Okay, we’ve survived the most recent prophecy about the end of the world, but (spoiler!) we always will. Prophecies are richly fascinating, and they tell us so much — sociologically, anthropologically, and historically — about what their believers feel, sense, think, and hope about the world, but they’re never right.
This weekend, yet another group of believers found that out for themselves. My hope is that once their shock wears off, the followers of Harold Camping can understand themselves within the larger framework of human nature, instead of mistakenly imagining that they were unusually gullible, or unintelligent, or emotionally unaware. They weren’t. This behavior is absolutely normal for humans, as I wrote last week:
Though many people like to characterize end-time believers as dupes, the belief is actually very common. In fact, it’s a basic tenet of Christianity on the religious side of things, while some form of end-times theorizing (the eventual supernova of our sun, for instance) is a basic tenet of astrophysics on the scientific side of things. Environmentalists and climate scientists have yet another series of end-time or “dark-time” scenarios.
The idea that the world will end and that humanity will cease to exist — this is a very common idea. What seems uncommon is the specificity we’re seeing now, where people swear that the end is going to occur on a specific day (May 21), through a specific event (the Supermoon), or in a specific year (2012).
But in fact, these prophecies are made constantly, regularly, and almost predictably. They’re actually sort of addicting, because once these prophecies get into you, it’s really hard to let them go.
But it’s not impossible. As we head into the overly prophesied, highly publicized, and internet-intensified Year 2012 doomsday scenarios, just remember this: If we mistakenly or condescendingly separate what Camping’s followers did from the totality of meaningful and valid human behaviors, we miss important learning.
Doomsday, end-times, and supernova prophecies are absolutely commonplace in human history. Understanding these prophetic tendencies is an important part of understanding ourselves. The question then becomes: How do we stay and address the problems we have all around us, and how do make life here and now as wonderful as the heavens and utopias so many of us have longed for?
I’m saying it starts with empathy.