It’s the end of the world as we know it (Winter 2023)

University of Toronto
Department for the Study of Religion
“It’s the End of the World as We Know It”
Winter 2023, Online-Synchronous

Throughout the course of human history, many social and religious movements have envisioned the end of the world as we know it. This course explores how apocalyptic images are used in religious and secular ways to prepare for and expect an end time, while covering topics ranging from ecology to conspiracy theories. By examining the influence that apocalyptic ideas can have in various utopian and dystopian forms, this course gives resources for understanding how claims of “the end” reflect the aspirations, anxieties, and concerns of religious and secular communities.

Course Outline

Week 1. Introduction

Lecture: Wednesday January 11, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Including: Introduction to the Instructor and Teaching Assistants. Syllabus Review and Q&A. Brief Lecture. Close reading of the assigned text. Remarks on the scholarly study of religion.

Key Questions: Do we live in a time of crisis? What does it mean to think about the end of the world as we know it? How do religious ideas influence how we think about the end of time and the ends toward which humans strive?

Introductory Reading: Elisabeth Dias, “The Apocalypse as an ‘Unveiling’: What Religion Teaches Us About the End Times” New York Times. April 2 2020.

Week 2. What is an Apocalypse?

Lecture: Wednesday January 18, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Key Questions: What is an apocalypse? What are scholarly and popular definitions of the term? How is the term used for persuasive purposes? What is periodization, and how does apocalyptic thinking divide and value periods of time and history?What is time? What is history? How do our ideas about time and history receive both secular and religious ideas about progress and the end of time?

Reading: Jacques Le Goff, Must We Divide History into Periods? (Columbia University Press, 2015), 1-20. PDF.

Week 3. Dystopias and Utopias, Religious and Secular

Lecture: Wednesday January 25, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Questions: What is the key difference between utopian and dystopian narratives? How do utopian and dystopian themes animate our vision of the end of the world? How do secular utopias/dystopias and religious utopias/dystopias differ? How are they similar?

Reading: Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Blackwell, 1986), 3-18. PDF.

Week 4. Apocalypticism and Millenarianism

Lecture: Wednesday February 1, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Questions: What do apocalypses reveal and conceal? How do historical and contemporary groups – both religious and secular – use the concept of the ‘millennium’ to make meaning in the world and conceive of its end? How does apocalyptic thinking create tension in time and urgencies in action?

Reading: Frank Kermode, “Millennium and Apocalypse” in The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come (University of Toronto Press, 1999), 11-27. PDF.

Week 5. Messianic Time and the Ideas of Progress and Decline

Lecture: Wednesday February 8, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Question: How is the idea that time is coming to an end used for persuasive purposes? How are Jewish and Christian ideas about a coming messiah taken up and used for persuasive purposes (for example, in the manipulation of tensions between origins and ends, or in populist proclamations of salvation)? How is the idea of decline used to persuade and legitimize knowledge?

Reading: Andrew Potter, On Decline (Biblioasis, 2021), 9-23. PDF.

Week 6. Religion and Fanaticism

Lecture: Wednesday February 15, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Question: What does the history of fanaticism and extremism tell us about apocalypse and religion? How does the term ‘fanatic’ and its uses help us to see how religion is both relegated to the past and reborn in the present through images of the end? What is the ‘myth of religious violence’ and what does it tell us about the category of religion itself?

Reading: Alberto Toscano, Preface to the Korean edition of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (Verso, 2013). and Karen Armstrong, “The Myth of Religious Violence” The Guardian. September 24, 2014.

Week 7. Conspiracy Theories and Apocalyptic Thinking, Part 1.

Lecture: Wednesday March 1, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Question: How are apocalyptic conspiracy theories connected to the history of religion? How do conspiracy theories use and abuse the past?

Reading: Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (University of California Press, 2013), 1-14. PDF.

Week 8. Conspiracy Theories and Apocalyptic Thinking, Part 2.

Lecture: Wednesday March 8, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Questions: How are conspiracy theories and spiritualities combined in ‘conspirituality’? What apocalyptic, messianic, dystopian, and utopian images are used as persuasive tactics by conspiracy theorists?

Reading: Charlotte Ward and David Voas, “The Emergence of Conspirituality” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26.1 (2011): 103-121. PDF.

Week 9. Environmental Apocalypse, Part 1

Lecture: Wednesday March 15, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Questions: How do environmental movements feature apocalyptic images? What role do apocalyptic images play in environmental movements and how do they motivate and paralyze meaningful political action?

Readings: Martha F. Lee, Earth First! Environmental Apocalypse (Syracuse University Press, 1995), 1-24. Preview for If a Tree Falls:

Week 10. Environmental Apocalypse, Part 2

Lecture: Wednesday March 22, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Questions: How do environmental movements entangle with the history of religious ideas about apocalypse and salvation? How do decolonial approaches and ecological approaches entangle?

Reading: Malcom Ferdinand, Decolonial Ecology (Polity, 2022), 1-22. And Afterword to This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook (Penguin, 2019), 181-184.

Week 11. Essay Writing Workshop: How to write an apocalyptic research essay

Lecture: Wednesday March 29, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Readings: How do essay writing and apocalyptic images of revelation use similar persuasive techniques of hiding and revealing? How can we responsibly narrate scholarly and popular narratives given the connection between persuasion and apocalypse?

Readings: Highlights from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Norton, 2021). PDF

Week 12. Conclusion: The ‘end’ of the course…

Lecture: Wednesday April 5, 1:00-3:00 PM EST

Questions: What does it mean to divide time and history into periods using the terms past/present/future or categories of ancient/medieval/modern? How do the complex lives and afterlives of religious and secular apocalypse appear in public and academic debates about the periodization of time and history?