[Paleopsych] Economist: The end of the world: A brief history

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The end of the world: A brief history
Dec 16th 2004

    Why do end-of-time beliefs endure?

    A VERICHIP is a tiny, implantable microchip with a unique
    identification number that connects a patient to his medical records.
    When America's Food and Drug Administration recently approved it for
    medical use in humans, the news provoked familiar worries in the press
    about privacy-threatening technologies. But on the notice boards of
    [3]raptureready.com, the talk was about a drawback that the FDA and
    the media seemed to have overlooked. Was the VeriChip the "mark of the

    Raptureready.com runs an online service for the millions of born-again
    Christians in America who believe that an event called the Rapture is
    coming soon. During the Rapture, Christ will return and whisk
    believers away to join the righteous dead in heaven. From there, they
    will have the best seats in the house as the unsaved perish in a
    series of spectacular fires, wars, plagues and earthquakes.
    (Raptureready.com advises the soon-to-depart to stick a note on the
    fridge to brief those left behind--husbands, wives and in-laws--about
    the horrors in store for them.)

    Furnished with apocalyptic tracts from the Bible, believers scour news
    dispatches for clues that the Rapture is approaching. Some think
    implantable chips are a sign. The Book of Revelation features a "mark"
    that the Antichrist makes everybody wear "in their right hand, or in
    their foreheads". Rapturists have more than a hobbyist's idle interest
    in identifying this mark. Anyone who accepts it spends eternity
    roasting in the sulphurs of hell. (And, incidentally, the European
    Union may be "the matrix out of which the Antichrist's kingdom could

    Christians have kept faith with the idea that the world is just about
    to end since the beginnings of their religion. Jesus Himself hinted
    more than once that His second coming would happen during the lifetime
    of His followers. In its original form, the Lord's Prayer, taught by
    Jesus to his disciples, may have implored God to "keep us from the

    Men have been making the same appeal ever since. In 156AD, a fellow
    called Montanus, pronouncing himself to be the incarnation of the Holy
    Spirit, declared that the New Jerusalem was about to come crashing
    down from the heavens and land in Phrygia--which, conveniently, was
    where he lived. Before long, Asia Minor, Rome, Africa and Gaul were
    jammed with wandering ecstatics, bitterly repenting their sins and
    fasting and whipping themselves in hungry anticipation of the world's
    end. A bit more than a thousand years later, the authorities in
    Germany were stamping out an outbreak of apocalyptic mayhem among a
    self-abusing sect called the secret flagellants of Thuringia. The
    disciples of William Miller, a 19th-century evangelical American,
    clung ecstatically to the same belief as the Montanists and the
    Thuringians. A thick strand of Christian history connects them all,
    and countless other movements.

    Don't get left behind

    Apocalyptic belief renews itself in ingenious ways. Belief in the
    Rapture, which enlivens the familiar end-of-time narrative with a
    compellingly dramatic twist, appears to be a modern phenomenon: John
    Nelson Darby, a 19th-century British evangelical preacher, was perhaps
    the first to popularise the idea. (Darby's inspiration was a passage
    in St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, which talks about the
    Christian dead and true believers being "caught up together" in the
    clouds.) It is not easy to say how many Americans believe in Darby's
    concept of Rapture. But a dozen novels that dramatise the event and
    its gripping aftermath--the "Left Behind" series--have sold more than
    40m copies.

    New apocalyptic creeds have even sprung from those sticky moments when
    the world has failed to end on schedule. (Social scientists call this
    "disconfirmation".) When the resurrected Christ failed to show up for
    Miller's disciples on the night of October 22nd 1844, press scribblers
    mocked the "Great Disappointment" mercilessly. But even as they
    jeered, a farmer called Hiram Edson snuck away from the vigil to pray
    in a barn, where he duly received word of what had happened. There had
    been a great event after all--but in heaven, not on Earth. This
    happening was that Jesus had begun an "investigative judgment of the
    dead" in preparation for his return. Thus was born the Church of
    Seventh-day Adventists. They were not the only ones to rise above
    apparent setbacks to the prophesies by which they set such store: the
    Jehovah's Witnesses of the persistently apocalyptic Watchtower sect
    survived no fewer than nine disconfirmations every few years between
    1874 and 1975.

