Certain interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar have led to a widespread pop culture phenomenon declaring the arrival of the Apocalypse. Maya specialists and other scientists have dismissed the prophesied dangers, but this has not prevented the notion from taking hold. It may be that preparing for the End Times is a natural human drive that helps meet some basic psychological needs.
As you may already know, the world is going to end later this year. On December 21st. Armageddon is on its way. Never mind that the reasoning underlying this prediction—that the cycle of the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar is coming to end—is quite likely flawed. Never mind that such prophecies have been made through the ages, by totally disparate groups, in very different cultures, without, it would seem, ever having come true.
None of that has any bearing on the next round of apocalypse predictions, this time focusing on a particular date in 2012. What powerful forces are at work to make ordinary people believe so strongly in something that many of us have no trouble dismissing out of hand? And what can they tell us about our own psychology?
The original source of the dire predictions for the fate of the world, come December, is the ancient civilization of the Maya, who used a complex system for counting the passage of time. One element, their Long Count calendar, consisted of cycles of 144,000 days, called baktun. Counting from the mythical day of Mayan creation in 3114 B.C., thirteen baktun unrolled 5,125 years into the future. The thirteenth, and last, wraps up this year on, or around, December 21st.
The fact that this ancient people’s calendar is ending has led some to fear the worst for what will come after. It is not, however, clear that the Maya had any such concerns. The calendar had to stop somewhere; after baktun 13 was as good a place as any. Anthony Aveni, an archaeoastronomer and Maya specialist at Colgate University, emphasizes that the Maya were more rooted in their ancient past than looking towards the future. He likens the date in December 2012 to New Year’s Eve in our system: Yes, the calendar “ends”…but another follows right behind.
Believers in the significance of this date see the prophecies manifesting themselves in a variety of ways. From a heretofore undetected Planet X lurking in the outer solar system, suddenly revealing itself as it hurtles into the Earth, to an abrupt and destructive reversal of our planet’s magnetic poles, the end could come in any number of spectacular ways. NASA, however, could tell you that such a mysterious planet would have been found long before now. Cornell professor Larry Brown would confirm that pole shifts take hundreds of years or more, without any known impact on life on Earth. It’s easy to debunk the questionable science. What’s harder to explain is why so many people believe, and cling so fervently to, such weak predictions of the end of the world.
Apocalypticism seems to feed some very basic human needs and, accordingly, comes in different forms. Richard Landes, a medieval historian at Boston University, has studied millenarian movements—expectations of major societal transformations, based on 1000-year cycles—of the Middle Ages, especially surrounding the year 1000. From 1996 To 2004, as the director of the Center for Millenial Studies, he also observed the rise and fall of end-of-the-world predictions for the year 2000.
Landes compares apocalyptic desires to a child working on a drawing. The little one might make a mistake here and there, no big deal, but eventually the mistakes accumulate. Eventually, the frustrated kid, in a fit of scribbles, destroys the entire page. Similarly, in the face of so much trouble and uncertainty in our societies, the chance to remake the world from scratch is very appealing to some.
Apocalyptic movements can have different goals for humanity. “The religious version is all about justice. There’s a huge dimension of vengeance and violence,” Landes says, referring to the Biblical Book of Revelation. The current movement surrounding 2012, not stemming from any of the major, modern religions, has significantly less of this mood. Landes thinks of it as the “New Age Apocalypse”, as it is often linked to extraterrestrials, crop circles, UFOs. The New Age approach brings its own values, but with less of the ambiance of a moral pressure washer. The same can be seen in films such as Armageddon or Deep Impact. Landes points out that, with an asteroid threatening the earth, the apocalyptic force is purely destructive; there is no element of the saved versus the damned. And, in the end, humankind unites, using technology designed to kill each other to save one another, instead.
Regardless of the specific motivations of an apocalyptic movement, some common elements can render any of them appealing to their members. “There’s an enormous sense of intimacy,” Landes explains. “It’s a very real commitment, built on false ideas. This feeling of commitment motivates people to convert others. It’s the idea of ‘Convince others and you convince yourself’.”
Belief in a dramatic transformation just around the corner may also provide a method for managing feelings of powerlessness in the face of a troubling future. Professor Landes describes his own concern leading up to the year 2000. He was quite worried about Y2K, the computer bug that could have brought down systems around the globe. At the time, he had a dream where he was faced with an oncoming tidal wave and the terrible choice of either diving head first into it, or turning and running. For Landes, this image represents what any apocalypse believer feels: Something terrible is coming. Do I run? Or dive in, embrace it, and do my best to survive?
The fulfillment of psychological needs for certainty or renewal or feeling in control may explain the initial attraction of some end-of-world beliefs, but when they have failed, time and again, to live up to their predictions, what can keep humanity coming back for more?
In a classic study from 1956, psychologist Leon Festinger and colleagues examined what happens within a group whose apocalypse never comes to pass. The Seekers were followers of a woman called Dorothy Martin who firmly believed she was communicating with aliens. They told her that a flood would destroy the West Coast of the United States, but that a flying saucer would come to rescue the Seekers. Members’ commitment ran deep, some abandoning jobs, homes and families. What the psychologists hoped to find out was how on earth these believers would face the facts when the prophecy failed to come true. Festinger called this disconnect between belief and reality cognitive dissonance. And what he found, in the case of the Seekers, was that they dealt with this uncomfortable mental tension by modifying their prediction (Martin received a new message saying the group had been spared by God, because they had spread so much light in the world) and setting out to find new members.
Richard Landes explains that this reaction can result from too many burned bridges. Group members had given up too much, cut too many ties with their past, to be able to go back to their families and say “I messed up.” An easier response is to up the ante – reaffirm one’s commitment, and even strengthen it by spreading the group’s message.
In subsequent studies of movements failing to predict the end of the world, this reinvigorated recruitment campaign was not noted. Nor did the continuing existence of the world seem to disturb the groups’ philosophies much. Professor Landes sees a common reaction in millennial movements that says “the longer God waits, the more active we need to be.” Followers feel they know what the goal is, so they ought to pick up the slack during God’s delay. There’s no real problem with adapting a prediction in this way. God never said any of these things, there’s no scripture indicating any of these prophecies, Landes points out. These are human interpretations and, therefore, open for updating.
People have always been prone to this sort of adaptation of their apocalyptic predictions. In the years 970, 981, and 992, Good Friday fell on the 25th of March. According to Christian belief at the time, Friday, March 25th was also when God created Man, the day the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the date of the Annunciation, and the day that Jesus died. Such an important coincidence of dates, the thinking went, must also signal the arrival of the Apocalypse. In 1250, Richard Landes explains, Good Friday fell on the same day again. Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk, chronicler and artist, was sure that, this time, March 25th would also mark the end of the world, because, this time, it was also a Christian Jubilee year. “I think it’s the same with 2012,” Landes says. “The Christian dates didn’t work, so now we’ve got a new calendar – the Maya’s. This time it’s different! Failure spurs some people on to new scenarios.”
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Surprisingly (or not), Richard Landes argues that we are particularly susceptible to apocalyptic beliefs in the modern world. “There are so many dysfunctional families, modern conditions are more and more atomized.” The pull of such groups offering a sort of reassurance, or at least action in the face of enormous worry, could prove irresistible for many. “The modern world protects us from a lot of pain. The cocoon of civilization allows us to make fun of people who believe in this stuff. Carl Sagan wrote once that we all think we’re so rational, but that it’s a thin crust. I believe the ‘apocalypse virus’ will constantly mutate to survive, remaining dormant just until the time is ripe.”