Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Big Issues: Anyone up for a Game of End-Times Bingo?

I'm an avowed atheist, but apart from occasional lapses, I try to limit my anti-supernatualist "preaching" to light-hearted piss-taking of thick-skinned religious friends.

Wherever we sit within the many spectra of faith systems though, a conscious concern for Sustainable Human Flourishing forces reflection on the positives and negatives of religion… For me this is especially true at times like this when such madness is again on display in places like Cairo and Benghazi - insanity that has reached my adopted home of Belgium and even as far away as my erstwhile secular homeland of Australia. At times like this, I must pause to reflect on the potential for religious extremism to affect those that I love.

I have to say though, that while I consider religiously motivated terrorism to be a real danger, it seems a massively over-hyped threat when compared with two elephants that quietly share a room with today's most popular religions, specifically:
  • The preoccupation with an afterlife in a non-earthly domain.
  • The eschatological obsession with (imminent?) "end-times".
As widely accepted tenets of many major religions, these ideas influence the worldviews of a majority of the world's population - Mostly unconsciously, these ideas help to shape human politics and human societies - they affect us all, whether we believe in them or not.

Aside: Most people probably think I'm being a bit sensitive, but most people probably don't read reports like this from Pew Research which suggest that as many as 41% of Americans believe Christ will return to renew the earth by 2050. (Edit: Or this from Gallup which claims that 46% of Americans are hardcore creationists and only 15% believe in evolution! These numbers have hardly changed in 30 years...)
Here is the fascinating Gallup report that I stole this graph from
Although such ideas may bring comfort to the religiously inclined, they are by definition, deeply antagonistic to any plans for sustainability here and now, in this world.

In this context, I often find myself reflecting upon the fact that anthropogenic climate change looks almost exactly like most religious end-times prophecies. Ancient historians have written about "holy wrath" brought upon societies great and small in the form of famines, plagues, pestilences, extinctions, resource wars, earthquakes, floods, … 

I find this similarity entirely unsurprising because these awful things surely did happen quite regularly throughout human pre/history. Although inexplicable at the time by anything other than "holy wrath", in many cases, extreme weather or changing climate patterns appear to have contributed. In all past cases though, these were local events. Entire societies may have been wiped off the face of the earth by such "Armageddons", but human civilizations flourished elsewhere. 

Unfortunately, this is not the situation that we face today… Anthropogenic climate change is a global problem. It is slowly but surely bringing its "holy wrath" upon the whole planet, and I am increasingly suspicious that the two aspects of religion above are at the heart of our collective inability to address climate change rationally.

Even the universally present calls in scriptures to protect "creation" are persistently ignored by far too many believers. Otherwise good and earnest religious people, instead of taking up the fight to save creation, sit idly by (eyes and ears closed in denial, or hands clasped in prayer) as creation falls apart around them. Even when the problem is correctly identified, instead of fighting to reverse the problem of climate change, the religious response is more likely to deploy more missionaries to "save" those already starving and dying from its horrific effects.
Thank you so much! Mmm, this bible looks just delicious!
Much has been written about the psychology of climate change denial, and I am quite convinced that religion contributes to this psychology - a mind that has been subjected to religious training must find it easier to accept the false notion that humans are too insignificant to harm "creation". Or to believe, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that a changing climate is all part of some grand cycle that we have no control over.

Conversely, it is no surprise to me that so many climate activists reject the notion of an afterlife, and instead believe that this life, in this world is all that we have... A position that Caitlin Moran has summed this up nicely in this great quote...

I won't dwell further on the first point though, because my concerns about eschatology run even deeper than my concerns about denial and afterlife. Eschatology concerns me greatly because here I often see religious fanaticism turn from the passive to the active. Here, I fear that a similarity between anthropogenic climate change and end-times prophecies actually inspires some eschatological fanatics to pray for climate change, and perhaps even to actively work to speed it up.

There are countless examples of eschatological nutjobs who make it their life's work to help bring about the end-times. Some of you may have heard of pathetic but mostly harmless individuals like Clyde Lott who wants to breed the perfect red heifer, or more invidious groups like the Temple Institute. As you go further up the chains of power though, we start to find more powerful and secretive cabals such as "The Family" described by researchers like Jeff Sharlet. 

