Though, technically, the third millennium does not begin until January 1, 2001 (and, depending on which calendar you are using, even this date is ambiguous), try telling this to the doomsayers prophesying the end of the world as we know it (or, TEOTWAWKI, for short) come this New Year's Eve. On top of the usual turn-of-the-century gloom-and-doom forecasts, this one, fueled by technology and a media presence unknown to the world of 999 and the ever-looming presence of the "Y2K" computer bug, has even the most rational worried. In line with religious groups of the past, there is today a proliferation of millennial groups and pundits preparing the faithful for the end of civilization. They have a willing & ready audience. A poll by Time magazine (January 1999) reported that 9% of respondents fully believe that the world as we know it will end on January 1, 2000.
In 999, people didn't have to worry about a "Y1K" bug, though
many were preparing for an apocalypse, nonetheless. The world
was still thought to be flat, the law of gravity was centuries
from being discovered, diseases were of mysterious origin and
unlikely cure, illiteracy was rampant and the printing press had
yet to be invented, and most phenomena now known to be part of
the "natural" world were perceived as the product of supernatural
forces; the world was a scary and unpredictable place. Prophets
of doom reigned, and, despite the fact that the millennium has
no basis in geological, celestial, or sidereal fact, these seers
gathered legions of followers with their predictions of Armageddon.1
One thousand years later, despite (or perhaps in response to) incredible and unforeseen technological advancements, the gloom-and-doom prophets are again attempting to rouse the rabble with their prognostications and are rapidly cultivating new followers, even among the (ostensibly) more educated & enlightened members of the postmodern era. With the mushrooming of computer-facilitated modes of communication, once unknown, isolated, and extremist groups now have global access and audience.
What are millennial cults?
Groups that remove themselves both from traditional religion and from the mainstream society, becoming part of the counterculture, can be identified as sects or cults. Contrary to media portrayals, cults are not necessarily evil; they are simply new or different. Many religions now accepted as mainstream, with worldwide followings, began as cults or sects, often as small groups of outcasts from other religions who founded their own branches; these include early Christians, as well as Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Protestant fundamentalists, Jehovah's Witnesses, & Seventh-Day Adventists.
By and large, present-day millennial groups are religious-based,
typically Christian. Despite their separation from established
denominations (though with time, they may achieve this status)
and the larger society, the majority share the Christian belief
in a "day of reckoning," at which time only the chosen or true
believers will be saved. Susan Harding describes this "dispensational
discourse" as political in that it informs & shapes believers'
interpretations of current events.2
Many such groups cite the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation,
as evidence of the coming Apocalypse, & use it to justify their
cult activities. The Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh in
Waco, Texas, provide a modern example of a cult employing apocalyptic
ideas toward political and other ends.
Indigenous groups in non-Christian countries around the world adhere to the same sort of apocalyptic beliefs. Traditional cargo cults of Melanesia have adopted millenarian belief systems as a result of Western influence.
Militaristic or terrorist groups see the end as coming in the
form of "Big Brother" government, and oppose globalization trends
and what they see as the New World order. The Aum Shinrikyo in
Japan is a violent religious/terrorist cult (or "killer sect")
infamous for releasing Sarin, a toxic nerve gas, in a Tokyo subway
in 1995, believing that violence would help its members survive
the Apocalypse and Armageddon, anticipated at the turn of the
millennium. Other terrorist groups also combine fundamentalist
Christian scripture with white supremacist or fascist discourse
to justify their violent means and methods, making use of apocalyptic
texts such as Soldier of Fortune magazine.3
Radical messianic groups can often be more lethally violent than
their secular counterparts.4
Eschewing violence, many "secular survivalist" or New
Age groups are environmentally oriented, reject increasing
technological development, and remove themselves from the larger
society, assembling in communes or remote communities that follow
a "back-to-the-Earth" philosophy.5
Such groups have enjoyed a recent boom in membership among those
fearing fallout from Y2K, with adherents stockpiling food & supplies
and retreating to what their leaders have designated as "safe"
places. An example of such a group is the "Y2K-safe" community,
Heritage West 2000, founded in a remote area of Arizona as a retreat
for its followers.
How do sociologists explain cults?
In classical sociological theory, Emile Durkheim used the term
"moral integration" to describe the role of shared beliefs in
binding communities together.6
His concept of anomie
reflects the sense of alienation resulting from profound social
disorganization or change that leaves individuals feeling disconnected
from each other and from the collective social whole. Religions
and, by extension, cults hold out the promise of a renewed sense
of belonging and social order. Ferdinand Tonnies describes changes
occurring in modern society as a loss of gemeinschaft
or intimate community, resulting in the more impersonal associational
form known as gesellschaft.7
In general, membership in cults can be seen as an attempt to alleviate
such feelings of isolation and alienation and imbue a sense of
purpose, community, and belonging.
