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Fears of the Apocalypse: The Escape from Reason

Special Report

Paul Kurtz

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 23.1, January / February 1999

Millennium hysteria has been with humankind for a long time, but when it is combined with doomsday prophecies, the result can be a dangerous flight from reason. The following was adapted from the opening address at the Second World Skeptics Congress held in Heidelberg, Germany.

Is the world about to end? Are we living in the last days of civilization? Will the human species and the planet Earth be engulfed in fire storms, earthquakes, floods, or be destroyed by the impact of an asteroid? As we approach the year 2000 we are surrounded by prophets of doom who predict that terrible disasters await us. Obviously the year 2000 has special significance in these scenarios, for it marks the beginning of a new millennium. The year 2000 and the years soon thereafter seem to be the deadline for many end-time prophets. But we may ask: Does the new millennium start January 1, 2000 or 2001? The calendar we use begins at year 1 instead of 0 -- for a zero was left out in the transition from b.c. to a.d. Thus, a century does not begin with a double-zero year, but ends with it. If this is the case, the new century and millennium begin with an 01-year, not an 00-year.

But it is not clear that 2001 is the beginning of the new millennium, because the Western world measures it by the birth of Jesus Christ. But many Biblical scholars agree that we know very little if anything about him, though many believe that he was actually born four to six years before the year a.d. If this is the case, the third millennium might already may have begun in 1996, not in 2000!

The millennium is actually a human creation of our culture, an arbitrary date in eternity. Why it should be of special significance is muddled, aside from its religious meaning or cultural bias.

Most non-Christian cultures in the world do not measure the calendar by the date of Christ’s birth. The Chinese year in 1998 is 4696, the Hebrew calendar 5760. For the Muslims, the calendar begins in 622 a.d., when Muhammad went from Mecca to Medina, and 1998 is actually the year 1420. It is 6236 according to the ancient Egyptian calendar, 2749 for the Babylonian, 2544 for the Buddhist, 5119 for the Mayan great cycle, and 2753 according to the old Roman calendar.

The Gregorian calendar was first initiated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, replacing the Roman Julian calendar of Julius Caesar, which was ten days different from today’s. After the decline of Rome, Britain celebrated New Year’s Eve on December 25th -- until William the Conqueror changed New Year’s to January 1, 1066, the date of his coronation. Britain subsequently changed it to March 25th, and later to accord with other countries. The French desired Easter Sunday to be New Year’s Day. For the Chinese, New Year’s Day is at the end of February.1

Thus, January 1, 2000 or 2001 is really a meaningless non-event -- an expression of Western socio-cultural prejudice, of no special significance in the nature of things.

Secular Doomsday Prophecies

Nonetheless, there is a perennial concern for the future. Human beings always wish to peer ahead and know what will ensue tomorrow or next year or in the next century. Many of these interests are based on expectations of a better and more promising world. But there are often predictions of gloom, and great apprehension.

Three kinds of forecasts may be distinguished among the Doomsday prophecies. First, secular predictions. We recently enjoyed a period of great economic optimism, as stock markets, at least in Europe and America, soared. The bulls dashed forward with rosy forecasts. There was sustained technological scientific expansion. Some people even predicted a long boom in which the economic cycle had been overcome. This was based on new industries: telecommunications and the information revolution, biogenetic research, and space technologies. Under this scenario the bulls predicted that Germany and France would overcome their recession, unemployment would be solved, the Asian and Russian economic slump would become a thing of the past, and gross domestic products would continue to expand as prosperity gains. This scenario was one of unlimited horizons. By contrast, the bears focus on the negative: The year-2000 computer bug will wreak havoc everywhere, they warn, oil shortages will appear, either deflation will overcome us or inflation will re-ignite, and the Dow-Jones stock exchange average will plummet from 9,300 to 3,000 in a short period of time. Here the pessimists prevail. Following the scenario of the Dutch Tulip bubble bust, crowd psychology rules the day, as the public is engulfed first by the fervor of speculative binge and then by pessimistic forecasts of doom. One may ask: whose prophecy of the future will prevail -- the optimists, pessimists, or neither?

