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Atrocity story


Atrocity story

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.[1]

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:

  1. moral outrage or indignation;
  2. authorization of punitive measures;
  3. mobilization of control efforts against the apparent perpetrators.

The veracity of the story is considered irrelevant.[2]


  • Newspapers about the Unification Church 1
  • Views and studies 2
  • Other uses 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6

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:

  1. Psychological violation of personal freedom and autonomy;
  2. Economic violations: reports that the church forced member to sell their private property and to give it to the church;
  3. Severing of the parent-child relation. This grew out of the hostility of families who had been rejected by members of the church;
  4. 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.[3]

Atrocity stories served as justification for deprogramming of Unification Church members.[3]

The term is also used for stories about other new religious movements and cults.

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.)

  • Bromley, David G., The Politics of Religious Apostasy, Praeger Publishers, 1998. ISBN 0-275-95508-7
  • 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
  • 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

Further reading

  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ a b 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
  4. ^ Wilson, Bryan R. Apostates and New Religious Movements (1994) (Available online)
  5. ^ Duhaime, Jean (Aarhus University press, ISBN 87-7288-748-6
  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
  7. ^ a b 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.
  8. ^ Langone, Michael, The Two "Camps" of Cultic Studies: Time for a Dialogue, Cults and Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001 [1]
  9. ^ Beith-Hallahmi, Benjamin Dear Colleagues: Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research, 1997, [2]
  10. ^ MacDougall, Curtis D., Understanding Public Opinion: A Guide for Newspapermen and Newspaper Readers (New York: Macmillan, 1952) pp.101-2
  11. ^ Stimson GV; Webb, B. (1975) Going to see the doctor. London: Routledge
  12. ^ Dingwall, R. (1977) Atrocity Stories and Professional Relationships. Sociology of Work and Occupations, Vol4, No 4


See also

The term was coined by Stimson and Webb in discussing the ways in which patients talk about doctors.[11] 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.[12]

The term is also used as related to atrocity propaganda, stories about atrocities told as a form of propaganda, and their power in the shaping of public opinion during wartime.[10]

Other uses

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[7] to assess the extent to which so called "atrocity tales" might be based on fact.[7][8][9]

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.[6]

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.[5]


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