The term atrocity story (also referred to as atrocity tale) as defined by the American sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe refers to the symbolic presentation of action or events (real or imaginary) in such a context that they are made flagrantly to violate the (presumably) shared premises upon which a given set of social relationships should be conducted. The recounting of such tales is intended as a means of reaffirming normative boundaries. By sharing the reporter's disapproval or horror, an audience reasserts normative prescription and clearly locates the violator beyond the limits of public morality. The term was coined in 1979 by Bromley, Shupe, and Joseph Ventimiglia.
Bromley and others define an atrocity as an event that is perceived as a flagrant violation of a fundamental value. It contains the following three elements:
- moral outrage or indignation;
- authorization of punitive measures;
- mobilization of control efforts against the apparent perpetrators.
The veracity of the story is considered irrelevant.
Newspapers about the Unification Church
In their study of 190 newspaper articles about former members of the Unification Church between 1974 and 1977, Bromley and others found that 188 contained atrocity stories and were largely hostile to the church. The most frequent atrocities were:
- Psychological violation of personal freedom and autonomy;
- Economic violations: reports that the church forced member to sell their private property and to give it to the church;
- Severing of the parent-child relation. This grew out of the hostility of families who had been rejected by members of the church;
- Political and legal atrocities, because the church was run by a foreigner.
According to the American sociologist Kurtz, there was an element of truth to many of these stories, but these things happen in many organizations and the coverage of the church was very negative.
Views and studies
The term "atrocity story" is controversial as it relates to the differing views amongst scholars about the credibility of the accounts of former members. (See: The reliability of apostates' testimony.)
Bryan R. Wilson, Reader Emeritus of Sociology of the University of Oxford says apostates of new religious movements are generally in need of self-justification, seeking to reconstruct their past and to excuse their former affiliations, while blaming those who were formerly their closest associates. Wilson, thus, challenges the reliability of the apostate's testimony by saying that the apostate "must always be seen as one whose personal history predisposes him to bias with respect to both his previous religious commitment and affiliations, the suspicion must arise that he acts from a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to regain his self-esteem, by showing himself to have been first a victim but subsequently to have become a redeemed crusader." Wilson also asserts that some apostates or defectors from religious organisations rehearse atrocity stories to explain how, by manipulation, coercion or deceit, they were recruited to groups that they now condemn.
Jean Duhaime of the Université de Montréal writes, referring to Wilson, based on his analysis of three books by apostates of new religious movements, that stories of apostates cannot be dismissed only because they are subjective.
Danny Jorgensen, Professor at the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Florida, in his book The Social Construction and Interpretation of Deviance: Jonestown and the Mass Media argues that the role of the media in constructing and reflecting reality is particularly apparent in its coverage of cults. He asserts that this complicity exists partly because apostates with an atrocity story to tell make themselves readily available to reporters and partly because new religious movements have learned to be suspicious of the media and, therefore, have not been open to investigative reporters writing stories on their movement from an insider's perspective. Besides this lack of information about the experiences of people within new religious movements, the media is attracted to sensational stories featuring accusations of food and sleep deprivation, sexual and physical abuse, and excesses of spiritual and emotional authority by the charismatic leader.
Michael Langone argues that some will accept uncritically the positive reports of current members without calling such reports, for example, "benevolence tales" or "personal growth tales". He asserts that only the critical reports of ex-members are called "tales", which he considers to be a term that clearly implies falsehood or fiction. He states that it wasn't until 1996 that a researcher conducted a study to assess the extent to which so called "atrocity tales" might be based on fact.
The term was coined by Stimson and Webb (1975) in discussing the ways in which patients talk about doctors. It has also been applied in health care contexts to examine the way in which such stories are used to assert and defend the character of an occupation against illegitimate claims to its work or social standing (Dingwall 1977).
- Shupe, A.D. and D.G. Bromley 1981 Apostates and Atrocity Stories: Some parameters in the Dynamics of Deprogramming In: B.R. Wilson (ed.) The Social Impact of New Religious Movements Barrytown NY Rose of Sharon Press 179-215
- Bromley, David G., The Politics of Religious Apostasy, Praeger Publishers, 1998. ISBN 0-275-95508-7
- Julien Théry, "Atrocitas/enormitas. Esquisse pour une histoire de la catégorie de 'crime énorme' du Moyen Âge à l'époque moderne", Clio@Themis, Revue électronique d'histoire du droit, n. 4, march 2011
Dingwall, R. (1977) Atrocity Stories and Professional Relationships. Sociology of Work and Occupations, Vol4, No 4, November. Stimson GV, and B. Webb (1975) Going to see the doctor. London: Routledge.
- Bromley, David G., Shupe, Anson D., Ventimiglia, G.C.: "Atrocity Tales, the Unification Church, and the Social Construction of Evil", Journal of Communication, Summer 1979, p. 42-53.
- Richardson, James T. Minority Religions and the Context of Violence: A Conflict/Interactionist Perspective in Violence and New Religious Movements by James R. Lewis, 2011, Oxford University Press, page 43
- Kurtz, Lester R. Gods in the Global Village: The World's Religions in Sociological Perspective 2007, Pine Forge Press, ISBN 1-4129-2715-3, page 228
- Wilson, Bryan R. Apostates and New Religious Movements (1994) (Available online)
- Duhaime, Jean (Université de Montréal) Les Témoigagnes de Convertis et d'ex-Adeptes (English: The testimonies of converts and former followers, article that appeared in the otherwise English language book New Religions in a Postmodern World edited by Mikael Rothstein and Reender Kranenborg RENNER Studies in New religions Aarhus University press, ISBN 87-7288-748-6
- Jorgensen, Danny. The Social Construction and Interpretation of Deviance: Jonestown and the Mass Media as cited in McCormick Maaga, Mary, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown 1st ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998) pp.39, ISBN 0-8156-0515-3
- Zablocki, Benjamin, Reliability and validity of apostate accounts in the study of religious communities. Paper presented at the Association for the Sociology of Religion in New York City, Saturday, August 17, 1996.
- Langone, Michael, The Two "Camps" of Cultic Studies: Time for a Dialogue, Cults and Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001 
- Beith-Hallahmi, Benjamin Dear Colleagues: Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research, 1997, 
- MacDougall, Curtis D., Understanding Public Opinion: A Guide for Newspapermen and Newspaper Readers (New York: Macmillan, 1952) pp.101-2