Saturday, November 7, 2009

The end of the world

Some of the readers of this blog may find a welcome respite from the rather tawdry spectacle of local political war and general social collapse, in the news that the world is coming to an end on December 21, 2012. Not only is this a peculiarly specific date, but I have even seen one page time it with even more peculiar specificity to 11:11 GMT. It happens to be my 76th birthday, and I can’t think of a better birthday celebration than the end of the world—if I live that long. This peculiarly specific date has been derived from a Mayan calendar called the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, the first appearance of which dates back to 36 BCE. There are various scenarios for the end of the world, including a collision with some rogue planet called Nibiru (predicted by someone in psychic contact with extra-terrestrials), or an alignment between the Sun and the black hole at the center of the galaxy. Naturally there are the inevitable party-poopers who point out that the Mayan calendar actually doesn’t say anything about the end of the world on that date, but simply the end of one cyclical period and the beginning of another, and that if Nibiru were close enough to Earth to collide on that date, it would already be visible to the naked eye. But of course, true believers are never bothered by facts, as you can tell from two minutes’ conversation with any advocate of Intelligent Design.

I’ve long been fascinated by apocalyptic predictions. And by “apocalyptic,” I do not include predictions of such relatively minor events as the end of civilization as we know it. I’m rather of the opinion that the end of civilization as we know it would be a welcome relief, since civilization as we know it sucks. (Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea.”) Even severe eco-catastrophe probably wouldn’t count as the end of the world, if it did nothing more than rid the planet of that pestilent killer ape species and maybe half the other species on earth. After all, the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65 million years ago simply got rid of dinosaurs (and an estimated 17% of all families) and paved the way for domesticated primates, and the present extinction event will get rid of them (all right, us) and clear the way for something else, maybe a civilization of dolphins. (Read Olaf Stapledon’s Last and first men [1930], one of the most profound science-fiction works ever written, of which Wikipedia says: “it describes the history of humanity from the present onwards across two billion years and eighteen distinct human species, of which our own is the first and most primitive.” This species, 100,000 years hence, reduces their population to 35 people by a global catastrophe that sounds eerily like a nuclear holocaust, written 15 years before such a thing was imaginable, and these 35 survivors are the progenitors of the Second Men. As visionary as Stapledon was, the idea of eco-catastrophe within a century could not have occurred to him at that time.)

No, the kind of apocalyptic predictions I’m thinking of are those that are characteristic of the various pseudo-Christian millennialist cults, and it is hardly surprising that such ideology is found in the present 2012 movement, although the secular and New Age elements in it may be stronger. Perhaps the basis of the movement in a pagan calendar helps explain the relative weakness of Christian apocalypticism in it. Christians are obviously not the only ones obsessed with the end of the world, but they have formulated what are probably the most elaborate and bizarre theories about it. Most of these doctrines are based on the Revelation of St John, to which have been attributed hundreds of ridiculously asinine ideas which never crossed John’s mind. In fact, the Book of Revelation is often called the Apocalypse of St John. The Book of Daniel also makes its contributions to eschatology because Daniel’s weird dreams were supposed to predict the end of the world.

Of course 2012 is certainly not, by a long stretch, the first apocalyptic prediction in history; depending on how they’re defined, there have been dozens of others. Rather surprisingly, the year 2000 caused more concern about computers crashing than it did about apocalyptic millennialism, even though the date was by definition millennial (in the Christian calendar, at least). Perhaps one of the more famous examples is the event in the history of the Millerite movement (predecessor of the Seventh-Day Adventists) called the Great Disappointment, when William Miller, the founder of the movement, predicted that Jesus would return to earth on 22 October 1844, and convinced thousands of followers to sell all their possessions and wait to be taken up to Heaven. The theological somersaults that the leaders of the movement went through to try to explain why this didn’t happen are good for laughs. And there are other cults and denominations that believe in apocalypses and Second Comings without trying to date them precisely. Jehovah’s Witlesses (as I like to call them) evidently expect to see the Second Coming within the lifetime of any individual believer, even though generations of adherents have been disappointed.

Christian apocalyptic millennialism focuses on such ideas as Armageddon and Anti-Christs and the Second Coming, but it also serves, perhaps primarily for many people, as a quasi-religious explanation for all the shit happening in the world, which is all seen as leading up to the End Times. In general, a movement predicting a certain date for an apocalypse is simply a crystallization of the firm conviction of the social misfits of every generation that the world is so fucked up that it simply can’t, or shouldn’t, go on much longer; and, assuming that it can’t be made any better, the only solution is to wipe things clean and start over. At least there’s something to be said for expecting this to be brought about by more or less natural means or historical events, rather than trying to precipitate it yourself by armed warfare and revolution. But the fact that all past predictions of future dates have been proved wrong by the simple fact that we’re still here and still fucking up, does not stop idiots and fanatics from continuing to predict more future dates. So, stock up your survival supplies for December 2012. Don’t ask me how you’re supposed to survive the end of the world; ask the survivalists. And ask them why they want to. Christian millennialists, of course, don’t expect or want to survive here on Earth because they expect to be taken up to Heaven. Let’s not get into the Rapture, beyond noting the bumper-sticker popular a few years ago which said, “In case of Rapture, this vehicle will be unattended.” There are times when I’m so humiliated by the appalling stupidity—not to mention the sheer evil—of some people who call themselves Christians that I’m tempted to become a pagan.

It’s gonna be an exciting, fun-filled three years.


ToLo said...

The truly sad thing about the millenialist, rapturist Christians is that they see their impending final departure as license to do any god damn thing they please, from deforestation to wars for oil, to murdering doctors. It's their ''get out of hell FREE'' card, and they use to their own profit all the time.

Worse, even less scrupulous sorts use their beliefs to advance far greedier agendas.

Doogman said...

I personally believe they're working in concert to break the American dream. Civil war would serve their ends, especially since they have the confluence of money with armed crazy berzerkers. The less-crazy of them use these possessed loons to do their dirty work and look away coyly. Our mission in this next election season will be to call these thugs out and punish their minions to the full extend of the law at every chance.