On the morning of March 26, 1997, San Diego police were called to a rented mansion in the upscale community of Rancho Santa Fe, California. There they discovered the bodies of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult who had each apparently taken their own lives in an act of mass suicide. Why? Because they had been convinced by their leader that by doing so, their souls could hitch a ride on a spaceship they believed was hiding in the tale of the Comet Hale-Bopp, which would then spirit them away to an extraterrestrial heaven.
In November 18, 1978, 918 men, women, and children took their lives at the behest of "Reverend" Jim Jones and his henchmen in the jungles of Guyana, all in an effort to avoid the coming apocalypse their psychotic leader had convinced them was imminent. Most died by drinking a grape-flavored drink laced with cyanide.
Of course, these are extreme cases, but why did they happen? Why are so many often intelligent people so easily persuaded to accept the notion that the end is at hand?
This is the question that induced me to write my most recent book, 2012: Extinction or Utopia, in which I examine this apparent tendency among a considerable percentage of the population to embrace the most outrageous end-times claims without question by examining doomsday prophecies—both past and present—in an effort to better understand why this phenomenon occurs.
So what did I discover in the course of researching the book? While space will not permit me to provide a detailed analysis of what I have discovered, there are a few conclusions I have drawn that I feel impelled to share with you.Of course, the first and most basic question that needs to be asked is why are so many people willing to believe the world is coming to an end?
There are a number of reasons. Probably the most common and, in a way, understandable, rationale has to do with our discomfort with the uncertainties of life and the feeling that things are out of control on our planet. We live in uncertain times, and uncertain times breed feelings of fear and foreboding in some people. Many subsequently feel trapped in a world that appears to be full of things that can kill them, enslave them, and impoverish them, leaving many feeling that the future is not only bereft of hope, but that things are spiraling downward each day with ever greater velocity. To many, then—especially those who embrace Messianic end-times beliefs—it gives a sense that someone, presumably God, is in control and that He will ultimately rescue His creation and initiate the paradise on Earth many so desperately crave. Doomsday prophecies, then—at least those that promise some sort of utopian aftermath—are the ultimate "happy ending" and, for many people, a source of considerable hope and comfort.
Another reason some people are so attracted to doomsday beliefs is because they frequently describe exciting and fantastic events that offer relief from the monotony of life. In effect, they are escapist fantasy—a promise, if you will—that the banalities of the world we inhabit are only temporary and will one day be punctuated by a truly extraordinary series of events. Boredom is a powerful incentive to believe the unbelievable, if only as a distraction from the ordinariness of day-to-day living.
Another group that is susceptible to embracing doomsday scenarios is those who see the Earth as such a terrible place that its destruction might be interpreted as a positive turn of events. These are the professional cynics who so fixate on the negative circumstances of life that the promise of complete destruction simply confirms to them that the world is, indeed, a particularly nasty place, thereby justifying their fear and, the truth be told, their cynicism. In fact, many who live in such a world are often annoyed when you suggest that things aren't that bad, as if optimism were irrational and pessimism the only recourse for humanity.
But perhaps the strongest incentive for embracing doomsday scenarios is the belief that one gets from being privy to the future—to feeling that they are "in" on some great cosmic secret. It's almost as if they and a select group of "chosen ones" have been given a special opportunity to peek behind the curtain of eternity as a reward for their cleverness in figuring the puzzle out. For people whose lives are a bit on the ordinary side, such a faith structure brings color to their drab existence and imbues it with a meaning and purpose it previously lacked.
Further, this need to maintain the illusion of self-importance and infallibility often makes such people impervious to being dissuaded from their beliefs, no matter how many times their prophet of choice has been proven wrong or how thoroughly the weight of evidence is stacked against them. Doomsday believers frequently believe with a fanaticism bordering—and often crossing—the line between faith and irrationality, making them particularly vulnerable to coercion and manipulation. This is especially true when their chosen "prophet" possesses an extraordinary degree of charisma and an uncanny ability to convince others of their claims. That combination, when merged with a naive willingness to suspend disbelief and an unwavering allegiance to a leader and/or belief system, is what explains how a Heaven's Gate and a Jonestown are possible. Faith is a wonderful thing when invested in something noble, but like a two-edged sword, it can prove a deadly tool in the hands of the wrong person.
But that doesn't entirely answer the question as to why intelligent men and woman—many often holding PhDs—are so quick to accept the most outrageous claims as a matter of course and hold to them with such tenacity. It seems that common sense would quickly expose the fallacious nature of most doomsday claims and limit their adherents to only the most fringe elements of society, but we often see it evident within large segments of mainstream America as well. How can this be?
The reason has to do, I think, with the fact that many people simply lack the critical thinking skills so vital in determining fact from fiction. I know this sounds harsh, but the fact is that many people—and I am tempted to say most—prefer to accept ideas on a purely intuitive level rather than on a rational one. As such, for many, end-times prophecies make perfect sense not because their proponents have in any way laid out a good, logical case for their beliefs or have demonstrated an impressive track record of making accurate predictions in the past, but because we too often “feel” something to be true. As is often seen in the political arena—especially during an election cycle—it is perception that frequently trumps reality, which makes people make decisions based not upon the facts but upon rhetoric and hyperbole, thereby short circuiting the ability to determine truth with any degree of accuracy or consistency.
