Many religions have an apocalyptic element embedded deep inside their dogmas. Since religion attempts to explain the origin of the universe and since everything has a beginning, then everything must have an ending at some point down the line. The Zoroastrian tradition laid the framework for predicting the coming apocalypse and that tradition has been imitated by various religions for eons.
But the real fervor for this type of thinking seems to be peculiarly American, starting with the granddaddy of survivalists William Miller (above), a veteran of the War of 1812 who became convinced the return of Jesus Christ was imminent in his lifetime. Miller’s cause was taken up by thousands, including a publisher who spread his dire predictions through a publication called Sign of the Times.
Many people gave up all possessions to await the end with Miller, and when it didn’t come on schedule, it became known as “The Big Disappointment.” Undeterred, many followers went on to form the Seventh Day Adventist Church, as well as other splinter groups, all of which maintained a fanatical belief in the imminent end of the world as we know it.
My generation was the first to grow up under the specter of nuclear annihilation and that might explain why so many of us buy into fears of an impending apocalypse. In the 1950s, this fear took the form of building atomic fallout shelters in basements as we prepared for World War III to engulf the globe. Early on, some shelter builders wondered if they also needed to worry about their neighbors when the complete breakdown of society as we know it inevitably took place.
However, in most cases of disaster, communities band together and help each other. They seldom turn on each other like mad dogs, which is what some Americans seem to be expecting and why they feel the need to arm themselves in anticipation of the apocalypse.
In 1981, when I became a reporter for the New York Daily News, I decided to document the survivalist movement that had just appeared. Soon this movement would morph into the militia movement and would continue expanding until the bombing of a Federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. That attack killed 168 people, the deadliest act of terrorism in America until 9/11 happened six years later. But the bombing also spelled the end of the militia movement for a time as the country sickened towards violence. April 19th was selected because it was the same day the Branch Davidian siege ended in Waco with 76 fatalities, all killed supposedly because the FBI believed they were planning group suicide. False allegations of child abuse were also circulated to help bring that siege to its violent conclusion.
Why are people so easily manipulated by these sorts of false fears? Fear is the basis of all mind control and you can see how effective it is in the psychological mechanism of Christianity. We live in a world in which millions of people carry a fervent wish for an apocalyptic end to all humankind. This is not a nightmare for them, but something to hope and pray for, all part of their God’s master plan to punish the wicked and reward the virtuous believers like themselves. Yes, the world is coming to an end someday, probably in a few million years, but the bigger question is whether the human race can conquer irrational feelings and construct a more harmonious environment for us all, one based on empathy and compassion instead of fear.