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Islamic Millennialism

We may tend to think of millennialism as something typical of New Religious Movements and christian fundamentalism, but it has a long and interesting history in the Islamic world too. Rob Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at Exeter, takes us through the history of Islamic millennialism, and explains how it has been tied up with political events in the past, as well as the present. He raises interesting points about how the unusual form of Twelver Shi’ite millennialism developed from Islamic theological discourse.

This podcast was generously supported by cenSAMM, the centre for the study of Apocalyptic and Millennial Movements. This podcast is also sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Islamic Millennialism

Podcast with Rob Gleave (18 September 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Gleave – Islamic Millennialism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Bedford at the CenSAMM Conference on Millennialism and Violence and I’m joined by Rob Gleave, who is the Director  for the Study of Islam at Exeter University.

Rob Gleave (RG): Yes.

DR: First of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

RG: Thanks very much.

DR: Today we’re going to talk about millennialism and violence in Islam, in the Islamic world. Maybe a good place to start is to tell us a little bit about the whole idea of millennialism and messianism in Islam. Is this something that comes from the Qur’an, or what’s the. . . ?

RG: Yes, there are clear indications in the Qur’an about an end time. There’s a shortage on detail as to what’s going to happen and a time as to when things are going to happen, but there’s a discussion – an extensive discussion – of something called the the Hour. And this Hour – the Hour that will come – is the time when the world will be brought to a an end and a judgement will happen and a resurrection of people who have died will occur: people from the graves. And there’s some indication in the Qur’an itself about some of the violent , catastrophic events that will happen, in terms of the sky and mountains being torn asunder and those sort of things. But there’s not a great detail and there’s not a description of a series of events that will eventually lead up to this event. So there’s a strong notion in the Qur’an that the world will come to an end, but, like many things in the Qur’an, it’s indicative. Or rather, it indicates something but it doesn’t always spell it out in detail. And that was left to Muslim theologians to try and discover what it was that the scriptures were referring to.

DR: OK.

RG: And for that they used some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – and there were sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there’s huge debates about the authenticity of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, nonetheless, there was a sort of residue of statements by the Prophet Muhammad which described various things that were going to happen at the end of the world. And from these sources a number of different versions, if you like, of the end times were developed in Muslim theology. And the crucial point is that whilst belief in the eventual day of judgement is an essential element of Islamic belief, precisely what will happen at the those end times – the details, the sequence of events, if you like – this is not an essential element of Muslim belief. It’s not something which determines whether someone is a believer or not a believer. So, it was left open for the Muslim theologians to interpret this material in ways which was highly imaginative. There are some stock elements that always reoccur. The first one was with the return of Jesus. So this was an important element. The return of Jesus was seen as a crucial element of the end times.

DR: Which might come as quite a surprise to some of our listeners, I think.

RG: Well, yes. Jesus, of course, is highly regarded in Muslim theology as one of the Prophets sent by God. But the Qur’an itself indicates that Jesus will return, or that the return of Jesus is one of the signs of the end times. And it’s linked . . .  often it’s linked, by theologians, to the Qur’anic ambiguity about whether or not Jesus died on the cross. The Qur’anic phrase seems to indicate that he appeared to die, but didn’t die, and therefore it left the way open for a return of Jesus at the end times. And it’s very likely, historically, that this was incorporated into the Muslim theological framework from Christian roots about the return of Jesus. But it was a crucial element of the end time narrative for Muslims, the belief that Jesus will come. Another crucial element was also the return of another figure, known as the Mahdi. And the Sunni and Shi’i branches of Islam have slightly different notions of what this Mahdi will do and what his role is, theologically as well as physically, in the end times. (5:00) So they have slightly different notions of that. But these two elements are always conjoined: that the Mahdi and the return of Jesus together will bring about the ushering in, if you like, of the end of the world.

DR: And a lot of the imagery, as you say, is very reminiscent of the Christian story and the imagery of . . . well, imagery which carries on into some of the new religious kind of millenialisms we’ve been talking about this week.

RG: I think apocalyptic imagery is something which . . . well, it’s a discourse which is shared across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim milieux, and used across these different religious traditions, and re-used again and again.  You find it reinvented in new religious movements within Islam as well, which emphasised the coming of the end times. So, it’s a stock of imagery which is not exclusive to an individual tradition. And quite often, the ability for apocalyptic imagery to cross-fertilise between religious traditions . . .  there’s sometimes more potential for that than in other areas of theology, or in ethics or in law. In apocalyptics, somehow a shared stock of images about the Beast, the Antichrist, the notion of the return of Jesus: all of these things together can be shared across traditions.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: And you also find, with a lot of apocalyptic movements, that they’re quite willing to borrow from different traditions and they don’t feel any reticence about the sources of their religious imagery. Muslim religious movements, they will take something which we find in the Jewish or Christian traditions which have made their way into Islam, in one way or another through the history of Islam. And they’re not worried about the sources of these things when they’re constructing their end of time narrative.

DR: Of course not.

RG: So it makes for an enormously creative image of the end of the world, when apocalyptic writers are able to draw on a great wealth of writings and sources in their creative imagination about what the end of the world will look like.

DR: The theology – and ideas about the Mahdi in particular – is quite important in the history of the schism between the Sunni and Shi’i traditions, am I right?

RG: Absolutely. For the Sunni traditions, the Mahdi is a figure sent by God who will lead a battle and bring about the preparations, if you like, for the day of judgement. In the Shiite tradition, the Mahdi is the return of someone – or the reappearance of someone – who disappeared in the ninth century and who will return and re-establish their rightful, legitimate, political rule at some time in the future. So,  the Sunni and Shiite traditions didn’t divide over the question of the end times: at the beginning, it was a question of who should lead the community and what the role of that leader should be. The way in which the Shiite tradition developed was that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, in 632, there was a series of leaders coming from amongst his family, his descendents, who were seen as blessed with special religious knowledge. And for one particular branch of that Shiite tradition there were twelve such leaders, and the last of these has gone into hiding. And this is the promised Mahdi, the promised messianic figure that will reappear at some point in the end of time – no one knows when. But Twelver Shiites, as they’re called – because they believe in twelve leaders after the Prophet Muhammad – Twelver Shiites have a very strong notion of the patience that’s required in expectation of the return of the Mahdi, and the internal striving to be a perfect servant. So the internal striving to be a perfect servant becomes a crucial element of Shiite identity, in the expectation of the return of the Mahdi at some point in time in the future. (10:00) And, when the Mahdi returns, it’s not simply that this person will be a military leader and bring about the end of days. This is the return of the person who should have been the leader of the Muslim community for all of these centuries. It’s the reappearance, if you like, of the Mahdi who is present in the community but unknown, suddenly making himself known again. So this is quite a different dynamic for Shiites about the end times, compared to Sunnis. And since the Mahdi is someone who’s seen as having perfect knowledge of divine matters, including the law, this means that he’s looked to, by Shiites , as a guide for daily living. And the Mahdi doesn’t fulfil such a role in Sunni theology.

DR: It’s a really fascinating, and – I think – kind-of unique situation: this idea of the Mahdi being this occulted figure who has gone into hiding but is still in the world, but hidden.  And they’re waiting on his . . . it’s not like a physical reincarnation or anything like that, it’s a re-emergence of this hidden figure. It’s really interesting.

RG: It was a belief which emerged in early Islam, through a series of descendents of the Prophet Muhammad who went into hiding in order to protect themselves, and the community, from oppression from a majority Sunni community. And the theme of a hidden Imam who will make themselves known again when the conditions are right became incorporated into Twelver Shiite doctrine and became an official element of Twelver Shiite belief. And so that’s something which is unusual, since most apocalyptic movements which have a messianic element think of the Messiah as returning to earth from somewhere else. Whereas, for the Shiites, the presence of the hidden Imam – the Mahdi – in the community means that at certain points they can find out what his opinion is.

DR: Yes.

RG: Which is the crucial element for Shiites: how do you know what the Imam’s opinion might be on this or that? So, for example, if all the community agree on something – on a particular doctrine – then Shiites have imagined that, well, one of the people who agree must be the hidden Imam.

DR: Yes.

RG: So the agreement suddenly becomes authoritative because the Imam’s opinion must be amongst the people who are agreeing. We don’t know which opinion it is, we don’t know the identity of the individual. But, because everyone’s agreed, the Imam must be within that agreement. And the result is that certain new doctrines might be validated by a community agreement. The theoretical possibility, if you like, of communication from the hidden Imam through community agreement, becomes possible.

DR: And I can see that being a very powerful narrative. Because in other traditions, where you want to have the prophetic figure – who is no longer with you – refer to present events, you either have to create a new revelation through a new prophet, or you discover or reveal some previously unknown writings – in the way that has happened in Buddhism quite a lot, for instance. But this . . . you can actually, quite legitimately have this figure referring to events of the day quite contemporaneously. Because he’s still around, we just don’t know where.

RG: He’s present, yes. And that creates a notion of immanence within the community which has become very important for Shiite devotional practice, in the sense that the Twelver Shiites will often pray to hasten the appearance of the Mahdi as part of their personal devotional prayers. They believe that through devotional acts one is contributing to the situation where the Imam ,who is present, can make themselves known. And it creates an internal – what you might call – piety within the religious tradition, which is a dynamic you can’t find in Sunni Islam. Because of the imagined presence of the Imam in the community, it means that there’s a emphasis on the importance, if you like, of ensuring community cohesion.(15:00)

DR: And does that spill out, then, into how millenarian ideas and prophetic ideas affect the community, then? Would we see a difference between the way that Shiites and Sunnis relate to how messianism plays into their actions in the political sphere?

RG: Well certainly within Shi’ism, the fact that the Imam is present and needs to be revealed has enabled certain claimants at different point in time to be “the man”. When, without them claiming this from the very beginning . . . . Because the revealing notion – of them being present but then revealing that they’re the Mahdi – is, in a sense, an extension of the basic theological doctrine.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: So you often find that, within the Shiite tradition, when an individual has claimed to be the Mahdi they haven’t needed to claim it straight away. Because their presence in the community, without being the Mahdi, isn’t a source of scandal – if you see what I mean – to their claim.

DR: Yes.

RG: Because the Imam decides when the time is right to appear. And the claimant can reliably or legitimately claim, “Well, it wasn’t the right time for me to make to make my personality known.” And it means that within the Twelver Shiite tradition, claiming the appearance of the Mahdi – or claiming to be the Mahdi through appearance – has a very strong potential. It’s like a trigger which is always loaded and ready to be fired at any point in time when the conditions are right, or the individual personality believes themselves to be fulfilling that particular role. And so there have been claims of people being the messianic figure throughout history of Islam, not just in Shi’i Islam. But when the claim happens in Shi’i Islam the individual is claiming more than just being a military leader. They’re claiming a special sort of knowledge which is, I suppose, akin to a form of prophecy. Although the Muslim theological doctrine means that prophecy ends with the Prophet Muhammad, even for Shiites. It’s another form of divine knowledge communicated to an individual. But the potentiality within Shi’ism for a claimant to put themselves forward is always there, because of the notion of an Imam present within the community who is just waiting to be revealed.

DR: You don’t have to posit a new prophet or messiah or anything like that. The potential is already there as part of the actual theological position.

RG: And, of course, there is a huge taboo in Islam around positing yourself as a new prophet.

DR: Yes, exactly. Yes.

RG: Because it contravenes one of the basic doctrines of Islam which is that Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets and that there is no prophet after Muhammad. And so Sunni groups, or groups which have emerged out of Sunnism such as the Ahmadi movement, for example, have been treated with such strong criticism by the rest of the Sunni Muslim community because they have contravened this notion of the end of prophecy with the Prophet Muhammad. They’ve claimed to have a leader who is a new prophet. In the view of Sunni Islam, you know, the Ahmadi community has claimed that its founder is a new prophet. In Shi’i Islam the messianic figure is the hidden Imam, rather than a new prophet. Which, in a sense is slightly less of a taboo element within the theological framework.

DR: Really interesting. To move to the Sunni world, then, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you about Isis. And there seems to be some debate about the degree to which they should be seen as a millennial, even apocalyptic, kind of movement. I, myself, would like to hear something from you. Your take on this is the apocalyptic millennial aspects of it being overplayed by the West, because of fears and ignorance. (20:00) Or is this something that is theologically driving . . . ?

