A doomsday cult is a cult that believes in apocalypticism and millenarianism, including both those that predict disaster and those that attempt to destroy the entire universe.[1] Sociologist John Lofland coined the term doomsday cult in his 1966 study of a group of members of the Unification Church of the United States: Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. In 1958, Leon Festinger published a study of a group with cataclysmic predictions: When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World.[2][3][4]

Festinger and other researchers have attempted to explain the commitment of members to their doomsday cult after the leader's prophecies have proven false. Festinger attributed this phenomenon to the coping method of dissonance reduction, a form of rationalization.[2] Members often dedicate themselves with renewed vigor to the group's cause after a failed prophecy, rationalizing with explanations such as a belief that their actions forestalled the disaster or a continued belief in the leader when the date for disaster is postponed.[2]

Some researchers believe that the use of the term by the government and the news media can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which actions by authorities reinforces the apocalyptic beliefs of the group, which in turn can inspire further controversial actions. Group leaders have themselves objected to comparisons between one group and another, and parallels have been drawn between the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and the theory of a deviancy amplification spiral.

Etymology

The term "doomsday cult" was first used in the title of a 1966 scholarly study of a group of Unification Church members by John Lofland, entitled: Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith.[1][5] Lofland published his findings in 1964 as a doctoral thesis entitled: "The World Savers: A Field Study of Cult Processes," and in 1966 in book form by Prentice-Hall.[6] It is considered to be one of the most important and widely-cited studies of the process of religious conversion, and one of the first modern sociological studies of a new religious movement.[7][8] James Richardson writes in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society that after the publication of Lofland's work, "The term doomsday cult has become a part of everyday parlance, used by the media to refer to apocalyptic religious groups."[9][10]

Psychological studies

See also: When Prophecy Fails

A psychological research study by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter found that people turned to a cataclysmic world view after they had repeatedly failed to find meaning in mainstream movements.[11] Leon Festinger and his colleagues had observed members of the group for several months, and recorded their conversations both prior to and after a failed prophecy from their charismatic leader.[12] The group had organized around a belief system which foretold that a majority of the Western Hemisphere would be destroyed by a cataclysmic flood on December 21, 1955.[13][14] Their work was later published in the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World.[2][15]

Social scientists have found that while some group members will leave after the date for a doomsday prediction by the leader has passed uneventfully, others actually feel their belief and commitment to the group strengthened. Often when a group's doomsday prophecies or predictions fail to come true, the group leader will simply set a new date for impending doom, or predict a different type of catastrophe on a different date.[16] Niederhoffer and Kenner say: "When you have gone far out on a limb and so many people have followed you, and there is much 'sunk cost,' as economists would say, it is difficult to admit you have been wrong."[17]

In Experiments With People: Revelations from Social Psychology, Abelson, Frey and Gregg explain this further: "...continuing to proselytize on behalf of a doomsday cult whose prophecies have been disconfirmed, although it makes little logical sense, makes plenty of psychological sense if people have already spent months proselytizing on the cult's behalf. Persevering allows them to avoid the embarrassment of how wrong they were in the first place."[18] The common-held belief in a catastrophic event occurring on a future date can have the effect of ingraining followers with a sense of uniqueness and purpose.[19] In addition, after a failed prophecy members may attempt to explain the outcome through rationalization and dissonance reduction.[11][20][21]

Explanations may include stating that the group members had misinterpreted the leader's original plan, that the cataclysmic event itself had been postponed to a later date by the leader, or that the activities of the group itself had forestalled disaster.[11] In the case of the Festinger study, when the prophecy of a cataclysmic flood was proved false, the members pronounced that their faith in God had prevented the event. They then proceeded to attempt to convert new members with renewed strength.[14]

In his book Politeia: Visions of the Just Society, Eric Carlton debates whether or not the term is appropriate to describe these types of groups.[22] Carlton writes that the event is only seen as a "doomsday" for the "wicked and unrepentant," whereas members of the group itself often regard it as a "day of deliverance," or a "renewal of the world."[22] He regards these groups as "the ultimate in exclusivity," and while the future will be bleak for nonbelievers due to an unforeseen cataclysm, members of the group are promised existence in a new utopia.[22]

