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Holy Y2K! Millennial Cults and TEOTWAWKI
(Released September 1999)

  by Kathlyn Hyatt Stewart, M.S.  
Glossary Contact

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 atmosphere.20

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 achieve them.21 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 down.22 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" family.

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 rings).27 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 third millennium.30 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.



Definitions provided with the assistance of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, Marshall, Gordon [Ed], Oxford U Press, 1994


Kathlyn Hyatt Stewart, M.S.

  • 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

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