RG: Well, my own view is that there has been a certain hyping up of the apocalyptic element, because it makes good journalism!

DR: (Laughs) Yes!

RG: Apocalypticism is always a sensationalist story for journalists in the contemporary period, because it’s seen as so “out there” and weird and bizarre. And, in a sense, accusations of being over-apocalyptic or . . . . The attraction, if you like, of the story of an apocalyptic movement, is a reflection of much of the state of – I’ll say – “British” society, and the nature of secularism and so-called rationality, and these [movements] are seen as hyper -irrational and consequently extremely interesting. And that’s certainly been, I think, an element in the attraction of journalists, and commentators as well, to the apocalyptic element of the Islamic State message. Having said that, there are strong elements within the Islamic State propaganda machine which indicate that they are quite willing to use apocalyptic imagery to describe and recruit for their military campaign. So, the most famous one being the small Syrian village of Dabiq, which is mentioned in a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – a saying of the Prophet Muhammad – that this will be a place where the end times battle will take place. So it became very important that Islamic State captured this village and that they used it in their propaganda in particular their English language propaganda magazine, which they titled the Dabiq. And so they are quite happy to try and use that rhetoric within their propaganda. The big question is, how much of their activities are driven by apocalyptic beliefs? And, in that, I’m slightly less convinced of the primacy of apocalypticism within their military strategy and the ways in which they organise their state. Because most of the ways in which they argue for this policy or that policy, or this action or that action, you can trace back to traditional ways of thinking about the assessment of actions within the Islamic legal tradition. They argue using legal reasoning which you find in the traditional sources. And they themselves are always trying to demonstrate that their opinion is not an unusual opinion, compared to the traditional sources. So apocalypticism doesn’t really figure, I don’t think, in the internal organisation of Islamic State and the justification for some of their actions. It’s extremely important in the way in which they project themselves to the outside world. And this notion that they can recruit through this rhetoric – the fear of missing out on the success and ultimate end times, which Islamic State play a role in – is an incredibly powerful tool for them to attract new recruits.

DR: Absolutely. So that interest that comes from the media, they’re doing exactly the same thing and using it to attract attention to what they’re talking about. And, as you say as well, this is such a powerful set of imagery and deep-set, long-running narrative in human culture that it always seems to be there as a little reservoir that you can tap into.

RG: And don’t underestimate Islamic State’s awareness of this.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: They know. . . . They have quite a sophisticated media machine, which produces quite sophisticated propaganda materials. And they know that apocalyptic fears are an element within Western society, and Muslims living outside of Muslim majority contexts are the prime targets for that propaganda and recruitment. And the result is that they know how to use that in order to gain recruits. (25:00) And so it’s an element, it’s certainly an element of their rhetoric and their propaganda. How instrumental it is – how much they instrumentally use it in order to do this and how much it’s embedded within the movement – is a matter of some debate. Part of the problem is the actual internal workings of Islamic State are quite secretive, by necessity, or inevitably you might say. So precisely what the apocalyptic beliefs of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi, might be, outside of the propaganda element, is actually quite difficult to identify. But it’s certainly a form of religiosity that they are very happy to project outside of the territory that they control.

DR: That’s an excellent comparative point to end on, I think. It’s very important that we don’t simply ascribe naive beliefs to any of these millennial apocalyptic discourses, be they in Islam, Christianity, new religions or popular culture. There are multiple levels of discourse going on all the time and they’re being used sometimes for their media impact, or their interest, as much as they are themselves driving actions.

RG: Yes, we make a mistake if we think that an organisation like Islamic State is a simple organisation with a single message that it’s always churning out. It’s actually quite a complicated, multi-tiered, multi-faceted organisation which knows – and which through experience has learnt – what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts. And, like all organisations, it promotes itself in appropriate ways to appropriate audiences.

DR: And, that people are driven naively by beliefs and ideologies: in fact it’s much more complicated and they are mutually creating . . .

RG: No, certainly. And we make a mistake if we think that all we need to do is really try and show these people what the truth is, and how mistaken they are, through forceful argumentation – that we’re going to convince them in some way. No: people believe things and belief, as we know, is a really complex set of factors which lead to an individual settling upon a particular doctrine which they believe is right for them. And belief in the providential nature of Islamic State is one such belief. It’s not simple. It’s actually extremely complicated and complex as a process. Just as complicated as any process of religious commitment.

DR: Rob Gleave thank you so much for taking part in our sophisticated media and propaganda machine at the Religious Studies Project.

RG: (Laughs) That’s alright.

DR: I’m afraid it’s time for us to look to the future, and the next panel, here at the conference. So thanks very much for taking part.

RG: Thanks very much for inviting me.

DR: You’re quite welcome.

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Millennialism and Violence?

Descriptions of the End Times are full of violent imagery, of mass destruction through earthquakes, tidal waves, fire and ice. These images are written deeply into our culture through the book of Revelation, but are by no means limited to the Christian imagination. Often, our idea of modern millennial groups is informed by images of violent confrontations between them and the state, for example at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or of mass suicide, such as with Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple at Jonestown.

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are these groups typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media – and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity of millennialism outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?

This audio/visual episode was produced in collaboration with CenSAMM, the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pretzels, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Eileen Barker, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster and Tristan Sturm (22 May 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available CenSAMM conference – Millennialism and Violence 1.1.

David Robertson (DR): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m here today, in the grounds of the Panacea Museum in sunny Bedford, for the inaugural CenSAMM conference on the subject of Millenarian Groups and Violence. I’m joined today by Moojan Momen, by Joseph Webster, by Eileen Barker and by Tristan Sturm. And we’re going to discuss the issues around millenarianism, millennialism and violence. And all of the talks from this conference have been streamed and there’ll be a link to that below. But just to get the ball rolling, I’m going to ask: what is it we’re talking about? I mean “millenarianism”, “millennialism”, “apocalypticism”: are these different terms? What do they mean? Joe, maybe you could get the ball rolling on that?

Joseph Webster (JW): OK, yes. It’s an interesting question. I’m not so sure that I have a clear answer, possibly because a clear answer doesn’t exist. I think these terms have been used for a very long time, interchangeably. Sometimes, that’s because of potentially sloppy scholarship on behalf of those who are using the terms. On the other hand, part of the answer might be that these terms – particularly millenarianism and millennialism – have been, to some extent, interchangeable. The OED – which isn’t the final word on these conversations but still, nevertheless – the OED does define these terms as synonyms. The way that millenarianism is used in anthropology – the discipline that I come from – tends to see millennialism as more distinctly Christian than millenarianism; millenarianism being treated as a broader term that has resonances with the Cargo Cult literature and the Ghost Dance literature. However, again, that’s not universally true. Some scholars within anthropology do use millennialism as a way to refer to Cargo Cults and the Ghost Dance. So, whilst I don’t think there’s any clear definitional answer, my assumption would be that the best way to proceed is how the groups themselves use these terms. And they don’t, actually, tend to use of either of those terms for themselves. So let’s take it from there.

Tristan Sturm (TS): I would add to that “apocalypticism”. And I think we can think about apocalypticism versus millennialism – which is the distinction I would use – as two sides of the same coin. The Apocalypse or apocalypticism, meaning unveiling, happens before the Millennium: 1000 years, or a period of time after which the world ends. So, I would understand it that way; I would teach that to my students. I would say apocalypticism is the events before the sort-of  Revelation – or the end of the world – and the Renewal is the Millennium. That’s how I would understand it. And I think, using apocalypticism versus millennialism is important in certain cases. Apocalypticism is useful, of course, for various secular movements who don’t believe in a Renewal, a new world, right? Whether that would come from climate change; Trumpism – potentially – for some individuals; and for others, equally, Barrack Obama, right? That doesn’t have, necessarily, a Christian or any religious overlay over it. We can still use the term apocalypticism – and I think many social theorists do – to talk about things like climate change and the severity of the series of events that would happen from that.

DR: We’re often, when we hear about apocalypticism, millennialism, we’re often hearing about these cults, these controversial new religious movements. Eileen, maybe you’d speak to this? Is there some necessary connection between new religious movements and apocalyptic millennial thinking?

Eileen Barker (EB): No.

DR: Then why is it so often connected in the public mind?

EB: Well, it’s quite frequent that millennial groups, or millenarian groups or apocalyptic groups will be termed cults. And cults, sort-of technically, usually means some kind of religious or non-religious movement that’s in tension with society in some ways. There’s a sort-of classic division between the cult and the sect, which are in tension with society and a denomination of the church, which aren’t. But, technically, that’s one thing. But just generally, in popular parlance, to say something is a cult means: “it’s a religion I don’t like”. And it’s not really very much more than that. (5:00) I mean, I often get asked: “Is it a real religion, a genuine religion, or is it a cult?” And you’ve just got to say, “Well, what do you mean by a cult?” and one man’s, or one woman’s cult is a another person’s religion. Nobody says, “I belong to a cult.” Not seriously. They might say it as a joke, or in self-defence. Now, some of these movements on which people put the label of cult are millenarian, but most of them are not. Well, I wouldn’t like to say how many are and how many aren’t, but the two don’t necessarily go together – except that it’s more likely that the millenarian groups are a sub-group of cult. But you get millenarianism in denominations and in church – if you’re just looking at the tension with society – so it goes either way. You’ve got to be terribly clear what you’re talking about. And sometimes such categories are useful, but quite often they just obscure.

DR: Indeed.

EB: So, say what you’re talking about!

Moojan Momen (MM): And I think we need to bear in mind that, even Christianity itself , when it first arose – if you read the Gospels – you’ll see there that they are talking about how Christianity is fulfilling prophecy. So Christianity is, therefore, a millenarian movement in Judaism and was probably regarded as a cult by other Jews. So, we’re talking about a history of religion developing gradually from being a cult, to being a sect, to being a religion.

DR: And how important is prophecy? Is this an essential aspect here?

EB: I think so, almost by definition. Because you’re expecting something to happen. So you have some kind of knowledge that’s come from somewhere. Now it might just be in your own little brain, but usually there’s somebody who says . . . or a book or something that can be read as saying . . . . So, there’s some sort of “saying” what’s going to happen in the future. It’s future-oriented.

DR: Yes. But it’s not entirely about the future?

EB: Oh no. No, I’m not saying that. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

DR: It’s a good in.

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. I think one of the key aspects to whether we’re talking about millenarian movements, or apocalyptic movements, or millennialism, is the way in which temporality and time are really central to what’s going on. And crucially, I think, the way in which parts of time, which we customarily think of as very distinct, actually end up collapsing into each other and becoming conflated. So: the present being seen as a very unique moment when prophecy is being fulfilled; when things that were said of the future are coming to pass right now; but also that the present is seen as deeply resonant with an ancient past. Look at the way in which the Christian groups, for instance, that are most dispensational – groups like the Brethren, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Baptist groups – certainly look at today’s age as morally bankrupt and immediately reach back into the Old Testament past for examples of the same: Sodom and Gomorrah, the days of Noah, the days of the Tower of Babel. And, immediately, what that does is it transforms the present into something that is not only future-oriented, but is deeply indebted to, and is seen as a replaying of ancient past Biblical events.

EB: Of course the Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, have a linear view of history: that there’s a past, we’re in present and there is a future. And they’re promising something about the future. But we should remember that a lot of new religions, cults, sects, traditional religions, are cyclical. And they see time in this sort-of birth, death, rebirth etc. Now, sometimes it’s an upwards spiral. Sometimes you go through various ages. But they’re not just sort-of straight lineal like they are in the Abrahamic [faiths], which lend themselves more to apocalyptic visions because there’s something happening. But within Hinduism you can get different ages, which can be very different. And the New Age, indeed. There’s something very fundamental that’s changing in society, which is what’s expected in these kind of movements.

