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Mayans, Moral Panic, and the Narrative of the Apocalypse

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A couple of years ago, Harold Camping rocketed to infamy when he predicted that the end of the world would come via divine Revelation on May 21st, 2011. When the day came and went without incident, Camping retreated from public view for a time before re-emerging and claiming that, actually, May 21st was merely an ‘invisible judgement’, and that the real end would come five months later, on October 21st. Again, the date came and to the surprise of almost no one, the world did not end.  Camping was hardly unique in his predictions: throughout the history of the human species, countless millions of us have held deep, unwavering convictions that the end of the world would come in our lifetimes; clearly every single one of us has been wrong… so far…

A little more than a decade ago, those who believed in the coming end-times set their sights on the dawn of the new millennium, conveniently forgetting that according to the Chinese calendar, the year was 4697, and if we all measured time by the Jewish calendar, January 1st, 2000 would have been marked as the 23rd of Tevet, 5760. Nevertheless, I remember the anxiety that surrounded Y2K, not only because of the supposed collapse of global banking and communications systems, but because of the heightened millenarian fervor that surrounded that particular date. One way or another, some people believed, the world was going to end, and we had all best get right with God/Allah/Thor/the Universe.

We humans are funny creatures; we design arbitrary systems of timekeeping, and then affix deep symbolic meaning to particular points on in those systems. We invent a system of counting based, say, on the fact that we have 10 fingers, and then decide that measurements that are divisible by ten have some sort of divine meaning. We have evolved, so we are told, brains that include hardwired pattern-recognition systems yet apparently lack any sort of evolutionary safeguard to tell us when the patterns we see are illusory. We are strange, strange animals.

These sorts of social phenomena are extremely interesting, from a sociological point of view, for a number of reasons. One of the top reasons for me is that they serve as a handy point of focus for those who study the concept of moral panic. The reason for this is simple: for those who believe – fervently – in a given end-times scenario (Mayan prophecies, Y2K, Revelations, etc.), the end is often coming for a reason. Of course a purposeful annihilation isn’t always the case, but let’s consider some of the more common ‘theories’ about what the Mayan ‘prophecies’ mean. The world will end because of environmental collapse (brought about by rampant consumerism, reliance on fossil fuels, etc), or because of global thermonuclear holocaust (in some version of “The United States versus Nation X”); or maybe the world will end because of some sort of spiritual crisis or event, or because Jesus is angry or because Shiva has had enough already.

Behind each of these possible examples of how we’re all going to die is some explanatory narrative or another, which tells us why the environment is collapsing, or why Shiva is on the warpath, or why the Mayans foresaw this time and place as being the site of Armageddon. In other words, beneath the trappings of almost any millenarian belief you will find a laundry-list of things the believer is afraid of or disgusted by. Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead? You can be that he’s going to judge all of the people whose lifestyles you hate. Is the world too sinful/corrupt/consumerist/complacent, in your view? Well good news! Catastrophe ‘X’ is coming to wash it all away and let you and the other survivors begin anew.

There can often be a touch of fantasizing on the part of the believer too; since it’s their end-times belief, they will most likely count themselves among the survivors (if they’ve not been raptured away, that is), due to some learned or innate property that makes them ‘worthy’ of survival. They can watch all those ‘weaker’ or ‘inferior’ people vanish, and then they can build their perfect society on the ashes of the old.

But none of this will happen – at least not right now. Today will come and go, and the world will remain. Civilization (by which we of course mean our civilization, the only one worth mentioning /sarcasm) will not have been destroyed; Christmas will come and go, then New Years after that. The people that believed in the Mayan end-times will continue to believe in a reckoning to come; only the date will change and maybe, if a cooler looking doomsday comes along, the form. Perhaps, once their disappointment or embarrassment over their end-time of choice failing to materialize abates, they’ll move on to embrace a new apocalypse; maybe they’ll start buying into Nibiru, or begin warning the world about the coming doom from the planet-killer asteroid Apophis. After all, Apophis is an Egyptian name, the name of a god – the god of dissolution, non-being, and the void; surely that means something, right?

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