About half of all Americans believe that, within the next generation or so, humanity will come under the domination of an evil global ruler, experience the apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation, and witness the second coming of Christ. But why do they think this? In other words, what’s influencing so many people to believe something so dramatic and shocking—and, some would even say, absurd? Here’s my list of what I think is driving this collective religious conviction (hysteria):
- Hitler. The Holocaust of the Jews in Europe gave people a foretaste of what the antichrist could do with the apparatus of a modern industrial and bureaucratic state. Vast evil initiated by one man is a more than credible threat because it has already happened.
- Hiroshima. Since Hiroshima, it is not at all hard to imagine human beings destroying all of humanity quite quickly and spectacularly via war. Add bioterrorism and chemical warfare to the mix, and it’s not difficult to understand why people are anxious about collective sudden death.
- Industrial pollution, global warming, and overpopulation. With the rapid acceleration of the human population since World War II, and the increase in ecological awareness since the 1960s, the possibility for global environmental catastrophe (via the unintended poisoning of our collective air, land, or water on a mass scale) has entered mass consciousness.
- Genetic tinkering and tracking devices. Scientists attaining the ability to make monsters akin to those in the Book of Revelation—and governments and corporations tracking and controlling people’s economic lives via marks on the body—seem, not just a likely part of the human future, but inevitable.
- Interdependence and eroding nationalism. The interdependence of the world (via technology and economics) makes national sovereignty precarious and a coming global government ever more plausible.
- Globalism fail. The acceleration of global economic interdependence comes with the risk of a global economic crisis that catastrophically sinks national economies everywhere into misery and anarchy.
- Earthquakes on TV. Pervasive electronic media assure that every natural disaster gets immediate and dramatic coverage, and this makes spectacular upheavals of wind, water, or earth global and collective visual events. The Book of Revelation becomes a couch-potato spectator sport: the Television of Revelation. Jesus said earthquakes would increase—and look!—there’s a big one being reported on TV right now!
- The national security state. With the growth of the post-WWII national security state, conspiracy theories have thrived. The very existence of hidden players in the service of opaque governments and corporations breeds suspicion and paranoia about what they are really up to. Are news events being manipulated by wealthy and godless power players to orchestrate the coming of a global government? End Times enthusiasts suspect that they are.
- Oil mixed with religion. By an absurd contingency—is God playing a joke on us?—it just so happens that the world’s chief supply of oil lies under the Middle East (the place where the dogmatic and totalist claims of the world’s three great monotheisms most obviously and vigorously clash). Lucky us.
- Evolution and revolution. Religious conservatives, nostalgic for fixity and tradition, fear a world reduced to contingency and flux (as embodied in the ideas of Darwin and the French Revolution). These are affronts to God, and a sign of the antichrist’s advent. The antichrist will be an evolutionist and an internationalist secular liberal.
- Holy book literalism as a thumb to suck. Societies in flux breed forms of religious fundamentalism, driving people into holy books as a way to anchor their psyches in the cultural storms. These books, under pressure, tend to get read literally.
- Bad daddy, good daddy, nobodaddy. Whatever else religious authority lovers are, they are looking for a father figure, and a solution to the problem of their own narcissism (“Why don’t I live forever?”). One solution is to split, psychologically, the all-powerful father figure in two (bad Christ, good Christ) and place the world under the same death sentence that it seems to have put them under. Just beneath religious believers’ denial of death is the gnawing suspicion that, in fact, they do die. And since that is the case, humans are tempted to take a perverse pleasure in the thought that the world might be permanently annihilated in the same century that they are.
So, ironically, we’re kind of locked in a collective self-fulfilling prophecy, aren’t we? The more earnestly people believe in apocalypticism, holy book literalism, and have a secret nihilistic wish for the world to die with them, the less likely they’ll think clearly enough to avert real-world global catastrophes.