TS: I would agree, but I also think, prior to say the Enlightenment, prior to Hobbes or someone like that, you would see, I think, a cyclical idea within Christianity, still. (10:00) I’m taking this from Reinhart Koselleck and he says, you know, the ideas of the Apocalypse didn’t really emerge in the everyday life of Christians until, really, the period of the Enlightenment, with the idea of progress, and the Kantian idea that because the past is different, the future must also be different. And so we get this idea that the Apocalypse isn’t part of a cycle, a scaled-up everyday cycle of seasons, that we would see with a lot of individuals. So, I think there is a change actually happening around the end of the 16th century, where we’re moving even out of a Christian cyclicalism to a more linear idea of the future. And I would add to that that I think now the future is becoming more important. And it’s been studied I think, even across disciplines, it’s becoming this tag term, that we’re trying to theorise now. And I think here of Susan Harding, for example, who talks about “memories of the future”. And she talks about, you know, that the future is a kind of memory. We have an idea of the past and those are kind-of memories as well, outside of history. We’re selective about the memories that we want to bring to the present and give continuity to the way things are. In the same way, we do that with the future. We kind-of know how the future’s going to play out. We have a sort of selectivity of ideas. There are certain paths that we’re pretty sure are more likely to happen that others. And we go down those paths. And prophecy functions in a similar way. It tries to close off the way the future could go. It sort-of says, “Well, this is the likely space that the future will go.” And so it’s closing off of the future. And we have a kind of memory of the future. We re-member ideas from the future. And we all do this. We do this with our jobs, how we foresee our lives are going to go. And they more-or-less do take place the way we probably thought that they would, given a certain level of difference there. And so, I would say that about time. And I also . . . and there’s a book that I really like. It’s called “The Past is a Foreign Country” and he says that we’re selective about our pasts. But I would say that the future is also a foreign country where we’re selective about the future that we want to bring, to give meaning to our present. And, you know, St Augustine said this as well. He said that there’s no such thing as the past or the future. There’s only the present past, the present present, and the present future. And he’s referring to that kind of presentism, I think, that exists across religions and everyday life. And that’s really where we only exist.

DR: Well, I think an interesting and very important part of millennial thinking and prophetic thinking is that it places the individual right at this axis point of history. As you say, you know, it’s the memories of history: a narrative construction, leading to this point and you have various futures branching out. And something about apocalyptic and millennialism, when it becomes involved in violence particularly, is that sometimes it’s seen that in order for the future to go one way there has to be some sort of violent or cataclysmic change; which brings us to the issue of violence, then. Is there a necessary connection between millenarianism and violence? Or is that only in the popular imagination?

EB: Absolutely not.

JW: I couldn’t agree more. I see nothing within millenarianism that makes it essentially violent. And I think the other important point to make is that not only do we “other” millenarian groups, by often assuming that they are violent, but we normalise ourselves – the secular, the non-religious, the mainstream – as something that is somehow essentially non-violent. So we make cults and sects and millenarianism essentially violent and we make the mainstream somehow essentially non-violent. And I think both are completely false. The evidence just does not stack up.

MM: And, of course, we’re sitting here at the Panacea Society, which was a millenarian movement that was not at all violent, so . . . . And, in fact, probably the vast majority of millenarian movements are not violent. It requires a certain set of circumstances to lead a millenarian movement to violence. And the vast majority of them don’t have that set of circumstances.

TS: Can I add to that?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TS: I guess I’m interested in the way we’re using the word “violence”, here. I think we’re talking about overt, coercive types of violence. But I think discourse or language can be violent as well. (15:00) I think certain other, “small v” forms of violence take place as well. And they take place outside of . . . they’re not exclusive or endemic to millennial movements, they happen in everyday life. I’m speaking here of a kind of power that we exact on all sorts of things. And millennial movements, apocalyptic movements are a different kind of normative discourse and they challenge the dominant normative discourses that Joe was just talking about, right? In a sense they’re kind-of doing a violence: they’re trying to change the way we think about the world. Our normative way that we think about the world is not the right way, it’s not the absolute truth. It’s truth because more people believe it than often the millennial and apocalyptic movements. That doesn’t mean there’s not a kind of violence that’s going on there: there is.

DR: Absolutely.

EB: I’d like to add that a lot of the movements are actually pacifist and they work hard for pacifism. And it’s very interesting that today, while this is being recorded – April 6th – the Jehovah’s Witnesses are – perhaps it’s already happened – being threatened with entire extinction from Russia, because they are absolutely non-violent. They’re in prison in places like South Korea because they’re conscientious objectors. They won’t kill. They’re prepared to be killed. They were killed in Auschwitz, for example. Unlike the Jews and the homosexuals and the Gypsies, who were going to suffer anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have said, “No, we’ll obey the state”, and they didn’t. They preferred to be killed rather than this.

DR: Mmm.

EB: Because they just refused to do certain things. And the group that you were talking about today, also tried to be pacifist. And so it’s not just that they’re not violent. They will work against sometimes. But of course, some are violent with a capital V.

MM: Yes, the group that I was talking about today was historically the Bábis of Iran. They were a precurser of what is today the Bahai faith. But in mid-19th century Iran they were a group that became very popular, spread very rapidly. And the leader of this group worked very hard to diffuse the violent possibilities, because he claimed to be the Mahdi – and people were expecting the Mahdi to come and lead an army to victory. So they were expecting a violent result from Mahdi coming, and the Báb worked very hard to diffuse that potential for violence. And, really, one of the main factors that eventually did lead to violence, as a result of this movement, was the fact that the Báb was removed from his ability to lead his followers. Because he was imprisoned in a fortress, right up in the northwest corner of the country, and therefore cut off from his followers and prevented from leading his followers in the way that he wanted to.

DR: Did you want to add something there, Joe?

JW: Well, this is an issue that we’ve been discussing throughout the day. I think, when we speak about violence, when we speak about the way in which pacifism within new religious movements is often ignored . . .

EB: Or, seen as dangerous and violent!

JW: Indeed. . . where the refusal to fight becomes a type of extremism. I think, connected to this, is the way in which, in some cases scholars, and in other cases political entities – governmental agents – try and explain away millenarian movements rather than explain them. And, I guess, by that I mean that they have a tendency to look for external causes of behaviour: explanations which, wholesale, refuse to countenance the possibility that the local native account – emerging from within the religious movement in question – might have something to contribute to an understanding of why that movement is doing what it’s doing; or in some cases, not doing what it’s not doing, for instance, fighting. So if we try, as scholars, to begin to break down the idea that religious movements are saying and doing one thing and on the other hand our job is to analyse them in ways that are alien to that movement and external to that movement; if we begin to break down that process of explanation, I think we might begin to have a more fertile understanding of what new religious movements are, or what millennial movements are. Because we can learn things from them in ways that very often we simply refuse to acknowledge.

DR: Absolutely. (20:00) And that’s something I talk about a lot, especially. . . . It’s part of the heritage of Religious Studies to be talking about beliefs, and particularly about deviant beliefs, and sometimes going as far as pathologising these kind of ways of viewing the world. But your work, I know, is talking about things that are very relevant to today: you mentioned Trump earlier on. And when these political movements, for instance, suddenly start to engage with other millenarian kind-of ideas, I think it shocks people when they actually realise, “ well, maybe this is more normal” than they perhaps realised.

TS: I think there’s a couple of things going on here, right? Let’s start with Trump. One of Trump’s main security advisers, Steve Bannon, has his own millennial perspective: something he calls the Fourth Turning. He gets this from a series of books on generations, which is a kind of secular apocalypse: that the world is getting bad, capitalism is being destroyed, traditional culture is being broken down, and he needs to take action to do something about that. In other ways, some millennial groups align themselves with political groups, right? And maybe their action is something as simple and normative as voting. It’s not really taking action. In fact, many of the groups that I study – Christian Zionists [for example] – are fatalistic. They’re pacifists, in the sense that they don’t actually take any kind of physical action, but they might vote. But we might even argue that doing nothing sometimes is still taking a side, right? So the groups that I study, the Pilgrims – the Christian Zionist programmes from the United States, going to Israel and Palestine – they’re not doing anything to contribute to the conflicts that I write about, directly. But indirectly they are, insofar as they support a tourism industry; they support a particular political ideology, both in Israel and America that might actually take physical violence, or take the form of physical violence. So, in a sense, they’re pacifists but they’re still involved, or part of the assemblage of violence, I would argue.

DR: So when violence does arise, then, what is difference? What happens there? What is the process by which a group minority or majority becomes violent? I mean, there are well-known cases, obviously: Waco seems to be the sort of paradigmatic account today, at the conference; but Heavens Gate as well; Jonestown. What is it that causes violence in these unusual cases?

EB: Well, they’re all different. Part of our job, as scholars, is to look at the particulars in order to try and compare them, in order to see the similarities and differences, and pull out some of the threads and similarities. But there aren’t a certain number of similarities, and the other things are different: there are groups; there are categories; there are clusters; bundles of things that seem to go together; and the sort of tension that Joe was talking about earlier between the internal reasons and the external reasons – and Stuart Wright had a paper, today, which talked about this – and the importance of seeing the interaction between the two. And you can’t predict by doing one or the other: it’s seeing how the two react on each other. And these can lead to spirals of what criminologists call “deviance amplification”: each side does something that’s slightly bad in the other side’s view and gives the other side permission to be slightly worse. And so it grows. . . and then – wham! And Waco is an example of that. But Waco is very, very unusual, thank goodness! There are cases where you can see this writ large – and they’re easy to see – and therefore we focus on them, because they give us a kind of template, or an idea, against which we can measure the other movements which are not like that. And I think it’s very important that we keep remembering that they’re not like that, and that we look at the other ones and take those into our calculation, as well. I think that’s important. I think the reason why Waco – or perhaps another example would be Aum Shinrikyo – becomes paradigmatic is because, there is some sense in which we’ve already come to the study of Millenarian movements having decided that they are somehow profoundly different to religions at large. And therefore, by a process of scholarly selection by us, we simply focus on those cases which fit the paradigm. (25:00) This is the classic case of “normal science”: that we simply look for evidence which fits pre-existing paradigms and conveniently – or, in some cases, very inconveniently – ignore all the other counter examples; and the theories – or, in some cases, prejudices – that we have of these groups are wrongly reinforced. And another consequence of this is, as Eileen says: many of the groups that are committed to non-violence – or don’t even feel the need to commit themselves to non-violence because they are so inherently non-violent that that commitment doesn’t need to made – that those groups are simply ignored. Many people don’t focus on those groups because they simply don’t fit the prejudices that we seem to have within the scholarship.

EB: I think we have to make the distinction between the violence that is done to a group and violence that the group does. And nearly all the violence is done – again with a capital V – is done to their own members. Some are done to people that they know, personally, who they don’t like. And very, very few are done to strangers: Aum Shinrikyo is an example, but one of the very few; the Manson family is another one. But, mostly, the harm is internal rather than externally directed. Most of them expect that God, or something, will happen: the Apocalypse or Armageddon will happen. Now, they might have to be the midwife – and that’s another quite interesting question that we haven’t touched on yet, is: what happens when prophecy fails, when they expect this great big change? But I think it’s important to remember that very, very few go around killing people. That tends to be the traditional major religions – the churches and the denominations – who’ve got the money and the armies. Now, of course, it might be different if they get hold of sarin gas or something, but this happened very much . . . .

DR: This ties into what you were saying before, about the importance . . . . We have to generalise, to some degree, to make cross-comparisons, but we have to remain aware of the important differences all the time. And, a lot of the time, these groups that we’re comparing – the actual violence that we’re talking about is very, very different. And you also have cases like Heaven’s Gate, where there’s very little evidence of coercion there. I mean, if you watch the exit videos that the members shot, for instance, they’re going quite happily into that situation with their eyes fully open. It’s only from our external point of view that it can be described as violence at all – largely because of going into it, or looking at it, with this kind of brainwashing mentality that earlier discourses on new religions bought into, which is very much discredited now.

EB: And they were only harming themselves.

DR: Exactly

EB: And Joe ought to jump down on me immediately, because they didn’t see themselves as harming . . . .

JW: Of course!

EB: They saw themselves as being ‘transitionised”, or whatever the word was?

JW: Going to the level above the human, TELAH. Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point: that what he have here is – to bring it back to your question about failed prophecy, and this does link to violence . . . . Whether or not we can genuinely point to groups like Heaven’s Gate; or classic historical case studies like the Millerites; or Festinger’s famous book about cognitive dissonance, using the Seekers – even if we leave violence in the equation, or if we take it out – there is still the enduring question about: does prophecy for these groups ever fail at all?

