Left behind the 8-ball

Historical repost from July 2011.
Because of uncertainties associated with Poe’s Law and intellectually bankrupt editors, it is often difficult to discern the topic of an article from its headline. Before reading “How conservatives have taken the scary out of the ‘Apocalypse,'” I was afraid it might be a plea to insert more certitude and vitriol into apocalyptic belief systems. I was grateful, then, to have my fears dispelled by Professor Susan Thislethwaite of the Chicago Theological Seminary.

She notes the pervasive preaching of end-times philosophies in Evangelical churches, along with frightening apocalyptic Halloween perpetrated on young children. Evangelical Christians are primed from an early age to subscribe to some sort of “not soon enough” end-of-the-world scenario.

She cites, too, the Left Behind series of novels (credit Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins) for nurturing the belief that not only will the end-times occur soon, but good Christians need not worry because they will be raptured beforehand. Before noting why I’m so eager to have Thislethwaite agree with the secular community on the intellectual corrosion of an apocalyptic worldview, I should submit a minor philosophical point: How disgraceful is the schadenfreude these end-timers preach? It’s the sort of feeling a teenage sociopath might espouse. What kind of person revels in the suffering of another human being?

That aside, Thislethwaite’s concern about apocalyptic worldviews is a real one, and it’s refreshing to see a religious leader taking this seriously. As I’ve noted before: how can a person make long-term decisions if she believes there is no long-term? How can we expect any of the Evangelical senators –who, along with over half the American population, believe the world is going to end within our lifetime–to make serious, informed decisions about the well-being of our grandchildren or the state of the Earth 200 years hence.

It is bad enough the human brain does not work well with longer periods of time–we evolved to deal with medium-sized objects at medium speed in medium-length periods of time, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins notes. Ninety-nine percent of our evolutionary history was spent with lifespans of 20-30 years with sky-high infant mortality rates and no global economy or civilization to speak of. Thus, we are quite good at planning for tonight’s dinner, but useless in planning a week in advance–forget about the decades and centuries implicated in economic, climatic, and educational planning. Decisions affecting the situation far in the future are difficult enough as it is–we don’t need to make the process any more arduous. And we certainly should not ignore them, as it were. End-timers are like people in deep credit card debt saying, “Just wait, just wait. I’m sure someone will bomb the bank or an earthquake will hit it before they come for us! Don’t worry about it! Let’s buy a jetski!” No, no, no. There is no reason to believe the bank won’t be there, just as there is no reason to believe the Earth will magically be turned on its head any time soon. All the evidence tells us it will be around for a couple more billion years, assuming we don’t rid it of life prematurely.

Thislethwaite stands in the secular camp on this position:

‘What me, worry?’ is the true message of this new biblical apocalypse as described in the pre-millennial version. It is not biblical, but it is very, very popular.

And this is where we differ: if the secular community can’t find purchase for rational discussion with these religious populations, how can any subsets of the populations themselves? “It’s not biblical?” They certainly think it is. Contemporary theologians (most of them) hold many of the same values and beliefs as the secular community, but argue for the benefits of their respective religions, even as their coreligionists don’t care what they have to say. The end-timers will continue to listen to those they trust–their ministers, not their apologists and theologians–and so the path of least resistance to solve this problem seems to be through whomever and wherever these ministers are being educated.

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