Despite religious origins, most modern apocalyptic thought is secular, and not tied to religious beliefs. Belief in the secular apocalypse arises from the need to make sense of the world around us and to find an assurance of our futures. Even when that future is bleak, it is a concrete belief, rather than uncertainty of what the end will look like. This paper will first define the secular apocalypse as separate from the religious apocalypse. It will then explore the prominent secular apocalyptic beliefs of human caused disasters, and determine why belief in these events arises and persists. Finally, I conclude that the secular apocalypse may inherently be meaningless in its end of humanity, but its structure of belief gives meaning in that it lets humanity continue until that point. At its core, the secular apocalypse is a way to understand the world around us and offers a sense of control and understanding for our fates.
The traditional image of the apocalypse is the rapture – the end of the world, where the chosen and worthy are reborn in Heaven, and the rest are left to perish. The religious apocalypse seems to have an inherent meaning, as through the religious apocalypse, persecution and trauma can be made meaningful, and the seductive promise of a new world purged of suffering. Wojcik defines the religious apocalypse as having “a controlling and meaningful plan [which] underlies all things”, this meaning “convert[s] feelings of helplessness and uncontrollability into an optimistic vision of worldly redemption and salvation.”1 The religious apocalypse depicts anultimate end goal for humanity, an end to suffering, and the end coming with a purpose. This contrasts to the popular visions of secular apocalypse which come about from humans taking on god-like power, and being unable to probably wield this power. Secular apocalyptic visions are an end to humanity by humanity’s own hubris or mistakes, rather than a cosmic plan to save humanity from itself.
The religious apocalypse “handed us a sense of meaning” and as secular apocalyptic beliefs dominates the popular culture and mainstream belief, “our meaning is reduced to just us.”2 The meaning of the apocalypse itself is lost, as the secular apocalypse has no inherent meaning to humanity as a whole. The secular apocalypse is considered meaningless as it occurs “by human or natural causes…usually characterized by a sense of pessimism, absurdity, and nihilism.”3 The secular apocalypse shows “our willingness to ponder our own disappearance might reflect…contemporary thought. We are indeed weary of man…We fear that our actions have condemned us.”4 It is the belief that we have doomed ourselves, and we must believe so, in order to prevent, or correct, that which will bring our end, because there is no salvation or hope in God to turn to, only ourselves, which distinguishes the religious and secular apocalypse.
Apocalyptic belief has increased in past years, according to Barkun “the Google searches for 2012, together with such terms as ‘apocalypse’ and ‘end of the world,’ produced hits in excess of 150,000,000.”5 Modern apocalyptic beliefs have popularized the secular more than their religious origins, with modern secular apocalyptic belief including “global environmental degradation, massive population growth, and the still lingering possibility of nuclear holocaust, we return to considering the possibility of the end of human civilization and indeed of the human race.”6 Secular apocalyptic belief, even when parallels can be drawn to its religious origin, is distinguished by the belief that the end of the world is human caused, rather than inevitable by divine power.
The secular apocalypse is largely considered a meaningless end, where the religious apocalypse is meaningful, as the secular apocalypse is an end without rebirth, without a reason on a cosmic scale, but rather are own undoing without redemption. The secular apocalypse can however have meaning to an individual, in how they would work towards preventing the apocalyptic vision they believe in, or to simply seek assurance that the apocalypse will not come imminently or without warning, because they believe they know how and when it will occur, which in and of itself gives comfort. This shows how the belief itself can be meaningful, and why people believe in secular apocalypse, even if there is no inherent meaning attached to the event itself.
Most apocalyptic belief is secular today, with “the origins of the apocalyptic worldview …not [lying] ‘outside’ of politics but…[being] inescapably political.”7 Secular apocalyptic belief allows for the possibility of life moving forward. Knowing how the end will come relieves the anxiety of the end being imminent, as “…the way we conceive of politics during and after the apocalypse retains a fascinating series of civilized tropes about the human condition…our apocalypses don’t seem to destroy our modern order.”8 We believe we can find some way to prevent the end from coming, belief in the end of the world allows us to find ways to stop it before it is too late. Current issues of climate, or technology can be pushed off as some future end, rather than an imminent threat. It is a paradoxical belief that believing the world will end reassures you that it will not end today.