    Which way to Armageddon?

    Why do end-of-time beliefs endure? Social scientists love to set about
    this question with earnest study of the people who subscribe to such
    ideas. As part of his investigation into the "apocalyptic genre" in
    modern America, Paul Boyer of the University of Wisconsin asks why so
    many of his fellow Americans are "susceptible" to televangelists and
    other "popularisers". From time to time, sophisticated Americans
    indulge the thrillingly terrifying thought that nutty, apocalyptic,
    born-again Texans are guiding not just conservative social policies at
    home, but America's agenda in the Middle East as well, as they round
    up reluctant compatriots for the last battle at Armageddon. (It's a
    bit south of the Lake of Galilee in the plain of Jezreel.)

    Behind these attitudes sits the assumption that apocalyptic thought
    belongs--or had better belong--to the extremities of human experience.
    On closer inspection, though, that is by no means true.

    Properly, the apocalypse is both an end and a new beginning. In
    Christian tradition, the world is created perfect. There is then a
    fall, followed by a long, rather enjoyable (for some) period of moral
    degeneration. This culminates in a decisive final battle between good
    (the returned Christ) and evil (the Antichrist). Good wins and
    establishes the New Jerusalem and with it the 1,000-year reign of King
    Jesus on Earth.

    This is the glorious millennium that millenarians await so eagerly.
    Millenarians tend to place history at a moment just before the
    decisive final showdown. The apocalyptic mind looks through the
    surface reality of the world and sees history's epic, true nature:
    "apocalypse" comes from the Greek word meaning to uncover, or

    Norman Cohn, a British historian, places the origin of apocalyptic
    thought with Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), a Persian prophet who
    probably lived between 1500 and 1200BC. The Vedic Indians, ancient
    Egyptians and some earlier civilisations had seen history as a cycle,
    which was for ever returning to its beginning. Zoroaster embellished
    this tepid plot. He added goodies (Ahura Mazda, the maker and guardian
    of the ordered world), baddies (the spirit of destruction, Angra
    Mainyu) and a happy ending (a glorious consummation of order over
    disorder, known as the "making wonderful", in which "all things would
    be made perfect, once and for all"). In due course Zoroaster's
    theatrical talents came to Christians via the Jews.

    This basic drama shapes all apocalyptic thought, from the tenets of
    tribal cargo cults to the beliefs of UFO sects. In 1973, Claude
    Vorilhon, a correspondent for a French racing-car magazine, claimed to
    have been whisked away in a flying saucer, in which he had spent six
    days with a green chap who spoke fluent French. The alien told Mr
    Vorilhon that the Frenchman's real name was Rael, that humans had
    misread the Bible and that, properly translated, the Hebrew word
    Elohim (singular: Eloha) did not mean God, as Jews had long supposed,
    but "those who came from the sky".

    The alien then revealed that his species had created everything on
    Earth in a space laboratory, and that the aliens wanted to return to
    give humans their advanced technology, which would transform the world
    utterly. First, however, Rael needed financial contributions to build
    the aliens an embassy in Jerusalem, because otherwise they would not
    feel welcome (a bit lame, this explanation). Although the Israeli
    government has not yet given its consent, the Raelians--those
    persuaded by Rael's account--continue to welcome donations in
    anticipation of a change of heart.

    The Raelians' claim to be atheists who belong to the secular world
    must come as no surprise to Mr Cohn, who has long detected patterns of
    religious apocalyptic thought in what is supposedly rational, secular
    belief. He has traced "egalitarian and communistic fantasies" to the
    ancient-world idea of an ideal state of nature, in which all men are
    genuinely equal and none is persecuted. As Mr Cohn has put it, "The
    old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends
    to obscure what otherwise would be obvious. For it is the simple truth
    that, stripped of their original supernatural sanction, revolutionary
    millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still."