EB: Oh, it does!

JW: Well see, I’m not so sure about that. When I think about Heaven’s Gate I think about the fact that they ended their lives and – as far as we’re aware, as far as they’re aware – made a successful journey to where they were going. The same, I think, can be said with the Seekers and Mrs Keech: the idea that the prophecy did not fail, the flood didn’t fail to arrive, it wasn’t a failure, it was them successfully spreading enough light to call the floods off. The Seventh Day Adventists did not explain away a failure of Millerite prophecy. It seems to me that Ellen White simply realised that Miller’s prophecy was correct but that the revolution began in heaven, not on earth. So, I’m intrigued to hear your pushback on that. In what cases does prophecy really fail?

EB: Well there are some groups that have said, “Oops, we got it wrong!” (30:00) I can’t remember his name. The man who – it was May sometime about 4 or 5 years ago – Radio something . . .

All: Harold Camping

JW: Family Radio

EB: Now, he said . . .

DR: After a couple of events, yes!

EB: And, at that time, he said “God got it wrong”, according a newspaper headline!

DR: Which is one of the techniques mentioned in Festinger’s books, actually: that the transmission was garbled and – reception issues.

EB: You can get the reception wrong; you can have it happening in the spirit world – like with Joanna Southcott and lots of others; you can have people saying, “Well, because we did this, we stopped the terrible thing happening”; or you can say, “Because they didn’t do this, God didn’t come yet. We weren’t ready. We didn’t listen to the Messiah, telling us what to do.” There are a whole lot of different ways out. But there are those that . . . . There was a chap – again, I can’t remember, I want to say Garland – he was a Chinese chap in America. And he said, “I’ll come out and apologise if nothing’s happened.” And he came out and apologised. This was about ten years ago. He was Chinese, or he was Oriental of some kind.

DR: Well, hopefully, one of the listeners can tell us who it is in the comments.

EB: I’m sure they will. And provide other examples.

DR: I hope they do.

TS: I want to add to this conversation about “small v” versus “big V” violence. I think, one way in which small v violence takes place is . . . Harold Camping is a good example. A lot of people – thousands of people – sold their houses, they went into debt; they expected this to happen. That had a tremendous amount of violence on their families and their lives. They moved into forests, they bought bunkers. This is a form of violence, right? I think another form of violence, that wasn’t really talked about in the conference, is spatial violence: the way that these groups imagine spaces in particular ways; homogenised spaces; map spaces; understand whole groups of people in homogenised ways and treat them in certain ways. And some of these groups are aligned with state power. Sometimes the state see them as a threat, and disciplines them with large V Violence. And sometimes they align themselves with the state: with large V Violence; by their voting for them; by their interests. We’re seeing this at the moment with Donald Trump – he’s doing all sorts of violence to homosexuals, to women’s rights over their body, these sorts of things – aligning themselves with larger Christian movements like Christian Zionists, like pre-millennial dispensationalist, right. . . that are doing violence to all sorts of other people within the electorate. And also, in terms of foreign policy, the way that Americans understand Muslims, the war in Iraq, right? These are all contributing factors. I think maybe the mistake, then, is to look at just the millennial movement. You have to see the effects that they have outside of their movement, right? Their social effects. Look at Marxism, for example. This is a good example . . . . Or another point, maybe, I want to make is the difference between belief and practice. So, we have textual beliefs – we have written documents, for a lot of these groups – and then we have the way people actually act, which are two different things. You know, would someone say that Stalin was a true Communist – a true Marxist – who murdered millions of people? Is that an example? Marxism is a form of millennialism: it’s clearly interpreted and was influenced by Jewish and Christian thought, in the way that there is a kind of . . . . Capitalism kind-of reaches a point where it can’t abide, it fails, and then we have a kind of proletariat millennialism afterwards. So the practice and belief is also a discussion that we need to have, within these discussions.

DR: Unfortunately, I’m going to have to do small v violence to the conversation and to return to the subject of time! We have been talking about this all day. We could continue to talk about it all evening, and we will be talking about it again, tomorrow. For the viewer and listener I urge you to check out the millennialism, on new religious movements, on violence and these kind of issues. Other than that, I would like to thank all of our participants for taking part. And thanks for watching.


Citation Info:, Barker, Eileen, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster, Tristam Strum. 2017. “Millennialism and Violence?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 18 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/millennialism-and-violence/

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UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

The Brethren in Scotland

on-the-edgeIn this episode of the Religious Studies Project, David Robertson talks to Joseph Webster (lecturer in Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast) about his fieldwork in Gardenstoun (usually called Gamrie), a small fishing village on the Aberdeenshire coast in the North-East of Scotland. Despite a population of only 700, the village has six churches, four of which are branches of the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical conservative Christian denomination which originated in Ireland in the 1820s.

The discussion begins by considering how Joe went about doing his fieldwork, and how to go about doing an anthropology “at home”; within our own culture, rather than that of some exotic Other. They consider how work like this is important in undermining many of the assumptions that the study of religion is based upon. For example, inasmuch as we tend to think of millennialism in contemporary Britain, it would tend to be in some exclusionary “cult”; yet here is an example among apparently ordinary working Christians. It becomes clear that anthropology, when applied to “ourselves”, still has the power to make “the strange familiar, and the familiar strange” (Muesse, 2011).

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

 

Prophecy and American Millennialism

RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans…

J. Gordon Melton: Prophecy and American Millennialism

By Marzia A. Coltri, University of Birmingham, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism (15 October 2012).

J. Gorton Melton is a leading academic specialist on new religious movements, a scholar of occultists, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, Branch Davidians, Theosophists, Reiki groups, UFO, Hare Krishnas, New Age  and vampires, who has spent his academic career investigating and classifying new religious groups throughout the world. He is founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, and in an interview at the 2012 annual meeting of INFORM in London he discussed Millennial movements in America, with particular stress on three typologies of movements that await the divine intervention of the Son of God on Earth. This eschatological conjecture in Christianity teaches and disseminates the ‘double resurrection’ of Jesus Christ (“the Messiah is coming again’) and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the supreme signs of salvation and liberation from oppression and tribulation. As Melton observes, many new religious groups in the second half of the 20th century were small in size and had a lack of organizational structure. These movements are, he says, increasing rapidly, changing denominations and metaphysical features, and are waiting a New Era.

The impact of the prophet, with her/his charisma, which is for Weber ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which she/he is set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’[1], is felt when s/he founds her/his own ‘new religious movement’, and her/his ideas and programme lead the members of the group. In the case of the RastafarI movement, for example, Marcus Garvey is one proponent of Pan-African nationalism and a particularly charismatic voice in the development of the movement.  Through the prophetic teachings of Garvey concerning the coronation of the God-King from Ethiopia (Haile Selassie I), RastafarI develops its belief in the Coming of the Second Messiah to the Earth to save the subaltern people of the African Diaspora and create a new kingdom (the Promised Land, Ethiopia). RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans and liberate them from the chains of corrupt, evil and sinful Babylon in order to create a new golden age in ‘the millennium kingdom’ of Ethiopia.

Millenarian thought is the belief that after the end of this world a new, fertile and harmonious world will appear. Such a conviction is referred to the term Millennium which is taken from the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Revelation. Millennialisms are expecting either a collective earthly salvation by supernatural agencies or a heavenly salvation. However, as we know, millenarian movements often appear in periods of crisis and act as expressions of frustration, vulnerability and the desire to escape. With their charismatic personalities, millenarianists believe in an earthly Golden Age but have a pessimistic view of the future.  They can be classified as catastrophic (the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and progressive millennial movements (the New Agers and the Theosophical movement). The progressive millennial thought has a positive view of the collective growth of society in harmony with the divine (Gods or Angels). Both the progressive and catastrophic millennial movements reflect dramatic episodes of failure and violence, awaiting a radical transit to salvation. They may be violent revolutionaries whose aim is to eradicate the ‘old’ to create the ‘new’. What is common in Millenarian movements is that they are exultant about the predictions of a New Era.

By way of conclusion, what happens in various millenarian movements is directly connected to the economic, religious, sexual and racial power which puts their adherents in a marginal position in relation to the dominant society. Therefore it is not clear how these forces operate within society due to extreme variations in the movements themselves, especially when the prophets die, which  may cause trauma (see the recent death of the Korean Revd. Sun Myung Moon, founder and charismatic leader of the Unification Church). Many of them are expecting that world will be transformed by divine interventions through prophecies in order to eliminate suffering and to offer collective salvation.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Marzia Coltri was born in Verona, Italy and completed a BA in Philosophy with a thesis on the liberal and scientific thought of Karl Popper. After finishing her MA in Philosophical Counselling, she came to England in 2007 to embark on research on minority ethnic religious groups. She recently received her PhD in African and Caribbean religions (the RastafarI movement and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (UK). She is currently part-time visiting lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. Her research focuses on gender studies, post-colonialism and NRMs. She has presented several papers in the UK and abroad, three of which are published in the proceedings of the CESNUR conference. One of her recent articles ‘The Challenge of the Queen of Sheba: The Hidden Matriarchy in the Ancient East’ has also been published in the History of the Ancient World website.

Bibliography:

Melton, J. Gordon. ‘The counter-cult monitoring movement in historical perspective’ in Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2003)

Bromley, David and Melton, J. Gordon, eds., Cults, Religion and Violence, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: 2003)

Melton, J. Gordon. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-Clio (2002)

Melton, J. Gordon. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, Thomson Gale; 8th edition (2009),

Miller, Timothy. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. ed., Intr. by J. Gordon Melton.  State University of New York Press (Albany, USA: 1991)

Useful links:

http://www.cesnur.org/testi/melton_speak.htmp

http://www.cesnur.org/2010/to-coltri.htm

 


[1] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, tr. by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 52.

J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism

Why is it that millennialism – the belief in an immanent return of Christ to Earth – has had such a particular fascination for the American people? Millennial prophecy is often analysed with relation to violence and minority “cults”, but it is also infused into everyday discourse, in the rhetoric of politicians and the “rolling prophecy” of talk radio hosts. In this wide-ranging interview, David asks Gordon Melton about the history and reasons behind the fascination. Discussion moves from the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. We discuss the strategies used by these groups when their prophecies fail, which often involves a  shift from premillennialism to postmillennialism.

“When you look at all the groups who have given prophecies at various times, they have one thing in common: they all failed. For most of us, this is a history of successive groups with failed prophecies. But for the groups themselves, prophecy never fails…”

Finally, we come right up to the present day, talking about Harold Camping and other Christian millennialism, and the 2012 narrative so prevalent today in popular spirituality and the media. While these share similarities with 19th century millennialism, but considerable differences also, in particular in relation to media. In closing Melton prophecies about the future of millennialism; as the population continues to grow, and there continues to be a need to fill news shows, then prophecy will continue to fail.

(By the way, the chap who’s name we couldn’t remember is David Spangler.)

Dr. Melton is Distinguished Professor of American Religious History of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion, as of March, 2011. In 1968 he founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion and has remained it’s director for the last 44 years. The institute is devoted to organizing, motivating, and producing research-based studies and educational material on North American Religion, and has been responsible for the publication of more than 400 reference and scholarly texts, including multiple editions of the Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (8th edition, 2009). He sits on the international board of the Center for Studies in New Religions (CESNUR) based in Turin, Italy, the primary academic association focusing studies of new and minority religions.

Dr. Melton recently completed the editing of the second edition of the award-winning Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Belief and Practice, which appeared in 2010, and is currently working on a multi-volume Chronological History of the World’s Religions. Melton has publish extensively, but of particular relevance to this interview are Cults, Religion and Violence (With David G. Bromley. Cambridge University Press, 2002.) The Family/The Children of God (Signature Books, 2004.) “Beyond Millennialism: The New Age Transformed.” In Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis, eds. Handbook of New Age (Brill 2007, pp. 77-97), and “Spiritualization and Reaffirmation: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails.” (American Studies 26:2, 1985, pp. 17-29) [Jstor link]. 