Belief in the secular apocalypse persists as technology evolves to be “overwhelmingly sophisticated and beyond one’s understanding and control,” as most secular apocalyptic fears revolve around technology progressing beyond what humans can control.9 As technology evolves, apocalyptic belief evolves with it. Secular apocalyptic beliefs become more prominent as religious narratives become less needed, as nuclear destruction capabilities and other technological advancements gives humans godlike powers. This fosters belief in the secular apocalypse as “since the development of nuclear weapons, a sense of profound anxiety and uncertainty has existed in American society about a future in which nuclear warfare is a possibility.”10
Some secular apocalyptic beliefs can be linked to religious apocalypses, such as ideas of the AI apocalypse but have since their origin branched into their own beliefs, becoming a distinctly secular belief. Apocalyptic AI shows how humans replace God in the secular form of the apocalypse as AIs“replace …weak human bodies … to experience the heavenly world of hyper-intelligent machines.”11 Humans take the form of the creator, creating a paradise for their creations, which ultimately ends the existence of humans, making apocalyptic AIs meaningless for humanity itself. It is a downfall caused by the hubris of trying to achieve godlike power, just as their is with humanity’s destruction by nuclear weapons.
Another prominent secular apocalyptic belief is environmental disaster, a common narrative today as climate change becomes evident. Which also shows how humans cause their own end, as “the intelligence that makes us the only species to create or modify our environment (in any real sense) also makes us the only creature that can destroy it.”12 This Environmental Apocalypticism asks humanity “for a fundamental recalculation of the…place of human beings in the natural order.”13 Humans control the secular apocalypse, when and how it comes, whether we intend to or not. Secular apocalyptic belief makes us more integrally aware of how we shape the environment, and our own future, as well as possibly our own destruction. Apocalyptic belief allows for the possibility of belief that this apocalypse can be averted as “the possibility of human action to perfect or save the ecosphere,” establishes “perceived resilience of nature” in spite of humanity’s abuses.14 For the secular apocalypse, humans bring about their own meaningless end.
However, by believing we as humans bring about our own collapse, gives us the opportunity to correct or mitigate damage we have done which leads to our secular apocalyptic beliefs, giving the belief itself meaning, even if the event is meaningless. So, while the end of the world in the secular sense is meaningless – no humanity, and no rebirth, simply an end – the secular belief in the end of the world has an important to humans as a way of acknowledging that we control our own fates. Belief that the world ends at some future point means it is not ending unexpectedly. It means there is time to prepare, to either accept this fate, or find some means of correcting it.
The popularity and sincerity of apocalyptic beliefs can be seen readily through its popularity in pop culture such as short stories and films. Fiction uses visions of the apocalypse to understand and process modern day vulnerabilities, such as threats of nuclear war. This is seen in films such as Dr. Strangelove, which shows the dangers and absurdities of nuclear wars and its how easily its failsafes can be undone. Dr. Strangelove is an example of the way apocalyptic belief is portrayed in fiction to show how pervasive this belief really is, but also how to take comfort in this belief by finding the humor of the situation.15 Using secular apocalyptic belief as a source of comfort is seen is short stories such as “When We Went To See The End Of The World” by Robert Silverberg. The “end of the world” in this story is constantly changing, and is a conversation topic more than a terrifying threat to the characters, despite near constant disasters erupting around them, like presidential deaths and bacteria outbreaks.16 Focusing on the “end of the world” as a distant possibility allows us to believe that the current state of affairs is not yet the end, because we know what the end will look like, so we need not fear the unknown.
