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doomsday & doomsday cults
Doomsday is the day the world as we know it ends. It is a day of colossal catastrophe, devastating destruction, extinction, and annihilation. A doomsday cult is a group of people led by a charismatic character who has convinced them that the end is near. A doomsayer is somebody for whom the signs of catastrophe and imminent calamity are ubiquitous.
Some associate doomsday with the end of the universe and a day of judgment by some mighty being who dwells outside of the universe and occupies no space. The good will be rewarded for being good and the evil will be punished for being evil. Since most people are a mixture of both, no matter how you define these terms, it could get messy. The religious doomsayers usually refer to a sacred book that contains cryptic prophecies about the end of the world. Various books of the Bible, for example, have been sources of end-times speculation for as long as these books have been around.
Some doomsayers, however, are a bit more parochial and associate doomsday with massive destruction only in their little part of the world.
Some of the most active doomsayers of our time are followers of the Abrahamic religions and believe that prior to judgment day there will be a great battle. Many Christians believe the final war will occur at Armageddon between the forces of good, led by Abraham's god [AG], and the forces of evil, led by Satan. It is likely that no spectators will be allowed at Armageddon (so you better pick your side now), which is said to be located in modern Israel. How billions of people will fit into this tiny space is a mystery that I'm sure theologians have worked out to the satisfaction of their undemanding clients.
Doomsday has been predicted many times by many prophets. Obviously, so far they've all been wrong, which lowers the odds that any given prophecy that the world will end on some specific date will come true. Some, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, have been wrong so many times that they've quit making specific predictions, but they're still warning us that the end is near. Not to worry; there are plenty of others who continue to howl that the end is near. A recent example is the Strong City cult led by Michael Travesser (aka Wayne Bent), who claims he is the messiah and predicted the world would end at midnight on 31 October 2007.
Another recent example of a failed doomsday prediction is that of Harold Camping, an 89-year-old self-styled expert in the scriptures who told his followers that his interpretations of the Bible had uncovered the true date of the end of the world: 21 May 2011. Camping, who has made millions promoting his religious ideas on Family Radio, spent more than $100 million on a worldwide advertising campaign proclaiming Judgment Day.
Not all those who claim to know when the end will come are motivated by supernatural signs, however. Some predict massive destruction will come to Earth when the planets align in a certain way. 5 February 1962 was such a day and seers such as Jeanne Dixon predicted the end of the world would occur then.* 10 March 1982 was supposed to be a day of devastating earthquakes, according to John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann in The Jupiter Effect. Another day for planetary alignment and predicted mass destruction on Earth was 5 May 2000.* Richard Noone took advantage of people's fears to exploit that date in his book 5/5/2000 Ice: the Ultimate Disaster.
Doomsday cults have also been associated with UFOs and aliens who are to take followers to another planet while Earth is destroyed. In the 1950s, Marian Keech led such a cult. When the world didn't end and their space ship didn't arrive to take them away, Keech told her followers that their faith had saved both them and the world. Nice touch. Not all doomsday cults end so sweetly, however. In 1997, 39 members of a UFO cult known as "Heaven's Gate" committed suicide as a condition for preparing themselves for transport on a space-alien craft to another world.
David Morrison, Senior Scientist of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, has been responding to those who fear the cries of the doomsayers on the NASA-sponsored website "Ask an Astrobiologist." He fields queries such as the following:
Q. Is there a planet or brown dwarf called Nibiru or Eris that is approaching the Earth and threatening our planet with widespread destruction?
A. No: Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an Internet hoax. There is no factual basis for these claims, and most of them (such as that Nibiru has been hiding behind the Sun or that it will be visible to the naked eye from the southern hemisphere next year) are ludicrous. Eris is real, but it is a dwarf planet similar to Pluto that will remain in the outer solar system; the closest it can come to Earth is about 4 billion miles.
The Niburu hoax has been linked by some doomsayers with the Old Testament (and they have photos to prove it!) and by others with the belief that the ancient Maya predicted that the world will end in 2012. The Maya, however, knew as little about our planet's future demise as Gordon-Michael Scallion, St. Malachy, Edgar Cayce, Zecharia Sitchin,or Nostradamus, all of whom falsely predicted colossal catastrophes for our planet. The world is no more likely to end when the Mayan calendar ends than it is likely to end when a modern calendar hits 31 December.
