Why Would Nonreligious People Find Apocalyptic Views Appealing?

Strictly speaking, they shouldn’t. However, a new, secular form of apocalypticism has emerged over the past two centuries. This new form manifests itself in today’s world in everything from environmental apocalypticism to the “2012 phenomenon” to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films, anime, manga, novels, and popular music. And there is much crossover between old-school biblical apocalypticism and these new expressions, often to the point where old motifs and expectations are simply rebooted in secular formats.

The development of secular apocalypticism and the multiform nature of its contemporary expressions are truly fascinating topics. But a more important reason why nonreligious people might find apocalyptic views appealing is that only a comparatively small percentage of the world’s population is actually “nonreligious.” Instead, to one degree or another, most people understand “Life, the Universe and Everything” in supernatural or otherwise “spiritual” terms.

Apocalypticism is a powerful, historically persistent worldview with a well-defined set of propositions. These propositions support a series of claims about time, space, and human existence. One such claim is that the world is about to end, which proceeds in part from the assumption that life’s problems are so overwhelming that no human solution seems possible. In the classic, biblical form of the worldview, these problems are ultimately the result of the power of evil in the world, which reveals itself in oppressive rulers and empires. The imminent end of the world thus represents the resolution of this unhappy state of affairs, and the culmination of God’s plan for humanity.

But a person does not have to be a hard-core believer to sense that things like the environment, the economy, and the political system are appallingly broken. From there, it is only a short step to the view that the entire system is verging on a catastrophic collapse or must be completely swept away, or that any solution to these problems requires something outside normal human agency, such as an idealized or divinized form of humanity, a mysterious, hidden-hand “force” or “law” (such as the “forces” of history or the market), or a human figure of whom extraordinary deeds are expected. This is the “Daddy” complex: a belief in or need for something or someone greater than ourselves, who will solve our problems for us.

Another reason why the apocalyptic mindset is able to gain traction outside its traditional boundaries derives from its epistemology. According to the worldview, humans discover the true nature of space, time, and existence through access to data from the transcendent realm, or “heaven,” as it is typically expressed. This information is essential because without it believers remain unaware of the true nature of reality, including God’s plan for history. But this information is hidden, and must be revealed: In fact, the Greek root underlying the English word “apocalypse” means “to unveil” and, by extension, “to reveal.” Apocalypses are not conspiracy literature, but the belief that a hidden reality governs everyday existence can accommodate a wide spectrum of emotions, including paranoia and xenophobia, particularly when personal or group identity is felt to be under threat. Hence, apocalyptic vocabulary and grammar are readily annexed by ultra-nationalist sentiments of all stripes, as well as any other conception of society that seeks to outline sharp distinctions between “us and them.”

A third reason is that the apocalyptic worldview reconciles the conviction that there is something dreadfully wrong with the world with the belief that there is a higher good, a purpose to existence, and a sense of a better future. At the same time, the expectation for the end of the world serves several functions, including a desire for justice, which is usually expressed as the vindication of the good and the punishment of the wicked. Such claims again involve human emotions that transcend the strictly religious applications of the worldview. On the one hand, the notion that existence has a purpose functions as an antidote to despair and anomie, embracing, as it does, the dream of utopia and a sense of high destiny that accords meaning to life beyond the oblivion of the grave. On the other hand, apocalypticism serves equally well in focusing the all-too-human desire for revenge and retribution against someone’s enemies, oppressors, and tormentors. The great danger here is that end-time expectations can be used to create and sustain a present-day social climate that legitimates policies such as the dehumanization of enemies and the exclusion of others.

Lorenzo DiTommaso is a professor of religion at Concordia University.

Category: Q&A

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3 Responses

  1. Melvin Backstrom says:

    Lorenzo,

    So very true. Thanks so much for writing and sharing that. Apocalyptic thinking runs very deep; so many today are so convinced in their ostensible secularism, yet they remain trapped within Christian-derived forms of thinking that see time as running in a line from a Fall from paradise to some epochal end times right around the corner. Marx, of course, is one of the most influential examples, but the furor among some over the apocalyptic scenarios that will supposedly play out in and around the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar on December 21, 2012 is another. I personally can’t wait till 2013 to see yet another apocalypse not occur!

  2. MNP says:

    Well partially. I mean it’s obvious we have problems that threaten the entirety of human civilization (climate change). But it also seems that our political systems (and here I point the finger at everyone though of course the US is the worst) are completely in capable of doing that.

    So faced with such a massive threat and such an inability to reach it, at what point does survival justify extraordinary measures?

  3. wendell krossa says:

    Apocalyptic has, historically, a one hundred percent failure rate. Why? Because it denies the overwhelming evidence of long term trends which all show improvement and progress over the longest time frames. Both Julian Simon (Ultimate Resource) and Bjorn Lomberg (Skeptical Environmentalist), among others (Matt Ridley, Rational Optimist), have presented detailed evidence from the most respected data sources that show all the main trends of life, while not perfect, have been improving over the long-term.
    One simple check- if the environment is so messed up and dangerous, why are we all living longer than ever, and healthier than ever?

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