After the Apocalypse

So May 21 has come and gone, and yet another prediction of the end of the world has turned out to be spectacularly false. Truth be told, I’m a little disappointed; with all the fervent Christian believers having been, er, spirited away, it might have been a chance for progressive secular humanists to take charge of education, government, and society at large:

(In the United States, at least. I doubt that the Christian Rapture would have had much effect on the predominantly Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist parts of the world.)

Adam Frank takes this opportunity to contrast the folly of religious prophecies and the predictive power of science:

The ability to successfully predict the behavior of the natural world is one reason we accord science such high status. From predicting the date of eclipses to anticipating the trajectory of a disease, science does what no other field of human activity has managed — it gives us a window into time. It allows us to see though time and through the duration we must endure to gain some measured certainty on the succession of future events.

Harold Camping thought he had access to the same capacities. The 89-year-old retired civil engineer who built a multi-million-dollar Christian media empire to publicize his apocalyptic predictions was wrong. The spectacular failure of his predictions highlights what is right with science and what is wrong with using religion as a gateway to understanding the natural world.

The most insightful commentary I’ve read so far comes (via The Dish) from Lorenzo DiTommaso, who points out that apocalyptic thinking is not restricted to religious believers:

But a person does not have to be a hard-core believer to sense that things like the environment, the economy, and the political system are appallingly broken. From there, it is only a short step to the view that the entire system is verging on a catastrophic collapse or must be completely swept away, or that any solution to these problems requires something outside normal human agency, such as an idealized or divinized form of humanity, a mysterious, hidden-hand “force” or “law” (such as the “forces” of history or the market), or a human figure of whom extraordinary deeds are expected. This is the “Daddy” complex: a belief in or need for something or someone greater than ourselves, who will solve our problems for us.

[…] Apocalypses are not conspiracy literature, but the belief that a hidden reality governs everyday existence can accommodate a wide spectrum of emotions, including paranoia and xenophobia, particularly when personal or group identity is felt to be under threat. Hence, apocalyptic vocabulary and grammar are readily annexed by ultra-nationalist sentiments of all stripes, as well as any other conception of society that seeks to outline sharp distinctions between “us and them.”

[…] the expectation for the end of the world serves several functions, including a desire for justice, which is usually expressed as the vindication of the good and the punishment of the wicked. Such claims again involve human emotions that transcend the strictly religious applications of the worldview. […] apocalypticism serves equally well in focusing the all-too-human desire for revenge and retribution against someone’s enemies, oppressors, and tormentors. The great danger here is that end-time expectations can be used to create and sustain a present-day social climate that legitimates policies such as the dehumanization of enemies and the exclusion of others.

When looked at this way, it becomes pretty clear that “secular apocalypticism” dominates much of the cultural conversation. We laugh at religious doomsday prophets. But read any mainstream analysis of politics, the economy, education, pop culture, or the state of the world in general, and chances are the underlying message is all doom and gloom; if we haven’t hit bottom yet, we’re irreversibly on our way.

This is emphatically not the case. There’s a compelling argument for rational optimism — one that reminds us of the not-inconsiderable power of human agency, adaptability, and ingenuity. The more we take charge of our own fate, and the less we surrender it to the caprices of nebulous external forces (imagined or otherwise), the better our chances of making sure that the Apocalypse never arrives.

(Video via Sam Harris)

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