Armageddon and the New Age

Reflections on Contemporary Religious Trends

Janusz Buda

Empty churches have become a conspicuous part of the fabric of post-war British life. Faced with a rapid decline in the number of both worshippers and full-time ministers, the Church of England has been forced to redraw parish boundaries, amalgamate shrinking congregations and make more efficient use of available resources. Many churches have been closed and placed on the property market. Although minority Christian denominations, and to an increasing extent non-Christian religious groups, have often stepped in to purchase such unwanted churches and adapt them for their own worship, most surplus ecclesiastical real estate has had to be sold to commercial enterprises for purely secular purposes. Imposing Victorian churches and chapels have been converted into offices, carpet showrooms, and wholesale cash-and-carries.

According to figures released by the Central Office of Information, over 70 per cent of the population of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is Christian. Other, perhaps more realistic, figures indicate that only about one-sixth of the adult population are members of a Christian church. Statistics for the established Anglican church show a 9 per cent fall in church attendance between 1979 and 1989, and a decline in confirmations from 191,000 in 1960 to 64,000 in 1988.

For a religion which emphasizes the fellowship of believers and the importance of group worship, these figures give ample cause for concern. Commentators have striven to explain this apparent rejection of orthodox religious life with little or no success. The failure of the church to adapt to changes in society, the breakdown of the family, lack of religious education in school and at home, increasing selfishness and immorality, rampant materialism — all these and many more have been offered as reasons for the drift away from established denominations.

Attempts to stem the flow of members away from the major churches, and to attract new blood, have met with little success. Drastic changes to the form of worship and vernacularization of the litany have had as little effect as attempts to turn back the clock and cling to the religious traditions of a century ago. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that declining church membership is a symptom of growing irreligion and atheism. In Great Britain, the United States, and many other countries, disenchantment with the major established denominations has been accompanied by a surprising upsurge of interest in minority churches and sects, and in non-Christian religions and beliefs.

Particularly noticeable has been the resilience of fundamentalist Christian churches, the continuing growth of many religiously-oriented high-control groups, and the extraordinary public interest in alternative 'New Age' forms of personal development.

The fundamentalist movement has its origins in a reaction to the wave of modernism and liberal Biblical criticism that seemed to threaten nineteenth-century Christianity. Advocating the literal interpretation and absolute inerrancy of the Bible and the imminent and physical Second Coming of Jesus Christ, fundamentalism offers clear and unequivocal answers to many of life's most intractable problems. It also offers an eschatology of enormous impact and appeal.

In his sermon on the Mount of Olives, Jesus prophesied the calamitous events that would foreshadow his imminent return 'in the clouds with great power and glory' (Matthew 24; Mark 13). When the first generation of Christians began to pass away without any sign of the hoped-for coming, the apostle Peter was moved to warn his flock that 'one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day' (2 Peter 3.8). For many fundamentalists, this has provided the key to the mysteries of Biblical prophecy. References to 'days' have been interpreted as signifying years, generations, or even millenia. This technique of double interpretation has been applied to content as well as time scale, and prophecies which were fulfilled in Old Testament times are seen as indications of analogous events yet to occur.

Unfortunately no single Biblical prophecy has yielded a complete scenario of future events, and fundamentalists have had to draw on many disparate prophecies to synthesize their visions of the apocalypse. Particularly heavy use has been made of Daniel, Ezekiel, the Revelation of St John, and Jesus' own prophecy on the Mount of Olives.

The pieces of this complex Biblical jigsaw puzzle have not always fitted neatly together, and many different versions of the final times have resulted. Elements common to most of them, however, have been the achievement of world-wide evangelism, the rise of a powerful European alliance, the release of Satan upon Earth, the period of suffering known as the Great Tribulation, the appearance of false prophets, the nuclear holocaust resulting from a clash of mighty armies in Israel's valley of Megiddo, the return of Jesus Christ, the thousand-year period of peace and contentment, and the final judgment — though not necessarily in that order.

Disagreement over the order of events has divided millenialists into two camps, the premillennialists who believe that only Christ's return can save mankind from self-destruction, and the postmillenialists who believe that Christian endeavour will overcome the forces of evil and create a millenium which will culminate in the return of Christ and the final judgment.

Of the two, premillenialism has proved by far the most popular, although it in turn has engendered several variations. Pre-, mid-, and post-tribulationists, for example, differ in their interpretation of when the faithful will be 'raptured', or taken up to heaven by Christ. The doctrine of celestial rapture, first proposed in the nineteenth century by John Nelson Darby of the Exclusive Brethren, has been enthusiastically espoused by most modern fundamentalists, and best sellers such as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth have made the concept familiar to millions of people in the United States and throughout the world.