Another key source of present doomsday scenarios is science fiction, in which the future is unusually bleak: either Big Brother will emerge, or complete anarchy will prevail. Science projects doomsday asteroids or comets striking the earth. Deep Impact and Armageddon, two Hollywood movies, arouse fear and terror, and Jurassic Park brings back the dinosaurs to devour us.

Probably the most frightening secular prognostications are environmental scenarios of runaway population growth and devastating ecological pollution.

Many of these forecasts are not end-of-the-world predictions, but they illustrate the difficulties of making long-range extrapolations. Of course there are real dangers -- from environmental damage to nuclear war -- and we need to be aware of them and to take rational precautions; for example, global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer. I am surely not denying that there are genuine problems that need to be seriously addressed. But not too long ago we were warned that the world would be overtaken by famine, that hundreds of millions -- even billions -- of people would starve to death, and that the cities and countrysides would be teeming with swollen bellies. Contrary to expectations, India and other impoverished countries have managed to increase their food production, and while there are famines in Africa, the predicted worldwide famine has not occurred.

Demographers told us only a decade ago that population growth would increase exponentially and that there was no way to stop it. By the year 2000, they said, there would be seven billion inhabitants on the earth, and by 2020, 15 billion or more. But, in many parts of the world, there has been a significant decrease in the rate of population growth; and the extreme projections for 2020 are most likely exaggerated.

Some ecologists maintained only twenty years ago that by 1980 the atmosphere would be so polluted that we would need to wear gas masks year-round -- not even in Los Angeles has this occurred! They warned that many of our lakes and waterways would be so despoiled that all of their fish and plant life would be destroyed. The Great Lakes, they said, would be totally dead. President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 visited the Buffalo River in western New York and ignited it with a match. Massive efforts to clean it up followed. There has been a noticeable increase in the fish harvest in Lake Erie, and the lake seems to be coming back. Ecologists have warned that we would deplete our natural resources and run out of oil, gas, and other fossil fuels in the near future. In the long run they are probably correct, but new resources have been discovered and new sources of energy developed.

A frenzied phobia of the unknown surrounds the additives and chemical wastes of modern technological society. There is fear of cancer-causing agents; everything from fluoride to sugar has been claimed to be noxious.

We have been told by successive Cassandras that the imminent collapse of major banks would bring down the entire world financial system, that galloping inflation was uncontrollable, and that we were on the verge of a depression that would change the face of society. No doubt we will continue to experience recessions, possibly even depressions, in the future. Marx predicted armageddon for the capitalist system. Millions of pessimists are still waiting for that to occur. They think every recession will lead to a worldwide economic collapse. Interestingly, George Orwell’s 1984 has arrived and passed and our freedoms are still intact, much to everyone’s surprise.

Overhanging all of this is the sword of Damocles -- nuclear energy. Nuclear fears engulfed large sectors of society. Anything related to radiation was considered diabolical. In many countries the public shrinks in terror at the thought of the opening of new nuclear power plants. The greatest fear of all is the fear of a thermonuclear holocaust. We are admonished on all sides that death stares us in the face and that some miscalculation would inevitably trigger a worldwide nuclear war. The results, we were told, will be a nuclear winter and the near extinction of all life on this planet. This was the Age of Anxiety par excellence.

Pessimists become angry at realists who think that civilization and the human species are likely to muddle through periodic crises and mini-crises but still survive these end-of-the-world forecasts. I am only advising that we place them in a balanced perspective. But to say this infuriates those who are convinced that our whole universe will collapse. In one film Woody Allen worried about what modern astronomers have to say about the cosmos, that there are two ultimate possibilities: either the universe will expand into infinity, cool down, and die, or eventually collapse into itself like an accordion.

For many the Apocalypse seems to be almost a wish fulfillment. The mundane world lacks the drama that a fertile apocalyptic imagination produces.

Religious Doomsday Prophecies

A second area for Doomsday scenarios are religiously based. Indeed, we today find hundreds of millions of people who interpret the world primarily through a biblical lens and see their own end-of-the-word scenarios. Much of this is based on the Book of Daniel of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation of the New Testament. But their vision is far more terrifying than anything that mere secularists can dream up, because it is all part of God’s plan of punishment for sinners. And it is imminent. Moreover, only a small portion of suffering humanity will be saved from it. Several Protestant sects, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have held apocalyptic theologies in the past.

