The end is always nigh in the human mind, by Michael Shermer

The end is always nigh in the human mind

Why 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.

Tags: Michael Shermer, apocalypse, armageddon, cognition, doomsday, prophecy

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I was thinking about this after the last false rapture, as were a lot of people I'm sure, and it occured to me that people are so obsessed with "The End" because they actually want it to happen. Not all of them. I'm sure there are myriad reasons, but I have to admit that even without any kind of faith, I found myself trying to hope just a little that something, anything different than the dreary ennui of existence might happen. And if it is not a release they are looking for, it is some kind of change. I think people are mostly bored with the way this life unfolds. Some certainly have more exciting lives, by chance, but most of us probably get fed up with it fairly early, and only press on because of our body's evolutionary imparative to survive, which in itself comes to feel like a type of slavery. Always what keeps us going for another day; always another bite to eat, another breath, another night's sleep, and another day to do it all over again. Bleh! Give me some doom alerady!

I think a lot of theists want it to happen because 1.) the falsly believe in a better world to come, and 2.) they want to see nonbelievers punished with eternal damnation. They get their rocks off on such thoughts.


In general though, when we value things, be it material objects or just "the good life," we also have a fear of loss that comes with it. So if we value existence, we understand its annihilation is possible, and this creates anxiety.


Yes, ennui can have something to do with that as well. I've often felt that way, especially with the mundane aspects of existence -- chores, problems, etc, and also because of the state of human nature -- the stupidity, the hatred, etc.


Your last line reminds me of the spoken word piece/song by Lydia Lunch: So I'm beggin' on the Holy Ghost, just beggin: Drop the fuckin' bomb already! I mean, what are ya waitin' for?




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