Yawn! The world ended again, this time on December 21, 2012, as predicted by the Mayan calendar. Seems few of the actual Mayans in the Yucatan today were particularly concerned about this.
It was folks in the most advanced industrialized countries who shivered in fear of the apocalypse, who flooded NASA with phone and email messages asking whether the prophecy was true, and who headed for the hills in attempts to survive or perhaps to be taken up into heaven, the Mother Ship, or whatever.
Okay, this particular doomsday might have been mostly hype by the media meant to titillate sensationalist-seeking audiences. But these doomsday fears pop up on a regular basis and too many people actually take them seriously.
Last year fundamentalist fruitcake Harold Camping predicted The End, using his 66 radio stations to get the word out. Many of his followers gave away their possessions in preparation for the Rapture. A woman who believed him wanted to avoid the horrors of fire and brimstone so she slit her 11- and 14-year-old daughters' throats with a box cutter and then slit her own. (All survived.)
Clear-thinking individuals often don't understand why folks with even a minimum of intelligence and education can fall for this stuff.
First, culture matters. In the twenty-first century most folks appreciate the products that come from the rational mind, everything from advanced medical devices to the iPad. But t reason itself is hardly venerated. Rather, indulgence of undisciplined impulses saturates our culture with the most idiotic and pernicious products, spiritual as well as material. New Age cults are one of these products, manifested in people wasting what few functioning neurons they still have worrying about whether primitive peoples half a millennium ago predicted the end of the world.
Second, the virtue of rationality is an attribute of individuals. We must exercise it, each of us, one mind and one brain at a time. And it takes an effort to think. A culture that values the virtue of reason as well as its products is important. But you develop that virtue through practice, not through osmosis.
Third, to be rational doesn’t simply mean to memorize the forms of the syllogism or to master the knowledge and technical skills needed to be successful in some narrow field or profession. Most of the 39 Heaven’s Gate cult members who committed mass suicide in 1997 earned money as website developers. Rationality means always being honest with one’s self. It means always asking, “Am I trying to get at the truth or simply to rationalize some prejudice or convenient belief that bears little resemblance to reality?” It means practicing self-reflection, monitoring one’s thoughts and emotions to make sure they are not clouding one’s mind. It means practicing the virtue of integrity, of making certain that one’s thinking and actions are in sync. And it means exercising one’s independent judgment and not letting one’s beliefs be determined by group-think and popular opinion.
Those who fall for predictions of Armageddon certainly don’t practice the virtue of rationality.
Those who laughed at the foolish fears over the Mayan doomsday should take a mental step back and understand the cause of this and so much else that’s wrong with our culture today. And they should understand that a commitment to reason and rationality will both guide one to a happy and flourishing life and help create a wonderful world as it can be and should be.
Hudgins is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.
For further reading:
*Edward Hudgins, “ Betting Against the End of the World .” May 17, 2011.
*Edward Hudgins, “ After the Apocalypse, Try Reason .” May 27, 2011.
*Edward Hudgins, “ Getting to Our Fantastic, Non-fiction Future .” Winter, 2010.