When the members of a new religious movement in the Mojave Desert suddenly disappeared in September of 2010, there was a panic. Members mentioned “taking refuge” and “going to heaven” in the letters they had left loved ones, and the immediate assumption was that the group was about to take part in a mass suicide. After a search that lasted only one day, the five women and eight children were found praying on a blanket in a park.
I found this story compelling, because it demonstrates the public’s negative view of new religious movements. As discussed in class lectures, there have been examples of such movements turning violent or suicidal, but these have been few and far between in the grand scheme of things. The Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and Branch Davidians garnered a massive amount of negative media attention. That is entirely understandable, given the tragic ends these movements had. However, many other new religious movements have been grouped in with such organizations, and this is not entirely fair.
The public’s perception of new religious movements, or “cults,” as you can see they are often referred to in the attached article, has been increasingly negative over the years. Academics and professionals alike, such as Margaret Singer, have shown support for the “brainwashing thesis,” which suggests that many members are converted against their will through pressure and trickery. One of the husbands of a member in the group discussed in the attached article seems to believe this, though sociological evidence has increasingly challenged this idea over the years.
There are also remains a negative stigma attached to the archetype of the cult leader. Society tends to assume such characters are deceptively charismatic, power hungry, and maybe even willing to hurt others in order to enhance their cause. However, those who knew Reyna Marisol Chicas, the presumed leader of the new religious movement I have been discussing, describe her as “a good mother” who “always had her children with her.” Her neighbor, Ricardo Giron, said he could not believe she was the kind of person who would do harm to others.
Nonetheless, authority figures immediately grouped this movement in with the most extreme and harmful of its kind. That, in the end, this group was found in a public park (obviously not trying to hide,) “praying to stop violence in schools and for people to abstain from sexual activity until marriage,” makes the danger of such judgments even more glaring. People ought to have the free will to engage in movements they feel are doing good in the world, which these women seem to believe, without being assumed to be unstable or harmful to society.
Jesse T #341