Whatever differences of interpretation may divide them, fundamentalists are united in their anticipation of an imminent end to the present order of things, and the beginning of a new and better age. So strong is the appeal of this idea, so strong is the attraction and the promise of the millenium, that many fundamentalist groups have survived false predictions of the Second Coming, and have even gone on to increase their membership.

A striking feature of the fundamentalist revival has been the remarkable growth of pentecostal groups. These groups believe that the gifts bestowed upon the disciples by the Holy Ghost on the Jewish feast day of Pentecost were given for all time, and are available to devout Christian believers even today.

Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles describes how tongues of fire descended upon the apostles, and they were 'filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.' Pentecostalists believe that a born-again Christian can receive a second baptism of the Holy Spirit and this will confer, among other gifts, the ability to pray in unknown tongues — unknown, that is, to all but God, his angels, and those fellow-pentacostalists with the gift of interpretation.

Another gift of the Holy Spirit is the power to heal sickness, and this particular gift has been used to great effect, and to even greater profit, by the many high-profile 'televangelists' who have made extensive and skilful use of the media in recent years.[1]

Pentacostalist churches are said to be the fastest-growing segment of Christianity today, and even the Roman Catholic church has not been immune to the enormous wave of interest in pentacostalism. Since the 1960s the Catholic, Episcopalian, and mainline Protestant churches have been swept with their own 'neo-pentacostalist' or 'charismatic' movements, much to the consternation of many conservative churchgoers.

On the outer fringes of orthodox religious life are the many sects and cults characterized less by their beliefs or teachings than by their unique methods of recruitment and organization. Over the same period that witnessed such a dramatic movement away from the mainline churches, most established cults have maintained their membership at previous levels, and many new cults have attracted large numbers of followers.

Over the years, the term 'cult' has acquired a derogatory meaning, and many people now prefer to use the less contentious expression 'high-control group' — though even this term tends to provoke negative reactions from groups so labelled. Whether any specific group qualifies as 'high-control' is, of course, a matter of debate, but a useful yardstick for judgment exists in the eight criteria proposed by Robert J. Lifton in his Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Lifton's eight criteria are:

  1. Milieu Control: The deliberate limitation of all forms of communication with the outside world (newspapers, radio, books, television), sleep deprivation, a change of diet, control over whom one can see and talk to.
  2. Mystical Manipulation: Teaching that the control group has a special purpose, and that the subject has individual responsibility in the attainment of that goal.
  3. Need for Purity: Convincing the subject of his/her former impurity and the necessity of becoming pure or perfect as defined by the group. Use of shame and guilt.
  4. Confession: Getting the subject to let down his/her barriers and openly discuss his/her innermost fears and anxieties.
  5. Aura of Sacred Science: Convincing the subject that the control group's beliefs are the only logical system of beliefs, and therefore must be accepted and obeyed.
  6. Loading of the Language: Creating a new vocabulary, by creating new words with special meanings understood only by members of the group, or by giving new and special meanings to familiar words and phrases.
  7. Doctrine over Persons: Convincing the subject that the group and its doctrine take precedence over any individual in the group or any other teaching from outside it.
  8. Dispensing of Existence: Teaching the subject that all those who disagree with the philosophy of the control group are doomed.[2]

For many people familiar with the activities of such high-control groups, there exists a much simpler criterion for determining which groups qualify for the label of high-control: the practice of 'shunning', which forbids members to communicate with those who have left the group, or with those who are seen as antagonistic to its aims and activities.

High-control groups (HCGs) usually recruit new members by inviting them to participate in apparently unrelated activities such as parties, seminars, and workshops. Unaware of the real purpose of the activity or the identity of the sponsor, participants are often subject to subtle emotional manipulation calculated to neutralize skepticism and suspicion, and to produce a critical shift of mental perspective. Once this shift of perspective has taken place, surprisingly little reinforcement is necessary to keep the new member committed to the group. Conversely, any attempt to induce a return shift to the original non-group perspective — the phenomenon know as 'snapping' — becomes a major undertaking.

The immensely successful proselytizing of some modern HCGs, and the traumatic effects it has had on the families of those involved, has stimulated the growth of groups and organizations devoted to helping members leave such HCGs. Most 'support' organizations are HCG-specific, consisting of volunteer ex-members prepared to offer emotional support and exit counselling to those in need of them, and information about the relevant group to those interested. The activities of support groups affect mainly those members of HCGs who have already begun to experience doubts, or who have made a decision to leave. The stricture on contact with elements unfriendly to the group (the first of Lifton's eight criteria), and the characteristic mindset which precludes consideration of alternative points of view (the seventh) make access to HCG members extremely difficult. Drastic measures such as kidnapping and forcible deprogramming have been used by desperate families, and raised major ethical questions about the acceptability of such practices. HCGs claim that everyone of adult age has a right to choose and practise his or her own religion. Deprogrammers and support groups accept this claim, but add the provision that such a choice should be made on the basis of sufficient information about the nature of the group in question.

