Former and soon-to-be-again presidential candidate Mike Huckabee believes the End Times are near. Sadly, he is not alone, which is why a candidate for the highest office in the land can be taken seriously after voicing such beliefs. As Huffington Post blogger Clay Farris Naff noted recently, predictions of the Apocalypse are nearly mainstream: Preacher Tim LaHaye has made a fortune with his bestselling Left Behind novels describing bad days ahead for non-believers, riding a trend that, with amazing irony, goes back centuries. The promise of a place in heaven following individual martyrdom or a global apocalyptic event is now and has long been a powerful lure.
In fact, predictions of the Apocalypse or its personal equivalent of a direct path to heaven have been a common theme throughout human history. These views are not benign, because believers often try to precipitate the event, often with tragic results. A few are chronicled in The Ghost Dance by Weston La Barre, a professor of anthropology at Duke University famous for his bestselling studies in the 1950s of god and culture seen through the lens of psychoanalysis.
One poignant example excised from La Barre's book tells a sad story all too familiar in the saga of religion. In South Africa, in 1856, a young Xosa girl went to fetch water at a local stream. There, she claimed to meet strangers from the spirit world. Excited, she returned with her uncle, Umhlakaza, who spoke with the same spirit world reps. From this encounter, Uncle Umhlakaza came back with an important message. At the time of this ghostly meeting, the Xosa tribe was battling the English. The spirits told Umhlakaza that to succeed in driving out the foreigners, his tribesman must kill every animal in their herds, and destroy every kernel of corn so carefully stored in their granaries. The spirits promised him that if his tribesman followed these instructions, heaven on earth would be theirs. Dead loved ones would return, fat cattle would rise from the earth, corn would sprout in abundance, sickness and troubles would be banished and the old would become young and beautiful again. With such great promise, backed by the authority of the spirit world, Umhlakaza's orders were carried out, resulting in the slaughter of two thousand cattle and destruction of all grains. Instead of earthly paradise, the Xosa experienced a famine so deadly that the tribe nearly ceased to exist.
The Xosa are not unique. Tragedies resulting from such beliefs have wide geographic and temporal distribution, having visited the Maori in New Zealand, the Altai Turk of mid-Siberia, the Tuka in Fiji, the village of Gabagabuna in New Guinea, and the Kekesi of Papua New Guinea.
Nor are these sad and pathetic tales restricted to far-away or long-ago places. Today, we have Islamic suicide bombers lining up to be next in the fight against morally corrupt infidels in hopes of a free ride to heaven. While the Koran explicitly forbids suicide, several passages also state that a martyr can expect an afterlife in paradise. That creates a loophole wide enough to accommodate a bomb-laden truck, as amply demonstrated by the twisted carcasses, burnt cars and collapsed buildings now such a common sight in the Middle East. If a trip to paradise is not sufficiently attractive to convince a potential martyr to strap on some TNT, further incentive to make the ultimate sacrifice is provided by a number of virgins as promised in the Hadith, often cited as 72 but really of uncertain quantity. The prize awaiting a female-variety bomber is less clear, but a stable of male virgins would not likely hold the same appeal.
In 1978, the Reverend Jim Jones, charismatic leader of the People's Temple, convinced 913 of his followers in Guyana to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch, forever altering public perception of Kool-Aid. Jones claimed, and his followers believed, that he was the divine reincarnation of Jesus and Buddha. Citizens of Jonestown followed their divine leader's command to suffer a "revolutionary death."
In 1990, a Houston teenager by the name of Vernon Wayne Howell moved to the sleepy windswept town of Waco after dropping out of high school. There he changed his name to David Koresh, explaining blandly that he was the reincarnation of both King David and King Cyrus of Persia. David did not stop there, further claiming he was in fact the Messiah, appointed by god to rebuild the Temple and destroy Babylon. At least 131 of Howell's Branch Davidians were convinced enough to ensconce themselves in his compound, yielding to him their daughters as young as 12 to be impregnated by the Messiah. That episode ended badly, as we all know.
In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult took their own lives, dying in shifts over a few days in late March. Some members helped others take a deadly mix of Phenobarbital and vodka before consuming their own poisonous cocktail. Why did these people die? Members of the cult believed the prophecy of Marshall Applewhite, who claimed that the comet Hale-Bopp was the long-awaited sign to shed their earthly bodies, which they called "containers." By leaving their containers behind, followers would be able to join a spacecraft traveling and hiding behind the comet, which would take them to a higher plane of existence.
In Uganda, in March 2000, somewhere between 200 and 500 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments committed suicide by setting fire to their church. The congregation apparently forgot about the commandment concerning "thou shall not kill." These people died because the sect anticipated the end of the world, expecting a visit by the Virgin Mary on the Friday they self-immolated. She never showed up. The prophet in this case was Credonia Mwerinde, a former lady of the evening.
In 1966, the Jehovah's Witnesses predicted in Life Everlasting in the Freedom of the Sons of God, a book by the society's vice president Frederick Franz, that the world "six thousand years from man's creation will end in 1975..." That prognostication must have caused some chagrin in 1976 when Armageddon was again delayed, particularly because leadership had encouraged members to sell their homes and property in 1974. The failed prophecy of 1975 continued a long tradition started by Charles T. Russell, who founded the Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1879, he claimed that 1914 was the big year in which the world would be destroyed. When the year ended quietly, Russell changed the date to 1915. He died in 1916, when Joseph Franklin Rutherford took control of the organization. Upon taking the reins, Rutherford prophesized that in 1918 god would destroy churches and their members, and that by 1920 every "kingdom would be swallowed up in anarchy." As December 31 rolled around, he reset the date to 1925. We are still here, last I looked.