Following the thread still further, one is left to consider the tiny numbers of individuals and cartels who control the economic, political, and propaganda levers that keep us all hooked on increasingly dirty carbon fuel sources - many of these individuals and governments openly subscribe to eschatological religious doctrines. Others choose to keep their religious beliefs private, but to me at least, far too many act like extreme "end-timers". 

Try a thought exercise - Try to imagine a world where powerful eschatological fanatics made it their lives' work to speed climate change? Mightn't it look a lot like the world we live in today? A world in which we know that we already have our hands on five times more fossil fuel than we need to kill all life on earth. A world in which, instead of doing the sane (and economically responsible) thing by moving quickly to clean, sustainable energy sources, we'd see a mad rush to exploit increasingly dangerous and dirty fossil fuels - we'd see tarsands mined, we'd see mountaintop removal, we'd see natural gas fracking, we'd see insane doubling-down by drilling for more fossil fuels in places that are only now becoming accessible because we've burned so many fossil fuels, like the Arctic Sea and Greenland!

Not even the most sociopathic criminal or the most disinterested corporation would act this way - This is suicide bomber mentality - the situation that we are in today might actually be better explained as the result of a deliberate, conscious, and active drive to bring the world towards prophesied end-times.

I know that this post has gone a bit Illuminati conspiracy on you (and me), and I'm sorry... I can't help but think though that if they were so inclined, then there would be little to stop the richest and most powerful from using their carbon-heavy influence to tick off the "signs" in an insane game of end-times bingo.

How could we innocent passengers on Spaceship Earth even know if the controls had been overtaken by "jihadists", determined to sacrifice themselves and the rest of us in their quest for other-worldly paradise?

What could we do about it if that were the case?

Edit: Wow - that was a depressing but cathartic post! Now that it's out of the way, please stick with me and check out the next post for a far more positive and helpful angle on religion and sustainability.


  1. To those who still need a Christ-like figure in their lives or are just spiritually inclined I would like to recommend that you suggest this site to them because it helps explain religion in far more noble and less violent terms than is the norm today.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Terry. Interesting that you should mention that because the whole reason I had to write this rather negative and depressing post was to purge a blockage that has been stopping me from writing what I hope will be a far more helpful and productive contribution in precisely the area that you claim to address. After checking your site though, I am not at all sold on your approach because although the goals are clearly stated and ostensibly noble, none of your posts get very far towards delivering on them - all quickly devolve into pseudo-scientific spiritual mumbo-jumbo, with nothing to substantiate…

      If you want to search for any kinds of truth Terry, you really must aspire towards some kind of evidence-based foundation. Still, rather than deleting your post as spam, I will leave it with an extreme health warning because I agree that your approach is likely to be slightly less violent - since this post is likely to draw curious religious types, some of your meta-ideas might provide a thought-provoking bridge that is more helpful and less frightening than my exhortations to atheism :-)

  2. Great post, linked from the Rolling Stone article.

    I wonder lately where paranoia ends and good sense begins.
    I don't think your scenario is all that outrageous, because when I consider the madness of what is happening, I can't come up with any good reason powerful people would not want the world to be there for their kids.

    But your explanation probably applies to more than one individual actor out there, if you think about it, even if not consciously. If consciously--then that is what I have trouble thinking about.

    1. Cheers Burkey - appreciate your stopping by. I too wonder... Of course I would never suggest that this explanation is relevant for *all* of the rich and powerful, but if we look into who controls the carbon, it is clearly relevant for many...

      I have to admit that this was probably the hardest blog I've written because it really does require thinking the unthinkable as you say - This of course means that most people can now safely write me off as just another paranoid conspiracy nut for even trying... :-(

      Still, shaking people out of their comfortable patterns of thinking is what the blogosphere is good for, right! If they don't like thinking differently, then they shouldn't come here and it will be no great loss if they don't come back ;-)

  3. Hi Jamie,

    (minor word spew coming)

    I think it's interesting how religion has been hijacked by right wing groups. I often do not believe that those promoting such ideals under the guise of religion have any other reason for subscribing to such a faith than it suits their ends . Religion has always been used this way and those using it may well have believed in what they preached (I'm sure 'the family' actually are christians, but so what?) but their motivations weren't saintly or religious; they were based on greed for power, influence, money, position or probably more correctly motivated by fear of loss of what they had.

