"Doomsday cult" is a term used to describe groups obsessed with Apocalypticism and Millenarianism, and can refer to both groups that prophesy catastrophe and destruction, and those that attempt to bring it about. The term was popularized in John Lofland's 1966 study of the Unification Church, Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. A classic study of a group with cataclysmic predictions had previously been performed by Leon Festinger and other researchers, and was published in his book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. These two works were later drawn upon by sociologists and other academics in their explanations of doomsday cults. Some authors have used the term solely to characterize groups that have used acts of violence to harm their members and/or others, such as the salmonella poisoning of salad bars by members of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh group, and the mass murder/suicide of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God group. Others have used the term to refer to groups which have made and later revised apocalyptic prophesies or predictions, such as the Church Universal and Triumphant led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, and the initial group studied by Festinger, et al. Still others have used the term to refer to groups that have prophesied impending doom and cataclysmic events, and also carried out violent acts, such as the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway and the mass murder/suicide of members of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple group after similar types of predictions.
Referring to his study, Festinger and later other researchers have attempted to explain the commitment of members to their associated doomsday cult, even after the prophesies of their leader have turned out to be false. Festinger explained this phenomenon as part of a coping mechanism called dissonance reduction, a form of rationalization. Members often dedicate themselves with renewed vigor to the group's cause after a failed prophesy, and rationalize with explanations such as a belief that their actions forestalled the disaster, or a belief in the leader when the date for disaster is postponed. 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.
Usage of the term
The term "doomsday cult" was used in the title of a 1966 scholarly study of the Unification Church by John Lofland, entitled: Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. 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." In Lofland's case study, he lays out seven conditions for a doomsday cult, including: acutely felt tension, religious problem-solving perspective, religious seekership, experiencing a turning point, development of cult affective bonds, and neutralization of extracult attachments. He also suggests that individuals who join doomsday cults suffer from a form of deprivation. In a later work by Lofland entitled Protest: Studies of Collective Behavior and Social Movements, he lists four main characteristics of a "Millenarian Movement," including: actively pursuing publicity and missionizing, a full-time corps of dedicated members constituting a majority of the group's adherents, investment of a significant amount of the group's resources in expanding the amount of new membership, and expending large sums of money to accomplish the first three goals and to maintain a continuous large amount of funds.
In Globalisation and the Future of Terrorism, Brynjar Lia notes that "Doomsday cults are nothing new," but also states that they are "relatively few." Lia cites the mass murder/suicide of members of Peoples Temple at Jonestown, Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, the use of salmonella as a poison by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and actions of Aum Shinrikyo as examples, noting that: "..during the past decades one has witnessed a number of increasingly violent doomsday sects, inflicting mass violence on their members and, in rare cases, also on outsiders." As for the prevalence of future events related to doomsday cults, Lia writes: "We will probably see new doomsday cults giving birth to mass-casualty attacks, although their violence will overwhelmingly be directed inwards and such incidents will remain relatively rare occurrences." James Boyett's Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse also described Jim Jones' Peoples Temple as a doomsday cult, noting that the group was "Invigorated by a combustible mix of paranoia and End-Times speculation (Jones expects the a racial holocaust and nuclear Armageddon to destroy the U.S. any minute).." In his book Nuclear Terrorism, Graham T. Allison also cites Aum Shinrikyo and the Branch Davidians as examples of doomsday cults, but notes that "..only a handful can be considered dangerous." The 9/11 Commission Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States also referred to Aum Shinrikyo as a doomsday cult, as did an article published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Ashes of Faith, physician Robert Bwire describes the March 17, 2000 deaths involving the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God as the largest of its kind in recent human history.
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." However, Jenkins regards the Order of the Solar Temple as more of an example of organized crime than a doomsday cult, and believes that there is a certain polemic surrounding use of the term itself. 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." 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. In Kaplan's book Millennial Violence: Past, Present and Future, he regarded the media's use of the term to describe the Order of the Solar Temple as "on the mark." Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer also write about the manner in which the news media can be captivated by the actions of these groups, noting: "The 'doomsday cult' led by an authoritarian charismatic leader has become ubiquitous in news reporting."