In the postmodern age, this is increasingly accomplished using
new technologies. What Maria Luisa Maniscalco has classified as
"cyber cults" use the Internet to disseminate their doctrines
and restore a sense of connectedness and intimacy to cult members
separated by physical boundaries.8
This technique was employed by Heaven's Gate in San Diego, California,
a group of technologically savvy individuals who maintained their
own site on the World Wide Web.9
They embraced a secularist version of the Christian Rapture, believing
that a star trailing the Halle Bopp comet was actually a spaceship
ready to transport them, once they had rid themselves of their
bodies or "earthly containers."
Heaven's Gate was also typical of cults in that it was headed
by a charismatic
leader (Mitchell "Bo" Applewhite) who promised insight and guidance
into the world beyond the corporeal and temporal. Such leaders
utilize techniques of manipulation, persuasion, and coercion to
recruit members, isolate them from outside contact and influences,
and indoctrinate them into their belief system. A prime example
of such a group is Jim Jones's People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana,
which became so isolated and trapped in its leader's delusions
that it willingly annihilated itself in a group suicide.10
Though many cults disband after the death of their leader, others
survive because this charisma becomes institutionalized
in a bureaucratic form or routinized.11
Likewise, though a failed end-of-the-world prophecy can have
a significant impact on intragroup tension, organization, and
commitment, research has shown that, even when their prophecies
fail or miss the mark, millennial cult members remain undaunted.12
The theory of cognitive dissonance explains how, in the face of
contradictory information being received, cult members can reorganize
and adapt their belief systems so as to restore congruence.13
Indeed, prophetic disconfirmation can even lead to increased conviction
among cult members and a renewed effort at recruitment.14
Many fringe religions or cults have been accused of using brainwashing
to recruit and retain members. William Sims Bainbridge suggests
that, under the sway of powerful, charismatic leaders, a process
of "social implosion" transpires in which ingroup ties are strengthened
and relationships with outsiders weakened.15
No competing realities can intrude to challenge the prevailing
internal belief system, which is maintained through isolation,
a distinct ingroup language and symbolism, and ritual.
In the sociology of religion, Bainbridge (with Rodney Stark)
postulated a theory of sect and cult affiliation that described
adherence to alternative religious movements in terms of rational
choice, social exchange,
and means-end behavior,
with individuals responding to the sense of community and belonging
offered by cults in times of increased social tensions as a way
of compensating for perceptions of deprivation and isolation from
the social whole.16
The social networks offered by cults replace the bonds once offered
by the larger society.17
Neil Smelser, in his value-added theory of collective behavior,
identified six elements necessary for the development of social
movements: (1) structural conduciveness, (2) structural strain,
(3) generalized beliefs, (4) precipitating factors, (5) mobilization,
and (6) social control.18
J. David Knottnerus applies this analytic framework to illustrate
how cults incorporate all of these dimensions.19
In late modernity, the development of millennial cults is further
fueled by a catastrophic mentality, millennium vision, and crisis
Cults also develop along lines explained in theories from the
sociology of deviance. Again, like the term "cult," "deviant"
does not necessarily have a negative connotation in sociology,
but merely describes that which stands outside or violates established
social rules and norms. Robert K. Merton's strain theory describes
how the social structure itself produces deviant behavior by virtue
of the fact that some individuals or social groups are denied
access to culturally prescribed goals and the opportunities to
Among other responses, such strain can produce retreatism from
the larger society and its values or rebellion against them; cults
exhibit both types of behavior.
