America’s Love Affair With The End of the World

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/26/09

People haven’t always had a fascination with the end of the world. It’s not an inherent thing, it’s a learned behavior , but as with all the things we pick up and take for granted in our march through time, it can be damn hard to un-learn again. Particularly if you’re American: Americans have always been crazy for the end of the world. We love it. We always have, really.

Just to give a quick recap, once upon a time, in pagan days, the notion that the world could end was unheard of, and if someone had thought of it in a fever dream or something, it would have been considered ludicrous. How could such a thing happen? The world is eternal, after all! People come and go, but Earth Abides.

Insofar as we know, the first person to think up the whole concept of history being a timeline rather than an endlessly irritating cycle was Zoroaster, a thousand or so years BC*. His concept - revealed by God - was that history had a definite beginning, middle, and end, and that the world would end in a final battle between good and evil. God was also pretty emphatic that Mankind was important, and played a part in this final battle, a revelation that will have significance later on, as we shall see. The Zoroastrian religion quickly became the first real monotheistic faith, and the largest individual religion in the world, in a time when classical Greco-roman paganism was still trying to get on its feet. It was still doing well in the time of Christ, though it had passed its prime by then.

Judaism either borrowed this ‘end of the world’ concept from Zoroastrianism during the Babylonian captivity, or else they had already picked it up independently - I go back and forth on this one myself, and ultimately it’s a matter of faith. In any event, this notion was one of the major causes behind the First (66-70 AD) and second (133-136 AD) Jewish wars, and the Zealot movement. Christianity picked it up from Judaism, and of course Islam picked it up from Christianity. The Norse appear to have come up with the concept independently in their late pre-history when an environmental shift changed Scandanavia from a nice place to live to the frozen land it is today, and most of the population died.

The idea of an end to the world caught on like wildfire, and displaced the classical paganism fairly quickly. Why? A number of reasons, really: Paganism wasn’t meeting the needs of an urbane, educated, civilized, international people like the Roman Empire. And of course, if you feel the world might end any minute - as the Zealots and first century Christians were saying - there’s a strong self-preservation instinct to ditch the religion that isn’t working for you in favor of the new-fangled, far more dramatic and exotic one (Christianity), and get on the right side of this God who’s coming to physically put a stop to things. Particularly when there are signs and portents in the sky, and volcanoes burying cities and all…

The real reason I thin, however, is far simpler and subtler than that: If time is finite, then Man has meaning.

Think about it: Infinity, divided by any number is still infinity. No matter how long you live - a year, a hundred years, a thousand, a million, even - it’s still immeasurably insignificant against the endless flow of time. Humans have never been stupid, we knew this. We knew we didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, not much more than a turtle or an ocelot: Death is the ultimate democrat, and in the end non of it matters a damn. Don’t believe me? Read Ecclesiastes, generally dated to the 6th century BC.

On the other hand, if time is finite, then *That* means that people actually do have some real meaning, no matter how small.

If you’re a centurion or a gladiator or a senator or a lowly whore, who doesn’t take some small comfort from the idea that their life adds up to something other than the big goose-egg? Mankind’s history is largely a quest for meaning, after all. So, in the end, the Zoroastro-Judeo-Christian-Islamic viewpoint won out in the west because it was inseparably, at root, humanistic: It told people that their lives matter, which is something paganism couldn’t - and still can’t - offer.

This is something that the left and the swishy new age types generally miss: They go on about the conformity, the illogic, various offenses - both real and imagined - that all of the monotheistic eschatological faiths have committed, but completely miss the fact that the older pagan traditions were, at root, not humanistic at all, whereas these newer faiths valued people. I mean, God Himself took human form in the religion I follow, what could be more humanistic than that? This is something that I think preachers and Rabbis and Mullahs and Priests should perhaps stress a bit more, but I never hear it brought up: that we matter to God, whereas we didn’t matter a damn to the old gods. This is also the reason religious people have a hard time with the concept of atheism, even if they don’t take their religion terribly seriously: because it’s a regression to infinite time in which the individual just doesn’t matter. Just a thought, but I digress.

To get back on track, then, humanistic aspects of Christianity et al are inseparably tied to an EVENTUAL end of the world, but all these overlapping faiths are deliberately vague as to when that’ll actually be. It doesn’t matter - ‘someday’ is good enough for our purposes, though occasionally you get outbreaks of Eschatological fever, as in the year 666, or in 1000, or in 1666, when a lot of people really believed the world would end. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t.)

We usually date our history as a people to 1620 and the Pilgrims. I’ve never quite understood that, since our national proto-history clearly begins in 1609, but no matter, for sake of argument we’ll accept it: A bunch of religious fanatics came here and formed a colony, not - as is commonly maintained - for religious freedom, but rather so they wouldn’t have to tolerate other faiths, denominations, and irreligious folk. Their goal - same as any other cult, really - was to build their own society without distraction. Their hope was that it would eventually become a “City on a hill” that would draw the entire world towards its noble example, thus encouraging humanity to better itself.

