Apocalypse exercises brains

May 15, 1998

THE WORLD apparently will end with neither a bang nor a whimper, but an academic conference.

The approach of the millennium has spawned apocalyptic studies programmes, books and multi-disciplinary courses at universities from coast to coast in the United States, combining history, religion, literature, sociology, psychology, science and other disciplines.

"This is a hot field," said Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, the largest such effort.

"It's at the intersection of academia and the larger culture, and it's right under our noses."

Dr Landes and other scholars argue that it is also their role to correct the many popular misconceptions about the apocalypse, which is founded in the various religious beliefs that the arrival of a messiah would usher in a 1,000-year kingdom of peace, fellowship, harmony and abundance.

Informed opinions differ, however, about when the 1,000-year epoch might begin; the idea that it would coincide with the turn of the 1,000th year is a modern and disputed interpretation.

Dr Landes said: "Lying behind all this attention is a psychological desire, which seems to be universal, for a transformation of society into a radically better place. Deeply embedded in our mental tapes is some sense that we could do a whole lot better than we're doing. This is when these ideas can become widespread."

Apocalyptic studies seminars are also being taught at California State University, the University of Illinois and other universities.

An historian who specialises in 1000ad, Dr Landes plans not only to study the way the world reacts to the start of a new millennium, but also to document it in an unprecedented archive.

"These moments are brief and periodic, and so they tend to get forgotten and written out of history," he said. "You're dealing for the most part with people who have turned out to be wrong in their apocalyptic visions, who expected something to happen that didn't happen, and so it's understandable that few documents are preserved from those moments."

Daniel Wojcik, a University of Oregon specialist in folklore mythology, says that "some people think it's just a fad. In a climate in which popular topics and courses are being encouraged by universities, there probably are people who are teaching it for that reason".

But Dr Wojcik said millennial studies helped us look at contemporary hopefulness and paranoia.

"It was considered a marginal area of research, but it seems to be credible to study this stuff now," he said. "You get this interesting mix of fear and conspiracy, a pessimism about society, which is seen as evil, corrupt and falling apart. At a time when ideas from all over the globe are accessible, we're being exposed to a lot of millennial concepts and it's important to put it into context."

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