In the functionalist
school, Travis Hirschi explains how deviance is nurtured in societies
where traditional forms of social
control (the family, school, peer group) and commitment to
the social order and its morals, values, and beliefs have broken
Aside from social control functions, these venues also provide
sources of attachment, which, when removed, can push the individual
to seek membership or belonging elsewhere, often from a source
considered deviant by the larger society, eg, a cult. This may
help explain why otherwise "normal" people join cults. Indeed,
a review of the literature demonstrates how frequently cults name
themselves "families" in what can be interpreted as an attempt
to appeal to this lack of attachment from an individual's "real"
Seeking verification and affirmation, the detached individual
may become "deviant'' through what Edwin Sutherland describes
as the process of "differential
association," in which deviance is learned through association
with nontraditional individuals and groups and adoption of their
systems of norms and values.23
In a study of a UFO cult, Robert W. Balch describes how, during
this process of socialization,
new social roles are learned that foster the process of conversion.24
Similarly, in his study of the Church of Scientology, Roger Straus
describes the progression of stages of individual identity loss
through "reference group confusion."25
Other sociological concepts such as labeling
and stigma also
come into play when dominant groups (eg, the media or police)
designate certain religious groups as deviant.26
From the social constructionist
perspective, deviant behavior and groups are "created" by the
larger society. Today, this is often accomplished in conjunction
with mass-media-inspired "moral
panics" that create fear and suspicion of certain groups,
such as cults, despite little or no evidence that they are engaging
in deviant activities (or even exist, eg, Satanic ritual abuse
Aaron Lynch describes this as a process of "thought contagion."28
The postmodern willingness to believe in even the most outrageous claims and pseudoscientific canons of some of the new cults is explained by the Center for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal as a result of increasing scientific illiteracy, spawned by a mass media (with its portrayals of alien autopsies, accounts of UFO ''survivors,'' conspiracies, and curses) that caters to a general public no longer familiar with the scientific method.29 In addition, the rate of technological innovation and diffusion has been staggering, and, as with all rapid societal transformations, has left many struggling to keep up in its wake, creating "technophobes" out of otherwise intelligent and able people.
On a larger scale, Scott Lash, Andrew Quick, & Richard Roberts
describe a general "sense of foreboding at the dissolution of
intelligible time, the time of Western order" in the face of the
In such an atmosphere, the growth of cults outside or as offshoots
of traditional religions reflects the increased secularization
of modern society. While earlier religions saw visions of saints
and demons and redemption through the Rapture, today's millennial
cults may look to aliens who will either lead us to the heavens
in their UFOs or destroy us.
- Loevinger, Lee, "The Significance of the Millennium," Skeptical Inquirer, 1997, 21, 1, Jan/Feb, 31-36.
- Harding, Susan, "Imaging the Last Days: The Politics of Apocalyptic Language," in Accounting for Fundamentalisms: the Dynamic Character of Movements, Marty, Martin E., & Appleby, R. Scott [Eds], IL: U of Chicago, 1994.
- Lamy, Philip, "Millennialism in the Mass Media: The Case of Soldier of Fortune Magazine," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1992, 37, 4, Dec, 408-424.
- Hoffman, Bruce, "' Holy Terror': The Implications of Terrorism Motivated by a Religious Imperative," in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 1995, 18, 4, Oct-Dec, 271-284.
- Peterson, Richard G., "Preparing for Apocalypse: Survivalist Strategies," Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 1984, 12, 1, May, 44-46.
- Durkheim, Emile, Suicide, 1897.
- Tonnies, Ferdinand, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, 1957.
- Maniscalco, Maria Luisa, "Cult Spirit and Virtual Vertigo: The Collective Suicide of Heaven's Gate," Sociologia, 1997, 31, 2 (new series), 41-68.
- Balch, Robert W, "The Evolution of a New Age Cult: From Total Overcomers Anonymous to Death at Heaven's Gate," in Sects, Cults, and Spiritual Communities: A Sociological Analysis, Zellner, William W., & Petrowsky, Marc [Eds], Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.
- Black, Albert, Jr, "Jonestown-Two Faces of Suicide: A Durkheimian Analysis," Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 1990, 20, 4, winter, 285-306.
- Zavaleta, Antonio, "El Nino Fidencio and the Fidencistas," in Sects, Cults, and Spiritual Communities: A Sociological Analysis, Zellner, William W., & Petrowsky, Marc [Eds], Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.
- Badar, Chris, "When Prophecy Passes Unnoticed: New Perspectives on Failed Prophecy," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1999, 38, 1, 119-131.
- Festinger, Leon, Riecken, H. W., & Schacter, Stanley, When Prophecy Fails, NY: Harper & Row, 1956.
- Balch, Robert W., Farnsworth, Gwen, & Wilkins, Sue, "When the Bombs Drop: Reactions to Disconfirmed Prophecy in a Millennial Sect," Sociological Perspectives, 1983, 26, 2, Apr, 137-158.
- Bainbridge, William Sims, Satan's Power: A Deviant Psychotherapy Cult, Berkeley: U of California Press, 1978.
- Stark, Rodney, & Bainbridge, William Sims, "Cult Formation: Three Compatible Models," Sociological Analysis, 1979.
- Ibid, "Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects," American Journal of Sociology, 1980.
- Smelser, Neil J., Theory of Collective Behavior, NY: Free Press Glencoe, 1963.
- Knottnerus, J. David, "The Melanesian Cargo Cults: A Test of the Value-Added Theory of Collective Behavior," Sociological Inquiry, 1983, 53, 4, fall, 389-403.