    Most recently that fear of loss is of loss of lifestyle. A lifestyle where we can flit around the world, all drive private cars and use massive amounts of energy. Religion, cleverly used, can augment that fear of loss to include fear of loss of life (hence offering and afterlife or some other compensation), that ones a cracker because , as Caitlin Moran says - we are all going to die - so it gets almost everybody (I am personally not a fan of death at all!)

    I've always been a bit of an apologist for religion. I was brought up by some very open minded, kindly religious people (not so much my parents - only Mum is a Catholic, but I'm thinking of priest, nuns and brothers). In fact some of the most intelligent people I met were in religious orders - some of them liked to argue exactly these kinds of points with me. They (and I still know some) are members of Avaaz and GetUp, they promote Amnesty International and global secularism - and yes they are still (in one case) ordained priests.

    So whats my point - is religion the root of all these issues or is it an innocent victim? I don't know, but I will say religion is particularly easy to hijack, as is nationalism. In fact any cause that claims to protect what you have (life, borders, land, low taxes) is always supported by the throngs. Sometimes the throngs pick different theologies or politics but most often it is base level self protectionism that wins the day.

    Ironically sustainable living is also about self preservation but I suspect it is seen as too hard (lets be honest I've devoted about 2 decades to it and I'm struggling for answers constantly - and I still like to travel around the world despite myself).

    I think you are right - the issues you raise in your post are real, but I truly don't believe its a case of 'ban religion and see intelligent thought prosper'. Religion almost invented science in a lot of ways, particularly in Europe it was the monasteries that became the first universities - even in the east learning institutes came from Confucianism and Taoism, inChina and out of the Hindu and Buddhist schools in India - all had spiritual overtones. Intelligent thought burst out of those institutions despite occupants being highly indoctrinated. Why? because intelligence will always out. I think if we ban religion we'll see border protectionism take its place ( check out the refugee debate) or industry protectionism ( 'can't shut down the timber mill, three generations of my family have worked there!' despite the fact 2 of those generations are dead or retired and the only true generation to be affected will inherit a dying planet). In fact any other kind of protectionism or belief system that preserves current attitudes.

    Therefore, I'm not sure we need a death of religion but the birth of a widespread intelligent, rational and empathetic social conscience.

    1. Hey Matty - thanks for the seriously considered word spew mate.

      Don't get me wrong - I don't want to ban religion and I completely agree with your call for "a widespread intelligent, rational and empathetic social conscience" - Please check my next post (which ironically I was trying to write when this awful post disgorged itself) and you'll see that I'm trying to work towards precisely that - I am very hopeful that religion will awake and become a major force for sustainability.

      I will also observe that even if I did dare dream of a world without religion (as most fundamentalists dream of a world where everyone believes in their religion) I know that it isn't gonna happen in my lifetime ;-) I accept this just as surely as I accept that my children's futures *will* be sealed in my lifetime.

      I also completely agree with everything you say about the fear of loss though - this is clearly true of your average Joe Christian Citizen - Towards the bottom of the economic pyramid the rush to extreme religion and conservatism is a natural fear response to a world that is moving so fast… But at the top of the pyramid, these guys have nothing at all to fear today, or for the foreseeable future if they use their power and money wisely, right?

      You make a good point also about whether religion is the cause of the problem, or the innocent hijack victim (or perhaps a victim with a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome?) - I'm not sure myself either, and I have no way to prove anything, so I'm just like any other ranting paranoiac in the blogosphere of course ;-)

      Before I spent 5 years living in the US, I was quite an apologist for religion too Matt - and despite a couple of pretty down posts recently, I want it to be known that I have no particular animus to religion generally - I see few reasons for concern about the benign kind of mainstream religion that we grew up with in Australia - I don't know if you read my "Religion, Fascism, and Norway" post, but if you somehow managed to get through the first four days worth of of debate between me and my "bible Christian" pastor mate, you would see that I'm mostly concerned by modern personally evangelical/eschatological religions:
      "In fact, it is my discomfort with your kind of "Personal Jesus" Christianity that drives many of the concerns that I expressed above - I personally see it being as fatally flawed as Islam - by which I mean that in the absence of a central authority "American millennialist Protestantism" (I hope that's an ok label?) appears to be rapidly devolving into increasingly extreme "cults of personality" - As I'm sure you know, there are now thousands of eschatological Christian sects that are often led by highly charismatic "Christian Mullahs" - influential leaders who are guided and controlled by no other authority than their personal relationship with their personal idea of a personal Jesus who has given them a personal mission to prepare the world for his imminent return."