Every time a new prediction of the end is made, numbers of people fall in line and are oddly filled with joy at the thought of the fearsome events to come. As Morrison notes, some people want the world to end and they "are upset to be told that this catastrophe will not happen" (Morrison 2008). This joy at the thought of the world ending is evident in the youthful enthusiasm for the event exhibited by Strong City members and in the partying that went on by the followers of Joseph Kibweteere in Uganda before they were burned to death after the world failed to end as predicted on the eve of the year 2000. Similar jubilation mixed with fear was seen in medieval Europe as the year 1000 approached. Some Christians, called millenarians, are particularly drawn to round numbers in the thousands based on an arbitrary 0 starting point. They make some weird associations:
Sometimes the links to the temporal world can be tortuous to say the least. A common theme on the fringes of Christian millenarianism is a revived Roman Empire led by the Antichrist and consisting of 10 European nations. The theme is drawn out from the description of a beast with 10 horns in the book of Revelation.*
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the great scientists Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Robert Boyle (1627-1691) belonged to different Bible-reading groups while both resided in London. At one end of town, Newton was trying to calculate the exact moment of creation, while at the other end of town Boyle and his group were working on calculating the exact day the world would end. The story can't be true, some think, because Newton liked to work alone, or rather nobody liked to work with him. I don't know if the story is true, but it illustrates a universal trait about human beings: a fascination with our origins and our ultimate demise. By the way, the universe was created at midnight on 23 October 4004 BCE* and will end on 23 October 1996.* Bishop Ussher calculated that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on 10 November 4004 BCE, only a couple of weeks after being created. You don't believe it? Then, you probably didn't see the world end in 1996.
science and superstition
Until recently, if we wanted to explain our origin or our ultimate demise, we were restricted to creating myths about the beginning and end of our species. For thousands of years, we could only guess at where we came from and where we were going to end up. "For 160,00 years, superstition held Homo sapiens captive," as Bob Park puts it.* Science has emerged only in the last few hundred years. Now, thanks to Charles Darwin and others we have a pretty good idea of where we came from. Thanks to many physicists and astronomers, we have a pretty good idea of how it's probably going to end. Superstitious myths about our origins and ultimate demise still abound among the religious and anti-scientific secularists, but they do little damage to the progress of science. Those doing science either reject the religious myths of our ancestral storytellers as products of creative minds that tried to understand the universe using little more than their imaginations and the feedback they got from equally ignorant folks sitting around a campfire, or they have figured out a way to interpret the myths to make them seem compatible with modern science. Those who attempt to force modern science into the mold of their religious myths are not doing science and are little more than a constant nuisance.
(Mythmakers still sit around the campfire telling tales to their ignorant audiences. Some of these mythmakers are as ignorant as their camp followers. Some are scientists trying to lure camp followers to donate money to their implausible or impossible projects, like the free energy hucksters. They call it an investment, but it's a donation. I think Bob Park said that.)
Many myths report doomsday events, but they usually provide no way to test their claims. If they do, the claims don't stand up to scientific scrutiny. When scientists claim that there have already been doomsday events on Earth, such as being hit with a giant meteoroid some 65 million years ago, they produce evidence and counter-evidence, and argue until the claim is either rejected or accepted by the majority of those in the field. When scientists tell us that we could get hit again by another huge object from outer space, we take them seriously and do not wonder if their revelation came from an all-knowing being from the Great Beyond. In fact, there have been several mass extinctions of species (more than 99% of all the species that have ever existed on Earth are extinct). We could be rendered extinct from solar flares, gamma ray bursts, super novae, or black holes, to name just a few of the ways nature could get rid of us. Our whole galaxy could be swallowed up by some other galaxy. We could be blasted by another huge meteoroid. We could see our species depleted to the (metaphorical) Adam and Eve stage from a massive plague caused by the release of some mighty microbe or by massive poisoning of our air, water, and food as globalization leads to universal deregulation of all industries in an attempt to expand world markets indefinitely. We could blow up the planet with nuclear bombs. The odds of any of these things happening are small, but they are not impossible. Whether you should worry about them is up to you. But you might want to think twice before scaring your children into thinking that the end is at hand. One plausible scenario is that our sun dies and the planet becomes a frozen mass some five billion years from now. Nobody will be around to observe it, however, since all life on Earth will have been extinguished millions or billions of years earlier.
(My sage and cheerful editor, John Renish, adds: It is more likely to be the pre-human or pre-biotic world than the Adam & Eve world, should some of these things happen.* Astronomers generally believe that the Sun will expand to a tenuous red giant whose outer atmosphere might well engulf the Earth before shrinking to a white dwarf. If it expands enough, the Earth will spiral into the atmosphere, but in any case will be burnt to a cinder. At least we wouldn't have to worry about freezing to death. On the other hand, nobody who reads your site will ever have to worry about something that happens in 5 billion years. Most species die out in a few tens of million years at most, so none of your readers or their descendants will likely see the end, either.)
