What would you do if someone told you the end was near? Apocalyptic cults have continually attempted to answer this question. Charles Manson became an infamous figure in American history after his loyal band of followers, deemed the Manson Family, carried out a series of gruesome murders in the summer of 1969. The gang massacred some of Hollywood’s most famous, including actress, Sharon Tate. Manson’s cult centered around the belief that he was the chosen Messiah that would lead his followers into surviving an impending nuclear attack and race war. However, they were also tasked with initiating this race war[i]. In 1978, the world was shocked to learn of the mass murder-suicide that took the lives of more than 900 individuals. Under the guidance of the charismatic Reverend Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple murdered a Congressman, journalists, and intentionally drank cyanide-laced juice. The extraordinary phenomenon of Doomsday cults repeatedly catches the public’s attention, as many wonder what could convince normal people to commit such gruesome acts.
Doomsday cults typically center around predictions of the apocalypse. What many of these groups also have in common is a leader who suggests his own messianic destiny. Several individuals have come forth throughout history holding these extraordinary beliefs and a select few garnering the enough attention to capture a crowd. Often, those who manage to attract a vast following do not actively recruit members or attempt to convince nonbelievers, rather they wait for the “chosen ones” to fall in line.[ii]Other times, leaders may utilize popular rhetoric, such as religion, spirituality or social justice, to attract their following.[iii]Another crucial component is a leader who possesses such charm and allure to captivate an audience and convince his followers to carry out their actions. Other hidden tools of recruiting include propaganda which aims at alienated or vulnerable individuals who may be highly susceptible to outside messages.[iv]Once trust is slowly gained, these followers become deeply entrenched in the message of their organization.
To many, the idea of an individual who can predict the end of the world seems completely outside the boundaries of logic and reasoning. Our society is based on the notion that without scientific evidence, novel claims cannot be held to be true. Hence, when apocalyptic cults lack concrete proof for their predictions of the end times, they are dubbed implausible. However, for the many people who come to join Doomsday cults, their leaders are exactly what they preach to be. Consider, for example, what may be considered the largest cult to persist in history: Christians. Christianity is the largest religious following in the world and has been for centuries. Millions of people read the Bible, attend mass and pray devotedly in honor of a Messiah who led others to salvation. In the minds of cult followers, their group is no less legitimate than Jesus and his disciples.
The cognitive contributions to Doomsday cult members maintaining their belief has been studied by many psychologists. One of the most popular studies was completed by Leon Festinger[v]. Through his observation of the Doomsday cult, The Seekers, he displayed that these groups are not just misinterpreting evidence, but changing the way they process information to configure to their beliefs. In a practice termed “cognitive dissonance,” Festinger noted the unpleasant state of tension when actions, thoughts, or beliefs are inconsistent. This discomfort then motivates individuals to either change their behavior or beliefs to return to a harmonious state. Festinger further identified certain conditions under which followers will not only maintain, but strengthen, their beliefs after they are disproven.
The notion behind Doomsday cults is not an outdated concept. The same recruiting and manipulation techniques have been related to those used by terrorist organizations today, such as ISIS. By utilizing the same religious rhetoric and appealing to susceptible populations, terrorist groups have convinced individuals to engage in violence and suicidal behavior. Social conditions also play a factor in the enhanced attraction of such manipulative groups. Typically, when individuals feel isolated from the community and long for something to believe in, they are more easily persuaded to join groups which instill a sense of belonging and a newfound purpose in life.[vi]
The irrational beliefs of Doomsday cults are perceived as rational in the mind of those who participate in them. Captivating leaders tout a messianic message to prophesize the end of the world and their grandiose role in its conclusion. Members are recruited from a pool that suits the mission of the leader by various techniques. By utilizing the examples already present in our society, such as religious organization, members are able to justify their involvement in a group endorsing ideas unverified by scientific evidence. Cognitive properties, such as cognitive dissonance, are also at work to increase the convictions of group members despite conflicting information. Further, apocalyptic cults may not be a passing trend, but are re-envisioned in terrorist organizations and other groups that prey on others to accomplish an evil mission. Despite our desire to believe that humans are rational and skeptical beings, history tells us there will always be somebody claiming to know when the end is nigh, and he is likely not alone.