Podcasts

Islamic Millennialism

We may tend to think of millennialism as something typical of New Religious Movements and christian fundamentalism, but it has a long and interesting history in the Islamic world too. Rob Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at Exeter, takes us through the history of Islamic millennialism, and explains how it has been tied up with political events in the past, as well as the present. He raises interesting points about how the unusual form of Twelver Shi’ite millennialism developed from Islamic theological discourse.

This podcast was generously supported by cenSAMM, the centre for the study of Apocalyptic and Millennial Movements. This podcast is also sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, smudging sticks, Marmite, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Islamic Millennialism

Podcast with Rob Gleave (18 September 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Gleave – Islamic Millennialism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Bedford at the CenSAMM Conference on Millennialism and Violence and I’m joined by Rob Gleave, who is the Director  for the Study of Islam at Exeter University.

Rob Gleave (RG): Yes.

DR: First of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

RG: Thanks very much.

DR: Today we’re going to talk about millennialism and violence in Islam, in the Islamic world. Maybe a good place to start is to tell us a little bit about the whole idea of millennialism and messianism in Islam. Is this something that comes from the Qur’an, or what’s the. . . ?

RG: Yes, there are clear indications in the Qur’an about an end time. There’s a shortage on detail as to what’s going to happen and a time as to when things are going to happen, but there’s a discussion – an extensive discussion – of something called the the Hour. And this Hour – the Hour that will come – is the time when the world will be brought to a an end and a judgement will happen and a resurrection of people who have died will occur: people from the graves. And there’s some indication in the Qur’an itself about some of the violent , catastrophic events that will happen, in terms of the sky and mountains being torn asunder and those sort of things. But there’s not a great detail and there’s not a description of a series of events that will eventually lead up to this event. So there’s a strong notion in the Qur’an that the world will come to an end, but, like many things in the Qur’an, it’s indicative. Or rather, it indicates something but it doesn’t always spell it out in detail. And that was left to Muslim theologians to try and discover what it was that the scriptures were referring to.

DR: OK.

RG: And for that they used some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – and there were sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there’s huge debates about the authenticity of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, nonetheless, there was a sort of residue of statements by the Prophet Muhammad which described various things that were going to happen at the end of the world. And from these sources a number of different versions, if you like, of the end times were developed in Muslim theology. And the crucial point is that whilst belief in the eventual day of judgement is an essential element of Islamic belief, precisely what will happen at the those end times – the details, the sequence of events, if you like – this is not an essential element of Muslim belief. It’s not something which determines whether someone is a believer or not a believer. So, it was left open for the Muslim theologians to interpret this material in ways which was highly imaginative. There are some stock elements that always reoccur. The first one was with the return of Jesus. So this was an important element. The return of Jesus was seen as a crucial element of the end times.

DR: Which might come as quite a surprise to some of our listeners, I think.

RG: Well, yes. Jesus, of course, is highly regarded in Muslim theology as one of the Prophets sent by God. But the Qur’an itself indicates that Jesus will return, or that the return of Jesus is one of the signs of the end times. And it’s linked . . .  often it’s linked, by theologians, to the Qur’anic ambiguity about whether or not Jesus died on the cross. The Qur’anic phrase seems to indicate that he appeared to die, but didn’t die, and therefore it left the way open for a return of Jesus at the end times. And it’s very likely, historically, that this was incorporated into the Muslim theological framework from Christian roots about the return of Jesus. But it was a crucial element of the end time narrative for Muslims, the belief that Jesus will come. Another crucial element was also the return of another figure, known as the Mahdi. And the Sunni and Shi’i branches of Islam have slightly different notions of what this Mahdi will do and what his role is, theologically as well as physically, in the end times. (5:00) So they have slightly different notions of that. But these two elements are always conjoined: that the Mahdi and the return of Jesus together will bring about the ushering in, if you like, of the end of the world.

DR: And a lot of the imagery, as you say, is very reminiscent of the Christian story and the imagery of . . . well, imagery which carries on into some of the new religious kind of millenialisms we’ve been talking about this week.

RG: I think apocalyptic imagery is something which . . . well, it’s a discourse which is shared across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim milieux, and used across these different religious traditions, and re-used again and again.  You find it reinvented in new religious movements within Islam as well, which emphasised the coming of the end times. So, it’s a stock of imagery which is not exclusive to an individual tradition. And quite often, the ability for apocalyptic imagery to cross-fertilise between religious traditions . . .  there’s sometimes more potential for that than in other areas of theology, or in ethics or in law. In apocalyptics, somehow a shared stock of images about the Beast, the Antichrist, the notion of the return of Jesus: all of these things together can be shared across traditions.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: And you also find, with a lot of apocalyptic movements, that they’re quite willing to borrow from different traditions and they don’t feel any reticence about the sources of their religious imagery. Muslim religious movements, they will take something which we find in the Jewish or Christian traditions which have made their way into Islam, in one way or another through the history of Islam. And they’re not worried about the sources of these things when they’re constructing their end of time narrative.

DR: Of course not.

RG: So it makes for an enormously creative image of the end of the world, when apocalyptic writers are able to draw on a great wealth of writings and sources in their creative imagination about what the end of the world will look like.

DR: The theology – and ideas about the Mahdi in particular – is quite important in the history of the schism between the Sunni and Shi’i traditions, am I right?

RG: Absolutely. For the Sunni traditions, the Mahdi is a figure sent by God who will lead a battle and bring about the preparations, if you like, for the day of judgement. In the Shiite tradition, the Mahdi is the return of someone – or the reappearance of someone – who disappeared in the ninth century and who will return and re-establish their rightful, legitimate, political rule at some time in the future. So,  the Sunni and Shiite traditions didn’t divide over the question of the end times: at the beginning, it was a question of who should lead the community and what the role of that leader should be. The way in which the Shiite tradition developed was that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, in 632, there was a series of leaders coming from amongst his family, his descendents, who were seen as blessed with special religious knowledge. And for one particular branch of that Shiite tradition there were twelve such leaders, and the last of these has gone into hiding. And this is the promised Mahdi, the promised messianic figure that will reappear at some point in the end of time – no one knows when. But Twelver Shiites, as they’re called – because they believe in twelve leaders after the Prophet Muhammad – Twelver Shiites have a very strong notion of the patience that’s required in expectation of the return of the Mahdi, and the internal striving to be a perfect servant. So the internal striving to be a perfect servant becomes a crucial element of Shiite identity, in the expectation of the return of the Mahdi at some point in time in the future. (10:00) And, when the Mahdi returns, it’s not simply that this person will be a military leader and bring about the end of days. This is the return of the person who should have been the leader of the Muslim community for all of these centuries. It’s the reappearance, if you like, of the Mahdi who is present in the community but unknown, suddenly making himself known again. So this is quite a different dynamic for Shiites about the end times, compared to Sunnis. And since the Mahdi is someone who’s seen as having perfect knowledge of divine matters, including the law, this means that he’s looked to, by Shiites , as a guide for daily living. And the Mahdi doesn’t fulfil such a role in Sunni theology.

DR: It’s a really fascinating, and – I think – kind-of unique situation: this idea of the Mahdi being this occulted figure who has gone into hiding but is still in the world, but hidden.  And they’re waiting on his . . . it’s not like a physical reincarnation or anything like that, it’s a re-emergence of this hidden figure. It’s really interesting.

RG: It was a belief which emerged in early Islam, through a series of descendents of the Prophet Muhammad who went into hiding in order to protect themselves, and the community, from oppression from a majority Sunni community. And the theme of a hidden Imam who will make themselves known again when the conditions are right became incorporated into Twelver Shiite doctrine and became an official element of Twelver Shiite belief. And so that’s something which is unusual, since most apocalyptic movements which have a messianic element think of the Messiah as returning to earth from somewhere else. Whereas, for the Shiites, the presence of the hidden Imam – the Mahdi – in the community means that at certain points they can find out what his opinion is.

DR: Yes.

RG: Which is the crucial element for Shiites: how do you know what the Imam’s opinion might be on this or that? So, for example, if all the community agree on something – on a particular doctrine – then Shiites have imagined that, well, one of the people who agree must be the hidden Imam.

DR: Yes.

RG: So the agreement suddenly becomes authoritative because the Imam’s opinion must be amongst the people who are agreeing. We don’t know which opinion it is, we don’t know the identity of the individual. But, because everyone’s agreed, the Imam must be within that agreement. And the result is that certain new doctrines might be validated by a community agreement. The theoretical possibility, if you like, of communication from the hidden Imam through community agreement, becomes possible.

DR: And I can see that being a very powerful narrative. Because in other traditions, where you want to have the prophetic figure – who is no longer with you – refer to present events, you either have to create a new revelation through a new prophet, or you discover or reveal some previously unknown writings – in the way that has happened in Buddhism quite a lot, for instance. But this . . . you can actually, quite legitimately have this figure referring to events of the day quite contemporaneously. Because he’s still around, we just don’t know where.

RG: He’s present, yes. And that creates a notion of immanence within the community which has become very important for Shiite devotional practice, in the sense that the Twelver Shiites will often pray to hasten the appearance of the Mahdi as part of their personal devotional prayers. They believe that through devotional acts one is contributing to the situation where the Imam ,who is present, can make themselves known. And it creates an internal – what you might call – piety within the religious tradition, which is a dynamic you can’t find in Sunni Islam. Because of the imagined presence of the Imam in the community, it means that there’s a emphasis on the importance, if you like, of ensuring community cohesion.(15:00)

DR: And does that spill out, then, into how millenarian ideas and prophetic ideas affect the community, then? Would we see a difference between the way that Shiites and Sunnis relate to how messianism plays into their actions in the political sphere?

RG: Well certainly within Shi’ism, the fact that the Imam is present and needs to be revealed has enabled certain claimants at different point in time to be “the man”. When, without them claiming this from the very beginning . . . . Because the revealing notion – of them being present but then revealing that they’re the Mahdi – is, in a sense, an extension of the basic theological doctrine.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: So you often find that, within the Shiite tradition, when an individual has claimed to be the Mahdi they haven’t needed to claim it straight away. Because their presence in the community, without being the Mahdi, isn’t a source of scandal – if you see what I mean – to their claim.

DR: Yes.

RG: Because the Imam decides when the time is right to appear. And the claimant can reliably or legitimately claim, “Well, it wasn’t the right time for me to make to make my personality known.” And it means that within the Twelver Shiite tradition, claiming the appearance of the Mahdi – or claiming to be the Mahdi through appearance – has a very strong potential. It’s like a trigger which is always loaded and ready to be fired at any point in time when the conditions are right, or the individual personality believes themselves to be fulfilling that particular role. And so there have been claims of people being the messianic figure throughout history of Islam, not just in Shi’i Islam. But when the claim happens in Shi’i Islam the individual is claiming more than just being a military leader. They’re claiming a special sort of knowledge which is, I suppose, akin to a form of prophecy. Although the Muslim theological doctrine means that prophecy ends with the Prophet Muhammad, even for Shiites. It’s another form of divine knowledge communicated to an individual. But the potentiality within Shi’ism for a claimant to put themselves forward is always there, because of the notion of an Imam present within the community who is just waiting to be revealed.

DR: You don’t have to posit a new prophet or messiah or anything like that. The potential is already there as part of the actual theological position.

RG: And, of course, there is a huge taboo in Islam around positing yourself as a new prophet.

DR: Yes, exactly. Yes.

RG: Because it contravenes one of the basic doctrines of Islam which is that Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets and that there is no prophet after Muhammad. And so Sunni groups, or groups which have emerged out of Sunnism such as the Ahmadi movement, for example, have been treated with such strong criticism by the rest of the Sunni Muslim community because they have contravened this notion of the end of prophecy with the Prophet Muhammad. They’ve claimed to have a leader who is a new prophet. In the view of Sunni Islam, you know, the Ahmadi community has claimed that its founder is a new prophet. In Shi’i Islam the messianic figure is the hidden Imam, rather than a new prophet. Which, in a sense is slightly less of a taboo element within the theological framework.

DR: Really interesting. To move to the Sunni world, then, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you about Isis. And there seems to be some debate about the degree to which they should be seen as a millennial, even apocalyptic, kind of movement. I, myself, would like to hear something from you. Your take on this is the apocalyptic millennial aspects of it being overplayed by the West, because of fears and ignorance. (20:00) Or is this something that is theologically driving . . . ?

