The end is always nigh in the human mindWhy are we so attracted to prophecies of doom, from religious raptures to environmental collapse? It's part of our psychology
IN 1919, William Butler Yeats wrote The Second Coming
, an allegory of the atmosphere in Europe after the carnage of the first world war. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
The poem draws heavily on the mythic narrative of the apocalypse - or at least the first half of it, destruction. What usually follows is rebirth and redemption, a second chance, life born anew. The archetype is the Noahian flood myth, the world born again after being washed of its sins.
The latest incarnation of the destruction-redemption myth is brought to you by numerological number-cruncher and evangelical Christian radio host Harold Camping. Originally predicted to unfold on 21 May, the rapture has now been postponed until October after a no-show. It is easy to mock, but such apocalyptic scenarios are not the exclusive property of religion.
Secular end of days may be found in Karl Marx's end of capitalism and Francis Fukuyama's end of history, along with scientistic doomsdays brought about by global warming, ice ages, solar flares, rogue planets, black holes, cosmic collisions, supervolcanoes, overpopulation, pollution, nuclear winter, genetically engineered viruses, the grey goo of runaway nanotechnology - and let's not forget Y2K, the millennium bug. In 2004, UK Astronomer Royal Martin Rees put our chances of surviving the 21st century at 50 per cent. Stephen Hawking famously warned humanity that contact with aliens could result in our enslavement or extinction.
Like Camping's rapture, many of these prognostications have failed to unfold. Given that there can only be one apocalypse, most of the others will too.
Why, then, do we find the basic narrative so appealing? What is the underlying psychology behind apocalyptic prophecies, both religious and secular? The answer lies in the emotional and cognitive processes of our brains. Read the rest on New Scientist.