    Nicholas Campion, a British historian and astrologer, has expanded on
    Mr Cohn's ideas. In his book, "The Great Year", Mr Campion draws
    parallels between the "scientific" historical materialism of Marx and
    the religious apocalyptic experience. Thus primitive communism is the
    Garden of Eden, the emergence of private property and the class system
    is the fall, the final gasps of capitalism are the last days, the
    proletariat are the chosen people and the socialist revolution is the
    second coming and the New Jerusalem.

    Hegel saw history as an evolution of ideas that would culminate in the
    ideal liberal-democratic state. Since liberal democracy satisfies the
    basic need for recognition that animates political struggle, thought
    Hegel, its advent heralds a sort of end of history--another
    suspiciously apocalyptic claim. More recently, Francis Fukuyama has
    echoed Hegel's theme. Mr Fukuyama began his book, "The End of
    History", with a claim that the world had arrived at "the gates of the
    Promised Land of liberal democracy". Mr Fukuyama's pulpit oratory
    suited the spirit of the 1990s, with its transformative "new economy"
    and free-world triumphs. In the disorientating disconfirmation of
    September 11th and the coincident stockmarket collapse, however, his
    religion has lost favour.

    The apocalyptic narrative may have helped to start the motor of
    capitalism. A drama in which the end returns interminably to the
    beginning leaves little room for the sense of progress which,
    according to the 19th-century social theories of Max Weber, provides
    the religious licence for material self-improvement. Without the last
    days, in other words, the world might never have had 65-inch
    flat-screen televisions. For that matter, the whole American project
    has more than a touch of the apocalypse about it. The Pilgrim Fathers
    thought they had reached the New Israel. The "manifest destiny" of
    America to spread its providential liberty and self-government
    throughout the North American continent (not to mention the Middle
    East) smacks of the millennium and the New Jerusalem.

    Science treasures its own apocalypses. The modern environmental
    movement appears to have borrowed only half of the apocalyptic
    narrative. There is a Garden of Eden (unspoilt nature), a fall
    (economic development), the usual moral degeneracy (it's all man's
    fault) and the pressing sense that the world is enjoying its final
    days (time is running out: please donate now!). So far, however, the
    green lobby does not appear to have realised it is missing the
    standard happy ending. Perhaps, until it does, environmentalism is
    destined to remain in the political margins. Everyone needs

    Watch this spacesuit

    Noting an exponential acceleration in the pace of technological
    change, futurologists like Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil think the
    world inhabits the "knee of the curve"--a sort of last-days set of
    circumstances in which, in the near future, the pace of technological
    change runs quickly away towards an infinite "singularity" as
    intelligent machines learn to build themselves. From this point,
    thinks Mr Moravec, transformative "mind fire" will spread in a flash
    across the cosmos. Britain's astronomer royal, Sir Martin Rees,
    relegates Mr Kurzweil and those like him to the "visionary fringe".
    But Mr Rees's own darkly apocalyptic book, "Our Final Hour", outdoes
    the most colourful of America's televangelists in earthquakes, plagues
    and other sorts of fire and brimstone.

    So there you have it. The apocalypse is the locomotive of capitalism,
    the inspiration for revolutionary socialism, the bedrock of America's
    manifest destiny and the undeclared religion of all those
    pseudo-rationalists who, like The Economist, champion the progress of
    liberal democracy. Perhaps, deep down, there is something inside
    everyone which yearns for the New Jerusalem, a place where, as a
    beautiful bit of Revelation puts it:

      God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be
      no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be
      any more pain; for the former things are passed away.

    Yes, perhaps. But, to be sure, not everyone agrees that salvation,
    when it comes, will appear clothed in a shiny silver spacesuit.

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