Additionally, most people do not have the knowledge base necessary to recognize a fallacious statement when they hear one. In essence, the average man or woman lacks the historical or scientific knowledge necessary to recognize the validity of a specific prediction or possess a context within which to weigh the validity of a particular hypothesis. For example, how many have ever taken the time to study failed prophecies of the past in an effort to acquire some perspective on the subject, or really understand how likely our planet is to be struck by a killer asteroid in their lifetime? It takes work to see through the fallacies, suppositions, historical inaccuracies and just plain nonsense that are such a major element of end-times scenarios, which is something most people have neither the time nor inclination to pursue.
Unfortunately, this lack of a solid historical, scientific, or rational basis upon which to form opinions is what makes many willing to defer to the opinions of others—especially if they consider them to be experts of some kind or to be endowed with a mantle of spiritual authority. As such, if an environmentalist claims that the world will run out of energy in twenty years or a televangelist enthuses about how the headlines are demonstrating that Jesus could return at any time, many believe them without question—often without evidence to support their claims or counter arguments being considered. In effect, we are often simply too willing to accept people's words on things, which is always a dangerous thing to do.
But shouldn't we defer to those who might know more than we do? Certainly, a scientist who warns us that the Earth is warming at an alarming rate doubtlessly knows more on the subject than does the average man on the street, so wouldn't we be wise to take him seriously? And theologians who have spent a lifetime studying ancient texts are clearly in a better position to interpret those writings than a mere layman would be, so wouldn't we be wrong to ignore them?
Obviously we need to listen to professional scientists and should respect the teachings of credentialed Bible scholars, but these are not normally the people causing all the problems. It is the self taught experts who usually make the most remarkable predictions; real scientists and theologians are normally too cautious to boldly set dates or write books recounting doomsday in detail. It is the eccentric, the obsessed, the presumptuous and the just plain reckless who make most of the boldest and outrageous claims. Paradoxically, it sometimes appears that it is the very outrageousness of their claims that makes their ideas so attractive in the first place, which is what makes their success even more inexplicable.
What makes such people especially dangerous is that many are willing to give these people intellectual authority over themselves rather than accept responsibility for their own beliefs, which makes them especially susceptible to accepting the most absurd claims without question regardless of their level of intelligence, social status or educational level. Some people prefer to live in a world of absolutes; one that worships a type of certainty that is unwavering even in the light of reason, science, or subsequent events. Such a mindset is what makes it possible for a cult to convince its followers to commit mass suicide or, for that matter, for any fantastic claim to be taken as truth by large numbers of people. Evidence is not what matters here, but faith. Trust becomes a more valuable commodity than truth, and conformity to the group mindset becomes a virtue to be pursued with unceasing devotion. In effect, belief trumps knowledge, leading many a sincere and otherwise honest person to embrace the most outrageous premise and suffer as a consequence of doing so.
Unfortunately, there are any number of people quite willing and capable of playing to those feelings. Marshall Applegate, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson and scores of others like them (along with an Adolf Hitler for that matter) knew how to use human nature to manipulate people into doing things they would never otherwise have considered on their own. Additionally, many people lack the ability to recognize when they are in the presence of a truly disturbed or fantasy-prone personality, regardless of how obviously disturbed their leader may appear to the objective observer. This inability to discern mental illness—extraordinarily evident in the case of Reverend Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite of Heaven's Gate fame—when combined with a fervent desire or need to believe, can be a fatal combination.
Of course, that's not to imply that all people who make doomsday predictions are disturbed or consciously aware that they are manipulating others. Some truly do believe their own rhetoric and happen to possess the sort of charisma that attracts others to them. In fact, it's likely that most self-professed prophets would consider themselves light bearers for sharing their unique insights with others, never for a minute stopping to consider what impact their teachings might be having on others or what repercussions they might portend if they were to be proven erroneous.
But not all the blame can be placed upon individuals. Sometimes, it is entire organizations, groups, religious factions or even entire nations that perpetrate the most extraordinary nonsense. Dismissing the claims of a single individual is one thing, but it can be difficult to discount the long-held and deeply entrenched teachings of an entire institution such as the church, especially once they become codified into the very fabric of that organization. In some belief systems, discounting any single teaching can be tantamount to rejecting the entire faith, leading to ostricization and, in some extreme cases, even death for heresy. By way of an example, for many fundamentalist Christians, not embracing the prevalent Second Coming mythologies made popular through the writings of Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, Jack Van Impe or any of the dozens of end-times preachers out there often results in the disbeliever's very faith being brought into question. Peer pressure is a big element of doomsday beliefs—especially in the religious arena. This is what makes so many willing to embrace a supposed prophet's teachings in spite of the fact that they are neither compelling nor even particularly rational. And since the "group" often includes close friends—and sometimes even family—leaving it becomes synonymous with abandoning one's roots and support system, making it necessary to suppress critical thinking skills in order to remain part of the "collective." It's difficult enough to abandon a belief system when there is no penalty for doing so; to reject one at the cost of one's family, livelihood, or very life is quite another, and often the main reason a person may hold on to an erroneous belief throughout their lifetime.
Of course, this tendency to conform to "group think" doesn't apply only to doomsday cults, but to many religious, political, and social organizations as well. Those who predict social upheaval, environmental disaster, or technological catastrophe are no different than those who teach a literal judgment day; it is the same mentality that runs through all of them. Without this human characteristic, it would be extremely difficult to create "true believers," be they religious, political or social in nature. As such, were people to approach their beliefs critically, cults and even many political action groups—along with most conspiracy theories—would largely disappear overnight, which really might hasten the start of a genuine golden age of mankind.