The secular apocalypse itself has no meaning, which is seen easily in fiction, such as Dr. Strangelove, in which all the characters actions and plans are ultimately meaningless as the world is bombed and all life ends.17 This is also seen in “When We Went To See The End Of The World” as the characters do not search for meaning in the end of the world itself, but in being able to bring back the story and tell it at the party.18 This is a good analogy for how, while the actual events of the secular apocalypse is meaningless, the belief itself can still be meaningful to those who believe in it. The meaning of this belief is in how it can be used, to bring comfort, or preperation, a sense of being able to change the course humanity is set on, and by being popularized in fiction, there is a call to action to do exactly that. In showing this belief, it shows how if humanity can cause the end of the world, humanity can stop it as well.
Similar to the way religious apocalypses allow for hope and maintenance of faith, secular apocalypses give a unifying belief and a way to understand how the world works. Belief in the secular apocalypse tells us what the threats to humanity are, and to be better prepared for it, or even how to prevent it. The greatest fear is typically of the unknown – to understand is the first step to prevent or accept. To prevent the apocalypse, or to correct humanity’s trajectory, you must first understand how humanity will bring about the end of the world, which is the basis of secular apocalyptic belief. While the end result of the secular apocalypse is meaningless, the physical belief is not meaningless. As the belief itself can give hope that the end has not yet come, and is not yet inevitable, giving the hope and courage necessary to reverse the human wrought damage, which would lead to the apocalyptic visions of secular apocalyptic belief.
- 1 Daniel Wójcik, The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America ( New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999), 142.
- 2 Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 10-11.
- 3 Wojcik, The End of the World as We Know It, 64.
- 4 Jendrysik, Mark S. “Back to the Garden: New Visions of Posthuman Futures.” Utopian Studies 22, no. 1 (2011): 34-51. doi:10.1353/utp.2011.0027, 48.
- 5 Michael Barkun, Culture of Conspiracy Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014, 206.
- 6 Jendrysik, “Back to the Garden: New Visions of Posthuman Futures,” 34-35.
- 7 Alison McQueen, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 2.
- 8 Joustra and Wilkinson, How to Survive the Apocalypse,15.
- 9 Wojcik, The End of the World as We Know It, 103.
- 10 Wojcik, The End of the World as We Know It, 99.
- 11 Robert Geraci. “Apocalyptic AI: Religion and the Promise of Artificial Intelligence.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion,v ol. 76, no. 1, 2008, 152-153.
- 12 Jendrysik, “Back to the Garden: New Visions of Posthuman Futures,” 37.
- 13 Jendrysik, “Back to the Garden: New Visions of Posthuman Futures,” 37.
- 14 Jendrysik, “Back to the Garden: New Visions of Posthuman Futures,” 36.
- 15 Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Great Britain: BLC, 1963.
- 16 Martin H. Greenberg, ed. The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010, “When We Went To See The End Of The World” by Robert Silverberg.
- 17 Dr. Strangelove, directed by Stanley Kubrick.
- 18 Silverberg, “When We Went To See The End Of The World.”
Barkun, Michael. Culture of Conspiracy Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. Chapter 14 “Apocalyptic Expectations about the Year 2012” pp. 206-218.
Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Produced by Stanley Kubrick, Victor Lyndon, and Ken Adam. By Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George, Gilbert Taylor, Anthony Harvey, and Laurie Johnson. Performed by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, and James Earl Jones. Great Britain: BLC, 1963.
Geraci, Robert. “Apocalyptic AI: Religion and the Promise of Artificial Intelligence.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion,v ol. 76, no. 1, 2008, pp. 138-166.
Greenberg, Martin H. ed. The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010, “When We Went To See The End Of The World” by Robert Silverberg.
Jendrysik, Mark S. “Back to the Garden: New Visions of Posthuman Futures.” Utopian Studies22, no. 1 (2011): 34-51. doi:10.1353/utp.2011.0027.
Joustra, Robert and Wilkinson, Alissa. How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central,http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/davidson/detail.action?docID=4859095.
McQueen, Alison. Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Wojcik, Daniel. The end of the world as we know it: Faith, fatalism, and apocalypse in America. NYU Press, 1997.