So, apparently that eminent theologian and Master political strategist Michelle Bachman is declaring that the United States might be facing utter destruction from the Wrath of God for allowing gay marriages. There’s nothing especially news worthy about ignorant people spewing infantile nonsense. But Bachman was elected to Congress, and even had serious aspirations for the office of President. In order for this to have occurred, Bachman had to receive significant support from a wide range of the public – people who voted for her, people who volunteered for her, people who donated money to her various campaigns, and so on. How is it that so much support was so eagerly forthcoming so as to create Bachman’s political successes and nourish such high ambitions, especially given how disturbingly limited her cognitive faculties apparently are? Are Americans just stupid for buying in to such staggering infantilism? In particular, what is it about “end of days” cultism that it finds so much appeal to so many Americans?
The framing of the question is something of a deliberate cheat on my part. For one thing, we do not, in fact, know whether end-times beliefs are more prominent amongst Americans than other nationalities and cultures. Many persons on the political left will eagerly assume that Americans are so prone, but that is due as much to how the press and the media give prominence to such beliefs and the people who espouse those claims. It is risky to make such assumptions. Recall, for example, how commonly it continues to be taken for granted that anti-vaccine twaddle is far more prominent amongst liberals than conservatives, even after someone finally thought to look at the issue and discovered that it was not. Empirical questions require empirical answers, and then those answers must be properly attended to.
But let us suppose for the sake of argument that end-times beliefs are more prominent amongst Americans than, at least, people in other industrialized nations. One factor that makes this seem like a reasonable hypothesis is that Americans appear to be more religious than people in other industrialized countries. But even if religion is a necessary component, it does not seem to be a sufficient one. Thus, the Phillipines or Brazil both rate as more religious than the US, yet the do not seem (on the surface) to be as readily gulled by end-times rants as we are. (This impression might be mistaken – again, we lack genuine data here.)
It should also be noted that end-times beliefs come in a great variety of sizes and flavors. Yet a belief that has almost zero real adherents might receive enormous coverage in the media due to its particularly outlandish claims or actions, as when a small group stands on a hill waiting for the Flying Saucer people to gather them all up. In addition, even within the conservative Christian groups who take end times claims very seriously, there is no single version about who has the “correct” set of ideas. So another contributing factor might well be the extremely heterogeneous nature of religion in America. This heterogeneity allows many different end-times visions to prosper, where in a more homogeneous culture such appeals might “fall on deaf ears,” unless they fit a set of parameters that were specific to the culture as a whole.
Another factor that seems essential is extreme religious conservatism and/or “right wing authoritarian” types of mindset, as variously discussed by Rosenberg and Altemeyer (see this earlier post.) Liberal religions simply do not have the kinds of fear driven politics, internalized sense of threat from the world, or hatred of mundane existence with all its messiness and insistent forms of variety, that conservative religions have. People embrace end-times thinking because they want no more part of this world. Even when liberals are furious with things – even to the point of advocating revolution – that is a revolution in this world. End timers want to just throw in the towel and be carried off to their idea of paradise. Indeed, anyone who goes to a liberal church will likely be struck by the messages of joy, love, and embracing our differences, while conservative churches seem far more likely to speak of sin, punishment, and eternal retribution. With the latter as the paradigm of what the god(s) have in store for this world, who wouldn’t be glad to be quit of the whole, sad thing (having secured a position on the “good guys” side first, of course)? It is to be noted that such aggressively conservative religious believers will outright deny that the liberal representatives of their respective churches are practicing any religion, much less “the true” religion. Within the general domain of Christianity, these conservatives will also often imagine that Jesus was a Caucasian who embraced unregulated capitalism as the only real path to God.
The defense of such end-times beliefs often turns upon a rigidly narrow and heavily cherry-picked reading of the appropriate sacred texts. This reading will frequently be justified as “literal,” a notion that any person who’s taken a Freshman level literature class will easily recognize as (literally?) meaningless, even when applied to contemporary writings. When the texts involved are a hodge-podge of independent works, each of which is anywhere form 1900 to over 3000 years old, gathered together by some viciously political agenda, then scrubbed through dozen and more centuries of retranslation and reinterpretation, such as the Bible has been, then the very notion of a “literal” reading becomes one of the most singularly vapid pieces of cognitively vacuous twaddle ever produced in Western civilization. Nowhere in the Bible does the Bible say how the Bible is to be read. This is because nowhere in the Bible does the Bible refer it itself. And this is because it is not possible for the Bible to refer to itself, since that particular collection never existed when the original texts were being composed.
Even in the case of a more univocally sourced document such as the Qur’an, issues of interpretation are rampant. Despite being written in a single, common language, with a previously established and understood script, both of which are still in active use today, it remains the case that the Arabic of the Qur’an is 1500 years old. Even leaving aside those cultural features of the 6th C. with which we have no meaningful contact, all languages change. A person fluent in contemporary Greek would find the Greek of the New Testament largely unreadable. And within the West, the Greek language and alphabet has been one of the most stable languages within experience or even imagination. By the same token, the Arabic of the Qur’an posses significant reading and interpretation challenges to contemporary Arabic readers. This is why, whenever someone claims that the Qur’an says this or that, one must always demand that the person making this claim supply a citation to both the surra being quoted, and the translation being used. (As an aside, it is sometimes stated that the Qur’an can only be read in the original Arabic, that it cannot be meaningfully translated; this is utter nonsense. Such a claim would amount to saying that Arabic cannot be translated. But this, in turn, would mean that Arabic could never be learned – even by a native speaker – in the first place. All language acquisition, even by an infant native to the culture, is a process of translation.)
So to review, wide-spread end-times cultishness appears to depend essentially on conservative religions in a heterogeneous culture. End-times thinking seems to only ever appeal to a small segment of any cultural milieu, so in order to be wide-spread a lack of large scale uniformities of religious beliefs permits the emergence of a great number of such cults, each with its own very limited scope of appeal. But conservatism &/or “right wing authoritarian” thinking also seems to be an intrinsic feature, for the compartmentalization and cherry-picking of data that will stove-pipe the beliefs of the credulous into the desired conclusion, a conclusion that says this world deserves to burn, and we’re not going to be here when it does. (Neener neener … )