Again and again, throughout human history, the following events have played out: Step One: A group of people faces a threat of some kind. Perhaps a powerful army is advancing toward its borders, or perhaps a severe economic crisis portends uncertainty and privation. Or perhaps it is just that the group is being left behind as others successfully pursue wealth and status.
Step Two: Despair begins to spread. Some respond with apathy, others with violence. Suicide rates may increase, along with rates of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety disorders. Hopelessness and apathy are rampant; many turn to heavy use of alcohol or other available drugs.
Step Three: A powerful leader arises, typically a person who has him or herself suffered as a result of the society's troubles. Usually-although not always-the leader's power stems from a claim to speak for God. The leader's message is: Follow me, I know the way out of our dilemma. The leader specifies what people must do-engage in a holy war, perform certain rituals, give up alcohol, etc.-and promises that a realm of paradise awaits his or her disciples. But those who hear the message and reject it will be punished not only by exclusion from the coming paradise, but by death and damnation.
Possibly these steps sound familiar to you. They outline the basic structure of what scholars of religion call millenarian movements (so named for a Biblical prophecy that Christ will reign over the Kingdom of God for a thousand years). You may be able to name several of the religions that have started in this way and have changed the course of human history: Christianity, Islam, Mormonism. And of course, smaller movements of this sort continue to arise today, and sometimes become the focus of media attention, especially when their clashes with the larger society lead to violence (Jim Jones in Guyana, the Branch Davidians in Waco).
Starting around the turn of the 20th century, there was a frightening development in the long history of millenarianism: It began to take secular (non-religious) forms. Powerful leaders emerged in the chaos of Europe during and after the first world war who promised utopias based on the principles of their political systems-communism and the Thousand Year Reich. As we all know, the chain of events set in motion by these social movements led to unprecedented horrors.
Although there have been many millenarian movements in America, no such movement has ever taken the reigns of the government. However, it's interesting to think about whether we have created-and are living in-our own distinctive, and relatively benign, form of millenarianism. At roughly the same time as the rise of millenarian-tinged totalitarianism in Europe, Americans began to develop extraordinarily effective techniques of advertising and entertainment. The new innovation that built these institutions was nothing other than the basic premise of millenarianism, promises of a world of enormous pleasure and satisfaction if you will just buy this product-whether it be a car or a movie or a soft drink.
Today our society is plagued by high rates of boredom and apathy, of depression and anxiety, and an intractable drug addiction problem. No wonder that people are happy to retreat into the utopian fantasies of the romance novel, the blockbuster movie, the dream of a new iPhone. It's millenarianism lite: no eternal damnation, no death camps, all utopia all the time. Could be worse, I suppose.
To learn more, visit Peter G. Stromberg's website. Photo by Michael Tracey.