skip to content

SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Justin Meggitt, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion

Justin Meggitt is University Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion and co-founder of the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements (CenSAMM). He will be speaking at the event Apocalyptic terrorism: taming the pale horse on 20th October.


Question: Can you give some examples of apocalyptic movements?

Justin Meggitt: Well, it depends, of course, what is meant by apocalyptic. Not just what definition, but what kind of definition we use. In popular, and some scholarly work, ‘apocalyptic’ is really just a synonym for ‘catastrophic’ and refers more to the outcome of the terrorist act than anything else – mass casualties, widespread and violent destruction. However, for this talk I am interested in ‘apocalyptic’ as a worldview characteristic of some movements. Most religious traditions have movements within them that could be said to be apocalyptic, and apocalypticism was central to the origin of some, notably Christianity and Islam, and is prominent in some others, such as some sects of Buddhism. The basic structure of apocalyptic thinking could also be said to be found in some major, secular, political ideologies too, notably Communism and Fascism. However, for the purposes of the talk I will be looking at contemporary movements that have been associated with acts of terrorism, such as Aum Shinrikyo, ISIS and various environmental and white supremacist groups.


Q: What common characteristics do they share, for example, do most involve a belief in a utopian world after death where only believers will be saved?

 JM: Yes, many would share this – though not all. Most include having the following ideas: that the world is ruled by evil, that a special group possesses this knowledge, an authoritative text or figure discloses that the way the world appears to be is not the case, that the way things are is about to be shattered by a cataclysmic event and that those in the know will have a special role in these events. It is important to emphasise that not all apocalyptic groups believe that they have a role in bringing about this cataclysm or, if they do, that this is necessarily a violent role.


Q: What are the links between apocalyptic movements and violence/terror?

JM: Apocalyptic movements are not necessarily violent. In fact, historically, some have been radical pacifists. However, a minority seem predisposed towards taking an active part in bringing about apocalyptic events. When this is the case, the violence they can seek to create is especially disturbing as it appears to those outside the movement to be unconstrained by the usual moral or strategic constraints, a characteristic it owes to the assumption that its actors are engaged in a cosmic conflict with transcendent, rather than this-worldly, aims.


Q: Is this a relatively new phenomenon?

JM: No. Apocalyptic violence, even apocalyptic terrorism, could be said to go back thousands of years.


Q: Are apocalyptic movements linked to general anxiety about the future and therefore more common at times of great upheaval and uncertainty?

JM: Yes and no. On the one hand, anxiety about the future may play a significant part in the emergence of apocalyptic movements, but this is not necessarily the case. The apocalyptic worldview, that perceives of the world as being on the brink of catastrophe, can be self-sustaining – even passed down from one generation of members to the next – and does not necessarily cohere with the interpretation of the world held by those outside.


Q: What is CenSAMM and why was it set up?

JM: The Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements is an academic centre that is concerned with facilitating scholarly and public understanding of these groups. Two academic directors – Professor James Crossley and Dr Alastair Lockhart – oversee CenSAMM’s various activities to achieve this – from the production of a forthcoming, open-access dictionary (Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements – DAMM) to conferences, seminars, public engagement events and the production of digital resources.

CenSAMM was set up as part of the attempt by trustees of the Panacea Charitable Trust - a charity that looks after the legacy of a religious sect called the Panacea Society that has now ceased to function (the last member died a few years ago) – to explain the group and movements like it in a critical manner. Alongside a fascinating museum in Bedford, where the Panacea Society was based, the preservation of archives related to the group and significant charitable giving to local causes, the Panacea Charitable Trust also supports the work of CenSAMM.


Q: It describes apocalyptic movements as often misunderstood forms of human culture. Can you give some examples?

JM: To give you a concrete example, failure to understand apocalyptic movements can have tragic results – as we can see in relatively recent history in the deaths of the Branch Davidians in Waco (where, by the way, a third of those who died were British citizens).

However, the main point here is that such groups are often depicted as solely destructive or dismissed out of hand. A significant proportion of the world’s population belongs to movements that are apocalyptic so we cannot afford to do this and many people in the past were motivated by such ideas and we do them a disservice if we do not try to make sense of the way they thought about the world.


Q: In what way are they creative and crucial?

JM: Although I shall be looking at terrorism, I would like to emphasise that apocalyptic groups have made considerable, constructive contributions to world culture too, in areas such as ethics, economics, ethnic and gender relations, design and architecture. The ability not just to envisage a new world but to live in a manner that prefigures it – as many apocalyptic groups do – can lead apocalyptic groups to foster new and radical forms of social life that have often, in time, affected surrounding cultures.