This review is of a book written in French, but which has been included on this site because it is the most significant work on the collective suicide and killings of The Order of the Solar Temple.
The Order of the Solar Temple was a millennial movement that collapsed in a midst of collective suicide (coupled with punitive killings of some dissident members) in Canada and Switzerland in 1994. Jean-François Mayer, a Swiss researcher, was able to access many of the Solar Temple’s records and cassette tapes that were left behind and has used them to construct an analysis of the movement’s trajectory that has influenced all subsequent studies and that remains the most significant work on the topic. The Solar Temple was grounded in a mystical admixture of New Age ideas coupled with elements of arcane Catholic ritualism and apocalyptic visions in which they believed that the world was coming to an end. The group’s leaders (Joseph di Mambro and Luc Jouret) appear to have been concerned about various problems – from defections to possible criminal charges – that the group faced, and were unhappy at what they felt was the failure of their movement to attract the levels of support they expected. The movement and its leaders saw themselves as having a mission to save the world, and they clearly expected to have far more people flocking to their side than actually happened. A telling observation by Mayer is that the Order of the Solar Temple had equipped the buildings and centres to accommodate many more people than actually came to them. In such contexts his analysis fits with that of others who have pointed to a perceived sense of failure as a key motivating force when groups turn to violence. That sense of anger at the failure of the wider world to acknowledge them was a factor in their turn away from the world and their planned ‘transit’ to another realm, carried out by collective suicide after a small number of dissidents who were seen as scapegoats for Solar Temple’s problems, had been killed first.
Mayer also shows that the leaders had considered carrying out their mass ‘transit’ earlier but that they were initially stopped by the dramatic siege and deaths of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, USA, in April 1993. Tapes found at the movement’s main Swiss centre after their suicides in 1994 indicate that di Mambro and Jouret felt that a mass suicide soon after the Waco conflagration would not attract the mass publicity they aspired to, and that they should delay for a while before aiming to do something more spectacular (which their later mass suicides simultaneously in Canada and Switzerland sought to do). A key point that Mayer’s study thus contributes to discussions of the relationship of religion, violence and extremism is his highlighting of the propensity of some types of religious group to seek out dramatic endings for themselves both to deal with problems and failures they faced and to gain worldwide recognition for themselves. Mayer has subsequently published articles in English on the Solar Temple but this book constitutes his core research on the movement.