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. 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." 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. This notion of utopian promises is reinforced through an example given by Dr. C. T. Benedict in his work One God in One Man. Benedict describes what he refers to as "doomsday, destructive apocalpytic religious cults," which he defines as: "very high intensity controlling groups, that have caused or are liable to cause destruction and loss of life." After discussing examples including Aum Shinrikyo, Yahweh Ben Yahweh, and Charles Manson, Benedict describes the utopian paradise promised by Woo Jong-min, the leader of the Young sang Church in South Korea. On October 5, 1998, Woo Jong-min and six of his followers were found burnt to death in a mini-van. He had told his followers that they were embarking on an everlasting journey and would have a new and happy life after death.
In Lofland's case study, he also noticed this exclusivity described by Carlton. Though he had made his sociological interests clear to the religious leader from the outset, when the leader determined that Lofland was not going to convert to the religion he lost access to the group. A psychological study by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter found that individuals only turned to a cataclysmic world view after they had repeatedly failed to find meaning in mainstream movements. 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. 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. Though they attempted to remain "a fly on the wall" during their study, it was difficult to maintain objectivity while immersed in the group. Their work was later published in the book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World.
Prophecies and predictions
The philosophies and predictions of many doomsday cults involve the "threat of death to their members and others." The group Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God carried out a mass murder in Kanungu, Uganda, after the doomsday prophesies of its leaders failed to come true. Some groups draw their doomsday predictions and prophesies from the charismatic authority figure of their group. The group The Summit Lighthouse, a branch of Church Universal and Triumphant led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, made predictions of an impending nuclear holocaust that was forecast to occur on April 23, 1990. When these predictions failed to come true, Elizabeth Clare Prophet reiterated her statements of impending doom, stating to her congregation: "We need your sacrifice. The world is about to fail. I don't know where the bombs are coming from. But we must be ready." The group had stockpiled their shelter with military-grade weaponry, and members of the organization were later arrested on federal weapons charges. After Elizabeth Clare Prophet was diagnosed with epilepsy and Alzheimer's disease, the group's leadership has attempted to draw the focus of its work away from doomsday predictions.
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 prophesies 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. Niederhoffer and Kenner attribute this motivation of the charismatic leader to maintain a consistent belief structure as due to a desire to save sunk cost: "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." 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." 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. In addition, after a failed prophesy members may attempt to explain the outcome through rationalization and dissonance reduction. 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. 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.
Effects of characterization
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. However, federal governments have made use of the term in reports on activities of these groups, such as Canada's Canadian Security Intelligence Service Report on Doomsday Religious Cults. The report gives advice to members of the law enforcement community, noting: "authorities often fail to appreciate the leverage they have over doomsday movements, which depend upon them to fulfill their apocalyptic scenarios." In the conclusion of the Canadian Report, the potential effects of actions by authorities are described:
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."
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. 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.
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. 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. Though Mussy denied any plans for a mass suicide, both police and the media drew parallels to the Order of the Solar Temple. In Apocalpse Observed, authors Hall, Schuyler and Trinh discuss the effect the media had on the events surrounding the Order of the Solar Temple group. They note that news commentators "could not making a comparison to events in Waco, where the government siege of the Branch Davidians had just begun."
- Cognitive dissonance
- Cult suicide
- Destructive cult
- Disconfirmed expectancy
- Project Megiddo
- Helter Skelter (Manson scenario)
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- When Prophecy Fails, Key points from the Leon Festinger text
- Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (December 15, 1999) (PDF). Assessing The Threat: First Annual Report to The President and The Congress of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction. DIANE Publishing. pp. 18, 24, 26, 28, 38, 40, 46–51. ISBN 1428981128. http://www.rand.org/nsrd/terrpanel/terror.pdf.