      This is really the flavour of Christianity (and Islam, Judaism) that I'm referring to in this post also. If, as you suggest, the most powerful people are self-interested hypocrites who are turning to this kind of religion primarily "based on greed for power, influence, money, position, ..." then they would understand that it is not in their best interest to keep driving the planet off the cliff, wouldn't they?

      Not sure if you've read "The Family" Matt, but it is a gripping exposé that I highly recommend. Sharlet really does test your hypothesis and comes up with some pretty scary counter-examples…

    2. It is probably a good time to quote a friend who made an apposite observation over on Farcebook on a related thread, driven by an article about Rupert Murdoch (one of the people who I allude to in this post - - he observed that for many on the Right, particularly at the top of the economic pyramid, the "goal is basically to accrue wealth so that only their offspring will continue to benefit as the world collapses. They tend to subscribe to a depopulation model and social Darwinism - whereby they consider themselves the strongest - as the survivors."

      I agree with him on this one too (as does Naomi Klein who starts to explore this idea in her brilliant book The Shock Doctrine. Within this context, I think we might actually be seeing eschatology and social Darwinism kinda working to reinforce one another - After all, surely the "fittest" of the social Darwinists have access to even more information than we do - they know full well what a dangerous game they are playing! They must understand that their actions are impoverishing the future that they are bequeathing to their children…

      How do they expect that insane amounts of money will protect their children from the kind of future that they are bequeathing to us all? Why would they even want their children to be on top of the pyramid in a hellish nightmare earth?

      They must be able to see more reasonable ways to use their influence and money to ensure that their children remain on top - there are more reasonable ways to achieve "depopulation", even.

      And this kinda brings me back full circle - back to the idea that maybe it makes more sense if these people were putting more weight on the afterlife for them and their children than they put on this life - It brings me back to this unthinkable idea that maybe they see their power as a sign that they have been "chosen" - that they believe they are doing God's work…

      I guess I'll just keep hoping that I'm a raving paranoiac :-)

    3. Jamie - Wow two responses for the price of one!

      I think we are furiously arguing the same point, though you with a little more referencing and literature behind you.

      I agree that these people may well believe they are chosen etc - that is a handy thing and it serves their greed and again self protectionism. I think more often than not, we are simply looking at naturally flawed human psychology. The scary thing is it is easier to believe in a higher purpose than to face the agonising task of undoing everything you have work for - so you invent a new reality (end of days) to suit your current actions. Its called self discrepancy theory where you change your morals to suit your actions (or cognitive dissonance) - I'd like to thank Gemma (my wife) for teaching me all about that one!

      So now I have put it out there that I believe its about psychology (and not just the psychology of 'crazies' - but basic human or average psychology) - is the answer therapy? I suspect not - therapy, though beneficial, is most often entered into for selfish reasons (I want to feel better) and so that is the brief given to the psychologist or shrink (make this person feel better and able to function in society). Telling someone "you sir, are an arsehole" doesn't normally fit that brief - beside therapists are not meant to judge but to support - you see the issue? Preaching is for religions and then..

      ... - Oh shit we're back at the start because religion is administered by (quite often) the same arseholes and hello its going down a fundamentalist track playing on fears and serving the (possibly ill-conceived and false) interests of the few at the top of the pyramid.

      Could we really preach (on a worldwide scale) simple empathy and altruism to overcome the issues you describe - sure its the core tenets of most religions but so is 'my religion is better than yours' - which kinda cancels that out. I suspect the truly altruistic person would be happy to see their own religion disappear if it meant a better outcome for the world - I don't even see that in Athiesm or Humanism ;-) (not that either are religions in the strict definition of the word)

      I shall do a bit more reading I think also keep hoping you (and I) are just both raving paranoiacs :-)

    4. Isn't human psychology an amazing thing Matt :-) Cognitive dissonance is such a mind-blowing example of human evolution - just look at us here daring to suggest that something must be done urgently about sustainability, when 90%+ of humanity obviously considers such concerns a sign of insanity ;-) Engaging in "rational" debate to justify to ourselves and to one other that we are not monster raving paranoiacs - And look at you Matt, you've devoted half of your life to it! At least I only read and write about it in my spare time mate! LOL *insane cackling* ;-)

      I LOVE (big time) your idea that we can blame all the world's problems on psychologists' lack of willingness to call their patients arseholes! Not sure what Gemma would say about that, but I'm going to try it on some psych mates next time I talk to them :-D - Actually, it reminds me a bit of a thread I started to explore last year but never got very far before ending up at a similar impasse that we're approaching here… - Now I think about it, it is quite an interesting paradox that these kinds of arseholes are so rabidly in favour of a more authoritarian world, yet the merest suggestion that they might be in any way sanctioned for their utterly unconscionable behaviour would be met with contempt. Discrepancy theory at its finest.

