Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 07, 2008

It's all over?

One of the most puzzling proclivities of humans throughout history has been widespread belief in the imminent destruction of the world, or perhaps a better word is fundamental transformation. The belief is not in the end of existence, but in the extinction of familiar reality. The new universe is generally to be some sort of paradise or divine kingdom, although typically only the chosen people -- and that means us, whoever it is who shares this belief -- will be around to enjoy it. The rest will either be exterminated, or wallowing in hell.

The most widespread version of millenialism in the U.S. is of course the Christian fundamentalist version based on the biblical book called Revelation. Chip Berlet and Nikhil Aziz discuss this belief system and its relationship to U.S. Middle East policy here. It is downright horrifying that a powerful nation would be influenced in matters of war and peace by a delusional movement that places no value whatever on human life or even the continuation of civilization, on the premise that the known universe is about to end, but that is indeed the case. There is plenty of evidence that GW Bush believes in the imminence of the End Times and that his foreign policy is fundamentally shaped by that conviction.

Ian McEwan notes that according to opinion polls, 44% of Americans believe that "Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead within 50 years." To me, this belief is simply insane, indistinguishable in every way from the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic, with the sole distinction that it is shared by hundreds of millions. But as McEwan tells us, it has been an essential current in Christian belief from the beginning (frequently leading to campaigns to slaughter Jews, by the way) and there are comparable apocalyptic beliefs in Judaism and Islam.

Yet apocalyptic belief is not confined to conventional religion, or religion at all. Remember the survivalists stocking up on bottled water and canned rations, and heading for the hills because the Y2K computer bug was going to destroy civilization? And now, perhaps even more bizarrely, there is a substantial movement that believes the world will end in 2012 based on -- get this -- the Mayan calendar. People are doing a booming business in survival supplies based on this notion, and buying up land in remote locations and building bunkers. But the notion is not even accurate. Just because the Mayan calendar system expires in 2012 doesn't mean the Mayans thought the world would end then. But even if the Mayans did think that, I mean, WTF?

Clearly, there is something very attractive to humans about these kinds of belief. Maybe it's just that we're dissatisfied with the world as it is and yearn so powerfully for a different one that we come to believe in our fantasies. But these delusions are very dangerous and horribly destructive. We have got to make this world work, it's the only one we've got or ever will have. The apocalyptic cults which have seduced as many as half of all Americans may produce real horrors if they continue to drive our decisions about war and peace, environmental protection, and the social order, but their adherents are going to be very disappointed by what emerges on the other end. It won't include any rapture, I can guarantee that.

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