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Cult suicide is that phenomenon by which some religious groups, in this context often referred to as "cults", have led to their membership committing suicide. Sometimes all members commit suicide at the same time and place. Groups which have done this include Heaven's Gate, Order of the Solar Temple, Peoples Temple (Jonestown) and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. In other cases, certain denominations apparently supported mass suicide, but did not necessarily encourage all members to do it. Examples here include Filippians and the Taiping.

Known cult suicides

Peoples Temple (Jim Jones)

Main article: Jonestown

In November 1978, 914 American followers of Jim Jones (formerly a church in the mainstream Christian denomination Disciples of Christ) died in a mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. The dead included 274 children. Conspiracy theories allege that most of the victims were unwillingly injected with the poison, and some even allege involvement of the CIA. In an affidavit by former member Deborah Layton days before the massacre, however, she testified that there were suicide drills called white nights in which members practiced mass suicide by ingesting poison. And in Jones' final speech, recorded on cassette tape, he states, "So my opinion is that you be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece..." stating the intention that the group kill themselves while casting it as a political act: "We didn't commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world."

Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God

On March 17 2000, between 780 and 1000 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died in a probable mass suicide in Uganda. The group had splintered from Roman Catholicism to emphasize apocalypticism and alleged Marian apparitions.[1] They also deemed the wider world to be corrupt, seeing themselves as a Noah's Ark of purity. Along these ends members severely restricted their speech to avoid saying anything dishonest or sinful. Curiously, the group had a feast that involved large quantities of Coca-Cola and beef before dying.

Solar Temple

From 1994 to 1997, the Order of the Solar Temple's members began a series of mass suicides, which led to roughly 74 deaths.[2][3][4][5][6] Farewell letters were left by members, stating that they believed their deaths would be an escape from the "hypocrisies and oppression of this world." Added to this they felt they were "moving on to Sirius." A mayor, a journalist, a civil servant, and a sales manager were among the dead. Records seized by the Quebec police showed that some members had personally donated over $1 million to the cult's leader, Joseph Di Mambro. There was also another attempted mass suicide of the remaining members, which was thwarted in the late 1990s. All the suicide/murders and attempts occurred around the dates of the equinoxes and solstices, which likely held some relation to the beliefs of the group.

Heaven's Gate

On March 26 1997, 39 followers of the Heaven's Gate cult died in a mass suicide near San Diego, California. In the beliefs of the cult, this was not an act of self-extermination; they believed that they were merely "exiting their human vehicles" so that their souls could go on a journey aboard a spaceship they believed to be following comet Hale-Bopp.[7] Some male members of the cult underwent voluntary castration in preparation for the genderless life they believed awaited them after the suicide.[8]

On March 30 1997, Robert Leon Nichols, a former roadie for the Grateful Dead, was discovered dead in his California trailer, with a note nearby that read in part "I'm going to the spaceship with Hale-Bopp to be with those who have gone before me." Using propane gas rather than vodka and phenobarbital to end his life, Nichols, like the cult members, had his head covered by a plastic bag and his upper torso covered with a purple shroud. Nichols' connection with the cult is unknown.

In May 1997, two cult members who had not been present for the mass suicide attempted suicide, one succeeding in the attempt, the other going into coma for two days and then recovering.[9] In February 1998 the survivor, Chuck Humphrey, committed suicide.[10]

Suspected cult suicides

Branch Davidians

On April 19, 1993, the ATF Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms siege of the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas ended with an assault and subsequent firestorm that destroyed the compound and killed most of the inhabitants. During the siege, highly concentrated C.S. gas and pyrotechnic "flash-bang" grenades[11] were fired.[12] Some believe these devices ignited the gasoline stockpiled inside the building.

Richard L. Sherrow, a fire and explosion investigator, a retired BATF Arson Investigator hired to investigate the cause of the fire for a civil lawsuit states in his preliminary conclusion "The fire originated in the southeast corner tower from the tipping of a lit Coleman-type lantern which fell onto combustible materials, most likely bedding materials, as the room was utilized as sleeping quarters, and was most likely caused by violent contact or mechanical shock associated with the CEV removing the corner of the southeast tower directly under the point of origin."[13]

The mainstream media reported immediately after the fire that the Branch Davidians, when being overrun, started fires, and therefore this incident was a "cult suicide" or even a murder-suicide perpetrated by the leaders. However, some independent journalists, academics, and other experts contend that the fires could have been an accident or result of a panic. Others accuse the ATF of inadvertently causing or even intentionally starting fires during the assault.

World Church of the Creator

Ben Klassen formed the white supremacist group currently called the Creativity Movement. He wrote a book called The White Man's Bible which called suicide "an honorable and dignified way to die for any ... of a number of reasons, such as having come to the decision that life is no longer worthwhile." After the death of his wife he practiced what he preached and committed suicide. A former member named Benjamin Nathaniel Smith committed suicide after a spree killing.[[14]]


It has been indicated that Scientology has caused a number of suicides actively, or through negligence. For example, according to Flo Conway, a graduate student at the University of Oregon, Scientologists are taught that if they abandon the "church" they will soon kill themselves or have a serious illness or accident. She concludes that they create suicidal people because "Former Scientologists had the highest rates of persistent fear, sleeplessness, suicidal and self-destructive tendencies, violent outbursts, hallucinations and delusions, compared to ex-members of other religious groups."[15] Ex-members have also claimed (most notably in the Fishman Affidavit) that the Church of Scientology ordered them or others to commit "end of cycle" (suicide) in order to protect the Church.