The consistent failure of such end-of-day predictions never seems to diminish their appeal. I suspect that same inability to process feedback from reality is why people still play the Lotto. Each generation has the hubris to believe that they, among all the humans ever born, are special such that god will decide to smite the earth during their brief stay on our small blue dot. Here we clearly witness first-hand and up close the "hopes and fears" that philosopher David Hume cited as the driving forces of religion.
If you think Miller, Smith and Applewhite were unbalanced, how about the ridiculous apocalyptical predictions of doom in 1999 in the approach of the 21st century, when computer glitches were supposed to throw mankind into chaos? Did you harbor such fears, but with some embarrassment quickly shelve and soon forget them when nothing happened? And now we suffer the same silly predictions of chaos in 2012. We seem determined to keep ourselves in a constant state of preparation for the end of time, ever hopeful we'll be here to witness the destruction. How very odd. When 2012 passes with nothing but time, we'll soon forget the predictions and move on to the next fad of gloom and destruction.
One could easily dismiss the examples given here of reincarnation or mass suicides in anticipation of the Apocalypse as the result of delusional ravings by a few nutbags. That would be a dangerous mistake. Prophets of doom and redemption, whom we find consistently across cultures and time, tell an important story.
The flocks of those many prophets predicting the Apocalypse had true faith, so strong that they were willing to die for their religion. The evidence on which they based their faith was no more or less legitimate than the myths on which any religion is based. The people of Jonestown or the congregation of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments made the ultimate sacrifice for their religion and faith just as soldiers of the Crusades did 900 years earlier, with the same conviction that such acts would lead to an eternal place in heaven.
Let's take another a look at that bug-eyed lunatic, Marshall Applewhite, who commanded his followers to shed their "containers." Everybody outside of that cult would agree that the guy had a screw loose. But in fact, Applewhite had good precedent in broadly accepted religious lore. Perhaps he was not crazy after all. Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus not only knew about, but encouraged, Judas to betray him so that Judas "could sacrifice the man that clothes me." Jesus apparently wanted to shed his container. Perhaps the Gospel of Judas has the story correct after all. Even if not, traditional Christians today, though offering multiple interpretations of what happened between Judas and Jesus, widely accept the idea that Jesus at least had knowledge of the betrayal before the fateful evening. That conclusion would be hard to deny, with passages from the Bible such as, "For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him." (John 6:64 in the Revised Standard Version, RSV). If that is too ambiguous, we have, "Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?" The bible speaks of "Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray Him." (John 6:70-71 RSV). If John is right, Jesus knew that he and his container would soon part ways, and took no action to avoid the separation. Crazy like Applewhite. Or crazy like anybody who believes the End Times are near -- for the hundredth time.
But we are not yet done. The idea of an Apocalypse reveals a tremendous conceit among humans, not only generationally but as a species. Perhaps we will indeed one day cause our own extinction with the use of weapons of mass destruction or by destroying the environment that sustains us. But be clear that such a result is apocalyptic only for our species, and no other. Like the Energizer Bunny, the biosphere will keep on ticking just fine without us. Bacteria will continue to divide, insects will keep munching plants and lions will go on hunting gazelles. Our absence will be little noted. We need to get over ourselves. The universe is just "not that into us." Talk of the Apocalypse is absurd not only because of the repeated failures over centuries to predict the time, but because the premise is itself absurd, relying on the false idea that humans are special.
More than 99 percent of all species that have ever walked the earth are now extinct. Extinction is the norm. We are nothing but a biological experiment like every other species, and our presence here has been too short to determine if our particular combination of traits is adaptive. Life's history reaches back 4 billion years of the earth's 4.5 billion year history, yet we've been here only about 100,000 years, a blink of an eye. Talk of an Apocalypse is simply embarrassing in light of the fact that our species has become the equivalent of the guy in the insane asylum who believes he is Napoleon; like him, we are sadly delusional about our importance based on a fabricated view of our history.
Preachers of doom over the centuries, and today, keep picking a date and hoping for the best. When the date passes uneventfully, the seers quickly push that prediction under the rug and pull out a new one, with no loss of credibility for the failure in the glazed eyes of their followers. Put on a blindfold and randomly start shooting arrows as fast as possible in all directions, and you might hit a bulls eye. That does not make you an archer, or an oracle.
Why do we keep buying the same snake oil when the potion fails time after time? End days predictions persist because of a deep flaw in human nature. As Francis Bacon observed, "The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses."
Bacon's thought is deeply important. You may have dreamt a hundred times that your aging parents have died, only to wake up relieved that the sad end was nothing but your imagination. Then one night you experience the common dream once more, but this time you awake to a telephone call giving you terrible news. You immediately forget the previous hundred dreams unassociated with anything real and now claim based on the one most recent that you "somehow knew" they were going to die. This combination of selective data amnesia and inability to distinguish between causation and correlation make humans terribly vulnerable to false hope and erroneous conclusions. And so Mike Huckabee and Tim LaHaye can continue to preach nonsense about an Apocalypse to large adoring crowds because we all keep forgetting when the thing did not hit.
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