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Why are a number of New Religious Movements characterized by extremism and violence?

The phenomenon of violent New Religious Movements (NRMs) is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, what exactly qualifies as an NRM? For simplicity's sake, I will here adopt Barker's comparatively broad definition: "an NRM is new in so far as it has become visible in its present form since the Second World War… it is religious in so far as it offers answers to… [the] ultimate questions that have traditionally been addressed by mainstream religions" (Baker 1999: 16). Second, as Hall and Robbins note (2007: 247), violent NRMs, while high-profile, are rare. Their small number makes it difficult to safely generalise common causes of their violence. Finally, the variation and sheer extent of the catalogue of NRMs defy any comfortable typology. In most cases, the differences between NRMs far outweigh their similarities, again making useful and informative generalisations difficult to make (Barker 1999: 20; Hall et. al 2000: 185). In light of these problems, this essay will restrict itself to tentatively offering some reasons why a particular group of NRMs, known as millennial groups, have become violent or extremist towards themselves and/or others.

Why millennial groups? A large body of scholarship affirms that 'millennialism' is often an important pre-requisite for NRM violence (see typically Hall and Robbins 2007: 251). According to Wessinger (2003: 94), "millennialism is belief that an imminent transition to a collective salvation that will be either heavenly or earthly." This can take two forms. "Progressive millennialism" often embodies a dialectical epistemology (although it can be epistemologically dualistic) in which salvation will be achieved through a more-or-less elongated process where good (the new, NRM order) and evil (the old world order) ultimately resolve each other in a progression guided by a perceived superhuman agent. Conversely, "catastrophic millennialism," or "apocalypticism," represents a more dualistic epistemology in which good (the new NRM order) and bad (the old order) are seen as oppositional forces (Anthony and Robbins 1978). Here, salvation will come when good vanquishes evil and the old order is destroyed. In both cases, the achievement of the new order represents the group's ultimate concern. Not only can these views lead the group towards violence, but as sociologists studying this issue point out such views can also result in millennialists existing in a high degree of tension with mainstream society (Melton 1999). As we shall see, this tension can also be a large factor in violent episodes.  

In contrast, progressive millennialists with a dualistic world outlook have shown themselves well-prepared to employ violence and extremism to create their kingdom. Arguably the best known group conforming to this type is Al-Qaeda. While Al-Qaeda is a looser association than many of the other groups we have looked at, Wessinger (2003: 185) highlights how Al-Qaeda can be viewed as a NRM due to its novel interpretation of Islamic religious sources, which is often at odds with traditional interpretations. Furthermore, these interpretations are employed dualistically to justify the use of violence in trying to bring about collective salvation through the creation of an Islamic khilafa - a kingdom uniting all Muslim lands and populations together under Sharia law. This dualistic approach results in the absolute division of good and evil, and with this absolute division, any obstruction to the khilafa falls into the category of evil. When coupled with the theological notions of jihad (holy war), and of the paradisiacal afterlife, we have an apparent justification for the use of violence by the good to destroy any obstacle to the creation of about the khilafa, even going to the length of killing themselves in doing so. Consequently, both Western nations (whose interventions in Muslim affairs obstruct the creation of the khilafa) and Muslim nations who do not share Al-Qaeda's extreme religious interpretations have been targeted by the network in suicide and non-suicide attacks.

Following much of the literature on this subject, we have focussed our investigation into violent NRMs on millennial groups of various persuasions. We have looked at a number of very different groups, both violent and non-violent, in our attempt to ascertain some reasons that can provoke them to harm themselves and/or others. We looked first at catastrophic millennial groups, and concluded that catastrophic revolutionary millennial groups such as the Montana Freeman espouse a logic that might very easily push them towards violence against mainstream society. In the cases of The Family and the Branch Davidians, we looked at two catastrophic millennial groups subjected to aggression from mainstream society, but who reacted very differently. Here, we suggested that the violence of the later was perhaps due to the aggression they suffered resonating with a part of their doctrine predicting their own persecution and death; in this case, we see a sociological problem by chance reacting with a group's theological precept to produce a violent result. In contrast, we saw how a different catastrophic millennial group in a context free from external aggression, Heaven's Gate, were pushed to employ violence and kill themselves as their beliefs were forced to react to events apparently undermining their theology. We then looked at two progressive millennial groups. Here we noted first that the Unification Church has not exhibited violent tendencies and suggested this might be due to their dialectic epistemology, which does not lend itself to conflict. In contrast, another progressive millennial group, Al-Qaeda is extremely violent, and it was suggested this might be due to their dualistic epistemology, which is more oppositional and so more likely to seek to achieve its aims through conflict.

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