According to ancient Mayan Prophecy, today is meant to herald the end of the world. But just in case there is still a world to read this, why are such apocalyptic visions all the rage?
Whether the Mayans actually prophesied the end of the world on this date is indeed controversial - Hollywood and the media appear to have distorted the ancient forecast and, apparently, constructed a fantasy which grips public imagination.
Just a few years ago - in 1999 - the 'Y2K' computer problem was predicted to create such chaos - planes would fall from the sky and populations would be trapped in elevators - that the end of civilisation as we know it - would arrive.
Before that, the nuclear stand-off between superpowers was supposed to herald imminent Armageddon. The thesis that 'mutually assured destruction' is just around the corner is so perennial, psychologists even coined a term 'The Armageddon Complex' - capturing the conviction many harbour, the end of time is nigh.
It seems that every civilisation appears to believe it, uniquely in history, sways on the precipice, and peers over the edge into the abyss.
In the past it may have been world war and nuclear holocaust, viral epidemics, computer malfunction, nanotechnology gone wild, and today it is global warming, which has stepped into the breach of why it's all about to end. If there is a recurrent pattern through history of believing in imminent apocalypse, does this begin to reveal more about our psychology? Or did these convictions mean we backed away from the edge - saving ourselves?
'Apocalypticism' appears linked to certain religious and personality outlooks.
Maurice Farber, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut published one of the first studies into 'The Armageddon Complex' in the academic journal Public Opinion Quarterly as far back as 1951. Farber explained that the Armageddon Complex is the disposition to believe total war is inevitable. 312 students were asked if they favoured a 'show-down' war with Russia. Desire for nuclear war was positively related to unsatisfactory future outlook for their personal lives.
During World War II, Farber had served in intelligence and psychological warfare units of the US Army in Europe. Possibly the authorities have long had an interest in our obsession with apocalypse, using this to manipulate us. Wars are sold to the public on the basis that they are needed to avoid imminent Armageddon. Remember the '45 minute' weapons of mass destruction invocation that cajoled the public into supporting a war on Iraq?
Stephen Kierulff, a Californian clinical psychologist published a study in 1991 entitled 'Belief in Armageddon Theology and Willingness to Risk Nuclear War', where he refers to 'Armageddonists', who believe that Bible or other religious prophecies about the 'End Time' must be taken literally, and seem to expect nuclear war to fulfil these prophecies.
They seem to be more in favour of a nuclear war and their pro-nuclear sentiment stems (among other sources) from fundamentalist Christianity which affirms Jesus will return to Earth in order to save the human race after a cataclysmic war. Many such 'premillennialists', Kierulff argues in his paper, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, believe that the 'Last Days' are already upon us, considering that the final war will be global and nuclear.
Kierulff found from his research that the more 'Armageddonist' people's religious beliefs are, the more willing they are to risk a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, and the more likely they are to believe that they would survive the subsequent nuclear war. As predictors of convictions that the US will attack Russia and that nuclear war is personally survivable, 'Armageddonist' views outperformed any of the indicators used in his study, including political conservatism, suggesting religious, or other certainties about the imminent end of the world has been neglected by pollsters.
Today it is possible 'Armageddonists' no longer consider the apocalypse will arrive following a war between the US and Russia, but now perhaps between Christian and Islamic fundamentalists.
Dr Simon Dein and Professor Roland Littlewood from the Departments of Psychiatry and Anthropology, University College London, wonder about the significance of what might appear to be an increasing number of reports of mass suicide over the last few decades.
In their paper entitled 'Apocalyptic Suicide: From a Pathological to an Eschatological Interpretation' they remind us of the 1978 mass suicide of 914 (including 200 children) by drinking cyanide, amongst Jim Jones's Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. In 1993, Waco, Texas, seventy-six men, women and children Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, died after their compound was set alight - though by who remains controversial.
Dein and Littlewood also remind us of the Solar Temple episode of 1994, where over 50 killed themselves simultaneously in Canada and Switzerland, thus apparently 'transiting' to the star Sirius. 16 colleagues died in a related incident in France some months later, while ﬁve more committed 'ritual suicide' at the moment of the spring equinox in 1995. In the Heaven's Gate suicide in 1997, 39 followers died from auto-asphyxiation, apparently assuming in the after-life they would join a space ship lurking behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Among Dien and Littlewood's possible speculations, appears to be that in ancient times we indeed constantly lived on the edge of survival, where bad weather and other environmental hazards could destroy crops, and wipe out communities. So we naturally developed superstitions and rituals which gave us a sense of control over capricious 'gods', hence the development of religion, and possibly, the close link psychologically between religious belief and apocalypse.
The problem is that 'Armageddonism' or 'Apocalypticism' beliefs include strongly self-fulfilling prophetic elements. These convictions appear to drive most political as well as religious extremism, including suicide terrorism.
If you believe the end is neigh, you seem more willing to consider extraordinary or ultimate devices, which in turn, actually hasten your demise.