RG: Well, my own view is that there has been a certain hyping up of the apocalyptic element, because it makes good journalism!

DR: (Laughs) Yes!

RG: Apocalypticism is always a sensationalist story for journalists in the contemporary period, because it’s seen as so “out there” and weird and bizarre. And, in a sense, accusations of being over-apocalyptic or . . . . The attraction, if you like, of the story of an apocalyptic movement, is a reflection of much of the state of – I’ll say – “British” society, and the nature of secularism and so-called rationality, and these [movements] are seen as hyper -irrational and consequently extremely interesting. And that’s certainly been, I think, an element in the attraction of journalists, and commentators as well, to the apocalyptic element of the Islamic State message. Having said that, there are strong elements within the Islamic State propaganda machine which indicate that they are quite willing to use apocalyptic imagery to describe and recruit for their military campaign. So, the most famous one being the small Syrian village of Dabiq, which is mentioned in a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – a saying of the Prophet Muhammad – that this will be a place where the end times battle will take place. So it became very important that Islamic State captured this village and that they used it in their propaganda in particular their English language propaganda magazine, which they titled the Dabiq. And so they are quite happy to try and use that rhetoric within their propaganda. The big question is, how much of their activities are driven by apocalyptic beliefs? And, in that, I’m slightly less convinced of the primacy of apocalypticism within their military strategy and the ways in which they organise their state. Because most of the ways in which they argue for this policy or that policy, or this action or that action, you can trace back to traditional ways of thinking about the assessment of actions within the Islamic legal tradition. They argue using legal reasoning which you find in the traditional sources. And they themselves are always trying to demonstrate that their opinion is not an unusual opinion, compared to the traditional sources. So apocalypticism doesn’t really figure, I don’t think, in the internal organisation of Islamic State and the justification for some of their actions. It’s extremely important in the way in which they project themselves to the outside world. And this notion that they can recruit through this rhetoric – the fear of missing out on the success and ultimate end times, which Islamic State play a role in – is an incredibly powerful tool for them to attract new recruits.

DR: Absolutely. So that interest that comes from the media, they’re doing exactly the same thing and using it to attract attention to what they’re talking about. And, as you say as well, this is such a powerful set of imagery and deep-set, long-running narrative in human culture that it always seems to be there as a little reservoir that you can tap into.

RG: And don’t underestimate Islamic State’s awareness of this.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: They know. . . . They have quite a sophisticated media machine, which produces quite sophisticated propaganda materials. And they know that apocalyptic fears are an element within Western society, and Muslims living outside of Muslim majority contexts are the prime targets for that propaganda and recruitment. And the result is that they know how to use that in order to gain recruits. (25:00) And so it’s an element, it’s certainly an element of their rhetoric and their propaganda. How instrumental it is – how much they instrumentally use it in order to do this and how much it’s embedded within the movement – is a matter of some debate. Part of the problem is the actual internal workings of Islamic State are quite secretive, by necessity, or inevitably you might say. So precisely what the apocalyptic beliefs of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi, might be, outside of the propaganda element, is actually quite difficult to identify. But it’s certainly a form of religiosity that they are very happy to project outside of the territory that they control.

DR: That’s an excellent comparative point to end on, I think. It’s very important that we don’t simply ascribe naive beliefs to any of these millennial apocalyptic discourses, be they in Islam, Christianity, new religions or popular culture. There are multiple levels of discourse going on all the time and they’re being used sometimes for their media impact, or their interest, as much as they are themselves driving actions.

RG: Yes, we make a mistake if we think that an organisation like Islamic State is a simple organisation with a single message that it’s always churning out. It’s actually quite a complicated, multi-tiered, multi-faceted organisation which knows – and which through experience has learnt – what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts. And, like all organisations, it promotes itself in appropriate ways to appropriate audiences.

DR: And, that people are driven naively by beliefs and ideologies: in fact it’s much more complicated and they are mutually creating . . .

RG: No, certainly. And we make a mistake if we think that all we need to do is really try and show these people what the truth is, and how mistaken they are, through forceful argumentation – that we’re going to convince them in some way. No: people believe things and belief, as we know, is a really complex set of factors which lead to an individual settling upon a particular doctrine which they believe is right for them. And belief in the providential nature of Islamic State is one such belief. It’s not simple. It’s actually extremely complicated and complex as a process. Just as complicated as any process of religious commitment.

DR: Rob Gleave thank you so much for taking part in our sophisticated media and propaganda machine at the Religious Studies Project.

RG: (Laughs) That’s alright.

DR: I’m afraid it’s time for us to look to the future, and the next panel, here at the conference. So thanks very much for taking part.

RG: Thanks very much for inviting me.

DR: You’re quite welcome.

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Millennialism and Violence?

Descriptions of the End Times are full of violent imagery, of mass destruction through earthquakes, tidal waves, fire and ice. These images are written deeply into our culture through the book of Revelation, but are by no means limited to the Christian imagination. Often, our idea of modern millennial groups is informed by images of violent confrontations between them and the state, for example at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or of mass suicide, such as with Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple at Jonestown.

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are these groups typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media – and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity of millennialism outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?

This audio/visual episode was produced in collaboration with CenSAMM, the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pretzels, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Eileen Barker, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster and Tristan Sturm (22 May 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available CenSAMM conference – Millennialism and Violence 1.1.

David Robertson (DR): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m here today, in the grounds of the Panacea Museum in sunny Bedford, for the inaugural CenSAMM conference on the subject of Millenarian Groups and Violence. I’m joined today by Moojan Momen, by Joseph Webster, by Eileen Barker and by Tristan Sturm. And we’re going to discuss the issues around millenarianism, millennialism and violence. And all of the talks from this conference have been streamed and there’ll be a link to that below. But just to get the ball rolling, I’m going to ask: what is it we’re talking about? I mean “millenarianism”, “millennialism”, “apocalypticism”: are these different terms? What do they mean? Joe, maybe you could get the ball rolling on that?

Joseph Webster (JW): OK, yes. It’s an interesting question. I’m not so sure that I have a clear answer, possibly because a clear answer doesn’t exist. I think these terms have been used for a very long time, interchangeably. Sometimes, that’s because of potentially sloppy scholarship on behalf of those who are using the terms. On the other hand, part of the answer might be that these terms – particularly millenarianism and millennialism – have been, to some extent, interchangeable. The OED – which isn’t the final word on these conversations but still, nevertheless – the OED does define these terms as synonyms. The way that millenarianism is used in anthropology – the discipline that I come from – tends to see millennialism as more distinctly Christian than millenarianism; millenarianism being treated as a broader term that has resonances with the Cargo Cult literature and the Ghost Dance literature. However, again, that’s not universally true. Some scholars within anthropology do use millennialism as a way to refer to Cargo Cults and the Ghost Dance. So, whilst I don’t think there’s any clear definitional answer, my assumption would be that the best way to proceed is how the groups themselves use these terms. And they don’t, actually, tend to use of either of those terms for themselves. So let’s take it from there.

Tristan Sturm (TS): I would add to that “apocalypticism”. And I think we can think about apocalypticism versus millennialism – which is the distinction I would use – as two sides of the same coin. The Apocalypse or apocalypticism, meaning unveiling, happens before the Millennium: 1000 years, or a period of time after which the world ends. So, I would understand it that way; I would teach that to my students. I would say apocalypticism is the events before the sort-of  Revelation – or the end of the world – and the Renewal is the Millennium. That’s how I would understand it. And I think, using apocalypticism versus millennialism is important in certain cases. Apocalypticism is useful, of course, for various secular movements who don’t believe in a Renewal, a new world, right? Whether that would come from climate change; Trumpism – potentially – for some individuals; and for others, equally, Barrack Obama, right? That doesn’t have, necessarily, a Christian or any religious overlay over it. We can still use the term apocalypticism – and I think many social theorists do – to talk about things like climate change and the severity of the series of events that would happen from that.

DR: We’re often, when we hear about apocalypticism, millennialism, we’re often hearing about these cults, these controversial new religious movements. Eileen, maybe you’d speak to this? Is there some necessary connection between new religious movements and apocalyptic millennial thinking?

Eileen Barker (EB): No.

DR: Then why is it so often connected in the public mind?

EB: Well, it’s quite frequent that millennial groups, or millenarian groups or apocalyptic groups will be termed cults. And cults, sort-of technically, usually means some kind of religious or non-religious movement that’s in tension with society in some ways. There’s a sort-of classic division between the cult and the sect, which are in tension with society and a denomination of the church, which aren’t. But, technically, that’s one thing. But just generally, in popular parlance, to say something is a cult means: “it’s a religion I don’t like”. And it’s not really very much more than that. (5:00) I mean, I often get asked: “Is it a real religion, a genuine religion, or is it a cult?” And you’ve just got to say, “Well, what do you mean by a cult?” and one man’s, or one woman’s cult is a another person’s religion. Nobody says, “I belong to a cult.” Not seriously. They might say it as a joke, or in self-defence. Now, some of these movements on which people put the label of cult are millenarian, but most of them are not. Well, I wouldn’t like to say how many are and how many aren’t, but the two don’t necessarily go together – except that it’s more likely that the millenarian groups are a sub-group of cult. But you get millenarianism in denominations and in church – if you’re just looking at the tension with society – so it goes either way. You’ve got to be terribly clear what you’re talking about. And sometimes such categories are useful, but quite often they just obscure.

DR: Indeed.

EB: So, say what you’re talking about!

Moojan Momen (MM): And I think we need to bear in mind that, even Christianity itself , when it first arose – if you read the Gospels – you’ll see there that they are talking about how Christianity is fulfilling prophecy. So Christianity is, therefore, a millenarian movement in Judaism and was probably regarded as a cult by other Jews. So, we’re talking about a history of religion developing gradually from being a cult, to being a sect, to being a religion.

DR: And how important is prophecy? Is this an essential aspect here?

EB: I think so, almost by definition. Because you’re expecting something to happen. So you have some kind of knowledge that’s come from somewhere. Now it might just be in your own little brain, but usually there’s somebody who says . . . or a book or something that can be read as saying . . . . So, there’s some sort of “saying” what’s going to happen in the future. It’s future-oriented.

DR: Yes. But it’s not entirely about the future?

EB: Oh no. No, I’m not saying that. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

DR: It’s a good in.

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. I think one of the key aspects to whether we’re talking about millenarian movements, or apocalyptic movements, or millennialism, is the way in which temporality and time are really central to what’s going on. And crucially, I think, the way in which parts of time, which we customarily think of as very distinct, actually end up collapsing into each other and becoming conflated. So: the present being seen as a very unique moment when prophecy is being fulfilled; when things that were said of the future are coming to pass right now; but also that the present is seen as deeply resonant with an ancient past. Look at the way in which the Christian groups, for instance, that are most dispensational – groups like the Brethren, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Baptist groups – certainly look at today’s age as morally bankrupt and immediately reach back into the Old Testament past for examples of the same: Sodom and Gomorrah, the days of Noah, the days of the Tower of Babel. And, immediately, what that does is it transforms the present into something that is not only future-oriented, but is deeply indebted to, and is seen as a replaying of ancient past Biblical events.

EB: Of course the Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, have a linear view of history: that there’s a past, we’re in present and there is a future. And they’re promising something about the future. But we should remember that a lot of new religions, cults, sects, traditional religions, are cyclical. And they see time in this sort-of birth, death, rebirth etc. Now, sometimes it’s an upwards spiral. Sometimes you go through various ages. But they’re not just sort-of straight lineal like they are in the Abrahamic [faiths], which lend themselves more to apocalyptic visions because there’s something happening. But within Hinduism you can get different ages, which can be very different. And the New Age, indeed. There’s something very fundamental that’s changing in society, which is what’s expected in these kind of movements.

