Tuesday, October 23, 2007

the end of the world: then and now, and maybe later

images:wikipedia, calendars of the world

Exhibit One, from our wiki friends:

1844Millerites and members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church* were greatly disappointed that Jesus did not return as predicted by American preacher William Miller (pictured).

The Great Disappointment was a major event in the history of the Millerites, a Christian denomination, in the United States. Around 50,000 people joined the movement that was to receive Jesus on October 22nd ,1844. Based on an interpretation of the event portrayed in Daniel 8:14, they waited to see the Second Coming as the event that was to be fulfilled on the appointed day. The specific passage reads, in the (King James Bible), as: And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed. (Daniel 8:14)

The Great Disappointment is viewed as an example of how the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance manifests itself through failed prophecies which often arise in a religious context. The theory was proposed by Leon Festinger to describe the formation of new beliefs and increased proselytizing in order to reduce the tension, or dissonance, that results from failed prophecies. According to the theory, believers experienced tension following the failure of Jesus' reappearance in 1844 which led to a variety of new explanations. The various solutions form a part of the teachings of the different groups that outlived the disappointment.

Initially I wanted to post this on Monday, i.e. October 22nd, but Rob had a really nice post up and I figured I didn't want to steal his thunder by announcing the end of the world, especially since, if you're 163 years late-- what's one more day? (sometimes, I like to put things off. Other times I just find I have to. One way or another it seems like the story of my life...)

Anyway: I really wish people would make more of a fuss about (the history of)the end of the world, because I think we're living in another day and age when millenarian looniness seems to be screwing with people's thinking, and a reminder of past foolishness in this area strikes me as pretty useful.

About 10 years ago I was working at such-and-such a place, and many of my co-workers were preoccupied with some dubious best-seller about hidden numerical codes in the bible, and they would invite me to their home-study sessions-cum-get-togethers in which (I guess) they discussed this, or prayed, or who knows what. (I never went.)

While I don't know particularly much about the history of religions, my impression is that the afore mentioned William Miller was the trouble maker who started the modern craze over end-times eschatology, whereas Christianity pre-Bill Miller tended to de-emphasize the rubbing of our hands together with messed-up glee and the hoping for the end of creation and the fiery deaths of people who weren't us.

(Long before I'd heard of Leon Festinger and cognitive dissonance I had a hard to define sense of unease about people who grooved on the end times-- how can it possibly be psychologically healthy to aspire all the usual things people aspire to, to make a life for themselves and maybe get married and have kids and plan aspire for the kids to have happy futures while you are simultaneously taught to long for the destruction of civilization?)

Exhibit 2, from Calendars of the World:

When will the Islamic calendar overtake the Gregorian calendar?

As the year in the Islamic calendar is about 11 days shorter than the year in the Christian calendar, the Islamic years are slowly gaining in on the Christian years. But it will be many years before the two coincide. The 1st day of the 5th month of C.E. 20874 in the Gregorian calendar will also be (approximately) the 1st day of the 5th month[Jumada al-awwal] of AH 20874 of the Islamic calendar.

May 1st, 20874.

About 2 years ago I came across this interesting nugget o' knowledge. It occurred to me that maybe for the religious numbers crunchers who appear so eager for Armageddon the convergence of the Christian and Islamic calendars, due in a mere 18,867 years, might be the signal from God they were looking for. And, instead of getting hyped-up to wreck the world and all that rot, they're supposed to make sure the world lasts at least another 18,800 plus years, with naturally occurring fresh water and air, trees and flowers, animals still roaming free, and maybe some peace on earth and a convergence of religions and men.

Now, I am not a religious sort per se, and I'm definitely not trying to suggest some sort of half-baked spiritual movement. We have those in abundance, and they don't strike me as being terribly useful. Call it a wistful thought experiment, designed to provoke or soothe or both. It would be nice if we could stick around and manage to civilize ourselves-- but could we do it in a mere 18,800 odd years?

*10.24 addendum: Herbert Ford notes in the comments that the Seventh Day Adventists were not formally established until 1863. (Actually the Wikipedia entry on the 7th Day Adventists notes this as well, although it describes them as having evolved from the Millerites.)

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