Students Studying Apocalyptic Thinking in “End of the World” Course

CAMDEN —According to the ancient Mayan calendar, the end of the world is fast approaching, but Rutgers–Camden students shouldn’t count on the impending apocalypse to get them out of final exams.  

“They still have to study,” jokes Stuart Charmé, a professor of religion at Rutgers–Camden.

This semester, Charmé is teaching a course titled “The End of the World,” in which students analyze apocalyptic beliefs throughout history.

“There is an ongoing persistence and interest in apocalyptic thinking in American popular culture,” Charmé says. “There have always been threats in the world politically, environmentally, and on so many other levels that people are curious to know what the future will hold.”

The latest in a long list of doomsday scenarios is that the world as we know it could end on Dec. 21, 2012, the end-date of the Mesoamerican long count calendar used by many ancient cultures, including the Mayans.

While some believe that’s the day the world will end, others view it as the beginning of a new era and a physical or spiritual transformation.

“On the other hand, there is the belief that apocalypticism is completely fatalistic; the future is predetermined and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Charmé says. “On the other hand, some think that it represents a time to make important decisions. It’s a fear intended to wake us up and reexamine how we live our lives. It puts a huge responsibility on people.”

Charmé, who also taught the class in 1999, when people all over the world were concerned with the impact the year 2000 would have on technology, says apocalyptic thinking has evolved from general fears caused by diseases, natural disasters, political instability, and war.

“It’s very malleable in adapting to whatever makes people anxious. You can already see some people describing Hurricane Sandy in apocalyptic terms,” he says of the storm that caused extensive damage in the northeastern part of the United States on Oct. 29 and 30. “Historically, I think apocalyptic thinking is a way people cope with horrible, uncontrollable circumstances.”

For another example, the Rutgers–Camden scholar points to movies produced after World War II when people began to consider how radiation and nuclear weapons could affect them.

“There was an explosion of films about terrible creatures that existed because of radiation, like giant ants and blobs and zombies,” he says. “And when space travel begins, people become interested in the possibility that aliens could invade our world and enslave or destroy humanity.  In every age, people grapple with fears and anxieties that are specific to that moment in history and reflected in their apocalyptic imagery.”

Victoria Christodoulou, a senior psychology major from Point Pleasant, says the course interests her because there are many websites, movies, and books dedicated to apocalyptic thinking.

“I find a lot of it amusing, but I want to understand why it’s been such a big part of our culture,” Christodoulou says.

While the end of days has religious roots and many cultures describe it as the wrath of God unleashed to punish evil and sin, Charmé says apocalyptic thinking has become quite secular.

“You start to hear people talking about it scientifically,” he says. “Many scientists, for example, say that given the path we’re on with global warming and the depletion of oil reserves, life as we know it will be unsustainable.”

After considering the history of apocalyptic thinking and observing how the end of the world is presented in pop culture and news reports, Charmé’s students are drawing their own conclusions about why people seem to be so interested in the subject.

“I think a lot of people need to feel a sense of purpose, which is why they start to think about the end of the world and their place in the world,” says Bridgid Robinson, a senior from Haddonfield who is double majoring in religion and sociology. “It’s interesting to see the logic some people use to explain it or form their own sense of security.”

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