It is difficult to predict violence in new religious movements based on objective measures, if only because such tendencies and actions are linked to a group’s perceptions of assault from the outside world, according to David Bromley of Commonwealth University.
That was one of the conclusions drawn by several scholars gathered for a session on violence and new religious movements at the International Conference of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions; http://www.cesnur.org) held in Salt Lake City in June. However, the session also made clear that much has been learned since Waco.
Lessons have not only been learned by scholars, but by law-enforcement agencies as well. Over the past few years, due to the obvious need to act preventively, there have been increasing exchanges between law officials and scholars. Experience has proved that “self-identified expertise does not equate with scholarship” and also that it can be counter-productive to react too agressively, said psychiatrist Greg Saathoff of the FBI’s Critical Incidents Response Group.
Law-enforcement has to a large extent been based upon behavioral sciences, he added, but this may involve risks of pathologizing religion. Among some twenty characteristics that may cause concern in a potentially volatile group include: interaction factors (the relations between the religious group and wider society), internal factors and belief factors, according to Catherine Wessinger of Loyola University, New Orleans.
Bromley suggested that research should move away from provocation (how a group is provoked by outside influences) theories toward interactional theories. Other directions for future research include a concern for scholars to carefully distinguish between new religious movements “in which conflict arises in the process of development” and movements “that begin as military or are involved in longstanding conflicts” (such as some Christian Identity or radical Muslim groups).
Analysis should focus more on a group’s leadership than followers, and research should be broadened to include non-U.S. and non-Western cases, Bromley added. Cases that stopped short of violence, as well as post-violence organization of groups that survived, should also be given more attention.
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW contributing editor and editor of Religioscope website (http://www.religioscope.com)