The official term for a cult is new religious movement, or NRM. As Britannica notes, the term “cult” often carries with it disparaging connotations. And the reason for this is because NRMs tend to practice ritualistic physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at the behest of a controlling leader who usually creates a system that directly benefits him or her. Cults are at their most sensational, however, when they result in hair-raising events like murder or mass suicide. For example, after we were told of the disturbing details found in the Heaven’s Gate victims’ autopsy reports, it’s only natural that we would come away with a negative impression of NRMs.
Heaven’s Gate made headlines for the ritualistic way its members committed suicide: the clothing they wore, the bags over their heads, the purple shrouds laid over their corpses. A body count of 39 also grabbed people’s attention. However, there was another cult that carried out mass suicide, murders, and arson just a few years earlier, and the victims of that NRM’s skewed vision of reality greatly outnumbered the interstellar hitchhikers of Heaven’s Gate.
The Order of the Solar Temple killed almost twice as many people as Heaven's Gate
The Heaven’s Gate folks have gone down in history as the ones who hitched a ride on the Hale-Bopp comet in matching Nike sneakers, but another NRM produced an even higher number of victims just a few years earlier. According to Britannica, the Solar Temple is an NRM that was founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1984, but it soon moved its headquarters to Zurich. It also found a following in Canada.
The cult’s full name is the International Order of Chivalry Solar Tradition, and it can trace its roots back to the medieval military-religious order known as the Knights Templar. The group experienced a revival after the French Revolution, but quickly split into various factions. A co-founder of the Order of the Solar Temple was a member of a faction called the Renewed Order of the Temple before he started his own cult.
The Solar Temple’s ideology was based on the belief that the world was going to end in the mid-1990s, so everybody had to die in order to avoid it and reach a higher plane of spiritual existence. From 1994 to 1997, a total of 74 Solar Temple members either committed suicide or were ritualistically murdered, and the buildings they were in set on fire. Despite the world’s continued existence, the cult is still active today, and its membership is believed to be around a few hundred.
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