Jonestown is a signifier with multiple meanings. To disentangle them, I believe that one key questions should be asked: was Jonestown typical of a larger category of “cults,” or was it something unique and unrepeatable?
I will shortly examine two frequent answers, and propose a third one of my own.
The first answer is typical of the anti-cult movement, and has been proposed even in the pages of this Report. The answer is articulated as follows:
- “Cults” are groups where authoritarian leaders brainwash their followers.
- Brainwashed “cultists” commit all sort of wrongdoings.
- Although most scholars denied that brainwashing exist, they were proven wrong by Jonestown.
- Since “cult” leaders continue to brainwash their followers, other Jonestowns are always possible and, in fact, likely to happen.
I believe that all four theses are wrong.
- Not only scholars, but courts of law in different countries have concluded that brainwashing theories are not part of accepted science. They are also used to create dangerous circular arguments to attack any group that anti-cultists – or, worse, totalitarian governments – do not like: we know that this group is a “cult” because it uses brainwashing, and we know it uses brainwashing because it is a “cult.”
- There is no empirical evidence that criminal activities are more prevalent among groups labeled as “cults” than among traditional religions. Pedophilia is more prevalent among Catholic priests than among Scientologists or members of the Unification movement. Terrorists invoke more frequently the name of Islam than of any new religious movement. And so on. Of course, one can define “cults” as groups systematically committing crimes. In this case, that they commit crimes would be a tautology, but the usual lists of “cults” prepared by anti-cultists should be drastically shortened.
- If brainwashing does not exist, what happened in Jonestown was not brainwashing but something else. And of course no significant psychological examination of the Jonestown devotees was carried out before the suicide, which means that any comments on their mental status is merely post factum
- Of course, there have been other collective suicides (Heaven’s Gate was one, while Waco wasn’t). However, the percentage of new religious movements (a category including several thousand groups throughout the world) involved in mass suicides is abysmally low.
These comments may lead us to embrace a second theory – as several scholars of new religious movements have – that Jonestown was an absolutely unique case and that no similar incidents existed or may exist. I have more sympathy for this thesis, which is supported by several peculiarities unique to Jonestown, including its connections with Marxism, its being part of a mainline denomination (the Disciples of Christ), and the special political and social atmosphere of its pre-Guyana days. The second theory also helps avoiding the cavalier use of the expression “another Jonestown,” which has been liberally used by anti-cultists for hundreds of groups, none of which committed mass suicide. Ironically, those who did (leaving aside whether their final acts were suicides, homicides, or a combination of the two), either completely escaped the anti-cultists’ radars, such as the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in remote Uganda, or were mentioned by some anti-cult publications but in a peripheral and marginal way only, such as Heaven’s Gate or the Order of the Solar Temple. And the worst risk, one we should take very seriously, is that the rhetoric of “another Jonestown” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, one actually helping confrontational situations to end up in tragedy.
I do agree with these comments, yet I do not completely share the thesis of the unicity of Jonestown. Both Jean-François Mayer and I saw similarities (as well as differences) between Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and the Order of the Solar Temple. I have proposed the category of “criminal religious movements” (not criminal new religious movements, because they can be part of traditional religions as well) as more meaningful and useful than “cults.” I define a “criminal religious movement” as “a religious movement that either, or both, advocates or consistently engages as a group in major violent or criminal activities, including terrorism, homicide, physical violence against members, dissidents, or opponents, rape, sexual abuse of minors, or major economic crimes.”
Some criminal religious movements may end their existence in suicide or mass homicide, but not all criminal religious movements would do this, and not all those that do have a past history of crimes. Heaven’s Gate was a peaceful and generally law-abiding group. I would recommend to explore a category of “suicidal religious movements,” whose features Mayer and I discussed after the suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple. They include a notion of the imminent and violent end of the word combined with external opposition perceived in apocalyptic terms, and the illness of the leader interpreted as a wound in the inner fabric of this world. A theology of the suicide, and rehearsing suicide, are of course even more significant clues.
“Combined with” are the operative words here. Alone, the notion of an imminent apocalypse does not make a group suicidal or violent. The Jehovah’s Witnesses expected the end of this world for several specific dates, yet they remained their usual and law-abiding selves.
The categories of criminal religious movements and suicidal religious movements may overlap, but not necessarily. The combination of the two features may indeed create some of the worst tragedies.
Is there “another Jonestown”? Yes, but very rarely. Using “another Jonestown” as a slogan to harass the hundreds of groups that anti-cultists do not like is worse than a crime against religious liberty only. It is an attitude that can actually create the very Jonestowns it claims it is trying to prevent.
 There is a large literature criticizing the concept of brainwashing. See e.g. Dick Anthony, “Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence: An Exploration of Admissibility Criteria for Testimony in Brainwashing Trials,” PhD diss., Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley 1996; and Dick Anthony and Massimo Introvigne, Le Lavage de cerveau: mythe ou réalité?, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006.
 For a more articulated criticism of the anti-cult thesis, and a history of the related controversies, see Massimo Introvigne, “Advocacy, Brainwashing Theories, and New Religious Movements,” Religion 44 (2014):303–19.
 See John R. Hall, “Mass Suicide and the Branch Davidians.” In David Bromley and J. Gordon Melton (Eds.), Cults, Religion, and Violence (pp. 149-169). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
 Massimo Introvigne and Jean-François Mayer, “Occult Masters and the Temple of Doom: The Fiery End of the Solar Temple.” In David Bromley and J. Gordon Melton (Eds.), Cults, Religion, and Violence (pp. 170-188). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
 See my “Xie Jiao as ‘Criminal Religious Movements’: A New Look at Cult Controversies in China and Around the World,”The 5ournal of CESNUR 2/1 (2018):13–32.
 Introvigne and Mayer, “Occult Masters and the Temple of Doom.”
(Massimo Introvigne is the director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Torino, Italy. His previous article for the jonestown report is Jonestown and Liberation Theology. He may be reached at email@example.com.)