Media coverage

In Globalisation and the Future of Terrorism, Brynjar Lia notes that "Doomsday cults are nothing new," but also states that they are "relatively few."[23] In Mystics and Messiahs, Jenkins writes that as a result of events between 1993 and 1997 including the Waco Siege involving the Branch Davidians, violence involving the Order of the Solar Temple, Aum Shinrikyo's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and the Heaven's Gate incident, "Reporting on so-called doomsday cults became a mainstay of the media, just as satanic cults had been a decade before." Jenkins regards the Order of the Solar Temple as more of an example of organized crime than a doomsday cult.[1]

In Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, the authors also make a comparison to organized crime, writing that Aum Shinrikyo "...often resembled a profit-hungry racketeering gang more than a fanatic doomsday cult."[24] In James R. Lewis' The Order of the Solar Temple, he writes that the media made use of the term doomsday cult to characterize the movement, though former members and outsiders did not know what kind of event would occur.[25] Some see the use of the term itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the characterization of being called a doomsday cult may actually affect the outcome of violent events related to the group. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service Report on Doomsday Religious Cults reported:[26][27]

Sanctions applied by authorities are often interpreted by a movement as hostile to its existence, which reinforces their apocalyptic beliefs and leads to further withdrawal, mobilization and deviant actions, and which in turn elicits heavier sanctions by authorities. This unleashes a spiral of amplification, as each action amplifies each action, and the use of violence is facilitated as the group believes this will ultimately actualize its doomsday scenario."[26]

Eileen Barker has compared these concepts to the notion of a deviancy amplification spiral in the media and its effects on new religious movements, and James Richardson has also discussed this effect.[26][28] In the case of the Concerned Christians, use of the term "doomsday cult" as a characterization of the group served as a justification for deportation of its members by the Israeli government.[29][30]

In the book The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines, author Loren L. Coleman discusses the effect the media can have on the seemingly innocuous intentions of a French doomsday cult.[31] On September 5, 2002, Arnaud Mussy told his followers based in Nantes, France to look forward to voyagers from Venus who would collect them before the end of the world on October 24, 2002.[31] Though Mussy denied any plans for a mass suicide, both police and the media drew parallels to the Order of the Solar Temple.[31] In Apocalypse Observed, authors Hall, Schuyler and Trinh discuss the effect the media had on the events surrounding the Order of the Solar Temple group.[32]

See also

The dictionary definition of doom at Wiktionary
The dictionary definition of cult at Wiktionary