Today the message that fundamentalist prophets are preaching is one of a millennial Armageddon. They are truly convinced that we are living in “the last days,” and they view earthquake tremors, wars, and rumors of war as signs of the impending apocalyptic disaster. The last great battle of Armageddon is approaching, we are warned. Indeed, this generation, many of them insist, is the last generation, and this was all foretold in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus said: “I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all” (Matt. 24:34-35, New English Bible). And “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matt. 24:34, King James Version). Many of Jesus’ disciples believed that his admonitions applied to his own generation in the first century a.d. That prophecy did not come true for the early Christians, and almost 2000 years have since passed. We were told by Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, David Koresh, Harold Camping, Edgar C. Whisenant, and other evangelists that the generation referred to is ours. Even President Ronald Reagan was quoted as saying in the 1980s: “You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself considering if we're the generation that is going to see that come about. I don't know if you noted any of those prophecies lately but, believe me, they certainly describe the times we're going through.”

In his book, The Late Great Planet Earth (a bestseller in the U.S. in past decades), Hal Lindsey claimed that Armageddon is just around the corner. According to biblical prophecies, seven years of terrible tribulation will soon befall mankind. This period is about to begin because the Jewish people after the long Diaspora have finally returned to their ancient homeland in Palestine, which they left after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. And it is a genuine reality, we are told, because of the establishment of the State of Israel.

Next, Lindsey says, the Israelis will rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Then a whole series of cataclysmic events will trigger the final Armageddon. A great war will ensue. Israel will be invaded from all sides: by a confederacy from the North (which was said to be the Russians), by the Arab nations, and by a great power from the East (which was identified as the Chinese). During the period leading up to these events, there will also emerge a European confederation -- the old Roman Empire, now the European Common Market -- headed by an Antichrist preaching a new religion. These years will witness the greatest devastation that mankind has ever seen. The valleys will flow with blood, cities will be destroyed by torrents of fire and brimstone -- this, it is said, represents a thermonuclear war, World War III, the most awesome holocaust of all time. At that moment, Jesus Christ will return to rescue in rapture those true believers who accept the word. Christ will reign for a thousand years and eventually establish his final kingdom throughout all eternity.

In a series of four new books that have suddenly swept to the top of the bestseller list, millions of people disappear from the face of the earth. The have been snatched from homes and offices, automobiles and airplanes -- all saved by the rapture, which has taken God-fearing Christians to heaven, while the rest of humanity is left behind to suffer the terrible trials and tribulations inflicted by the Antichrist. This is the plot of the fictionalized apocalyptic series, Left Behind, by fundamentalist preacher Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.2 LaHaye ominously forewarns on his Web site that the year 2000 computer problem could trigger a “financial meltdown” as prelude to the world’s destruction.

Fears of the “last days,” it has been claimed, appeared at the end of the first millennium. Charles Mackay, in his 1841 work, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, depicted the epidemic terror that seized Christendom in the middle of the tenth century, as people expected the last judgment.3 Some said that Mackay’s account was pure hyperbole. In any case, the first millennium passed without the destruction of the world! Why should it occur in the second?

Many people in history have believed in the end-of-the-world scenario based on the Bible, and they often thought that it applied to their own age. A graphic illustration is the case of William Miller and his followers in the nineteenth century. Miller, a fundamentalist Protestant preacher from Vermont (and precursor of the Seventh-Day Adventists) studied the Bible carefully. He was convinced that the world would come to an end in his own day, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. He based his analysis upon a specific biblical passage that draws on the Book of Daniel. “And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed” (Dan. 8:14, King James Version). Miller interpreted “days” as “years.” Since the prophecy was dated 457 b.c., the end of the world, he said, would occur two thousand and three hundred years later, in 1843. The Millerite groups -- which numbered in the thousands -- sold their possessions and awaited the final day. But, as we know, nothing happened. When 1843 passed he extended his prediction by another year, but again nothing happened. This forecasting of the end of times has been repeated many times throughout history. The same thing is most likely true, in my judgment, of present-day predictions of Armageddon.

Other religious traditions have prophetic-apocalyptic themes: Buddhism awaits Lord Matrieya, Islam the Madhi; Orthodox Judaism the Messiah; and Native American Indians wish to return to nature as it was before the European invasion. For those who use the Mayan calendar, the world will end in 2012.

