When they said Repent Repent, I Wonder What They Meant

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(Standby for a fresh pile of horse shit. Image Credit)

God, I love doomsday cults.  Don’t take me wrong; it’s sad anytime an otherwise-sensible person gets mixed up with some unemployed nut who gulls them into believing the spaceship is here to take them to paradise, if they’ll only give the prophet all their earthly possessions and have sex with them and oh by the way drink this punch and you’ll wake up in Elysium! By any definition that is a tragic waste. The part I love about apocalyptic movements is imagining the leader on his chosen day of judgment. Just once I hope to see the filmed reaction shot of one of these people when they realize the jig is up. Did they know they were full of shit, and immediately start trying to spin the apocalypse’s tardiness to any follower within earshot? Or was their bullshit so convincing they had even themselves going? Could the voices have been that persuasive?

And what about the followers? Do they desert their prophet in droves when the meteors fail to arrive? If you’re at all cynical/realistic about the median capacity for reasonable behavior among your fellow man, you’ve probably already guessed that the answer is, predictably, of course not. My ten seconds of wikipedia research reveals that – and I found this awesome, in the literal meaning of that word – some followers actually come out of a failed prediction stronger in their beliefs. This apparently has to do with the economic idea of ‘sunk cost,’ in that you’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole with your doomsday preacher, it’s incredibly difficult psychologically to admit all that time and energy was wasted.  Simply tweaking the nonsense you believe is easier than completely deconstructing your worldview and building a new one that better reflects reality.

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(Fooled you! Image Credit)

This makes me seriously wonder about the lies I might implicitly be telling myself, we might all be telling ourselves. I like to think of myself as a reasonable, semi-smart fellow. I at least make an effort to understand reality based on things like observational evidence. The average cult recruit is far from the lonely, maladjusted social misfit that everyone pictures when they think of the low-hanging fruit a cult recruiter might target. In fact they tend to be well-adjusted and of above-average intelligence. Just normal people. This is kind of startling to consider – basically anyone you know, including yourself, is capable of believing utter bullshit. It might be so stealthy in your subconscious you don’t even realize you believe it until a situation brings it to the fore. Hannah Arendt’s idea of societal normalization comes to mind.

Of course that doesn’t mean your friends and loved ones are two steps removed from walking the earth with a con-man messiah. There are many different levels to the wide spectrum of cultish behavior. I wouldn’t even attribute this to a particular political ideology, though – exclusion of evidence that fails to support your pre-existing worldview is a human psychological trait, as ingrained as the fight-or-flight response. I would argue that any movement which relies heavily on confirmation bias and the exclusion of contrary evidence to support a pre-existing conclusion is halfway to cultish behavior already. In the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s first election, right-wing human cartoon character Glenn Beck began to take on the tone of a doomsday preacher, and, near as I can tell, has never looked back. About a year into Obama’s first term I remember asking my cousin in an email, “how many different times can (Beck) predict the END OF THE COUNTRY AS WE KNOW IT before people just stop listening?” My cousin pointed out correctly that Glenn was careful most times not to assign a specific date to his apocalyptic pronouncements. Take note, doomsday prophets – this is how it’s done.

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(The Mayan Cosmos. Image Credit)

As of this writing it is 11:12 AM on Dec. 21, 2012, and the world still spins. The latest failed apocalypse brought together a couple of weird human psychological phenomena. The first of these is the community fascination with communal demise, which has been a hallmark of religious movements throughout recorded history. I don’t know the first thing about psychology, anthropology, or sociology, so take this for what it is. But I suspect our love of the apocalypse has something to do with being social animals, and being the only animal cognizant of our own mortality. Mortality makes things relevant. As Thunderfoot points out in one of his video series, time we spend with loved ones has importance because that time is finite and irreplaceable. The End of Days is what we have in store for all of us, expanded outward to the community (and I’m making no religious claims at all here one way or the other – I’m only talking about one’s mortal existence).

The second psychological quirk that granted the Maya so much publicity (I cannot express how happy I am we’re passed Dec. 21 now, and I never have to hear about this ever again) was the persistent idea that somehow ancient mystics had some secret knowledge which has eluded modern science. There is a constant strain of current thought which simply insists that our ancestors – who knew nothing of viruses, subatomic particles or the heliocentric solar system – were onto something which has since been lost to us. The social idea of a lost golden age is older than dirt, with examples scattered throughout history – Atlantis, The Garden of Eden, Medieval views on the lost Roman world. It’s even more common in sci-fi/fantasy fiction – almost every fantasy book I’ve ever read has taken place in a culture that looks back to an ancient world of wonders and miracles (TV tropes calls this crystal spires and togas). This owes something probably to the fact that fantasy books take place overwhelmingly in quasi-medieval settings, and the actual Medieval period did look back on the much more developed Roman Empire. Whether that Medieval hearkening back accounts for the modern phenomenon, I couldn’t say.

With few exceptions, most of this golden age stuff is pretty suspect. Now I don’t mean to sound like one of those 1950s better-living-through-chemistry commercials, where we talk about how much awesomer everything modern is compared to whatever came before it. But by-and-large life is pretty good compared to what our ancestors went through. Barring disaster I have a pretty reasonable expectation to live past 70, without concern for polio or smallpox or leprosy. I don’t have to toil in the fields every waking hour to barely grow enough wheat to feed my family. I have a supermarket I can go to. As is the case with most bookish, peaceful types like myself, if not born to extraordinarily fortunate parentage in certain earlier eras, I don’t expect I’d have made it past the age of 20. I can’t even change the oil on a car, let alone forage for food in a non-industrial wasteland. So, on behalf of all of us who’d be among the first to die if civilization ever did collapse, thanks for everything, modern science.

This golden age-rhapsodizing would mostly be just harmless nostalgic idealism, if it weren’t occasionally so dangerous. There is certainly a dark side to trusting ancient wisdom (even just a particular interpretation of ancient wisdom) over observational data. Again, I cast no aspersions at all on anyone’s faith, but between science and ancient predictions, it’s pretty clear who has the better problem-solving record. It’s going to a bitter, cruel irony if we end up making our own world unlivable – an actual apocalypse – while continuing to give credence to the predictions of people who didn’t know why the sun rose in the east.

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~ by kroveechernila on December 21, 2012.

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