TS: I would agree, but I also think, prior to say the Enlightenment, prior to Hobbes or someone like that, you would see, I think, a cyclical idea within Christianity, still. (10:00) I’m taking this from Reinhart Koselleck and he says, you know, the ideas of the Apocalypse didn’t really emerge in the everyday life of Christians until, really, the period of the Enlightenment, with the idea of progress, and the Kantian idea that because the past is different, the future must also be different. And so we get this idea that the Apocalypse isn’t part of a cycle, a scaled-up everyday cycle of seasons, that we would see with a lot of individuals. So, I think there is a change actually happening around the end of the 16th century, where we’re moving even out of a Christian cyclicalism to a more linear idea of the future. And I would add to that that I think now the future is becoming more important. And it’s been studied I think, even across disciplines, it’s becoming this tag term, that we’re trying to theorise now. And I think here of Susan Harding, for example, who talks about “memories of the future”. And she talks about, you know, that the future is a kind of memory. We have an idea of the past and those are kind-of memories as well, outside of history. We’re selective about the memories that we want to bring to the present and give continuity to the way things are. In the same way, we do that with the future. We kind-of know how the future’s going to play out. We have a sort of selectivity of ideas. There are certain paths that we’re pretty sure are more likely to happen that others. And we go down those paths. And prophecy functions in a similar way. It tries to close off the way the future could go. It sort-of says, “Well, this is the likely space that the future will go.” And so it’s closing off of the future. And we have a kind of memory of the future. We re-member ideas from the future. And we all do this. We do this with our jobs, how we foresee our lives are going to go. And they more-or-less do take place the way we probably thought that they would, given a certain level of difference there. And so, I would say that about time. And I also . . . and there’s a book that I really like. It’s called “The Past is a Foreign Country” and he says that we’re selective about our pasts. But I would say that the future is also a foreign country where we’re selective about the future that we want to bring, to give meaning to our present. And, you know, St Augustine said this as well. He said that there’s no such thing as the past or the future. There’s only the present past, the present present, and the present future. And he’s referring to that kind of presentism, I think, that exists across religions and everyday life. And that’s really where we only exist.

DR: Well, I think an interesting and very important part of millennial thinking and prophetic thinking is that it places the individual right at this axis point of history. As you say, you know, it’s the memories of history: a narrative construction, leading to this point and you have various futures branching out. And something about apocalyptic and millennialism, when it becomes involved in violence particularly, is that sometimes it’s seen that in order for the future to go one way there has to be some sort of violent or cataclysmic change; which brings us to the issue of violence, then. Is there a necessary connection between millenarianism and violence? Or is that only in the popular imagination?

EB: Absolutely not.

JW: I couldn’t agree more. I see nothing within millenarianism that makes it essentially violent. And I think the other important point to make is that not only do we “other” millenarian groups, by often assuming that they are violent, but we normalise ourselves – the secular, the non-religious, the mainstream – as something that is somehow essentially non-violent. So we make cults and sects and millenarianism essentially violent and we make the mainstream somehow essentially non-violent. And I think both are completely false. The evidence just does not stack up.

MM: And, of course, we’re sitting here at the Panacea Society, which was a millenarian movement that was not at all violent, so . . . . And, in fact, probably the vast majority of millenarian movements are not violent. It requires a certain set of circumstances to lead a millenarian movement to violence. And the vast majority of them don’t have that set of circumstances.

TS: Can I add to that?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TS: I guess I’m interested in the way we’re using the word “violence”, here. I think we’re talking about overt, coercive types of violence. But I think discourse or language can be violent as well. (15:00) I think certain other, “small v” forms of violence take place as well. And they take place outside of . . . they’re not exclusive or endemic to millennial movements, they happen in everyday life. I’m speaking here of a kind of power that we exact on all sorts of things. And millennial movements, apocalyptic movements are a different kind of normative discourse and they challenge the dominant normative discourses that Joe was just talking about, right? In a sense they’re kind-of doing a violence: they’re trying to change the way we think about the world. Our normative way that we think about the world is not the right way, it’s not the absolute truth. It’s truth because more people believe it than often the millennial and apocalyptic movements. That doesn’t mean there’s not a kind of violence that’s going on there: there is.

DR: Absolutely.

EB: I’d like to add that a lot of the movements are actually pacifist and they work hard for pacifism. And it’s very interesting that today, while this is being recorded – April 6th – the Jehovah’s Witnesses are – perhaps it’s already happened – being threatened with entire extinction from Russia, because they are absolutely non-violent. They’re in prison in places like South Korea because they’re conscientious objectors. They won’t kill. They’re prepared to be killed. They were killed in Auschwitz, for example. Unlike the Jews and the homosexuals and the Gypsies, who were going to suffer anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have said, “No, we’ll obey the state”, and they didn’t. They preferred to be killed rather than this.

DR: Mmm.

EB: Because they just refused to do certain things. And the group that you were talking about today, also tried to be pacifist. And so it’s not just that they’re not violent. They will work against sometimes. But of course, some are violent with a capital V.

MM: Yes, the group that I was talking about today was historically the Bábis of Iran. They were a precurser of what is today the Bahai faith. But in mid-19th century Iran they were a group that became very popular, spread very rapidly. And the leader of this group worked very hard to diffuse the violent possibilities, because he claimed to be the Mahdi – and people were expecting the Mahdi to come and lead an army to victory. So they were expecting a violent result from Mahdi coming, and the Báb worked very hard to diffuse that potential for violence. And, really, one of the main factors that eventually did lead to violence, as a result of this movement, was the fact that the Báb was removed from his ability to lead his followers. Because he was imprisoned in a fortress, right up in the northwest corner of the country, and therefore cut off from his followers and prevented from leading his followers in the way that he wanted to.

DR: Did you want to add something there, Joe?

JW: Well, this is an issue that we’ve been discussing throughout the day. I think, when we speak about violence, when we speak about the way in which pacifism within new religious movements is often ignored . . .

EB: Or, seen as dangerous and violent!

JW: Indeed. . . where the refusal to fight becomes a type of extremism. I think, connected to this, is the way in which, in some cases scholars, and in other cases political entities – governmental agents – try and explain away millenarian movements rather than explain them. And, I guess, by that I mean that they have a tendency to look for external causes of behaviour: explanations which, wholesale, refuse to countenance the possibility that the local native account – emerging from within the religious movement in question – might have something to contribute to an understanding of why that movement is doing what it’s doing; or in some cases, not doing what it’s not doing, for instance, fighting. So if we try, as scholars, to begin to break down the idea that religious movements are saying and doing one thing and on the other hand our job is to analyse them in ways that are alien to that movement and external to that movement; if we begin to break down that process of explanation, I think we might begin to have a more fertile understanding of what new religious movements are, or what millennial movements are. Because we can learn things from them in ways that very often we simply refuse to acknowledge.

DR: Absolutely. (20:00) And that’s something I talk about a lot, especially. . . . It’s part of the heritage of Religious Studies to be talking about beliefs, and particularly about deviant beliefs, and sometimes going as far as pathologising these kind of ways of viewing the world. But your work, I know, is talking about things that are very relevant to today: you mentioned Trump earlier on. And when these political movements, for instance, suddenly start to engage with other millenarian kind-of ideas, I think it shocks people when they actually realise, “ well, maybe this is more normal” than they perhaps realised.

TS: I think there’s a couple of things going on here, right? Let’s start with Trump. One of Trump’s main security advisers, Steve Bannon, has his own millennial perspective: something he calls the Fourth Turning. He gets this from a series of books on generations, which is a kind of secular apocalypse: that the world is getting bad, capitalism is being destroyed, traditional culture is being broken down, and he needs to take action to do something about that. In other ways, some millennial groups align themselves with political groups, right? And maybe their action is something as simple and normative as voting. It’s not really taking action. In fact, many of the groups that I study – Christian Zionists [for example] – are fatalistic. They’re pacifists, in the sense that they don’t actually take any kind of physical action, but they might vote. But we might even argue that doing nothing sometimes is still taking a side, right? So the groups that I study, the Pilgrims – the Christian Zionist programmes from the United States, going to Israel and Palestine – they’re not doing anything to contribute to the conflicts that I write about, directly. But indirectly they are, insofar as they support a tourism industry; they support a particular political ideology, both in Israel and America that might actually take physical violence, or take the form of physical violence. So, in a sense, they’re pacifists but they’re still involved, or part of the assemblage of violence, I would argue.

DR: So when violence does arise, then, what is difference? What happens there? What is the process by which a group minority or majority becomes violent? I mean, there are well-known cases, obviously: Waco seems to be the sort of paradigmatic account today, at the conference; but Heavens Gate as well; Jonestown. What is it that causes violence in these unusual cases?

EB: Well, they’re all different. Part of our job, as scholars, is to look at the particulars in order to try and compare them, in order to see the similarities and differences, and pull out some of the threads and similarities. But there aren’t a certain number of similarities, and the other things are different: there are groups; there are categories; there are clusters; bundles of things that seem to go together; and the sort of tension that Joe was talking about earlier between the internal reasons and the external reasons – and Stuart Wright had a paper, today, which talked about this – and the importance of seeing the interaction between the two. And you can’t predict by doing one or the other: it’s seeing how the two react on each other. And these can lead to spirals of what criminologists call “deviance amplification”: each side does something that’s slightly bad in the other side’s view and gives the other side permission to be slightly worse. And so it grows. . . and then – wham! And Waco is an example of that. But Waco is very, very unusual, thank goodness! There are cases where you can see this writ large – and they’re easy to see – and therefore we focus on them, because they give us a kind of template, or an idea, against which we can measure the other movements which are not like that. And I think it’s very important that we keep remembering that they’re not like that, and that we look at the other ones and take those into our calculation, as well. I think that’s important. I think the reason why Waco – or perhaps another example would be Aum Shinrikyo – becomes paradigmatic is because, there is some sense in which we’ve already come to the study of Millenarian movements having decided that they are somehow profoundly different to religions at large. And therefore, by a process of scholarly selection by us, we simply focus on those cases which fit the paradigm. (25:00) This is the classic case of “normal science”: that we simply look for evidence which fits pre-existing paradigms and conveniently – or, in some cases, very inconveniently – ignore all the other counter examples; and the theories – or, in some cases, prejudices – that we have of these groups are wrongly reinforced. And another consequence of this is, as Eileen says: many of the groups that are committed to non-violence – or don’t even feel the need to commit themselves to non-violence because they are so inherently non-violent that that commitment doesn’t need to made – that those groups are simply ignored. Many people don’t focus on those groups because they simply don’t fit the prejudices that we seem to have within the scholarship.

EB: I think we have to make the distinction between the violence that is done to a group and violence that the group does. And nearly all the violence is done – again with a capital V – is done to their own members. Some are done to people that they know, personally, who they don’t like. And very, very few are done to strangers: Aum Shinrikyo is an example, but one of the very few; the Manson family is another one. But, mostly, the harm is internal rather than externally directed. Most of them expect that God, or something, will happen: the Apocalypse or Armageddon will happen. Now, they might have to be the midwife – and that’s another quite interesting question that we haven’t touched on yet, is: what happens when prophecy fails, when they expect this great big change? But I think it’s important to remember that very, very few go around killing people. That tends to be the traditional major religions – the churches and the denominations – who’ve got the money and the armies. Now, of course, it might be different if they get hold of sarin gas or something, but this happened very much . . . .

DR: This ties into what you were saying before, about the importance . . . . We have to generalise, to some degree, to make cross-comparisons, but we have to remain aware of the important differences all the time. And, a lot of the time, these groups that we’re comparing – the actual violence that we’re talking about is very, very different. And you also have cases like Heaven’s Gate, where there’s very little evidence of coercion there. I mean, if you watch the exit videos that the members shot, for instance, they’re going quite happily into that situation with their eyes fully open. It’s only from our external point of view that it can be described as violence at all – largely because of going into it, or looking at it, with this kind of brainwashing mentality that earlier discourses on new religions bought into, which is very much discredited now.

EB: And they were only harming themselves.

DR: Exactly

EB: And Joe ought to jump down on me immediately, because they didn’t see themselves as harming . . . .

JW: Of course!

EB: They saw themselves as being ‘transitionised”, or whatever the word was?

JW: Going to the level above the human, TELAH. Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point: that what he have here is – to bring it back to your question about failed prophecy, and this does link to violence . . . . Whether or not we can genuinely point to groups like Heaven’s Gate; or classic historical case studies like the Millerites; or Festinger’s famous book about cognitive dissonance, using the Seekers – even if we leave violence in the equation, or if we take it out – there is still the enduring question about: does prophecy for these groups ever fail at all?

