Almost 60 years ago, social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter famously studied a cult, influenced by the writing of L. Ron Hubbard, that believed Earth was poised to undergo massive, imminent physical devastation. According to the group’s leader, aliens concerned with the spiritual health of humankind would swoop down to spare true believers during the rapture, transport them to the planet Clarion for some cleansing, and then deposit the humans back onto their homeland to live a life free of sin. They subsequently prosthelytized like their neighbor's lives were on the line.
The motivation for Festinger’s research was to figure out why people stayed committed to the cult’s teachings after its major prognostication failed to come true. (The short answer was that each member was too pot committed individually -- having in many cases left jobs, moved, and been ostracized by family members -- to throw in the towel.) But during the course of their interviews, the psychologists also determined that most adherents joined the group because they were sad, troubled people who had gained little relief from more traditional coping mechanisms. Kenneth I. Pargament summarized some of their findings in his 1997 book on the psychology of religion:
One woman, Daisy, had been troubled by terrifying nightmares and fantasies of loves ones stabbed, cut, and dismembered. Attempts to eliminate her obsessions through support from her husband, changes in her daily activities, a vacation, will power, and prayer had failed. Another woman, Bertha, had struggled with infertility in her marriage of 20 years. She had become disillusioned with the Roman Catholic church, and had drifted from job to job until she became a beautician. For both of these women as well as their fellow group members, involvement in the beliefs and practices of the cult provided a way to achieve significance of various kinds: a sense of hope in the future, feelings of worth and importance, a sense of meaning in life, or feelings of spiritual connectedness.
In its disturbing recap of the movement this morning, the New York Times’ quotes an Oregon State professor who comments, accurately, that Americans are “looking for some authoritative answers in an era of great social, political, economic, as well as natural, upheaval.” Just this week, Harris Interactive produced a poll that showed, once again, Americans are rapidly losing faith in their dominant institutions. It’s pretty nuts to assume Doomsday is upon us. But when everything else seems like it’s going to shit, can we really blame the religiously eccentric for thinking the planet is next?