements or “cults” inherently violent, or more violent than mainline religions? The issue has been frequently discussed in scholarly literature, but an issue just published of the respected academic Journal of Religion and Violence (with some articles available for an online preview through a paywall)now offers a complete answer. Guest-edited by CESNUR’s managing director, and Bitter Winter’s editor-in-chief, Massimo Introvigne, issue 6.3 of the journal opens with an introduction that proposes a typology of the interactions between new religious movements (NRMs: scholars normally avoid the word “cult” because of its judgmental and derogatory content) and violence.
There is little doubt, the introduction argues, that NRMs are sometimes responsible for violence. This can be perpetrated, first of all, against their own members. For example, in the issue of the journal, Swedish scholar Liselotte Frisk discusses the case of the Swedish movement Knutby Filadelfia. “In 2004, a female member of the movement was killed and a male member was seriously wounded. Another female member of Knutby Filadelfia was convicted for the crimes, and one of the pastors was recognized as their instigator.”
A second possibility is that the violence is directed against apostate ex-members or critics. The journal offers various examples and, days after it was published, Gourmeet Ram Rahim, the leader of Indian NRM Dera Dacha Sauda, was found guilty of having ordered the homicide of a journalist who had written exposes of his movement. Third, NRMs can kill rival religionists. Although Chinese verdicts should always be read with caution, the journal refers to 2006 court decisions, where three leaders of the Chinese NRM Three Grades of Servants, including the founder Xu Wenku (1946–2006), were sentenced to death and executed for twenty homicides, most of them of members of another NRM, The Church of Almighty God. Fourth, NRMs can act against the state or society at large, as if happened in the well-known case of the terrorist attacks perpetrated in 1995 by the Japanese group Aum Shinri-kyo.
However, the journal maintains, there is no evidence that violence by NRMs is more common and prevalent than violence by traditional, mainline religions. More terrorists kill in the name of Islam than in the name of NRMs, and there are more cases of pedophilia involving Catholic priests (although the number is occasionally exaggerated) than NRMs members and leaders.
Interestingly, the journal also offers a typology of instances of violence against NRMs. Fellow members have been killed by dissidents. Anti-cult campaigns also generated violence. Some who attacked Scientologists or the premises of the Church of Scientology mentioned the anti-Scientology TV show of actress Leah Remini as a source for their hate of the Church. And TV and other anti-cult campaigns against Scientology may also have played a role in motivating the actions of a teenager who, on January 3, 2019, entered the premises of the Church of Scientology in Sydney, Australia, to “save” his mother from participating in Church activities there, and stabbed to death one Scientologist and seriously wounded another. Rival religionists also kill members of NRMs, and the highest number of casualties among the latter derives from persecution by governments, as the cases of Falun Gong and The Church of Almighty God in China document even too well.
Finally, the introduction offers a typology of crimes falsely ascribed to NRMs but in fact perpetrated by others, an old practice by governments since in the year 64 CE Emperor Nero (37–68) falsely accused the Christians for the fire that had destroyed a good part of Rome (he might have set fire to the city himself, although some historians disagree). The issue has other examples of these false accusations, but one well-known case concerns The Church of Almighty God, falsely accused by the Chinese authorities of having murdered a salesgirl in a McDonald’s diner in Zhaoyuan, Shandong, in 2014.
Several articles by Western scholars have conclusively demonstrated that the homicide was perpetrated by a different religious movement, which also used the name “Almighty God” to refer to its two female leaders Zhang Fan (1984–2015) and Lü Yingchun, regarded as one single divine soul in two human bodies, but had nothing to do with The Church of Almighty God (CAG), which has a different theology and recognizes a different person as the incarnate Almighty God. However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used the incident to justify its ongoing persecution of the CAG and its fake news campaign was so massive and successful that some 20,000 media throughout the world repeated the story that the CAG was responsible for the crime.
The incident has been analyzed before, but what’s new in the article by Massimo Introvigne in the issue of the Journal of Religion and Violence is an analysis of how the CCP is trying to resurrect a dead horse by claiming again that the CAG had something to do with the homicide, based on the fact that, while Zhang Fan has been executed, both her sister Zhang Han and her “co-Goddess” Lü Yingchun are in jail. The CCP claims that they have been successfully “re-educated” and are model prisoners. CCP media have published their confessions and interviews, and these are now used to revive the idea that the CAG was (somewhat) responsible for the McDonald’s crime. One may be skeptical about what prisoners “re-educated” in Chinese jails say, but Introvigne analyses the declarations attributed to them and concludes that they rather reinforce the Western scholars’ interpretation exonerating the CAG from any responsibility in the crime.
After years of “re-education,” the maximum the CCP managed to extract from Lü Yingchun and Zhang Han was that both Lü and Zhang Fan had read CAG literature. Even if true, this does not prove that they were members of the CAG, as in fact millions of CAG books have been distributed in China and read by many outside the movement. On the other hand, both prisoners reiterate in no uncertain terms that the core belief of their movement was that Zhang Fan and Lü Yingchun were God incarnate, a claim obviously incompatible with CAG theology and that would indeed be regarded as offensive and blasphemous by any self-respecting CAG member.
Introvigne concludes that the CCP does not have many other arguments to justify the persecution of the CAG, which is increasingly denounced by international institutions and NGOs, if it should continuously return to the same fake news about the McDonald’s case. This also reinforces the issue’s core claim that, while some NRMs commit crimes, NRMs are not more inherently inclined to crime and violence than other religions, and are equally often victims of violence themselves, in the shape of both physical violence and the moral violence of fake news.