It is clear that a state of belief may help create a self-fulfilling or suicidal prophecy. A widely held belief can have profound political and social ramifications, especially if it is held by people in positions of power. Apocalyptic thinking may mean that those who are under its sway will do little or nothing to prevent overwhelming disaster, fatalistically awaiting what is inevitable; or they may so act as to allow it to come true, believing that they are fulfilling divine prophecy. The problem with faith in prophecy is that it can take control of the future out of the hands of those best able to shape it. We are supposedly impotent and helpless creatures awaiting our fate, unable or unwilling to exert any influence to rectify or modify the course of events. The fixation on apocalypse grows out of fear of the unknown, and it is fed by hope for redemption. Often when the prophecy is falsified, the convictions of the believing group are intensified and the prophecies extrapolated.4

In democratic societies we need an informed public capable of wise decisions and without fantasy. We know of the dangers that distorted, apocalyptic, survivalist, conspiratorial, or pseudoscientific ideologies have had on societies.

New Age Doomsday Prophecies

A third kind of doomsday prophecy is that offered by New Age cults. The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and the world skeptics movement have examined a great number of the paranormal claims that are proliferating today from psychics, fortune tellers, seers, and gurus of various kinds. These include the failed predictions of Edgar Cayce, “the Sleeping Prophet,” who warned of a massive shifting of the poles in the years 2000-2001. They involve a number of suicide cults, such as the UFO-related “Heaven’s Gate” and the French-Swiss-Canadian space-age religion, “The Order of the Solar Temple.” They also include the bizarre annihilation agenda of Japan’s “Aum Shinrikyo” cult, and the many New Age cults proliferating in Russia today. There are also numerous astrological predictions of disaster due to planetary alignments, such as the so-called “Jupiter Effect.” And psychics are now having a field day in their Armageddon prophecies. How many times are those who claim to have precognitive or psychic powers correct in their prophecies? The track record, I submit, is extremely weak. We can and do make predictions about the future based on evidence and rational inference, and often these predictions are reliable. But those made on the basis of mystic power, psychic intuition, or astrological forecasts prove to be no more accurate than anyone’s wild guesses. Those who make such claims often fit a prophecy or vision to present circumstances after the fact, or they make the prophecy so general that it can be related to virtually any case. This has been done with the predictions of the ever-popular Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century seer. His quatrains have been read by every generation, including the present one, and his prophecies have been adapted to all sorts of circumstances in every time period. Often what is taken as prophetic is only due to coincidence; events are not preordained and predetermined as the prophetic tradition maintains. The future depends upon our own actions in the given situations. There are no special secret paths to knowledge of the future.

In conclusion, we live in a highly developed scientific and technological society. We face awesome problems. If we are to solve them, we must draw upon the best critical intelligence available. We need to use our rational powers, not abandon them. In free societies anyone is entitled to his convictions. Yet democracy presupposes an educated citizenry. When apocalyptic faith is intermingled with ideology, it can have deleterious social, political, and military consequences. It is at this point that all those committed to skeptical inquiry have an obligation to carefully examine those claims being made about our collective future, whether they are based upon so-called revealed prophecies or not, and to submit them to empirical criticism. There is thus a compelling need for critical examination of the prophecies of doom -- whether secular, religious, or New Age -- for these have serious implications for the world at large. And that is one of the key tasks of this World Skeptics Congress.


  1. For fuller discussion of this, see Richard Abanes, End-Time Visions: The Road to Armageddon? (New York and London: Four Worlds Eight Windows, 1998).
  2. The four books, all by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, are Left Behind (1995), Tribulation Force (1996), Nicolae (1997), and Soul Harvest (1998), all published by Tyndale House Publishers.
  3. Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (New York: Crown, 1980).
  4. See Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of Modern Groups That Predict the Destruction of the World (New York: Harper and Row, 1956).

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz's photo

Professor Paul Kurtz is the founder of the Center for Inquiry, CFI's former chairman, the former Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine, and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Kurtz has spent much of his life on the critical examination of religion, but believes that naturalists need to emphasize and build positive alternatives to religion. For Kurtz, it is not enough to reject God, but to affirm the positive implications of the secular humanist perspective.