Not all HCGs are fundamentalist, Christian, or even religious. Some groups devoted to combatting alcohol and drug abuse have used HCG techniques to great effect, without, however, resolving many of the ethical problems involved.

From time to time the activities of HCGs make the headlines. Legal tangles over the right of Jehovah's Witnesses to refuse blood transfusions; the mass suicide of People's Temple members in Guyana; murders committed by leaders of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON); attempts by the Rajneesh movement to take over entire townships in the United States; the criminal activities of the Church of Scientology; allegations of brainwashing by the Unification Church; fraudulent medicine practised by the Transcendental Meditation organization. The list is long, but these high-profile groups represent but the tip of an iceberg, the smaller size of most HCGs keeping their activities from the public eye.

The element of control and manipulation makes it difficult to assess the appeal of HCGs and to determine how much of this popularity is due to interest in the beliefs and teachings of the groups, and how much to active proselytizing. Many people have assumed that those with acute psychological problems — the children of broken homes, for instance — are particularly susceptible to the activities of HCGs, and should therefore be protected from them, but at least one recent study seems to challenge this assumption.[3]

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One of the most puzzling things about the popularity of the New Age movement is the way it has been gained without either the kind of uncompromising theology characteristic of fundamentalist churches, or the aggressive proselytizing typical of high control groups.

No one person has emerged as an authoritative spokesman for the movement, in no small measure because the movement has never evolved beyond a loose network of hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of like-minded souls.

At the heart of this amorphous entity is the concept of transformation, of creating change in both the individual and the environment of which he or she is part. The methods used to bring about such change are legion, and New Agers sometimes resemble eager customers at a buffet-style restaurant, free to choose whatever dishes, or combination of dishes, take their fancy. The price of admission to this New Age buffet is token acceptance of a number of key New Age concepts, perhaps the most important being the belief that reality is relative, conditional upon the consciousness of the individual. Hence the New Age slogan: "You create your own reality." Other key concepts are karma, reincarnation, religious syncretism, life-energy, and ecology.

The key to the solution of life's problems lies, according to New Agers, in the individual. It is up to the individual to overcome these problems by isolating causes and applying remedies. Guidance may be sought from books, teachers, or even spirit guides, but it is the individual who must ultimately transform himself. In transforming himself, the individual contributes to the transformation of society, helping to make the world a better place to live in.

The underlying cause of physical problems is seen, more often than not, to reside in imbalances or perturbations in the flow of subtle energies within the body. Health and well-being can be restored by fine-tuning of tantric chakra points.

Less tangible spiritual and emotional problems are considered the legacies of past lives, reincarnation being seen as a carefully controlled learning process in which the spirit evolves in consciousness and understanding.

This interpretation of reincarnation owes less to Eastern religion than to the teachings of H. P. Blavatsky, Alice Bailey, and Edgar Cayce, and betrays the real origins of the New Age movement in the Western metaphysical/occult tradition.

It also helps to explain the less than overwhelming popularity of the movement in Japan and other Asian countries, where traditional models of the afterlife have conflicted with New Age interpretations.

In the same way that televangelists such as Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart have come to represent the media face of fundamentalism, and groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, and L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology have come to typify high-control groups, the New Age movement, too, has produced its own media superstars. Actress Shirley MacLaine's semi-autobiographical scrapbooks of New Age wisdom have gained many new converts to the movement, and disembodied spirits such as Jane Roberts' 'Seth', J. Z. Knight's 'Ramtha' and Jack Pursel's 'Lazaris' — ever eager to share their transcendental wisdom with mankind — have become as famous as the channels through which they speak.

It is difficult to anticipate future trends in the religious and spiritual life of the West. Though preachers come and go — as do predicted dates for the Second Coming — the fundamentalist revival shows no signs of peaking. The Unification Church is reported to have abandoned some of the practices which brought it much unwelcome attention, but other HCGs have, by and large, ignored criticism and negative publicity, and continue to go their own separate ways. The New Age movement — barely twenty years old — seems, on the other hand, to be losing impetus. Having weathered the onslaughts of politicians, fundamentalist Christians, and concerned citizens, it has run aground upon its inability to provide its own equivalent of a meaningful religious, emotional, and intellectual conversion.


  1. For a fascinating introduction to the subject see: James Randi, The Faith Healers, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987)
  2. Robert J. Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'Brainwashing' in China, (University of North Carolina Press, 1961)
  3. Eileen Barker, The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing?, (London: Basil Blackwell, 1984)

Reprinted fromOtsuma Review No. 25, 1992