The Order of the Solar Temple. 8. But Was It a “Typical Cult”?

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Few days after the 1994 tragedy, Swiss media had already to deal with the problem that it did not look like the average “cult.”

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 8 of 9.

A typical French reaction to the Solar Temple. Source: Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, Paris.
A typical French reaction to the Solar Temple. Source: Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, Paris.

Was the Order of the Solar Temple (OTS) a stereotypical “cult”? Many of those who made this diagnosis did not know anything about the OTS before the homicides and suicides. As Swiss sociologist Roland Campiche observed, media in Switzerland and beyond initially had it all wrong. When they learned about the 1994 carnage in Cheiry and Salvan, they described the OTS members as “typical” “cult victims” living on the margin of Swiss society. This position became untenable when it came out that many if not most members were solid bourgeois, including businesspersons, journalists, and wealthy socialites.

In 1994, I was frequenting the Geneva professional milieu for reasons unconnected with my study of religions. I remember the astonishment of several friends when they read the names of those who died in the tragedy, whom they know as businesspersons and socialites more often found busy in Geneva’s business district or skiing in St. Moritz, without even suspecting their involvement in strange neo-Templar rituals.

Unlike “cults” who had been part of previous mass suicides such as the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, the OTS, strictly speaking, was not even a religious group. Rather than with religion, it dealt with magic and esotericism. Rather than with the Peoples Temple, it can be compared with Heaven’s Gate, a UFO group 39 members of which committed a collective suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California, in 1997. Yet, unlike the OTS co-founders Di Mambro and Jouret, Heaven’s Gate leaders and members, while professing certain esoteric ideas, were never part of the esoteric milieu where a great number of Rosicrucian, para-Masonic, and neo-Templar groups kept in touch with each other.

Local San Diego media reporting on Heaven’s Gate suicide. From Facebook.
Local San Diego media reporting on Heaven’s Gate suicide. From Facebook.

The OTS did not belong to any catastrophic millennial tradition, and was part of a larger esoteric subculture in which apocalypticism is not widespread, and violence and suicide are extremely rare. Why exactly, among hundreds of groups in the magical milieu (more than a hundred in the neo-Templar subfamily alone), only the OTS evolved towards suicide and murder is not an easily answered question.

The anti-cult movement and some journalists influenced by the stereotypes of French and Swiss anti-cult organizations initially suggested the usual model of brainwashing. When, however, they took a closer look at the personalities of those who died, they had to recognize that the large majority of the Templars did not fit the usual profile of  “brainwashed cultists.” As mentioned earlier, the Templars were not unemployed poor nor college students but solid middle-class citizens—in some cases, even members of the Geneva jet set.

As Campiche noted, the brainwashing explanation was, thus, converted into the claim that the OTS was not what it claimed to be, but a facade to hide a conspiracy involving secret services of different countries, organized crime, and large-scale money-laundering operations. When scholars, including myself and Jean-François Mayer (who, as I mentioned earlier, participated in the Swiss official investigation), dismissed these theories, they were simply accused of being themselves part of the conspiracy.

Although entire books have been devoted by militant anti-cult journalists to the alleged Solar Temple conspiracies, no hard evidence has emerged, and these theories have been rejected by both the Canadian and the Swiss investigators. Once sensationalist pseudo-factors are discarded, a number of concomitant factors, both internal and external, contributing to the tragedies emerge.

External factors include the campaign started by ADFI-Martinique and Rose-Marie Klaus, and the subsequent police investigations in Quebec, Australia, and France. There is little doubt that this was interpreted by Di Mambro and his closest associates as intolerable persecution. Indeed, the fourth document of the “Testament” they left behind in 1994 was entirely devoted to accusing those organizing the “systematic persecution” of the OTS, including the government and the police of Quebec, of “mass homicide.” Should we, as a consequence, interpret the “Transit” as a response to the opposition?

“Testament” documents sent to media and scholars in 1994. From Facebook.
“Testament” documents sent to media and scholars in 1994. From Facebook.

As American scholars John R. Hall and Philip D. Schuyler observed in their 2006 study “The Mystical Apocalypse of the Solar Temple” (part of the volume edited by James R. Lewis The Order of the Solar Temple: The Temple of Death, London: Routledge), “whether the deaths would have been orchestrated absent the opposition and ensuing scandals is a counterfactual experiment that cannot be completed.”

As we have seen in a previous article, the dates when the first documents clearly hinting at a radical “Transit” were created on the Swiss computer of the OTS more or less coincide with the first police investigations of the group. The question remains why the OTS reacted to the perceived persecution as it did, while a large number of other spiritual movements have endured a much larger amount of ridicule, anti-cult opposition, and police harassment without any violent reaction.

Internal factors should also be considered. The perverse effects of Di Mambro’s threatened loss of charisma have been emphasized by Canadian scholar Susan Palmer (“Purity and Danger in the Solar Temple,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 11,3 [1996], 303–318) and were indeed a key factor. Similar problems seem to have affected Jim Jones (1931–1978) of the Peoples Temple, and Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) of Heaven’s Gate. All had health problems coupled with disconfirmed prophecies or claims.

Not only may they have re-interpreted their loss of health and charisma as a cosmic tragedy, but the group itself may have collectively read the problems of the leader as a metaphor for planetary illness. Additionally, one is forced to recognize that there are ideologies and doctrines more prone than others to propel a group into violence and suicide. After all, the choice of exiting this world becomes somewhat rational if earth is regarded as doomed, about to be “recycled” or “spaded under” to use the terms of Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate internet manifestos, and if suicide is presented as an honorable and effective path to reach another planet.

Massimo Introvigne

Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio.  From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.

Note: Reprint of; December/January 2021