References

  1. ^ a b c Jenkins, Phillip (2000). Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. Oxford University Press US. pp. 216, 222. ISBN 0195145968.
  2. ^ a b c d Dawson, Lorne L. (October 1999). "When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists: A Theoretical Overview" (PDF). Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. 3 (1). Berkeley: University of California Press: 60–82. doi:10.1525/nr.1999.3.1.60. ISSN 1092-6690. LCCN 98656716. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  3. ^ Spilka, Bernard (2003). The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. Guilford Press. p. 356. ISBN 1572309016. "The classic study by Festinger and his colleagues was titled When Prophecy Fails."
  4. ^ Goodwin, C. James (1998). Research in Psychology: Methods and Design. J. Wiley. p. 376. ISBN 0471199869. "To learn more about this classic study of what happens when prophecy fails..."
  5. ^ Lofland, John (1966). Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0829000955.
  6. ^ Conversion, Unification Church, Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary
  7. ^ Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America: African diaspora traditions and other American innovations, Volume 5 of Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America, W. Michael Ashcraft, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006 ISBN 978-0275987176, p. 180
  8. ^ Exploring New Religions, Issues in contemporary religion, George D. Chryssides, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001 ISBN 978-0826459596 p. 1
  9. ^ Swatos, William H.; James Richardson (1998). "Doomsday Cult". Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Rowman Altamira. p. 142. ISBN 0761989560.
  10. ^ Exploring the climate of doom Archived April 23, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, Rich Lowry, 2009-12-19 'The phrase “doomsday cult” entered our collective vocabulary after John Lofland published his 1966 study, “Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith.” Lofland wrote about the Unification Church.'
  11. ^ a b c Pargament, Kenneth I. (1997). "Compelling Coping in a Doomsday Cult". The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. Guilford Press. pp. 150–153, 340. ISBN 1572306645.
  12. ^ Stangor, Charles (2004). "When Prophecy Fails". Social Groups in Action and Interaction. Psychology Press. pp. 42–43. ISBN 184169407X.
  13. ^ Newman, Dr. David M. (2006). Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life. Pine Forge Press. p. 86. ISBN 1412928141.
  14. ^ a b Petty, Richard E.; John T. Cacioppo (1996). "Effect of Disconfirming an Important Belief". Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. Westview Press. p. 139. ISBN 081333005X.
  15. ^ Festinger, Leon; Henry W. Riecken; Stanley Schachter (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 1591477271.
  16. ^ Snow, Robert L. (2003). Deadly Cults: The Crimes of True Believers. Praeger/Greenwood. pp. 70, 79, 108, 111. ISBN 0275980529.
  17. ^ Niederhoffer, Victor; Laurel Kenner (2004). Practical Speculation. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 117–118. ISBN 0471443069.
  18. ^ Abelson, Robert P.; Kurt P. Frey; Aiden P. Gregg (2003). Experiments With People: Revelations from Social Psychology. Routledge. pp. 64–65. ISBN 0805828974.
  19. ^ Reynolds, Michael; Russ Vince; Joseph A. Raelin; M. Ann Welsh; Gordon E. Dehler; Ann Cunliffe; Mark Easterby-Smith (2004). Organizing Reflection. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 74. ISBN 0754637476.
  20. ^ Albarracin, Dolores; Blair T. Johnson; Mark P. Zanna; Icek Ajzen; John N. Bassili; Pablo Brinol (2005). "Dissonance Reduction". The Handbook Of Attitudes. Routledge. p. 227. ISBN 0805844937.
  21. ^ Kim, Min-Sun (2002). Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication: Implications for Theory and Practice. Sage Publications Inc. pp. 75–76. ISBN 0761923519.
  22. ^ a b c Carlton, Eric (2006). Politeia: Visions of the Just Society. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. pp. 23, 55–56. ISBN 0838641024.
  23. ^ Lia, Brynjar (2005). Globalisation and the Future of Terrorism: Patterns and Predictions. Routledge. pp. 165–169. ISBN 071465261X.
  24. ^ Kaplan, David E.; Alec Dubro (2003). Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld. University of California Press. p. 208. ISBN 0520215621.
  25. ^ Lewis, James R. (2006). The Order of the Solar Temple: The Temple of Death. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 96. ISBN 0754652858.
  26. ^ a b c Kaplan, Jeffrey (2000). Millennial Violence: Past, Present and Future. Routledge. pp. 53–61, 114, 135, 228–229. ISBN 0714652946.
  27. ^ "Doomsday Religious Movements", Perspectives, a Canadian Security Intelligence Service publication, Report # 2000/03, December 18, 1999. available online Archived October 8, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, last updated November 1, 2000.
  28. ^ Barker, Eileen (2002). "Introducing New Religious Movements". London School of Economics and Political Science. Fathom: the source for online learning. Archived from the original on 2007-10-14. Retrieved 2007-11-16.
  29. ^ Gorenberg, Gershom (2000). The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. Simon & Schuster. p. 217. ISBN 0743216210.
  30. ^ Sennott, Charles M. (2001). The Body and the Blood. Public Affairs. p. 40. ISBN 1891620959.
  31. ^ a b c Coleman, Loren L. (2004). "Cultic Copycats". The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines. Simon & Schuster. pp. 88–89. ISBN 1416505547.
  32. ^ Hall, John R.; Philip Daniel Schuyler; Sylvaine Trinh (2000). Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and the State in North America, Europe and Japan. Routledge. p. 132. ISBN 0415192773.
  33. ^ Rhodes, Ron (2001). The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. pp. 77–103. ISBN 0-310-23217-1.
  34. ^ Gomes, Alan W. (1995). Unmasking the Cults. Zondervan. pp. 22, 23. ISBN 0-310-70441-3.