One of my other skeptic projects is the website What's the Harm, on which I collect stories of people harmed by pseudoscientific or paranormal beliefs. That site covers many topics, but you can’t find a clearer example of harm from irrational thinking than a cult, particularly one focused on apocalyptic predictions.
Despite being wrong 100% of the time, these predictions keep coming. Last year brought predictions of the Rapture in the U.S. and this year brings more such predictions revolving around 2012 in the Mayan calendar.
Most skeptics know of the famous Heaven’s Gate mass suicide which took place on March 26, 1997, just before the perigee of Comet Hale-Bopp. This cult was holed up in a luxury home just outside San Diego in the United States.
Fewer may be familiar with the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which attacked the Tokyo subways with sarin gas on March 20, 1995. This group was in the news recently as the last of the court appeals were exhausted, paving the way for executions in the case. The government also announced it is still monitoring offshoots of the group.
But there's another millenial cult that has received even less attention in western news media. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a breakaway sect from the Roman Catholic church founded in Uganda in the 1980s. As the millennium approached, the leaders of this group predicted the end times. Members sold off their possessions and all work ceased. When the world did not end on January 1, 2000, naturally there were some questions.
So the leaders modified their prediction. Now the world was going to end on March 17, 2000. A large party was planned for that day. But the day ended instead with an explosion and a terrible fire in the compound. Many of the members had been locked in a building which was set on fire. Others were poisoned.
A total of 778 people were murdered by the leaders of the cult. Two of those leaders are believed to be at large to this day.
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(This essay originally appeared in a slightly different form on Skepticality episode #124)
Tim Farley is a JREF Research Fellow in electronic media.