      Seriously though Matty, I do agree that we are arguing the same point, or at least that we appear to be converging on a similar conclusion - that it seems entirely possible that a small number of incredibly rich and powerful people are destroying the planet, while justifying their behavior for self-interested and delusional reasons. (The role that religion may or may not play in their delusion is debatable, but to be honest, in light of that conclusion, does it matter?)

      This conclusion, of course, leads me once again full circle back to my final question above - "What could we do about it if that were the case?"

    5. On your last, excellent point Matt, I should introduce you to Rob Stucky (see next post) - he's exploring similar ideas, and I'm going to try help him - I don't know whether such an initiative will make enough inroads in the time we've got, but it is admirable quest that deserves support.

      Finally, I'd like to correct a minor misrepresentation in your third-to-last sentence - although atheism is absolutely not a religion, I think you'll find that every single atheist would be *delighted* if atheism disappeared completely - The reason for this is that atheism simply does not exist in any sense other than as an oppositional force - Atheism will disappear the very instant that the theism it opposes disappears ;-)

    6. On your last correction - you have misrepresented me too ;-).

      I was postulating on the research that people with moderate religion often live longer lives, have less stress and are happier (I suspect because they leave it 'up to god' instead of worrying how to fix things like us). Those reports can be debated or even proved incorrect but my point was, if that were true, even disagreeing with the religion, would Atheists be happy for the world to become fully religious in an effort to improve mental health, and reduce strain on healthcare? I think they would (understandably) find that very hard to reconcile! Yes they might be happy to see atheism disappear if all religions disappear but not if the loss of their own belief system was a by-product and a religion (or religions) flourished.

      On your earlier post "What could we do about it if that were the case?". I wish I could say 'awareness and education' but we actually have loads of that and it doesn't necessarily help - it actually takes inspired leadership that inspires almost (dammit) religious like devotion from the masses so that things can be turned to the right track. The trick is the leadership MUST be right on pretty much everything - and I don't know anyone who is THAT right - certainly not all the time on such a wide range of perspectives.

      Or even something as simplistic as that may be wishful thinking.

      Shall now go read your next posts and stop replying and wasting your precious time ( have enjoyed the distraction though)

    7. Sorry Jamie - on my first sentence I should have said 'misinterpreted', not 'misrepresented' - that was a poor choice of words (and just that, not an angry retort or meant to cause offence)

      I just read about Rob Stucky and Sadig Malki on your next post - interesting guys. I also have issues with the 'givens' they suggest, but understand their argument and note they have spent some quality time and thought on the premises. Thanks for introducing me to the pair. I may just have to write that email and get a copy of their book (pamphlet?, dissertation? - well organised thoughts in printed form?)


    8. Cheers Matt,
      Have also greatly enjoyed the distraction - hope for more of them in future - thanks for keeping me honest and for helping me to think things through properly (although I wish you would just explain to me "how to fix things" rather than reinforcing my concerns ;-)

      Before we leave it though, a couple of quick responses to some points you raise:
      1) On religiosity & health: I'm not aware of any proper research that shows such results - As you've described it it sounds like typical reverse causality wishful thinking (although I accept that appropriate levels of reverse causality wishful thinking can probably be correlated to people who live longer, happier, and less stressful lives ;-)
      2) On "being right on pretty much everything": A good point, but I actually disagree because although an admirable goal, it is never going to happen. What we need to do is accept of the fact that we are "nearly always wrong on pretty much everything". This is a much more realistic (and scientific) approach to the world as we currently understand it. This approach is also generally conducive to "sustainable human flourishing", but only if we establish the common sense "precautionary principle" as common practice.

      P.S. Thanks for reading some of the other posts - hope they made sense? Please do reach out to Rob - he's a great bloke and I'm sure he'd love to hear from you.