Death and Apocalypse 2

This a follow-up to the comments on my previous post on the topic, which has become too long to post there. Thank you for all of them, they’ve got me thinking about some of the issues more (which is why it’s taken a while to respond). Maybe I need to separate out the historical continuity and change more clearly. On the level of physical experience, there has been a vast, real change in the last century in how risky life is, as reflected in life-expectancy. (The size of that change tends to be underestimated, even by historians, because we almost inevitably study only the past survivors, the people who lived at least to be adults. With a few exceptions, such as the epitaph of Charlemagne’s infant daughter, the millions of dead medieval babies leave barely any historical trace).

What has also changed is that the average person in the West has far more economic stake in the present social order than before. Even for the poorest in society, to lose or abandon ‘everything’ is to lose more physical stuff and more economically valuable stuff than a century ago. To have nothing but the shirt on your back is a modern-day tragedy, but a relative commonplace for most of history.

What has probably changed far less is people’s perception of risk. Many modern studies have shown that people are very bad at accurately assessing risks and probabilities: they tend to overestimate the likelihood of remote events, good or bad (winning the lottery, dying in a plane crash) and underestimate the likelihood of more common events (dying in a road accident). People also tend to have a very unhistorical sense of changing risk. I remember myself at times worrying about my daughter (born in 2002), growing up in a uniquely dangerous world with the threat of global warming and terrorism. And then I read extracts from the diary of a friend of my father’s, written when they were 16 or 17, worrying about the future of the world then (and justifiably so, since it was near the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis). There has never been a world without dangers.

Indeed, I suspect that perception biases about risks and dangers may be inherent to humans. The economic bubbles from the last 300 years certainly suggest that people are poor at assessing some kind of risks, as do the recurrence of ‘moral panics’. Erich Goode and Nachman BenYehuda, Moral Panics: Social Construction of Deviance have some good discussions of moral panics going back to the Renaissance witchcraft scares and argue that these can’t simply be put down to elite manipulation; grass-roots concerns are always one (although not the only) factor.

I also think you’re right, felix, in seeing fears and also hopes about death and ‘the end’, whether individual or collective, as existing throughout history (and prehistory). I think, however, there’s a lot of individual variability between people as to how significant and frequent these feelings are. The vast majority of people did not participate even in the great apocalyptic movements of the Middle Ages. (There is also variability within an individual. I recently heard an interesting paper by Peter Darby of Birmingham University on Bede’s eschatological thought. he was arguing that the intensity of his interest in the end times varied over his lifetime, and that you can sometimes see it increasing in moments of personal or political crisis). And there’s cultural variability on how widespread apocalyptic thought is: I’ve mentioned before how contemporary US/British cultural differences affect our historical judgements on the Year 1000 ‘crisis’.

Bill, thanks for bringing in conspiracy theories. Again, I think this may show a historically recurrent general phenomenon that is nevertheless very variable in its incidence both between individuals and historical societies. I’d see it as a byproduct of the ‘pattern-making tendency’ that has basic to human evolution (and that has inspired many historians and scientists). The world ought to make sense, be connected together, rather than important events happening by mistakes and chances and more-or-less random acts. See for early examples, Agobard’s account (c 16) of ninth century belief that Duke Grimoald was killing cattle in Frankia, or all the rumours of poisoning in imperial Rome.

Yet it’s hard to deny that some cultures make conspiracy theories more common. Distrust in the authorities (and authorities that give cause for this) is a frequent spur to conspiracy theories. (See ’Bush White House Gives Conspiracy Theories a Good Name’). So are cultural norms about what is a plausible explanation. I read once that in some Middle Eastern state (I think Egypt was mentioned, but I can’t remember any details) one of the reasons that Mossad was popularly believed to be behind the September 11th attacks was the belief that the Israelis were capable of such a well-planned attack but Arabs weren’t.

If there are inherent elements of human perception that make the species as a whole prone to apocalyptic thought and conspiracy theories, it’s not surprising that despite all the cultural variability of fears and beliefs, there are continuities in thought (and that’s excluding the continuing influence of texts like the Bible and Quran). What I think is significant is that the sharply changed material circumstances (better life expectancy, greater economic security) mean that apocalyptic/conspiracy theory ‘tourism’ has relatively recently become widespread. (I would put the start of it in the mid-19th century, with the development of Baconianism and Dispensationalism). Such ‘tourism’ is where people have an interest (sometimes passionate) in conspiracy theories and apocalyptic beliefs, yet this has no real impact on their actual lives or behaviour. People read the Protocols of Zion so they could know who to blame for their sufferings, and possibly take violent revenge; they do not read the The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail to know what religion they should really practice, or discuss the grassy knoll to know who to vote for. Instead, these ideas have become entertainment: conspiracy theory as alternative reality game, the Left Behind computer game (which would appall St Paul in more ways than I can easily count). Recent events have shown us that not all apocalyptic thought is harmless eccentricity (and the continuing influence of the Protocols of Zion suggests the same thing for conspiracy theories), but I think Ian McEwan is wrong to see most of the modern forms of such thought as dangerous.

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