December 21st, 2012 proved to be less…cataclysmic than many claimed. Theologians have predicted our demise only to wake up the next morning with egg on their face. There is a rich history of Millennarism dating back thousands of years. Perhaps the earliest form of Millennarism dates back to Zoroastrianism in an obscure Avestan text that asserts “Saoshyant makes the creatures again pure, and the resurrection and future existence occur”, referring to a divinely-instigated catastrophe that wipes out life on Earth. Millennialism is the uniquely Christian form of millennarism, which asserts that society undergoes destruction every thousand years. This belief is derived primarily from the Book of Revelation 20:1–6. But adherents of certain denominations of religions like Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are more likely to hold the belief that the world is going to end than others. Our cultural software plays a role in how likely it is that we think the end is coming.
Lest we assume that this mindset has fallen by the wayside, most evangelical Christians not only believe that the world will end with the second coming of Jesus Christ, but that it will end within their lifetime. Such a worldview is dangerous because it tends to focus fundamentalist practitioners less on the problems going on in the world and more on the anticipated gains of the afterlife. By design, a religion is a culture meant to operate without evidence to support its claims, and in fact, it thrives in the absence of evidence. Combine that with the fervency in which practitioners are instructed to approach the Bible, and there is a dangerous situation here, indeed. Not only are true believers kept from examining their own beliefs for logical flaws in their own reasoning, but the greater they put their belief in those logical flaws, the more devout they revered as in their community. The instruction of one’s spiritual leaders is to be accepted uncritically and followed unquestioningly. Religion is uniquely capable of cutting one’s break lines to reality because the evidence that one’s faith is true only comes to believers after they die. When no amount of evidence will change the devout’s beliefs and when their own beliefs are not dependent on evidence either, there will always be a dangerous outcome, no matter what beliefs the devout may actually hold.
Theologians aren’t the only people to predict doomsday and come up short. It seems that people from all walks of life are prone to making errors in judgement. There is a biological basis for this handicap in humans. Our brains have have molded by evolution and thus have faced evolutionary pressure to make decisions as parsimoniously as possible. Complex brains run heuristics, or shortcuts, in order to make decisions quickly on as little information as possible, oftentimes while inadvertently sacrificing accuracy. Also, our brains tend to remove any constant stimulus from our awareness; we tend to assume environmental conditions are static. This would have allowed our ancestors to be especially observant to any major changes in our surroundings. Unfortunately, it also means that incremental changes go unnoticed. And our brains make snap decisions that aren’t always right. One example of this handicap are optical illusions. Our brains either ignore certain pieces of data or fill in gaps of information with fabricated information that’s not really there. The optical illusion below consists of 12 pink dots in front of a field of gray. One by one the pink dots are covered up and then revealed in a clockwise sequence. But what happens when the viewer stares at the plus symbol in the center as the dots go around and around?
It seems as though it’s human nature to read into things that may or may not be there. Evidence suggests that this predisposition is hardwired into us; it stands to reason that in a primeval environment most vertebrates have been concerned with attacks from predators. It’s conceivable that most organisms have a fight-or-flight response because a predator spotted in the middle of the night would give them only seconds to respond or risk getting eaten, and it’s advantageous to be able to react quickly. But fight-or-flight responses were built up in us by the trial-and-error of natural selection, and they are imperfect, at best. So the fight-or-flight response would make a creature vulnerable to false positives and false negatives. A false negative means that a threat to that organism was missed (usually with deleterious results). A false positive, therefore, occurs when an organism mistakenly reacts to a perceived threat when in fact no such threat exists. Obviously, a false negative would be much more detrimental to one’s health than a false positive (any wounds to one’s pride would certainly heal…). So evolution has hardwired us to be more sensitive of false negatives than false positives. This results in an overactive brain that constantly looks for patterns in the environment, constantly searching for patterns that may or may not be there. And this is the evolutionary basis for superstitious or magical thinking; our hardware betrays us.