In its cover story on Scientology on May 5, 1991, Time magazine noted the case of Noah Lottick, who committed suicide by jumping from a tall building. The magazine stated that he clutched in his fist "practically the only money he had not yet given to the Church of Scientology."[16] Former church member Philip Gale similarly committed suicide, by jumping out of a tall building. He chose to kill himself on March 13, Scientology's most important annual holiday marking the birthday of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.[17]

Critics of this theory state that this means that any religious practice which leads to death, or that rejects apostasy, would taint the faith as having cult suicide. For example, deaths attributed to Christian Science' position against medical advice, or to a recent botched exorcism by a Romanian Orthodox priest.

Questionable cult suicides

The Family International

Some allege that the Family International, previously called the Children of God, encourages suicide despite its official rejection of such. [How to reference and link to summary or text] On the other hand, their beliefs emphasize an imminent Second Coming, which some deem a negative sign with regards to potential for suicidal behavior.

At the beginning of 2005, the cult gained renewed media attention due to the premeditated[18] murder-suicide of former member Ricky Rodriguez, biological son of current leader Karen Zerby and informally adopted son of the group's founder, David Berg. It revived allegations that the group is abusive and inciting of suicidal ideation. Thus his death was widely called a "suicide of a cult member", or "cult suicide", though this view was far from universal. The event made it to popular culture in oblique references in NBC shows Third Watch and Law & Order [19].

Defenders of the group contend that Rodriguez's behavior was not typical of the group, and that there is no evidence their members are more suicidal than those in mainstream society. The Family's official statement regarding suicide and the sanctity of life is found here: [20].

Murder Suicide Plot

Heidi Fittkau-Garthe, a German psychologist, and a previously high-profile Brahma Kumaris, was charged in the Canary Islands with a plot of murder-suicide in which 31 cult followers, including five children, were to ingest poison. After the suicides, they were told they would be picked up by a spaceship and taken to an unspecified destination. [21] However a more recent article in Tenerife News casts doubt that there was any intention on the part of the group to commit suicide. [22]

Falun Gong Tiananmen Square self-immolation

Main article: Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident

The Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident occurred on January 23, 2001, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing in which six alleged Falun Gong followers supposedly engaged in self-immolation. The Chinese government and media alleged the people to be Falun Gong practitioners, which the group denies. There is much dispute as to whether the event was actually staged by the Chinese government and Xinhua News Agency in order to discredit the practice of Falun Gong.


Some argue that martyrdom, as found in religions such as Christianity or Islam, is tantamount to suicide. This argument states that by accepting -- or even inviting-- their own death, the martyr is committing something like assisted suicide. This theory is not in itself new. Richard Marius's unflattering biography of Thomas More indicated More felt hesitant about accepting martyrdom too easily, for fear that would be too similar to suicide. This idea has gained more currency in modern times.

Most mainstream religions traditionally forbid members to take their own lives. Martyrdom generally involves losing one's life, usually passively, at the hands of non-believers because of one's religious beliefs or practices. The Roman Catholic Church considers life to be a gift whose sole "owner" is God, who is consequently the only individual who may legitimately decide when to interrupt it. Special cases exist, such as the giving of one's own life to save that of another, but most cultures do not consider such acts to be true suicides.

Islam arguably has the harshest view of suicide of any major religion. Therefore some of the lowest suicide rates are found in Muslim nations like Jordan or Egypt. [23] Still, the extreme Islamist movement has strongly encouraged many Muslims to accept a theology in which becoming a suicide bomber is not considered suicide. Instead, it is described by the extremists as a "martyrdom operation", the purpose of which is to kill the enemy. From this viewpoint, one's own death is a consequence, rather than a goal.

Hundreds of Muslims, primarily Palestinians and Saudi Arabians, have died in the act of killing both military personnel and civilians in this fashion over the last decade, mostly in the Middle East. In 2001, 19 died in such a way in the United States (see September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack).

The Tamil Tigers have engaged in suicide bombings. At times Western observers have described Velupillai Prabhakaran as a cult-like Hindu figure who encourages suicide. Therefore they say the LTTE is like a cult-suicide group, even if their goal is largely political and is motivated by the desire to kill others rather than oneself.

Related to this, some would suggest that if "martyrdom" is ever directly self-inflicted it becomes cult-suicide. This line of thought leads to debates about whether the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam was cult suicide. One camp believes that in a sense it was cult suicide, but the other disputes this as it was ultimately a political action rather than a religious one. This argument could also apply to suicide bombers if their actions are understood as political rather than religious. However, added to this the self-immolation was of an individual rather than condoned by the leadership of a group. No recognized Buddhist organization is known to have asked Thích Quảng Ðức, for example, to immolate himself.

Mass suicide can also occur as a means of escape when a religious group perceives itself to be hopelessly besieged by its enemies or other adverse external pressure. These external foes may be real or imagined (see Masada). The legend of Masada, and similar examples, are sometimes explicitly used by cult-suicides as a justification. They may say that like those at Masada they are in danger from an evil empire, even if that evil empire is imaginary. They therefore prefer death to surrender, hence criticisms have arisen over the occasional glorification of Masada.

See also

  • Destructive cult
  • List of convicted or indicted religious leaders
  • List of groups referred to as cults
  • Mass suicide
  • Victims of poisoning
  • Seductive Poison


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