Apocalyptic Anxiety

Religion, Science, and America's Obsession with the End of the World

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Anthony Aveni
  • Boulder, CO: 
    University Press of Colorado
    , May
     268 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is perhaps surprising to find that much of the American population believes in some form of ultimate and eventual world-ending scenario. In Apocalyptic Anxiety: Religion, Science, and America’s Obsession with the End of the World, Anthony Aveni tells us this seems to be so, citing three polls taken over two decades with very similar results: approximately 60 percent of Americans believed the world was coming to an end, and soon (11). This prevalent preoccupation with end-times became a source of great curiosity for Aveni, who wanted to know why this was so and what history could tell us about it. The result is this entertaining, informative, and clearly written book in which Aveni presents the case for the continuous popularity of apocalyptic predictions found in America's religious and secular history.

Aveni focuses primarily on two case studies—the 19th century Millerites, and the more recent 2012 Mayan calendar ending—to illustrate what he refers to as "American pop culture's voracious appetite for apocalypse" (214). With these two examples in mind, the author builds a case for contributory influences to both historical and contemporary American apocalyptic movements. He is methodical in his approach and considers the historical frameworks for particular groups and individuals as he moves chronologically toward more contemporary events. Throughout the text, Aveni introduces and explains different types of apocalypticism: avertive (avoiding total destruction by practical religious means), and catastrophic (total destruction), as well as various forms of apocalyptic eschatology such as dispensationalism, millennialism, and postmillenialism.

The book is divided into four parts, which move chronologically from the early 1800s to 2012.

Part 1 introduces the Millerites, a large and influential apocalyptic movement in the 1800s headed by Pastor William Miller. Miller believed in the Bible as literally true and felt compelled to spread the word of the coming end of the world: a date which he had predicted, through his own special biblical computations, and which then came, and passed. Regardless, Miller tried several more times to unsuccessfully predict the end date, managing to maintain popularity and followers for decades. Aveni notes that hard times provide fertile ground for apocalyptic social movements, for the early and mid 1800s in America was characterized by political instability, natural disasters, and pervasive pessimism. The remainder of part 1 consists of a whirlwind tour of the roots of apocalyptic thinking in the West, which Aveni traces back to Zoroastrianism and the light/darkness battle between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman.

Part 2 provides more historical background on religion in early America and on a plethora of small religious movements that arrived and developed in America such as the Quakers, the Shakers, the German Rappites, the Oneida Community, and the Fourierists. Progressing to the end of the 19th century, Aveni outlines the beginning of the influential New Thought movement, and the mainstreaming of Christian millennialism.  Finally, Helena Blavatsky, the Theosophical movement, and Spiritualism are discussed. Special emphasis is placed on Blavatsky's writings, debates regarding science and religion, and the concept of the East as the seat of wisdom.

Part 3 deals with the development of the New Age and how Mayanism—a form of apocalypticism—developed. The 1970s attitude toward psychedelic drug use for self-revelation and religious experience is also discussed, as is individuals’ search for inner meaning. This section has a lengthy and fascinating discussion of aliens and extra-terrestrials relative to apocalyptic thinking. Aliens who wish to assist humans in the struggle of personal development, The Raelian movement, and the Heaven's Gate group are also covered. This section contains a chapter on Apocalypse in popular media, which is my one reservation about the book, since even though it contained many examples of film and literature with apocalyptic themes or depictions, it seemed underdeveloped. Part 3 revisits the monomyth, and examines cosmic determinism.  This section also covers Aveni's appraisal and criticism of Hamlet's Mill, and other popular works that Aveni considers influential in contributing to secular apocalyptic belief.

Finally, part 4 prepares for 2012 with a discussion of various figures whom Aveni considers significant to the making of the 2012 mythoi including writers Terrence and Dennis McKenna whose belief that ingesting psychedelic substances allowed one access to the revelation of lost ancient knowledge, and whose intricate methodologies allowed them to derive the 2012 date as a point of significant change for all of humanity. Also discussed in some detail are Jose Arguelles and the Harmonic Convergence, and Mircea Eliade’s notions of sacred time and sacred space. Aveni’s deep expertise in astronomy and Mayan culture is well employed in these final chapters, which describe the widespread and popularized belief that in 2012, concurrent with the end of the Mayan calendar, either a large world-ending event would occur, or humanity would undergo a massive spiritual transformation. According to some of the prophetic voices, benevolent and ethically advanced aliens might even facilitate this remarkable change. Tracing the predominantly twentieth century origins of this idea, and the theoretical variants it spawned, Aveni is able to observe and critique various theories and claims with facility.

Americans who religiously embrace apocalyptic eschatology are in anticipation of end-times with something more akin to excitement than anxiety. Meanwhile, it seems that secular American apocalyptic movements share that frame of mind but for slightly different reasons. Instead of anticipating a spiritual sort of salvation involving Jesus, God, and angels, secular eschatological scenarios involve greatly raised consciousness, metaphysical changes to a perceived higher level of existence, or even friendly aliens bestowing  knowledge and technology upon humankind. These scenarios also generate great excitement for the secular believer since, like their Christian counterparts, they look forward to a transformation from the mundane world to a much better, higher, and preferred state of being.

The wide range of material and theorists examined in Apocalyptic Anxiety includes the colorful and seemingly fantastic, and all material is evaluated with a reasoned and comparative approach. As Aveni notes in the preface "we must always be open to new ideas, ideas that can be examined up close and put to the test of evidence" (xiii). This openness and inclusion combined with rational responsibility make this a fascinating, readable, and engaging overview of the lively and varied landscape of American apocalyptic belief.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Della Campion is a Graduate Student in the Comparative Religion Program in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony Aveni is the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, Anthropology, and Native American Studies at Colgate University. He has researched and written about Maya astronomy for more than four decades. He was named a US National Professor of the Year and has been awarded the H. B. Nicholson Medal for Excellence in Research in Mesoamerican Studies by Harvard's Peabody Museum. 


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