Most end-times doomsayers seem to be unmoved by the enormous amount of scientific data available to anyone truly interested in the end of the universe. Instead, when an event seems to them like an end-time event—such as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, or the recent (October 2008) collapse of world banking—they turn to the Bible or someone like Nostradamus for guidance. There have always been people who see catastrophic events as signs that the end is near, yet an understanding of history and science should console us: every generation has seen catastrophic events, some generated by nature and some generated by our fellow human beings. There has never been a time when things weren't uncertain and dangerous for human groups, from families to tribes to nations.
Associated with some doomsday beliefs is the notion that before the end comes some sort of savior will arrive to warn everybody. These saviors have been many, but the best-known is Jesus of Nazareth (or Bethlehem) known as the Christ and Savior to a billion or so Christians. Jesus seems clearly to have taught that the end of the world and the Second Coming was at hand. That was 2,000 years ago. Some are still waiting for the messiah. In the meantime, several messiahs have come and gone.
In the seventeenth-century, for example, it was widely believed in England that the end of the world was at hand. One of the leading rabbis of the time and a teacher of Spinoza, Menasseh Ben Israel, let it be known that 1666 was the year the messiah would come. According to tradition, before that could happen the Jews had to be spread to the "four corners of the earth." Ben Israel convinced Cromwell to let the Jews back into England on these grounds. Perhaps he hinted to the megalomaniacal Cromwell that he himself was the chosen one. In any case, several people announced they were the messiah, but we'll mention just one: Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676?).
According to another Jewish mystical tradition, the year of doom was predicted to be 1648, the year Sabbatai announced his messianic nature. His power grew as more and more Jews and Christians joined in the chorus singing the praises of the new messiah and the glorious end of all things human about to come. Their joy turned to sadness, however, when, in 1666, their hero traveled to Constantinople and was arrested. His messianic nature was challenged and it wasn't long before he converted to Islam. As is always the case when a prophet or messiah is shown to be wrong, the faith of some of his followers became even stronger. They rationalized that the conversion was part of Sabbatai's messianic plan to bring Jews to Islam or Islam to Jews or maybe both. He was eventually banished and died alone in Montenegro. Even so, there are people alive today who await Sabbatai's second coming.*&*
In the nineteenth century, the Baptist preacher William Miller (1782–1849) said the world would end on 22 October 1844. Miller is credited with being the inspiration behind the Adventist movement of the 1830s and 1840s in North America and other movements that emphasized Biblical prophecy. Being wrong is rarely considered a fault by the faithful. Miller's followers called the failure of the world to end as predicted "The Great Disappointment." A Millerite named Hiram Edson wrote: "Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before....We wept, and wept, till the day dawn." Miller thought there might be some error in the Biblical chronology, but he never gave up his belief that the Second Coming was imminent. He wanted to keep that happy thought alive, as does preacher Ronald Weinland, who predicts the world will end in 2010. If so, that would undoubtedly upset those who think they have until 2012.
false prophets of doom
The continued popularity of doomsday beliefs is illustrated by the popularity of the Left Behind series of books and films, based on a Biblical interpretation that involves something called the rapture. Millions of copies of the novels have been sold. And despite the preposterous nature of the belief, millions of people apparently expect to have their bodies separated from their clothes and jewelry as they are teleported to some supernatural dimension.
As noted above, however, not all doomsayers are religious prophets. Some look to science as the likely cause of the end of the world. I grew up during the so-called Cold War, when the United States and the former Soviet Union tried to outpace each other in developing nuclear weapons. What began as a race to develop the most powerful weapons of mass destruction in history gradually gave way to a philosophical position known as nuclear deterrence. Even though both sides eventually had enough weapons to destroy our species many times over, neither side would use its weapons because to do so meant extinction for them as well. Now the great fear is that nuclear material will get into the hands of terrorists or a rogue nation like Iran, which might use the weapon against Israel. Some end-times doomsayers might long for such a day, because they believe that Israel will be the site of the last battle on Earth, at Armageddon, mentioned above. In fact, despite the widespread destruction terrorists or Iran might cause, it is unlikely that they will bring about the end of the world. In any case, if they do, the irony will be that the only reason some obscure passage in one book of the Bible had anything to do with the end of the world is that some people, in their zest for the end of life on Earth, hastened the event by rationalizing that their bad behavior was AG's will.
A recent example of the belief that science will bring about the end of the world concerns the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), buried in the mountains on the Swiss/French border. Before it was turned on, some non-scientists feared it would create a black hole that would devour us. A lawyer in Hawaii named Walter Wagner sounded the alarm. According to Bob Park, Wagner "read far too much science fiction as a youth" and "fantasizes that he is a physicist by virtue of an undergraduate biology degree with a minor in physics." Wagner worries that the LHC is "a doomsday machine that ... is posed to destroy the world by creating a black hole." How? By smashing particles into one another. Scientists aren't too worried, since nature has been smashing particles into one another on Earth and on the Moon for billions of years with much greater energy than the LHC will be able to muster. So far no black holes have occurred on either the Earth or the Moon, and last I checked, both were still floating in space with one orbiting the other.
