DSR course looks at the end of the world through an optimistic lens

July 12, 2021 by Department for the Study of Religion Staff

Laura Beth Bugg is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, in the Department for the Study of Religion. This year, she has taken on a new role as the inaugural First Year Liaison in the DSR, with a focus on enhancing the student experience within and across DSR first-year courses and building connections among DSR professors teaching first-year courses. Her primary research interests are at the intersection of religion, place and welfare governance, especially the experiences of new immigrant groups in the establishment of places of worship and religious schools, and the ways in which contestations around minority places of worship and schools are mediated and controlled by local governance processes.

The DSR talked to professor Bugg about her large first-year course RLG107H1 "It's the End of the World as We Know It" which she is teaching in the spring, 2022. (In the fall, she will also be teaching a smaller first-year foundations seminar, RLG308H1: Migration, Religion and City Spaces), and in the spring she’ll teach the DSR Community-Engaged Learning fourth-year seminar, RLG426H1: Religion in the Public Sphere.

DSR: Your course, “It's the end of the world as we know it”, sounds ominous. Can you summarize it?

LBB:  This course looks at apocalyptic texts and end-of-the-world movements by examining the communities that are associated with them. What's interesting, as I always tell students, is that this is actually a good news course, because even though these movements are persistent over time, they're always wrong. We're still here, so, that’s good news at the at the end of the day. What these different texts and groups tend to reveal are the anxieties and concerns of particular communities. For instance, if you look at a text like Revelation, it reveals the anxieties and concerns of a very particular community of early Christians who were living under the Roman Empire. We start with early Jewish apocalyptic and Christian texts, then I take students thematically through thinking about different aspects and characteristics of end-of-the-world movements, for example, a strong sense of dualism or use of symbols. 
Even though we think about these groups being very much about the future, what they often want to do is to transform the present world. We look at survivalists and militia movements like doomsday preppers and at fears around the breakdown of social order and we look at the zombie apocalypse. For the very last class I have my husband come in [Prof. Bryan Gaensler]. He's an astrophysicist, and after we've talked about how all these different groups have thought the world will end, I have him talk about the way that the world might actually end cosmologically, which is less immediately. 

DSR: In like, billions of years. 

LBB: That's right, billions of years.

DSR:  How is a zombie apocalypse religious? 

LBB: The zombies actually come out of 17th and 18th c. Haitian religious practices, so zombies are an interesting way to think about colonialism, slavery, and racism. And then later the zombie myth gets transformed, like in the early Bela Lugosi film “White Zombie”, to represent a fear, particularly among white Americans, of Black people invading. Even in zombie movies, like “Night of the Living Dead”, they are very much about fears around Blacks taking over, and about tensions that were happening in the 1960s. But it's all originally based in Haitian Vodou religious practice. 

DSR: Are there ways that these anxieties show up in ways that seem more relatable and closer to home? 

LBB: Well, yes. I mean COVID, right?  But even before COVID you look at a show like The Walking Dead, which is about zombies, but it's not about zombies, right? You think about anxieties around national borders, invasion from outsiders. Zombies are never about zombies, they're about fear of invasion from the outside, whether that is a fear of a virus or of refugees or whatever. What we're always talking about in the class is ‘what is that anxiety?’ That anxiety is about the here and now, it's not about the future. And then we realize that we are not that far off from what our ancestors were really concerned about.  

DSR: What does it tell you that our current fears are not far off of what our ancestors were worried about?

LBB: It tells me that we are always wrong about the end of the world. I think it's really important for students to understand this about human beings, because most of the students who take this course are in their first year, and they're anxious about everything. Everything seems monumental! Like if I if I don't know where to show up for my class, oh my gosh, maybe the rest of my life is over. If I pick the wrong major, maybe the rest of my life is over. If I sit next to the wrong person in class, maybe the next 20 years of my life is going to go differently. And then we discuss the Millerites in the 1800s, where there are people who are literally quitting their jobs, leaving their families, throwing down their plows and standing out in the field waiting for Jesus to come. But they're wrong. Jesus never shows up. So the next day they get up and they switch the sign to ‘open’ in their shop window, and they just go on, and this happens over and over and over again.  My takeaway is that you can't really predict anything, you just gotta go with it, and that's very comforting to me.