Now that I have studied new religious movements (NRMs) for my master’s degree, I have a different perspective of them. When I hear about a new group now, I know that there is so much more going on within it, that it is not just a bunch of fanatics who are bonded together by the same religious belief.
Before I started my studies of NRMs, I could completely agree with my friends and family, that a characteristic of a new religious movement is its great potential to behave violently. Although we had no violent eruptions among new religious movements in Slovenia, the belief is still much present, due to the well-publicized incidents involving different movements, not just Peoples Temple, but the Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate and Solar Temple.
Most people in Slovenia are Catholics, so the Church has a dominant role in our religious system. Although there are also signs of secularization in Slovenia, still the Catholic church plays an important role in our country.
How do we see other movements? Religious freedom in Slovenia is recognized as a human right and is regulated in a manner comparable to other European countries. In May 2007, a special government office registered 43 religious communities, at least two-thirds of which can be classified as NRMs.
There have been no incidents between any of the religious groups and Slovenian society, nor within the different movements themselves. The only incident – which received wide publicity when it happened two years ago – involved a physical assault on a Lama Šenpen Rinpo?e, the head of a Buddhist congregation in Slovenia. He was stabbed twice by unknown men. Although there is still debate if this action was religiously motivated, most of the people think so. This act was strongly condemned by other new religious movements in Slovenia. The head of Islamic community said that the existence of different religious communities in Slovenia enriches the wealthy society in which we live. News like this is scary, but we shouldn’t be afraid. All religious movements still have to continue all the good work for a society in which we live with different religious beliefs.
This makes Slovenia quite a liberal country religiously, even with the dominance of the Catholic church. We have other movements that have roots in Christianity, but we also have Buddhist, Hindu and other movements which have roots in East Indian tradition. Other new religious movements based on different esoteric and naturally-found principles are smaller.
Despite this familiarity and tolerance of different religious groups, most of the people in Slovenia who are familiar with Jonestown dismiss its members as religiously-obsessed and abnormal people who lost the contact with the real world. And in fact, if the only knowledge people had of the movement is that presented by the mass media, that would be a logical statement. I pursued my master degree to refute such perception and to give a deeper look at the complete Jonestown picture. Although I know that my work won’t be famous and widely known, I hope that at least people who do read it will begin to understand the movement’s complexities, the passion behind its goals, the seeds of its self-destruction, and everything else that made it a human experience.
(Manca Gartnar lives in Kranj, Slovenia and was awarded her Master of Sociology degree last year. Her article in last year’s edition of the jonestown report was My Reflections And Thoughts On Peoples Temple.)