Some time back I wrote a post entitled "The Seduction of Apocalypse" (April 7, 2006), pointing out the dark appeal of believing that the world is coming to an end. This seems like a good time for a follow-up, because in fact there are two versions of the apocalypse teetering on the brink, one Christian, the other Islamic. The Christian version is the familiar one and widely believed in. A recent poll found that while only 36% of Americans believe that the Bible is literally true as handed down by God, over 55% believe that the apocalyptic scenario pictured in the Book of Revelations is likely to be taking place in the Middle East. This irrational interpretation of current events can be explained by several factors.
--If the world is coming to an end tomorrow, we would be the last, privileged generation of people on Earth. We would be participants in an incredible supernatural event. Our importance would be undeniable.
--In the event of apocalypse, fervent believers would be proven right once and for all in their literal reading of the Bible. They would no longer have to endure the scorn of secularists.
--Presumably the end of the world would bring a public appearance by God. This has been long yearned for in all faiths.
--Finally, the end of the world would come as a relief to anyone deeply pessimistic about such seemingly unsolvable problems as global warming, the AIDS pandemic, over-population, and nuclear proliferation. It's easier to wipe the slate clean in one quick stroke than to take responsibility for our own past mistakes. Yet there is a deeper, more tragic reason for apocalyptic thinking, which can be brought out by looking at the Islamic version. On many occasions the inflammatory president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has affirmed his strong belief in the second coming of Shi'ite Islam's "hidden" 12th Imam, known as the Mahdi. With the Mahdi's return, the entire world will be restored to purity through universal conversion to Islam and submission to sharia law. Such an expectation, which echoes the Second Coming of Christ, dates back to 941 AD, a time of struggle for control of the Prophet Mohammed's legacy, when Abul-Qassem Mohammad, the 12th leader whom Shi'ites consider descended from the Prophet, disappeared and was presumably killed by rival factions. This tragedy tore Shi'ites apart from Sunnis, and ever since the ascendant Sunnis have been the majority force in Islam while Shias have occupied a minority position often marked by zealotry, oppression, and a mystical wait for revenge.
One could say that the Christian apocalypse is equally dependent upon a historical tragedy, the Crucifixion, and the same could be said of the Jewish belief in the coming Messiah, who will rebuild the Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, after centuries of diaspora and political oppression. In other words, all three religions have taken victimization to a cosmic level. To an outside observer this feels psychologically unhealthy. Basing your faith on metaphysical revenge and redemption seems like a form of wishful thinking, beneath which lurks a strain of anger that never finds release. Apocalyptic believers never seem to let go of their historical grudge but nurse it generation after generation -- it becomes the cornerstone of their world view.
Yet there is a more rational and humane way to approach the situation. On a global basis we are witnessing the rise of dispossessed peoples, and with their rise comes an outpouring of spiritual loneliness and yearning. Without taking a poll, one can generalize that the most ardent believers in the apocalypse tend to be poor, working class, uneducated, and often socially excluded people. They are placated by political opportunists who take advantage of them. (When a fundamentalist group called Christians United for Israel gathered in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago, they received congratulatory messages from the President and First Lady, along with visits from several prominent senators. Apparently these politicians courted CUFI as a voting block, ignoring the fact that the group believes in being friends with Israel in order to hasten the End Time, the rise of the Anti-Christ, and the eventual damnation of all Jews who don't convert.)
Such wild, desperate mythologies continue to thrive when the spiritual yearning of people is combined with marginalized social conditions and the lack of a more optimistic vision of the future. Apocalyptic thinking is the ultimate pessimism, in that it totally gives up on human goodness and our ability to solve difficult problems. Among the educated and the well-off, I doubt that much attention is paid to fringe groups like CUFI, much less to the return of the hidden Imam. But global capitalism isn't going to fill the spiritual gap, and until that gap is filled, the apocalypse isn't going away.
It's deeply regrettable that the right wing has put a fundamentalist in the White House, given the whiff of apocalyptic superstition that now hangs over it. One can't help but feel that any military strike on Iran will represent one apocalypse fighting against another, both fueled by an archaic myth. Once there is a change of administration, however, a rational, secular foreign policy must take into account that these dueling apocalypses exist and have a powerful hold around the world. Finding a peaceful, progressive, humane alternative will be one of the major challenges of the coming century. As individuals, we cannot turn our backs on that challenge. Passivity isn't an option when sizable blocs of humanity are perversely in love with total destruction.