Some people think that the attraction of doomsday thoughts is linked to the desire to find meaning and significance in life.* Apparently, some people's lives seem worthless unless they can die and live some other sort of existence in a dream world populated by spirits who spend eternity worshipping their maker. I think we can safely ignore the religious end-times doomsayers.
The same can't be said for all those who warn us of impending doom if we don't change our ways. Some of our behaviors may turn out to lead to truly catastrophic destruction of our planet and our species. Nobody can see that far into the future, however, to know for certain which of the doomsayers are right. We should be able to weed out the Chicken Littles like Richard Noone and Walter Wagner rather easily and without much controversy. The task is more difficult when evaluating the claims of those who see a future of catastrophic destruction from climate change, genetic engineering, various forms of pollution, or depletion of natural resources. We have to be careful of the bandwagon effect from consensus viewpoints, as well as of contrarian claims masquerading as significant objections to the consensus. There will never be universal consensus among scientists and other informed people regarding these controversial issues. Any action taken will have to be based on probability and carry with it some degree of uncertainty. We need fear being wrong much less than we need fear having ideas stifled because they don't fit with someone's political agenda. We may make the right decisions for the wrong reasons, but that hope is not a principle the future of our planet should depend on.
books and articles
McGrath, Ben. American Chronicles, “The Dystopians,” The New Yorker, January 26, 2009.
Popkin, Richard. (2002). "Two Jewish Heresies: Spinozism and Sabbatianism," in Histories of Heresy in the 17th and 18th Centuries: For, Against, and Beyond Persecution and Toleration edited by John Christian Laursen; Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 171-184.
new A Brief History of the Apocalypse "The 21st century has begun in earnest! And despite the cries of doomsayers, psychics, and prophets, the world has not come to an end! Is the idea that the end is near a recent phenomenon? Far from it. Indeed, Chicken Littles have crying doom since ancient times. The aim of this page is to debunk end-time prophecy by listing hundreds of failed doomsday predictions, allay the fears spread by end-time preachers, and demonstrate that doomcrying is nothing new." [/new]
When Religion Gets in the Way of Soccer (or Vice Versa) [the Carlos Roa story]
Biblical scholar's date for rapture: May 21, 2011 Harold Camping lets out a hearty chuckle when he considers the people who believe the world will end in 2012. "That date has not one stitch of biblical authority," Camping says. No, but this civil engineer has calculated that by the time the Maya long calendar ends, the rapture will have happened and the world will have ended. This isn't Camping's first guess at the end. He was wrong before and I predict (based on non-biblical data) that he will be wrong again.
24 Mar 2011. Matt wrote to tell me he'd been given a pamphlet in a Lowe's hardware parking lot. You can read ANOTHER INFALLIBLE PROOF THAT GOD GIVES THAT ASSURES THE RAPTURE WILL OCCUR MAY 21, 2011 by clicking here.
16 May 2011. Matt wrote again to inform us "of a sorrowful example" of the repercussions of Camping's folly: Is The End Nigh? We'll Know Soon Enough Brian Haubert, a 33-year-old actuary, says "I've crunched the numbers, and it's going to happen." He thinks the Bible contains coded "proofs" that reveal the timing. For example, he says, from the time of Noah's flood to May 21, 2011, is exactly 7,000 years. Hey, he's an actuary and actuaries just know these things. Especially divinely inspired actuaries.
"Knowing the date of the end of the world changes all your future plans," says 27-year-old Adrienne Martinez. She thought she'd go to medical school, until she began tuning in to Family Radio. She and her husband, Joel, lived and worked in New York City. But a year ago, they decided they wanted to spend their remaining time on Earth with their infant daughter. "My mentality was, why are we going to work for more money? It just seemed kind of greedy to me. And unnecessary," she says. And so, her husband adds, "[Abraham's god] just made it possible — he opened doors. He allowed us to quit our jobs, and we just moved, and here we are." Now they are in Orlando, in a rented house, passing out tracts and reading the Bible. Their daughter is 2 years old, and their second child is due in June. Joel says they're spending the last of their savings. They don't see a need for one more dollar.
And nobody will charge them with child abuse on May 22.
Repeat after me: Apophis is not a danger! The odds of this asteroid hitting our planet in 2036 " are incredibly low, something like one in a 135,000," says the Bad Astronomer. [/new]Study Links Extinction Cycles to Changes in Earth’s Orbit and Tilt