News & Features » Miscellany

While the FBI and others fret about violence from doomsday cults, religious studies experts foresee nothing apocalyptic about 2000.

Y2K Complacent

A few years ago, it seemed that 2000 would either usher in the collapse of the modern, computer-controlled world as we know it — or it would bring the apocalypse foretold by various religious groups. Either way, it was going to be a bumpy landing into a new century.

Now it seems that 2000 will be greeted with a yawn.

At the annual meeting of the Society of the Scientific Study of Religions, which was held in Boston in early November, the world's leading authorities on religious groups gave a collective shrug regarding the potential problems with apocalyptic movements at the turn of the year.

"The general consensus is that the big news is that there is no news," says Jeffrey K. Hadden, a specialist on new religious movements and a sociology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who was at the meeting.

"There was no one in that crowd who can identify a group that says, 'This is it come Jan. 1, 2000 — or some selected date in and around that time — that it's going to be all over.' There's nobody out there who believes that. Or if there is, they are being very quiet about it."

So with "Y2K ready" stamped on nearly every bit of recent material from various businesses, and the news above, it may be a happy new year after all.

Ironically, though, computer technology may be one of the reasons apocalyptic groups aren't as common as once predicted.

"One of the reasons we don't have a lot of groups proclaiming the end of the world is because we now have an instant, mass global communication," Hadden says. "Everybody — not just sociologists — but in effect, everybody, knows that there have been multiple claims of end times, not just recently but through the centuries.

So even the most avid believers are gravitating to that wonderful [Bible] passage that says 'No man knows the hour.' You can be apocalyptic and millenarian and still have the weasel factor. Everybody who has set a date has been burned."

The scientific study of religions has been Hadden's primary research interest since his first book in 1969, titled "The Gathering Storm in the Churches."

In 1996, he combined computer technology with his research to develop a Web site dedicated to new religious movements (, developed in conjunction with a course in new religious movements that he has taught at the University of Virginia for more than 20 years. That extensive site contains more than 150 profiles of religious groups, including traditional religions and denominations, plus new groups that aren't particularly faith-based, but function much like religion. The site also contains reports on the millennium and a recent task force created by the state of Maryland to investigate cults on college campuses.

Though Hadden and his colleagues may take a more sanguine view of the date change, others are more cautious. The Anti-Defamation League in New York just released a special report titled "Y2K Paranoia: Extremists Confront the Millennium." The emphasis is on "extremists." As the ADL writes: "The theological implications of the new millennium and the technological challenges of the Y2K 'bug,' broad-ranging, disparate matters born of the same chronological moment, approach each other at a unique historical crossroads. The existential significance of these events is beyond ADL's purview. The League is concerned about the paranoid overreaction to them by a variety of bigots and extremists, who are exploiting them to spread vicious, hysterical propaganda of hatred, scapegoating and possible violence."

Hadden, however, is largely unconcerned even about those groups, though he is sympathetic to those who feel threatened. "The FBI is concerned, in a profound way, and perhaps legitimately so," he says. "They're being torn in two directions: To be careful and not make the kind of mistakes they did in Waco with Branch Davidians. And then on the other hand, not to have something happen that's going to leave them embarrassed and unprepared. I've been involved in consultations with the FBI, and they're concerned, profoundly concerned. But I think the concern is overshot. More than religious groups, they worry about the quasi-religious groups, the militia types that may, in some manner, legitimate their hyper-patriotism with a shroud of religious legitimacy.

"And there are lots of those groups around. However, I doubt very seriously that there are any of them who are well-organized enough to pull anything significant off."

As the calendar flips to 2000, Hadden will be doing what he's done for more than 20 years on New Year's Eve: After a quiet celebration with his wife, he'll turn in early. "I think that the day will come and go," he

Add a comment