- Vlachos, Evan, "Catastrophic Dread and Collective Mobilization," American Sociological Association (ASA), 1980.
- Merton, Robert K., "Social Structure and Anomie," American Sociological Review, 1938, 3, Oct, 672-682.
- Hirschi, Travis, Causes of Delinquency, Berkeley/Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1969.
- Sutherland, Edwin, Principles of Criminology, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1939.
- Balch, Robert W., "Looking behind the Scenes in a Religious Cult: Implications for the Study of Conversion," Sociological Analysis, 1980.
- Straus, Roger, "Scientology 'Ethics': Deviance, Identity and Social Control in a Cult-Like Social World," Symbolic Interaction, 1986, 9, 1, spring, 67-82.
- Kowalchyk, Claudia, "The Role of the Police and the Media in Defining 'Deviant' Religions," American Sociological Association (ASA), 1995.
- Goode, Erich, & Nachman, Ben-Yehuda, "Moral Panics, Culture and Social Cognition," American Review of Sociology, 1994, 20, 149-171.
- Lynch, Aaron, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society, New York: BasicBooks, 1996.
- Frazier, Kendrick, "UFOs and the Deadly Pull of Space Age Beliefs," Skeptical Inquirer, 1997, 21, 4, July-Aug, 4.
- Lash, Scott, Quick, Andrew, & Roberts, Richard, "Introduction: Millenniums and Catastrophic Times," Cultural Values, 1998, 2, 2-3, 159-173.
Definitions provided with the assistance of the
Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, Marshall, Gordon [Ed], Oxford
U Press, 1994
- Anomie: as conceived by Emile Durkheim, an absence, breakdown, conflict, or confusion in societal norms or social interaction, usually resulting from rapid economic & social change.
- Cargo Cults: in Melanesia, millenarian groups that believe in an ancestral or cultural hero who will return to restore to them (usually in the form of precious material goods) what has been taken or interfered with by Europeans.
- Charisma: a combination of powers or personal qualities that define & distinguish a leader, with the ability to charm, manipulate, or control others.
- Counterculture: subcultures that conflict with & often contradict the dominant culture in which they are located.
- Cults: small groups of religious activists, headed by a charismatic leader, whose beliefs are typically syncretic, esoteric, or individualistic. A cult's teachings & practices place it at odds with the dominant culture & religion.
- Differential Association: Edwin Sutherland's theory positing that crime & delinquency are phenomena learned through association with deviant others or situations.
- Functionalism: philosophical doctrine that accounts for the existence of a phenomenon in terms of its social function & consequences for the social whole.
- Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft: taken together, Ferdinand Tonnies's conception of "community/society." The former represents a close, emotional, connected, homogeneous world, while the latter (which it has devolved to) is characterized by urbanism, industrialization, & impersonal social relations.
- Institutionalization: the process whereby some aspect of society becomes integrated & controlled, as part of the social order; the development of norms, values, & laws governing social behavior.
- Labeling: process by which certain individuals or actions are designated as deviant by the larger culture, ie, standing outside accepted social norms & values.
- Means-End Behavior: actions carried out for a purposive cause or toward a specific goal, ie, as a means to an end.
- Moral Panic: arousal of social concern aroused over an issue or alleged social problem.
- New Age Movement: religious &/or quasi-religious movement popular in late-modern Western society, characterized by emphasis on spirituality, mysticism, & pursuit of self-awareness.
- Rational Choice: a variant of exchange theory locating the source of social order in the personal advantage individuals gain through cooperative action or social exchange.
- Scientific Method: method of inquiry grounded in experimentation, observation, & logic.
- Sects: religious groups that recruit members by conversion & adopt a radical stance toward the larger state & society.
- Secularization: process whereby traditionally sacred religious beliefs, practices, & institutions lose their social significance.
- Social Constructionism: explains how social life & human reality are actively created or constructed by individuals & groups.
- Social Control: social process by which behavior of individuals or groups in a society is maintained &/or managed by social institutions.
- Social Exchange: process of maintaining social order through acts of reciprocity & exchange between members of a society.
- Social Movements: organized efforts by a significant number of people to promote or resist social change.
- Socialization: process by which individuals learn to behave as members of a given society by internalizing its norms & values.
- Stigma: social attribute that discredits an individual or group & excludes them from full participation in the larger social order.
Kathlyn Hyatt Stewart, M.S.
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CSA Senior Editor/Indexer, Sociological Abstracts
B.A. (Psychology/English Language & Literature), University
of Virginia, Charlottesville
- M.S. (Forensic Science), National University,
San Diego, CA