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Journal of Religion and Violence

Volume 2, Issue 1, 2014

Ryan J. Cook
Pages 45-93
DOI: 10.5840/jrv2014219

Absence of Evidence: How Chen Tao Became a “Suicide Cult”

For new religious movements, is the absence of evidence of the potential for violence ever sufficient evidence of its absence? This article examines the process through which Chen Tao was inaccurately portrayed as potentially suicidal by the news media. After a review of the group’s cosmology and migration from Taiwan to the United States, it describes the group’s interactions with news media personnel at several key points between the mid-1990s and the 2010s. The article then marshals the scholarship treating minority religions, inwardly-directed violence, and the media to understand why this happened to Chen Tao. From early on, journalists consistently wove rumors about and interpretations of group members’ acts and statements into a narrative of risk that, while unsupported by evidence, resonated with a pre-existing “suicide cult” topos in reporting.

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