Robert Jay Lifton is well-known for his studies of the psychological processes of people involved in terrible events – from Nazi doctors to A-bomb survivors – and in this book he takes his studies further by looking at Aum ShinrikyÅ, its orientations, members and activities. Lifton sees the affair primarily in psychological terms (there is little chronicling of events or analysis of how the historical development of Aum impacted on its activities) and seeks to identify in particular the characteristics and psychological orientation of its guru, Asahara, as a dominant theme in the affair. Valuable as a study of how people involved in such events might think, Lifton’s work is especially helpful in identifying the ways in which people might engage in what to a rational outsider would look to be wholly implausible (as with Aum’s apparent plans to make chemical weapons and fight a cosmic war against much of the world) but that makes ‘sense’ from within the milieu and cultural orientations of those involved. He emphasises Asahara’s evident megalomania, and argues that he basically was something of a conman who put together a religious system by plundering ideas from across the religious spectrum – a view that does not wholly accord with how Aum developed, and with the reality that it had a core set of doctrinal positions from early on (critical of the material world, focused on the notion of world salvation and transformation) that were grounded in a religious world view not borrowed from elsewhere but developed from within Asahara’s beliefs. His portrayal of Asahara as a madman also is problematic on the level that, while Asahara had clearly suffered a breakdown as his self-proclaimed mission began to unravel in the period before the subway attack, and as he became more disturbed after his arrest in 1995, there is little cogent evidence from disciples to indicate he was mentally deranged at earlier phases of his leadership.
As such Lifton treats Aum’s religious nature more sceptically than many other commentators. The strengths of his work lie more in his discussions of how enclosed groups can create a ‘reality’ within their environment that becomes an overriding force and impels them towards actions that would appear crazy from a rational perspective. He provides a striking assessment of how an intelligent and highly educated group of elite Aum disciples were able to create and exist in a fantasy world in which they were detached from the realities of life and became increasingly embroiled in a world view centred on the creation of weapons with which to fight a war against the rest of humanity. Here Lifton can draw on his own extended and copious previous studies of groups (for example, the Nazi doctors he studied), that have created their own worlds (of delusion) and frameworks of justification and legitimation for their deeds, to show how such processes occurred also in Aum. Lifton’s title captures a key aspect of Aum’s fantasy, in which the world needed to be destroyed in order to purify it of what Aum saw as its evil, poisonous and threatening nature, and in which destruction and killing became legitimate acts designed, in the minds of their perpetrators, to save the very people who were being killed. Although he emphasises the Japanese social and cultural characteristics that he sees evident in Aum, he does not see Aum as simply a Japanese phenomenon, but shows how the patterns and themes it evoked are found in apocalyptic thinking elsewhere. In particular he links the Aum case to a variety of other examples well-known to scholars of religion, such as the denouement of Heaven’s Gate in California, the Jonestown murder-suicides of 1978, the Branch Davidians at Waco, and the apocalyptic aspects of the Christian Identity movement in the USA. As such, Lifton views Aum as an example of a wider pattern of violent fanatical attempts to inflict annihilation and destruction on the world. As he notes, these attempts are intensified by the potential availability of weapons of destruction in the modern world. As such, rather than being able to write Aum off as an isolated case occurring in a society rather distant culturally from the West, he argues that it serves as a warning and as evidence of the potentiality of such forms of violence that can be produced globally by other groups with similar apocalyptic orientations and with similar fascinations with the mechanisms of destruction.