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Course Description

What do obsessions with the end of the world as we know it have to do with a broader understanding of culture? How can we articulate a theory of culture that accounts for this sweeping tendency across human societies? In this seminar we will comparatively analyze different millenarian movements found in a wide range of cultural and historical cases. We will ask whether some universal logic or psychological processes underpin these different approaches to thinking about dramatic social change. Specific questions that we will address include:


Why are people obsessed with the end of the world—or at least the end of the world as they know it? How do we explain the recurrence of utopian and apocalyptic thought across cultural groups and historical periods? What types of events or conditions accentuate these beliefs? How do people cope with a sense of existential threat? Is utopian/apocalyptic thought a psychological universal across different societies? Are ‘secular’ forms—such as climate change alarmism and artificial intelligence enthusiasm—fundamentally similar to or different from ‘religious’ forms—such as Mormonism or the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas? What about UFO cults and conspiracy theorists? What do all of these phenomena have to say about the dual cultural and psychological strategies that people employ to deal with the world that they live in—a world that is perceived to be out of sync with its ethical ideal?

This seminar will explore all of these questions by addressing a wide range of ethnographic, historical, and archaeological cases of groups whose frameworks are centered on the end of the world as we know it. We will engage in historical and cross-cultural comparisons of case studies as varied as:

the contemporary Islamic State

“cargo cults” during the colonial era in Melanesia

19th-Century Mormonism

Hmong efforts to create a global unifying religion

cattle ranching in the American West and the “Sovereign Citizen” movement

ancient Chinese religious thought (e.g. Taoism)

contemporary Chinese apocalyptic religion (e.g., Falun Gong and Eastern Lightning)

UFO Cults

contemporary conspiracy theories in American politics

ancient Mayan concepts of time and change

political apocalypses for religious groups in Northern Ireland

…and many more

We will engage with and critique theories that seek to explain these movements in terms of social and political deprivation or through an emphasis on cognitive dissonance. Through an interdisciplinary inquiry (including religious studies, history, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, political science, and cultural psychology), in this seminar we will seek to develop a comparative understanding of why people obsess with dramatic changes in the world around them in different places and in different times.


This course will be conducted as an interactive seminar. I may wax in and out of lecture mode as I share ethnographic examples from my own research or try to situate or explicate particular theoretical points, but student participation and rich discussion is critical. As a result, your participation in the seminar will constitute an important part of the final grade. The syllabus will include an array of reading and multi-media materials, and it is critical that you come prepared each session to discuss your take on the materials for each seminar discussion.

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