RATIONALIST INTERNATIONAL

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WAITING FOR A FLYING SAUCER AGAIN...

Of psychopaths, profiteers and big doomsday biz

Sanal Edamaruku

(Written one day before the world ended on 21 December 2012)

20th December, 2012. Doom is looming large. Our world is claimed to come to an abrupt end tomorrow. One of the few places on earth expected to be spared is the French village of Bugarach, south west of Carassone. Nestled in the shadows of the Pyrenees, it is a legendary place. Some 800 years back, Pope Innocent III launched here a bloody crusade to extinguish Cathar heresy. Tomorrow, aliens with a flying saucer are expected to land here to rescue the chosen ones. Fearing the worst, the mayor of Bugarach has called in police to cordon off the alien landing place....

World end alarms are spreading with increasing regularity since Noah built the ark. The really predictable part about doomsdays is: sure as eggs is eggs, there is always a morning after. This time it will be on coming Saturday. The triumph of good old reality over ever new grotesque paranormal believes leaves a sour taste though. Can you shrug off those millions all over the world who are running their heads against a wall, over and over again? Their needless suffering is reminder that the enemies of reason are potential holders of a weapon a mass destruction that cannot very easily be defused.

Doomsday prophecies may not be the most dangerous part of the problem. But as they are bound to collide always so harshly with the continued existence of the world after zero hour, they allow us a glimpse at a process – here in fast motion – that normally would play out too slowly to be understood. It is a process of immunization against reason.

Déjà vu: taken to the day 58 year back, here is a snapshot, frozen in time.

On 20th December 1954, a small group of people sits together and waits for a great event. This night, they believe, a deluge will destroy the Earth. But before that, a flying saucer will land right in their garden and rescue all of them to an unknown destination. Their leader is Dorothy Martin, a housewife from Chicago, who claims to be in contact with aliens from the planet Clarion, who have chosen her as a medium for their revelations. Her true believers are well prepared for the great journey. They left their jobs, schools and families and gave away all their properties. Now, according to the last instruction, they remove all metal objects from their bodies. Ready. The clock strikes midnight. But nothing happens. Just nothing. What will they do?

The social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues are watching them. They read in the local press about Ms. Martin’s mysterious messages, formulated a theory about things to come and infiltrated the group. Two years later, they will publish the path breaking study “When Prophecy Fails”, making Ms. Martin and her believers the textbook example for the “cognitive dissonance theory”. This theory offers the key to a social and psychological mechanism behind religion, magical thinking and various irrational behaviour patterns. It holds that the dissonance between conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotions, causes stark discomfort, powering a strong drive to reduce this dissonance by altering and adjusting cognitions or adding new ones. The simplest example is the fox of Aesop’s fable, that convinces itself that the grapes that he cannot reach must be sour.

Our little religious group, waiting in vain for their heavenly trip that December night, got deeply distressed, when reality clashed so hard with their cherished belief, in which they had already invested so much. They couldn’t afford to embrace reality. They modified and adjusted their belief system to reduce the dissonance. At dawn, after hours of shocked and tense silence and weeping, the aliens dictated Ms. Martin the solution: The god, moved by the sincerity of the little group, had abandoned his plan and saved the planet from destruction! This changed everything. The believers, earlier shunning the public, swarmed out and started to spread the “good news” with vigour and enthusiasm. Convincing others, they “proved” to themselves that everything was alright.

Not all the doomsday cults find such a “happy” solution. For groups like Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple or Heaven’s Gate, the only option left was mass suicide / murder. This is not a new phenomenon. Records from the 5th century CE show the case of one Rabbi Fiskis in Crete, who called himself Moses and announced he would part the sea and rescue his followers to the holy land. Of course, in reality waters did not obey him. And except a few, picked up by fishermen to tell the story, all of his followers drowned in the floods.

Ms. Martin (who soon became Sister Thedra) created a remake of one of the oldest doomsday classics. Her flying saucer is nothing but an updated version of Noah’s Arc in the Genesis. Doomsday prophecies are known since thousands of years and in all religions. In recent centuries, the classical ancient plots of a deity perfecting his/her creation got often sexed up with some fashionable accessories of their times. There are UFOs, killer bees, a communist or a Vatican world empire, black holes or worldwide computer crashes. One thing, however, invariably remains the same. At least since reliable historical records exist, none of the predicted apocalypses has come true. But never mind, they keep coming and going. The artist Loren Madsen has enlisted more than 250 doomsdays that never happened.

In recent times, such predictions use to widen their grip far beyond the small circle of a particular group of religious insiders. In 2011, Harold Camping, an American fundamentalist Christian broadcaster, was able to drum up considerable hysteria with his old fashioned fire-brimstone-and-plague End Time. But his deadline of 21st October, too, passed without any noteworthy event - quite like his previously predicted judgement days on 21st May 1988 and 6th September 1994. So did Sylvester 1999, though the millennium leap had gullibles around the world shiver with fear from cosmic cataclysms and the “Y2K” total computer break down. For now, the drama is postponed to 21st December 2012.

Next doomsday seemed long to be the big one. No, the world is not going to end on 21st December 2012 either. Earth will not collide with the obscure Planet X nor get swallowed by a black hole; that’s for sure. Also no sun storms will occur, no switch of poles, no eruption of super volcanoes. The notion of such cosmic catastrophes looming ahead has no scientific base; it’s contradicted by simple astronomical observations. And as for the Maya calendar, it actually doesn’t end on 21st December 2012. Calendars don’t end. They only reset all places from time to time. But though utter nonsense and not even new, the pseudo-scientific concoction of the “2012 phenomenon” is massively spread via the Internet and media. The reason is simple: doom day is boom day. Nothing sells like fear.

The marketing strategy for the Hollywood disaster film “2012”, released in 2009, pulled out all the stops in aggressive viral campaigns. Distributor Columbia Pictures tried unscrupulously to sell the movie plot for reality, creating, for example, a website for a fake Institute for Human Continuity that runs a lottery for safe survival places in swimming space colonies. They reached some 140 million people via the Internet, mobile streams and television. It paid. The mediocre film became quite a box office producing $ 603,567,306 in total overseas earnings.

Before the film launch, David Morrison of NASA reportedly received over 1000 inquiries from people who thought the website was genuine. "I've even had cases of teenagers writing to me saying they are contemplating suicide because they don't want to see the world end," he said. "I think when you lie on the Internet and scare children to make a buck; that is ethically wrong." That is a crucial point. In fact, I think we have to consider putting legal limits to the business with fear and irrationality. It is not about the film industry alone. There are scores of profiteers swimming on the doomsday wave. And it is not just doomsday, for that matter. Selling every day anything from bunkers to miracle bracelets and wonder cures to gullible, fearful people, they don’t just exploit them; they massively reinforce the mind crippling vicious circle of superstition in their lives. The superstition generator is running overtime, even in many of our otherwise so critical and progressive media.