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Doomsday, Apocalypse, and Rapture, Oh my!

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With the end of the world behind us and another soon to come this October 21st, I thought it would be fun to write about dear old Harold Camping and his erroneous end-of-the-world theories. This topic fascinates me as I am a Biology and Religious Studies double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. However, even I have to wonder how so many people could be fooled into thinking that the world was going to end back in May when the Bible does not even so much as hint toward an exact date. Quite to the contrary, the book itself clearly states that “only God in heaven knows” Matthew 24:36 and “let no one deceive you, for that day will not come” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). It is my humble opinion that the “Camping Incident” was the result of a mass brainwashing performed by an affluent speaker who happened to be in a position of authority, like the average politician.

As much as one would like to write the whole thing off as an obvious scam, in that Camping accumulated a substantial amount of money from his followers, there may be more to the story. What happened last spring was most likely a cult following of a religious fanatic who sincerely believed in his own theories. A large portion of the money was used to advertise the rapture and petition people to repent. In other words, the money collected was being recycled back into the group in order to expand the following and spread its propaganda. History shows no shortage of misguided leaders that sincerely believed their own lies, and Mr. Camping appears to be one of them. On the other hand, what about the rest of the bunch? What kind of person would readily accept an apocalypse message without any scientific cause or evidence?

Many neurologists have proposed the existence of a “God Spot”, a region of the brain linked to belief in the supernatural. Even though no such neural pathways were found that differed from those of non-believers, there is still much debate as to the origin of religion and its evolutionary significance. Several studies designed to determine the parts of the brain responsible for spirituality have had interesting results. In one such study, researchers scanned the brains of a group of devout nuns. The nuns were asked to recall an intense religious experience while their brains were monitored for any special activity (Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns, Belief and the Brain's 'God Spot'). It was discovered that thinking about religious experiences and God activates several areas in the brain, instead of just one. Even more fascinating, one of the many areas activated was a section that is typically associated with happiness and love. This could be why many people feel that they can enter into a “relationship” with God.

In addition to determining the source of religious belief in the present day, there is also a debate among scientists as to the evolutionary origin of belief. One hypothesis is that faith in God could have acted as a coping mechanism which enabled the primitive human to endure hardships that non-believers could not. Another theory posits that religion provided a way for our ancestors to explain natural phenomenon (Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief, No 'God Spot' in the Human Brain). Still a third possibility is that spirituality is a form of evolutionary baggage. It could have been the result of biochemical pathways that were once used in the primitive brain to establish rules and customs of early culture, but wreak havoc on society when their resulting ideas are taken too far.

Is it possible that religious individuals have developed their beliefs throughout life as a way to fulfill some psychological necessity? Spirituality is thus the manifestation of one's need for a parental figure, guidance, hope, preservation of consciousness, and so on. With this in mind, a stunt like that of Mr. Camping would shock its victims on a much deeper, more personal level, unlike a pyramid scheme or email scam. In a sense, this is a manipulation of peoples’ hope and faith, intentional or otherwise.

It is easy to see why so many people sincerely believed that the world would end in May, but it is just as important to realize that the vast number of Christian believers do not accept apocalypse theories. Judaism, the foundation for Christianity, does not even have an afterlife in its doctrine. Consequently, it was really only the outliers of the religion that followed the false prophet; they may have been very desperate.

So what does the future really hold? Every generation of Jesus’s followers has claimed that they would be the last generation on Earth, and they have all been wrong. As for our own generation, we are facing environmental catastrophe, population increase, and potential epidemics the likes of which this planet has never seen before. Are we dooming ourselves into extinction by our own destructive habits? Or is this another example of the human tendency to only see the worst possible scenario?

Humankind has been obsessed with the end times for thousands of years, and it possibly began when we originally realized our own mortality. I can imagine the first thinking human to be asking himself “I will eventually die, does that mean everything around me will eventually die?” And the more advanced we become, the more we are able to postulate the exact methods employed by our bodies, our planet, and the universe around us to eventually decay into nothingness. But when will it happen? God only knows! I hear that the Mayan calendar is supposed to end in 2012.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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