EB: Oh, it does!

JW: Well see, I’m not so sure about that. When I think about Heaven’s Gate I think about the fact that they ended their lives and – as far as we’re aware, as far as they’re aware – made a successful journey to where they were going. The same, I think, can be said with the Seekers and Mrs Keech: the idea that the prophecy did not fail, the flood didn’t fail to arrive, it wasn’t a failure, it was them successfully spreading enough light to call the floods off. The Seventh Day Adventists did not explain away a failure of Millerite prophecy. It seems to me that Ellen White simply realised that Miller’s prophecy was correct but that the revolution began in heaven, not on earth. So, I’m intrigued to hear your pushback on that. In what cases does prophecy really fail?

EB: Well there are some groups that have said, “Oops, we got it wrong!” (30:00) I can’t remember his name. The man who – it was May sometime about 4 or 5 years ago – Radio something . . .

All: Harold Camping

JW: Family Radio

EB: Now, he said . . .

DR: After a couple of events, yes!

EB: And, at that time, he said “God got it wrong”, according a newspaper headline!

DR: Which is one of the techniques mentioned in Festinger’s books, actually: that the transmission was garbled and – reception issues.

EB: You can get the reception wrong; you can have it happening in the spirit world – like with Joanna Southcott and lots of others; you can have people saying, “Well, because we did this, we stopped the terrible thing happening”; or you can say, “Because they didn’t do this, God didn’t come yet. We weren’t ready. We didn’t listen to the Messiah, telling us what to do.” There are a whole lot of different ways out. But there are those that . . . . There was a chap – again, I can’t remember, I want to say Garland – he was a Chinese chap in America. And he said, “I’ll come out and apologise if nothing’s happened.” And he came out and apologised. This was about ten years ago. He was Chinese, or he was Oriental of some kind.

DR: Well, hopefully, one of the listeners can tell us who it is in the comments.

EB: I’m sure they will. And provide other examples.

DR: I hope they do.

TS: I want to add to this conversation about “small v” versus “big V” violence. I think, one way in which small v violence takes place is . . . Harold Camping is a good example. A lot of people – thousands of people – sold their houses, they went into debt; they expected this to happen. That had a tremendous amount of violence on their families and their lives. They moved into forests, they bought bunkers. This is a form of violence, right? I think another form of violence, that wasn’t really talked about in the conference, is spatial violence: the way that these groups imagine spaces in particular ways; homogenised spaces; map spaces; understand whole groups of people in homogenised ways and treat them in certain ways. And some of these groups are aligned with state power. Sometimes the state see them as a threat, and disciplines them with large V Violence. And sometimes they align themselves with the state: with large V Violence; by their voting for them; by their interests. We’re seeing this at the moment with Donald Trump – he’s doing all sorts of violence to homosexuals, to women’s rights over their body, these sorts of things – aligning themselves with larger Christian movements like Christian Zionists, like pre-millennial dispensationalist, right. . . that are doing violence to all sorts of other people within the electorate. And also, in terms of foreign policy, the way that Americans understand Muslims, the war in Iraq, right? These are all contributing factors. I think maybe the mistake, then, is to look at just the millennial movement. You have to see the effects that they have outside of their movement, right? Their social effects. Look at Marxism, for example. This is a good example . . . . Or another point, maybe, I want to make is the difference between belief and practice. So, we have textual beliefs – we have written documents, for a lot of these groups – and then we have the way people actually act, which are two different things. You know, would someone say that Stalin was a true Communist – a true Marxist – who murdered millions of people? Is that an example? Marxism is a form of millennialism: it’s clearly interpreted and was influenced by Jewish and Christian thought, in the way that there is a kind of . . . . Capitalism kind-of reaches a point where it can’t abide, it fails, and then we have a kind of proletariat millennialism afterwards. So the practice and belief is also a discussion that we need to have, within these discussions.

DR: Unfortunately, I’m going to have to do small v violence to the conversation and to return to the subject of time! We have been talking about this all day. We could continue to talk about it all evening, and we will be talking about it again, tomorrow. For the viewer and listener I urge you to check out the millennialism, on new religious movements, on violence and these kind of issues. Other than that, I would like to thank all of our participants for taking part. And thanks for watching.


Citation Info:, Barker, Eileen, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster, Tristam Strum. 2017. “Millennialism and Violence?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 18 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/millennialism-and-violence/

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UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

The Brethren in Scotland

on-the-edgeIn this episode of the Religious Studies Project, David Robertson talks to Joseph Webster (lecturer in Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast) about his fieldwork in Gardenstoun (usually called Gamrie), a small fishing village on the Aberdeenshire coast in the North-East of Scotland. Despite a population of only 700, the village has six churches, four of which are branches of the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical conservative Christian denomination which originated in Ireland in the 1820s.

The discussion begins by considering how Joe went about doing his fieldwork, and how to go about doing an anthropology “at home”; within our own culture, rather than that of some exotic Other. They consider how work like this is important in undermining many of the assumptions that the study of religion is based upon. For example, inasmuch as we tend to think of millennialism in contemporary Britain, it would tend to be in some exclusionary “cult”; yet here is an example among apparently ordinary working Christians. It becomes clear that anthropology, when applied to “ourselves”, still has the power to make “the strange familiar, and the familiar strange” (Muesse, 2011).

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

 

Prophecy and American Millennialism

RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans…

J. Gordon Melton: Prophecy and American Millennialism

By Marzia A. Coltri, University of Birmingham, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism (15 October 2012).

J. Gorton Melton is a leading academic specialist on new religious movements, a scholar of occultists, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, Branch Davidians, Theosophists, Reiki groups, UFO, Hare Krishnas, New Age  and vampires, who has spent his academic career investigating and classifying new religious groups throughout the world. He is founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, and in an interview at the 2012 annual meeting of INFORM in London he discussed Millennial movements in America, with particular stress on three typologies of movements that await the divine intervention of the Son of God on Earth. This eschatological conjecture in Christianity teaches and disseminates the ‘double resurrection’ of Jesus Christ (“the Messiah is coming again’) and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the supreme signs of salvation and liberation from oppression and tribulation. As Melton observes, many new religious groups in the second half of the 20th century were small in size and had a lack of organizational structure. These movements are, he says, increasing rapidly, changing denominations and metaphysical features, and are waiting a New Era.

The impact of the prophet, with her/his charisma, which is for Weber ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which she/he is set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’[1], is felt when s/he founds her/his own ‘new religious movement’, and her/his ideas and programme lead the members of the group. In the case of the RastafarI movement, for example, Marcus Garvey is one proponent of Pan-African nationalism and a particularly charismatic voice in the development of the movement.  Through the prophetic teachings of Garvey concerning the coronation of the God-King from Ethiopia (Haile Selassie I), RastafarI develops its belief in the Coming of the Second Messiah to the Earth to save the subaltern people of the African Diaspora and create a new kingdom (the Promised Land, Ethiopia). RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans and liberate them from the chains of corrupt, evil and sinful Babylon in order to create a new golden age in ‘the millennium kingdom’ of Ethiopia.

Millenarian thought is the belief that after the end of this world a new, fertile and harmonious world will appear. Such a conviction is referred to the term Millennium which is taken from the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Revelation. Millennialisms are expecting either a collective earthly salvation by supernatural agencies or a heavenly salvation. However, as we know, millenarian movements often appear in periods of crisis and act as expressions of frustration, vulnerability and the desire to escape. With their charismatic personalities, millenarianists believe in an earthly Golden Age but have a pessimistic view of the future.  They can be classified as catastrophic (the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and progressive millennial movements (the New Agers and the Theosophical movement). The progressive millennial thought has a positive view of the collective growth of society in harmony with the divine (Gods or Angels). Both the progressive and catastrophic millennial movements reflect dramatic episodes of failure and violence, awaiting a radical transit to salvation. They may be violent revolutionaries whose aim is to eradicate the ‘old’ to create the ‘new’. What is common in Millenarian movements is that they are exultant about the predictions of a New Era.

By way of conclusion, what happens in various millenarian movements is directly connected to the economic, religious, sexual and racial power which puts their adherents in a marginal position in relation to the dominant society. Therefore it is not clear how these forces operate within society due to extreme variations in the movements themselves, especially when the prophets die, which  may cause trauma (see the recent death of the Korean Revd. Sun Myung Moon, founder and charismatic leader of the Unification Church). Many of them are expecting that world will be transformed by divine interventions through prophecies in order to eliminate suffering and to offer collective salvation.

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About the Author:

Marzia Coltri was born in Verona, Italy and completed a BA in Philosophy with a thesis on the liberal and scientific thought of Karl Popper. After finishing her MA in Philosophical Counselling, she came to England in 2007 to embark on research on minority ethnic religious groups. She recently received her PhD in African and Caribbean religions (the RastafarI movement and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (UK). She is currently part-time visiting lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. Her research focuses on gender studies, post-colonialism and NRMs. She has presented several papers in the UK and abroad, three of which are published in the proceedings of the CESNUR conference. One of her recent articles ‘The Challenge of the Queen of Sheba: The Hidden Matriarchy in the Ancient East’ has also been published in the History of the Ancient World website.

Bibliography:

Melton, J. Gordon. ‘The counter-cult monitoring movement in historical perspective’ in Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2003)

Bromley, David and Melton, J. Gordon, eds., Cults, Religion and Violence, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: 2003)

Melton, J. Gordon. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-Clio (2002)

Melton, J. Gordon. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, Thomson Gale; 8th edition (2009),

Miller, Timothy. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. ed., Intr. by J. Gordon Melton.  State University of New York Press (Albany, USA: 1991)

Useful links:

http://www.cesnur.org/testi/melton_speak.htmp

http://www.cesnur.org/2010/to-coltri.htm

 


[1] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, tr. by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 52.

J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism

Why is it that millennialism – the belief in an immanent return of Christ to Earth – has had such a particular fascination for the American people? Millennial prophecy is often analysed with relation to violence and minority “cults”, but it is also infused into everyday discourse, in the rhetoric of politicians and the “rolling prophecy” of talk radio hosts. In this wide-ranging interview, David asks Gordon Melton about the history and reasons behind the fascination. Discussion moves from the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. We discuss the strategies used by these groups when their prophecies fail, which often involves a  shift from premillennialism to postmillennialism.

“When you look at all the groups who have given prophecies at various times, they have one thing in common: they all failed. For most of us, this is a history of successive groups with failed prophecies. But for the groups themselves, prophecy never fails…”

Finally, we come right up to the present day, talking about Harold Camping and other Christian millennialism, and the 2012 narrative so prevalent today in popular spirituality and the media. While these share similarities with 19th century millennialism, but considerable differences also, in particular in relation to media. In closing Melton prophecies about the future of millennialism; as the population continues to grow, and there continues to be a need to fill news shows, then prophecy will continue to fail.

(By the way, the chap who’s name we couldn’t remember is David Spangler.)

Dr. Melton is Distinguished Professor of American Religious History of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion, as of March, 2011. In 1968 he founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion and has remained it’s director for the last 44 years. The institute is devoted to organizing, motivating, and producing research-based studies and educational material on North American Religion, and has been responsible for the publication of more than 400 reference and scholarly texts, including multiple editions of the Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (8th edition, 2009). He sits on the international board of the Center for Studies in New Religions (CESNUR) based in Turin, Italy, the primary academic association focusing studies of new and minority religions.

Dr. Melton recently completed the editing of the second edition of the award-winning Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Belief and Practice, which appeared in 2010, and is currently working on a multi-volume Chronological History of the World’s Religions. Melton has publish extensively, but of particular relevance to this interview are Cults, Religion and Violence (With David G. Bromley. Cambridge University Press, 2002.) The Family/The Children of God (Signature Books, 2004.) “Beyond Millennialism: The New Age Transformed.” In Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis, eds. Handbook of New Age (Brill 2007, pp. 77-97), and “Spiritualization and Reaffirmation: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails.” (American Studies 26:2, 1985, pp. 17-29) [Jstor link].