As we know it

Posted: January 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

Less than 12 months til the end of the world! This apocalypse owes its origins to the Maya calendar, the ending of which apparently indicates that the long-awaited fiery inferno will destroy the world as we know it.

Of course, this is a misinterpretation akin to saying, “The Gregorian calendar ends on December 31st! This means the world ends on that day!” When the current b’ak’tun of the Maya Long Count Calendar ends, the Maya civilization would have just started a new one, just as we all pulled out our 2012 calendars yesterday.

It’s easy to laugh at the Maya apocalypse theorists, but Christians have been guilty of many more apocalypse predictions over the centuries. Religious Tolerance.org has put together a number of these failed end of the world predictions from 30 to 1920, starting with Matthew 16:28:

Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

and Matthew 24:34:

Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

Even as recently as 2011, Harold Camping was making predictions that the Rapture would occur on May 21st. This wasn’t some spurious campaign, either; Harold Camping spent $100 million to advertise this claim.

There is something going on here in human psychology with regard to apocalypse predictions. It’s something bigger than just religion, as the 2012 predictions, having nothing to do with theism, indicates.

Americans have more leisure time than ever before, according to a recent study. Leisure time is essential unnatural. It barely existed as a concept for medieval peasants (the gentry, of course, were notably different), and in nature, leisure time doesn’t exist at all. Leisure time and specialization (and, of course, necessity) have allowed for a constant stream of new inventions, and we see the rapid growth of human society, knowledge, and technology over the centuries. Human society is evolving much faster than humans. Infinitely faster, if you’re one of 40% of Americans who deny evolution. Humans have created society in the same manner in which Dr Frankenstein created his monster, and just as similarly, for better or for worse, we seem unable to control our creation. And as human society continues to grow, what we find is that it actually controls us.

Don’t get me wrong for a second. Despite this raging beast of human society, it’s actually a fairly benevolent beast. We don’t have to worry about smallpox or the bubonic plague. In the west, we can count on sanitation, plumbing, and electricity. In many places, infant mortality rates are at their lowest levels ever. So while it’s scary to think of how our welfare depends on electricity and bureaucratic red tape, it’s also amazing just how good our lives are on this very day as compared to any other point in human history (or even as compared to many other countries in the world today).

But our brains, which really haven’t evolved all that much since the day a human first threw a curse instead of a stone, can’t accept the overwhelming quantities of information or the rapid pace of change. So our brains develop a defense mechanism. We think back on “the good old days”, which in many ways weren’t better days, but just were days each of us understood better. Or we think that society can’t possibly keep growing and changing at this speed. And when we put it all together, our intuition tells us that the end of the world (be it a whimper, or the opening of the seven seals of a divine book, or the end of an extinct civilization’s calendar) must be nigh.

But here’s the terrifying thing. We are nowhere near the end of the world. With so many people on this planet, it’s the job of every one of us to make the world a better place. We can’t revert to black and white absolutes in order to deal with the overwhelming quantity of gray out there. We can’t fall back on ancient “silver bullet” prophecies. Every one of us has to start assuming that the world is not going to end for a very, very long time, and that when it does, it won’t benefit anyone.

Society is bigger now than you can possibly imagine. Accept that and move on. Don’t make the mistaken assumption that because you can’t fit all of human society inside your own intellect that it is therefore broken or needs to be divinely redressed.

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