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Reviews

­Apocalypse

Steve Tomkins

A history of the end of time
John Michael Greer
Quercus, 216pp

Apocalypse When:
Why we want to believe there will be no tomorrow
Ted Harrison
DLT, 177pp
­
Asking what accounts for people's continued fascination with the end of the world brings to mind Zaphod Beeblebrox's and Ford Prefect's comments on the dress code of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe: 'The end of the universe is very popular. People like to dress up for it.' 'Gives it a sense of occasion.' The end of everything that we know, unprecedented catastrophe, the day of judgment and the showing-up of God - what's not compelling about that?

The problem of course is with our predilection for prediction. Followers of the Abrahamic religions have made more announcements of the coming of the Lord than there are stars in the sky, though we're still a way behind the sand on the shore as yet. There's got to be some cause for concern for people who have such confidence in their prophetic understanding, despite a hundred per cent failure rate. So far.

These two books are responding to the latest flurry of apocalyptic silliness, the idea that Mayan calendars nail the end of the world at 21 December 2012. If you're reading this after that date, you'll know how wrong that was. If you're not, I think you probably know anyway. Greer's book offers quite a detailed explanation of where that idea came from and what's historically wrong with it, but I won't try to summarise: time's too short for debunking ideas that weren't even in the bunk to start with.

Greer is a US humanist archdruid and a religious  sceptic - or at least a sceptic about monotheism. His book - which in the States goes by the rather nice title of Apocalypse Not - aims to trace the idea of the imminent end of the world from Zoroastrianism through Judaism and Christianity to today.

Harrison was Religious Affairs Correspondent for the BBC, and writes from a more detatched but perhaps more sympathetic perspective. While he also takes the story back to the ancient world, his attention is mostly focussed on modern Christian end times shenanigans.

Greer's book covers a lot of ground briskly and accessibly, though there is a little too much vague unfootnoted citation of 'scholars' for my taste. My real problem with it though is his central thrust, which is to treat the apocalypse as a 'meme'. This of course is Richard Dawkins's term - which, I contend, does not necessarily make it objectionable - the idea being that ideas survive, thrive, spread, evolve and die according to the same laws of natural selection as apply to genes. Greer talks of this as a 'theory', of which the apocalypse is a convincing example. But memism is a theory, not in the sense of a scientific proposition which can be proved  or disproved, but in the sense of a way of looking at what we already know, which, if it works well, helps us to make better sense of it. And this book showed me what an unhelpful idea the meme is.

Greer starts with the historian Norman Cohn's analysis, whereby Zoroaster invented monotheism, which landed him with the problem of evil, so he invented the end of the world where the good go to heaven forever. Problem solved. The Jewish people picked this up in their Babylonian exile, remade YHWH in its image, and passed the results on to the rest of us.

So far so plausible. The problems start when we get to the specifics of Jewish apocalyptic hope. Instead of an unjust world being being destroyed and believers going to heaven, the Messiah is to liberate the nation and establish a kingdom on earth. Are these really the same idea? By the end of the book, the meme has encompassed Muslim hope, the rapture (obv), Marxist utopianism, comet cults, the Y2K panic and dreams of super-intelligent computers. If the apocalypse has evolved to be religious and secular, utopian and catastrophic, political, technological and supernatural, cosmic and restricted to those parts of the universe that depend on Microsoft, then what sense does it make to think of it as a single idea? Unlike genes, ideas have multiple sources, making this family tree seem rather oversimplified.

Thinking about ideas in terms of Darwinian survival also obscures the question of whether they are true or not. The book's US subtitle is Everything you know about 2012, Nostradamus and the rapture is wrong - but showing an idea's antecedents does not prove it wrong. Global warming has as much right to be considered a fear of the end of the world as Y2K. Does that make it the apocalypse meme and therefore untrue?

Ultimately, whether today's ideas of the end of the world are direct descendents of Zoroaster's is just not the most interesting question. Much more interesting than  analysing the supposed genetics of ideas, as if they had a life of their own, is asking what the obsession tells us about the human mind. Not whence but why.

Which is the answer promised by the subtitle of Harrison's book. It reels in a lot of stories and leaps briskly from one to the other, but the most engaging part of the book is a whole chapter devoted to Harold Camping's apocalypse, promoted by Marie Exley-Sheahan. It was the social media apocalypse, and the transcripts of online exchanges make moving reading.

But in fact there is little here about where these beliefs come from, and the interpretations Harrison does quote come with a BBC reporter's ingrained refusal to commit. One of them, is that people turn to apocalypticism when times are at their hardest - a natural assumption with much historical backing, but as Harrison notes it's hard to square with rapture mania in the post-war US. Maybe we need to think not just of socio-economic hardship but a sense of powerlessness. For all its affluence, the US since 1945 has been a people bombarded with the red menance and Islamic terror. And if fear makes you feel powerless, the coming of Antichrist's all-powerful regime is the perfect projection of that fear, while the coming of Christ to turn the tables is the ultimate tonic.

Perhaps another element of the appeal of the apocalypticism is that it highlights, however melodramatically, a truth - one that is otherwise so hard to grasp, that the world around us that seems utterly solid and permanent is anything but.

Stephen Tomkins