Ultimately, that didn’t work out so well, and they just ended up with Boston. Ah well.

Still, it was a good try, and it shaped our social standards, our higher learning, and our sense of who and what we are: at root, we’re a nation of religious fanatics.

Note that I said “At Root.” I don’t pretend that everyone in our country is religious, or a puritan, or whatever. In fact, many of us are quite removed from that, however there are elements of our way of looking at life that are uniquely American, and these are things that mostly evolved in our vastly-more-religious past. So while we’re not terribly religious as a people any more, we’re still vastly more religious than our European cousins (To the chagrin of the political left), we are still, regardless of what we may be on the surface, a bunch of evangelical nut jobs underneath.

Think about it: How many born-again atheists have you met? Ones who not only swear there’s no God, but also seem to believe that they are His prophet: Once who feel it their need to destroy belief in anyone around them the way a missionary feels the need to destroy the local paganism in favor of his own religion.

How many people do you know who live immoral lives, and swear that there’s nothing wrong with it, and do so with a bit too much vigor, as though they’re trying to convert you to their faith? How many rap stars live utterly immoral lives, but thank God on their liner notes, so somehow that makes it ok? How many celebrities fall in to cults and become wildly, ecstatically devoted to them, desperately trying to win converts? How many Democrats believe in nothing apart from the Gospel Of The Superiority of Democrats, which they preach from day and night?

The beliefs are different, but the underlying behaviors and attitudes are the same. It cracks me up that no one ever seems to see this, because it’s all out there in the open!

“Fine, fine, fine, you’ve made your tendentious point,” you say, “But what does any of this have to do with science fiction?”

Good question, glad you asked! Because of our crazy religious history, Americans are, at root, an eschatological people - we’re obsessed with the end of the world. We’re even evangelical about it after a fashion - but curiously we’re the first eschatological culture in history that isn’t motivated by a particular religion. I was talking to a fairly ‘average joe’ friend of mine recently - registered Republican, voted for Obama, believes in God, goes to church on Christmas and Easter, has his entire life, owns a bible, but has never read it. He’s 42: He did not realize that Christianity was an “End of the World” religion until I pointed that out to him, and he found it rather disturbing. I mention this just to point out that we’re probably operating as a people more on instinct than on learning.

But the point is that we love the end of the world, we find movies like “The Road Warrior” kind of reassuring. We love books like those crappy “Left Behind” novels. (My very well educated uncle, who’s never been even remotely religious, loves those books!). We love end of the world crap like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012.” If you’ve ever wondered why so much of American SF is apocalyptic, there you go.

But you know what else? It also kind of makes us suckers for the various eschatological fads that come along from time to time. When I was a kid, everyone was sure the world was going to end from Nuclear War. We were so afraid of it that many on the left were willing to simply hand over the keys to the Soviets rather than risk it. Not rational. We all remember Y2K, which was a massive no-show. Again, not rational. This current 2012 fever ( http://apnews.myway.com/article/20091011/D9B8P09O0.html ) is equally irrational. The fear of Global Warming is, at root, an irrational end-of-the-world fear that various elements of our society have created, both for political power and for economic advantage. Stop ten people at random on the street, and seven of them will tell you that global warming is the greatest threat to the world right now, and that we need to do everything and anything to stop it.

Think about that: “Anything and everything?” “Biggest threat?” Bigger than, say, education? Bigger than the radical rise in the autism rate in the last 25 years? Bigger than Darfur? Bigger than AIDS? Bigger than child poverty and famine? Bigger than very real and pressing environmental concerns like the rising levels of lead in our atmosphere?

Wow!

Ask those same ten people if the world has ever been hotter than it is right now, or if an endless cycle of hot and ice ages has been the standard thing for the last three million years, and you’ll be lucky if even one of them understands the question.

And they believe - people believe - that the world is ending, with little or no proof. I can sympathize. When I was a fundamentalist, when I went to a charismatic Baptist school back around 1980, everyone was quite clear on the fact that the world would end in 1988 (Spoiler warning: It didn’t.) I later found out that these same people were just as emphatic that the world would end in 1978. Trust me, I know what it’s like to dread the pages coming off the calendar, knowing the end is at hand, even when it isn’t. I totally understand how people can work themselves up over Y2K or The Jupiter Effect, because I’ve done it myself.

I don’t have a solution for the problem of people claiming the sky is falling. I’m not sure I’d offer a solution if I had one, sine it’s inherent in our social makeup, and, to a larger extent, inherent in the character of the occidental world. Just thought I’d mention it.

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