It Need Not Be the End of the World as We Know It

03/18/2015 09:34 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

Is the apocalypse upon us? Fascination with The End isn't a fringe movement. Popular TV shows like The Walking Dead, Doomsday Preppers, and The Colony join books and movies such as the Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, and the upcoming remake of Mad Max in depicting nightmarish landscapes devoid of civilization that are subject to the whims of nature and the depraved remnants of society. Video games such as Left 4 Dead, Metro 2033, Last of Us, and countless others allow us to explore these dystopian worlds for ourselves and witness their horrors firsthand.

While much of the entertainment world's obsession is with a secular version of the apocalypse brought on by human flaws or natural disaster, certain religious groups promote a theological version of the apocalypse. Unlike most varieties created in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, religious depictions of the apocalypse hold to an irreversible impending doom with its divinely predestined nature, meaning people can and should do nothing to stop it. By preventing appropriate action, such religious notions pose a significant danger to humanity.

Surprisingly, over 22 percent of Americans believe that the world will end during their lifetime. This number is even higher when considering the religious, as 54 percent of Protestants and 77 percent of Evangelicals believe that the "world is now living in the biblical end times." Many Christians believe in the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ. The Rapture is an imagined future time when true believers will be instantaneously transported to heaven before the Messiah begins his struggle against the anti-Christ. Those of us not raptured away will supposedly be condemned to remain on Earth as the celestial battle gets underway. Adherents believe that after the battle destroys much of the world, a pure kingdom on Earth will result where the second coming of Christ will bring an end to the hightened time of suffering.

According to a Pew poll, "roughly half (48 percent) of Christians in the U.S. say they believe that Christ will definitely (27 percent) or probably (20 percent) return to earth in the next 40 years." With that many people believing that the world will end in the next few decades, there have to be practical implications. Some will even quit their jobs or sell their houses in order to prepare for the end times, leaving them both homeless and unemployed when the big event doesn't end up happening. But even more disturbing is that these doomsday prophecies affect public policy on an array of issues, including the government response to climate change.

Glenn Scherer of Grist hits on this problem in a recent article, stating "many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it has no future...They may also believe, along with millions of other Christian fundamentalists, that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed--even hastened--as a sign of the coming Apocalypse."

When religious leaders convince folks that the world is coming to an end during their lifetime, people adopt a sense of fatalism that is enormously destructive because it breeds inaction towards some of the biggest issues of our time. Our efforts to work to solve real long-term problems that impact humanity are set back considerably by these ominous predictions, which will inevitably turn out to be another Y2K scare.

Humanists don't buy the ancient religious prophecies any more than we buy the modern fanatical religious doomsday hoaxes. To atheists and other freethinkers, the promises of the Rapture are equivalent to the promises made to those who drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown. Instead of diverting our attention to fear-based mythological power grabs, we should prepare humanity to survive into the foreseeable future. Humanists are well positioned to lead such efforts because, as Lawrence Krauss wrote in the New Yorker article Teaching Doubt, "doubters--people who base their views on evidence, rather than faith--are likely to be better citizens."

There's no need to foresee utopia in opposition to the dystopia predicted by religious leaders. Instead, we can focus on the challenging yet achievable tasks of educating people to understand the world we inhabit and developing a sustainable human relationship with the environment. While religious faith isn't about to exit the scene, for humanity to survive, we must learn to set aside religious superstition when it prevents us from solving life or death problems. The end of the world will only happen if we let it.