A Researcher’s Adventure:
Writing a Senior Thesis

by Helen Gerety

(Helen Gerety’s thesis is Religion and Violence: The Consequence of Bad Leadership.)

In September 2010 I began work on my senior thesis. As a Business Leadership major at a Liberal Arts College, I was tasked with choosing a topic that combined leadership with another discipline. As a declared religion minor, the choice was obvious: I knew I wanted to research religious leadership. Specifically I wanted to know where religious leaders drew their authority from, what types of relationships they built with their followers, and why some were so powerful and influential. This topic, however, was far too broad to cover in one paper. Given this, I decided to significantly narrow my scope and discuss only violent religious leaders. Upon reaching this decision, I went to work researching recent powerful religious leaders whose movements had ended violently. This research led me to select Jim Jones and Peoples Temple and Asahara Shoko and the Aum Shinrikyo movement. Both movements were relatively recent, both had leaders who strayed from their original missions, and due to the increased paranoia of these leaders, both became violent.

Given my academic background in religion, I was originally tempted to discuss the fundamentals of both Christianity and Buddhism, the religions from which these violent movements originated. However, both my Religious Studies and my Business Leadership advisors quickly discouraged me from addressing the fundamentals. Although these fundamentals and the leaders’ blatant disregard for them seemed of the upmost importance to me, a religion nerd, they were not relevant to the argument I was attempting to make. Instead of looking at the original doctrine, I needed to explore the doctrine that Jim Jones and Asahara Shoko developed and how these developments influenced both their leadership techniques and their followers’ loyalty. Additionally, I needed to research how these religious leaders were able to convince their followers, who were normally moral individuals, to commit acts of violence.

Researching Jim Jones and Asahara Shoko’s doctrines became the central focus of my research. I wanted to read everything they had ever written and more importantly listen to every sermon they had ever preached. This task proved much simpler for Jones than Asahara. The majority of Jones’ writings and sermons are recorded and available online. Due to Aum’s terrorist activity, however, Asahara’s writings were completely banned from all U.S. citizens. Fortunately, I located a few of Asahara’s sermons that been purchased by the University of California at Berkeley prior to Aum’s 1995 sarin gas attacks and thus prior to their banning. These sermons alongside Jones’ proved to be the most important research I obtained. Without them I would have been unable to convincing claim that both leaders were charismatic, which ultimately became one of my most significant claims.

Another important aspect of my research was followers’ testimonials. Without such detailed accounts of why the followers had originally decided to join the movements and what ultimately convinced them to respect, trust, and even idolize their leaders, the followership component of my thesis would have severely lacked supporting evidence. Thankfully such testimonials were readily available for both movements. However, instead of simply locating stories of the movements, the task became unearthing truly relevant and significant anecdotes.

Finally, I needed to research leaders and followers, and more specifically, how leaders and followers interact and how those interactions define the culture and climate of the group. Similarly to the followers’ testimonies, this research was not difficult to locate. I, however, was left to apply the lessons I learned about the leader/follower relationship to Jones and Asahara’s movements. How did they fit into the typical relationship? How were they different? What tactics did they employ?

This research led me to a very interesting conclusion. I found that charismatic religious leaders who are unable to build relationships with their followers that allowed for disagreement and a system of checks and balances ultimately abused their power. The most important concluasion, however, was not simply the abuse of the power, but how this abuse had the potential to result in violence.

Although I believe that this conclusion is both clearly supported by my selected case studies and intensive research, many found it hard to accept that charisma, which is often viewed as a positive characteristic, had the potential to be misused and even abused by religious leaders. I found that when I spoke to other students about charismatic leaders, they referenced Martin Luther King Jr. or Barack Obama, leaders who are known for their ability to captivate audiences through their impressive rhetoric. In response I often found myself arguing that Adolf Hitler and other famously evil leaders were also charismatic and that they too used emotional rhetoric to advance their cause.

Ultimately these men and the stories of their movements changed me. I began this research unable to fathom how these movements developed and how they grew to become so popular. I believed that both Jones and Asahara were manipulative individuals who knowingly abused their popularity and were solely blameworthy for the horrors that resulted due to their movements. I found, however, that both stories were much more complicated and were ones that needed to be examined from multiple perspectives. I now firmly believe that both Jones and Asahara were individuals who were unable to successfully cope with the amount of power their followers gave them, which ultimately led both men to become incredibly paranoid. This paranoia in no means dissolves any blame from either man; instead it only serves to emphasize the complexity of the leader/follower relationship. Given this, I hope what people take away from my paper is that although movements like Jones and Asahara’s are rare, relationships between leaders and followers are built every day, and are significantly more fragile than many believe them to be.

Last modified on December 12th, 2013.
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