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Friday, May 10, 2019

Hoping For Armageddon - The End Of Time and Global Warming As Validations Of Personal Belief

A recent Pew Research poll (2010) found that by the year 2050, 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ definitely (23%) or probably (18%) will have returned to earth; and nearly 60 percent of white Evangelical Christians believe that he will.

Image result for images armageddon durer

While this may seem surprising, the figures may be more a validation of passionate belief than the realization of prophecy.  In other words, if the world does in fact end, it will validate a lifetime  of absolute, deeply-held, commitment .  The years of devout religious faith will have paid off, the years of Christian brotherhood recognized, and the deferral of more secular interests in favor of the spiritual rewarded.  Death comes to us all, but a fiery end of time presided over by Jesus Christ, ridding the world of the unfaithful and raising those who believe to celestial paradise, is the best death, a sanctified death, a divinely predicted one.  Amidst this final holocaust the true believer can know that he was right, that years of devotion, celebration, and penance was worth it, and that those who denied the power and glory of Christ would get their just due.

Image result for images jesus second coming renaissance painting

To hope for this final accounting in one’s lifetime attests to the power of faith.  Why wait for final judgement and personal vindication?  Since life must end, let it end sooner rather than later.

In this age of identity politics it is not enough to simply join a group to validate one’s one beliefs or commitments.  Life and society have become too competitive for diffidence.  Quiet belief, voting for change, promoting change through the democratic system, and simple devotion are out. Clamorous belief is in.  Emotional worship, violent demonstrations, massive displays of unity and brotherhood, and universal condemnation of political opponents – the more public, obvious, and as loud and demanding as possible the better – make one’s identity clear to everyone; and more importantly, give personal credence, justification and self-worth.

Image result for images hysterical anti-trump demonstrations

Those who insist that the incineration of the planet due to global warming is at hand say that they are protesting to stop it; to prevent the destruction of the world caused by ignorance, indifference, and greed.  Yet the more temperatures climb, polar ice caps melt, and deserts expand, the happier these true believers are.  Such fulfilled prophecy is a far better reward than an unfulfilled one.  Each degree Celsius is a Station of the Cross – a secular Via Dolorosa leading to crucifixion. 

Given the psychological nature of true belief, the irony is understandable.  If the planet were to begin cooling, the forests and plains regenerated, and life returning to pre-catastrophic normality, where would apocalyptic identity go?  Where else can the environmentalist, for whom the goal of unequivocal, lifelong passion is nothing less than the salvation of the world, go?  There can be no causes worthy of this one.  Victory is cold comfort.

Eric Hoffer, whose book The True Believer described this passionate necessity observed:
It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one's neighbor.
Every new adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem.

To have a grievance is to have a purpose in life.

A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed.
Our greatest weariness comes from work not done.
Michael Shermer in The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, details the psychological mechanisms by which individuals use beliefs to create separate realities:
As a 'belief engine', the brain is always seeking to find meaning in the information that pours into it. Once it has constructed a belief, it rationalizes it with explanations, almost always after the event. The brain thus becomes invested in the beliefs, and reinforces them by looking for supporting evidence while blinding itself to anything contrary. Shermer describes this process as “belief-dependent realism” — what we believe determines our reality, not the other way around.
If, Shermer suggests, such beliefs are internal rather than externally- based; that is if they have been created by us and become part of our personality and being, the individual has every reason to defend them at all costs.  It is not much of jump to ironic defenses, the hope for Armageddon as a justification of personalized beliefs.

The 18th century metaphysician David Hume observed that belief is emotional in nature. Belief contains an element of feeling of compulsion or constraint.
The difference between fiction and belief lies in some feeling which is annexed to the latter and not to the former, and must arise from the particular situation in which the mind is placed at any particular juncture. Belief is something felt by the mind”
Image result for images philosopher david hume

It is not surprising that true believers group together.  While association for social, political, and economic reasons is fundamentally human, association for spiritual reasons is a step beyond such practicality. 

The Zapotecs, a pre-Colombian Mesoamerican civilization  lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods.

The Zapotecs and Aztecs also performed ritual human sacrifice, the only way to appease the gods and forestall the savagery of their storms, earthquakes, and floods.  Life in the Oaxaca Valley, fertile and calm, was only borrowed from the gods who made their presence known every day.  Sunrise, sunset and the dark silhouettes of northern mountains reminded them of the immanence of the gods.  Even if they were not angry or retributive, their power was still felt.  The forces of nature and the forces of deity were one.

Image result for images zapotec human sacrifice

One can only imagine the power of the collective, passionate, fearful emotion at such ceremonies. Individual belief, expressed as collective will in the very presence of the deities that they have created and believed in, must have been powerful indeed.   A thunderbolt thrown by angry gods was feared but hoped for – a sign of divine authority and a validation of individual belief.  The nature of today’s collective belief may be a tame version of such paganism, but pagan nonetheless.

Christian theology at its most fundamental is rigorously simple.  Martin Luther streamlined religion and returned to its Biblical principles.  Faith in Jesus Christ and trust in his grace are enough for salvation.  He would be quite appalled at the excesses of fundamentalism today, where simple, pious belief is not enough.  He could never have imagined 10,000 seat megachurches with sound and light, ecstasy, and communal, congregational belief.

Image result for images martin luther

In an earlier day Americans trusted in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and the basic principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.  There would always be issues facing the new Republic, and democratic participation, tolerance, respect, and commitment would be the ways to resolve them.  There would be no need for excessive belief or intolerance in the name of righteousness.  Of course this trust has been tested.  The Salem Witch trials were only an early example of Americans collectively hysterical beliefs; yet the tendency to emotional excess as a means of self-justification and collective belonging has not gone away, and in many respects increased.

The social and political hysteria of the times is not likely to quiet down any time soon, nor is the increase in religious fundamentalism.  The age of temperance, reason, and civility has long passed.  The more complex the world becomes, the greater the tendency to believe in something without reason and to believe in it passionately.  Reason makes no sense in an impossibly complicated world.   And the more ‘diverse’ societies become and the competition among them increases, the more each group is likely to defend itself illogically and emotionally. 

Every March for the Climate, for women’s rights, and for Black Lives Matter; or against homophobia, misogyny, and capitalism is sanctified.  A march on the Mall is no different than attendance at Mass – or better, at a pagan sacrifice in the Valley of Oaxaca. True belief – absolute, emotional, passionate, intemperate belief – is here to stay.

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