[i]Charles Manson. (2019, January 09). Retrieved February 8, 2019, from https://www.biography.com/people/charles-manson-9397912
[ii]Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1967). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. By Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. New York: Harper & Row.
[iii]Conroy, J. O. (2018, November 17). An apocalyptic cult, 900 dead: Remembering the Jonestown massacre, 40 years on. Retrieved February 8, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/17/an-apocalyptic-cult-900-dead-remembering-the-jonestown-massacre-40-years-on
[iv]Haberman, C. (2017, November 05). What Doomsday Cults Can Teach Us About ISIS Today. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/05/us/retro-cults-isis.html
[v]Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1967). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. By Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. New York: Harper & Row.
[vi]Haberman, C. (2017, November 05). What Doomsday Cults Can Teach Us About ISIS Today. Retrieved February 11, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/05/us/retro-cults-isis.html
10 thoughts on “It’s the End of the World as We Know It: Examining Doomsday Cults”
I like the parallels that you draw between doomsday cults and Christianity and ISIS, you would never think about it but they do share qualities. As we have talked about in class, it’s hard to believe that people can become so devoted to something that seems so crazy to other people.
What is your personal favorite Doomsday Cult? For me, I really love the doomsday cults that believe various types of technologies (e.g. robots, AI, sex robots) are going to take over the world.
I think the Jonestown group mentioned in the post is fascinating because of how many people they were able to attract. I also find the Y2K movement interesting!
This theory makes me think of the show Doomsday Preppers, I always found it fascinating the lengths that people are willing to go for an eventual apocalypse such as spending crazy amounts of money on bunkers, supplies, etc. I think it certainly connects to your point of having something to believe in, to verify what you are doing.
I remember watching a movie on Netflix that was about the Reverend Jim Jones and his cult group. The leaders of these groups and the messages they sometimes spread are terrifying. Based on what you wrote I agree with you that humans aren’t as rational and skeptical as we think that they are!
Have you seen the new trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s newest film? It’s believed to follow the years of Hollywood leading up to the horrific Manson murders. We shall see how that plays out! Still in poor taste in my opinion.
Also, not quite doomsday but still quite cultish is the Rajneesh movement. There is a phenomenal documentary show on Netflix about them. Basically these people follow a man (messiah to them) names Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (aka Osho) to a settlement in Oregon. Obviously the little quiet town nearby cries out in disbelief when thousands of Osha believers pop up as if out of nowhere and begin to take over their town.
Anyway, it’s super intriguing seeing how you believe these sorts of people garner followers- after watching the documentary I believe Osha followers were most certainly selected based off of religious belief.
I don’t know how many times I have seen the prophecy of the “End of The Earth”, and we are still alive now. These people always claim they get the revelation from God or get the information from the ancient book. I think the conspiracy of the “end of the earth” is very horrible. Like the Apocalyptic cults, most of the cult organization will lose the restriction and they will do what they think is right, and it also will lead to worldwide panic. Overall, your post is very interesting.
I feel like a lot of people are just fascinated with the end of the world and I think this just comes on the idea of people being afraid of death and their mortality. However, when people commit suicide and it contradicts this, it really confuses me because it just ends up being that these people really just did belief in this. I actually took another class in semester that talked about the differences of Cults and Religion and how many people confuse the two because on paper they seem the same. So your comment on that was really interesting to connect to what I learned about that.
When we researched in class the amount of times people had tried to predict the apocalypse I was amazed. I think people in these doomsday cults definitely want to have a sense of power. I like how you were able to find similarities between other cults and why people join them. Like you stated, the presence of someone who is presumably of higher power is definitely what attracts people join cults.
Utilization of these ideas by groups like ISIS is personally offensive to me because they bring religion into their irrational beliefs and turn that religion into something of terror. No one knows when the world is going to end and I truly don’t believe those who kill other people or have people kill themselves are the ones who would know.
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