timothy_taylor's picture
Jan Eisner Professor of Archaeology, Comenius University in Bratislava; Author, The Artificial Ape

As I get older, I no longer slam the door on Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons. Nor do I point to the large icon of the winged St John of Patmos (putative author of the Book of Revelations) at the head of the stairs and claim, falsely, to be Bulgarian Orthodox—I find it hard to keep a straight face. The last pair of young mid-West Mormons, clinging to each other in the alien country of Europe, had clearly heard of neither Bulgaria nor Orthodoxy.

My change of heart crystallized when two Jehovah's Witnesses knocked and asked whether I was optimistic. A genuine smile crossed my face as I affirmed that I was. The one in charge (the other being the apprentice, as is usual) whipped out a copy of The Watchtower, the front cover of which showed a spectacular mushroom cloud emblazoned with the headline 'Armageddon!' He suggested that my casual optimism might be misplaced.

I began to see his point, though not from his point of view. Armageddon for Jehovah's Witnesses immediately precedes the Last Judgement and is the prophesied final battle against the Anti-Christ. It probably takes its name from the ancient city of Megiddo, Israel—an Old Testament byword for big, locally apocalyptic battles. Thutmosis III of Egypt put down a Canaanite rebellion there in 1457 BC, and in 609 BC the Egyptians again triumphed, defeating the Iron Age Judeans. Megiddo is a doubly strategic location: locally, it controls the route from the eastern Mediterranean coast at Mount Carmel through to the Jordan Valley; regionally, it occupies a relatively narrow tract of habitable land that bridges Africa and Eurasia.

Neolithic farmers first settled Megiddo itself around 7000 BC, but the area was occupied far earlier. Excavations at the rock shelter at Qafzeh have produced stone tools, pigment-stained shell ornaments, and the ceremonial burials of over a dozen people, dating to 92,000 years ago. The nearby cave of Tabun contains tools from Homo erectus that date to half a million years ago and, from around 200,000 years ago onwards, the remains of Neanderthals, a different human species who eventually came into competition with groups of anatomically modern Homo sapiens filtering northwards out of Africa at around the time of the Qafzeh burials.

These facts about our evolutionary and cultural prehistory, established by international transdisciplinary scientific projects, are utterly rejected by fundamentalists. Archbishop Ussher of Armagh claimed that Adam and Eve, the first people, were made directly by God on the sixth day of Creation, late October 4004 BC (only to be driven from Paradise on Monday 10th November of the same year). By the Witnesses' calculations, the world is more than a whole century older, with Adam created in 4129 BC. But neither understanding leaves time for the early farming phase of Megiddo. Or for biological evolution. Or plate tectonics. Or anything, really, that has been established empirically by the historical sciences.

If this were simply a disagreement about the scale of the past or the processes that operated in it, it might be little more than a frustration for archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists. But it seems to me that belief in a fixed and recent start to the world is invariably matched by belief in an abrupt and (usually) imminent end. The denial of antiquity, and of Darwinian evolution, psychologically defines the form and scope of any imagined future. And that has implications for the way individuals and communities make decisions about resource management, biodiversity, population control and the development of technologies.

None of those things matter to Armageddonists. By Armageddonist, I mean an adherent—irrespective of fine-grade distinctions in the eschatologies or 'end times thinking' of particular religious faiths—of the idea that (i) everything will be miraculously solved at some definite point in the (near) future; (ii) the solution will create eternal winners and losers; and (iii) the only real concern in life is which side we find ourselves on when battle (however concrete or abstract) commences. A coming Battle of Armageddon is anticipated by Jehovah's Witnesses, the Islamic Ahmadiyya community, the Seventh Day Adventists, Christian dispensationalists, Christadelphians and members of the Bahá'i faith. More broadly, the idea of apocalyptic renewal at 'the end of days' is shared by the Church of Latter Day Saints, Islam, Judaism, and most other religions (with the noteworthy exception of Zen Buddhism).

Obviously, moral distinctions should be made between religionists who blow people up and stone apostates to death, and those who do not. There is also a distinction between faiths that reject science wholesale, and those that do not. The Catholic Church has long eschewed burning heretics in the auto-da-fé, and it never rejected Darwin's view of human evolution: already in 1868, John Henry—later Cardinal—Newman found it potentially compatible; positive acceptance has emerged gradually since 1950. But Catholicism retains a firm belief in a precisely delimited future leading to the Last Judgement. The Pope's opposition to contraception connects to this: the globe does not need to be sustainable in perpetuity if all will be renewed.

Admittedly, scientists can be as good as priests at scaring people into despairing visions of the end of the world. If they do, they should not be surprised when people are attracted by options that include salvation. But faced with claims that run counter to empirical evidence, those of us of an Enlightenment disposition can never afford to appease, to relativize, or to bow to 'religious sensitivities', whether through misplaced tact or (more honourably, given the penalties now on display in some jurisdictions) a sense of self preservation. The science-deniers will show no reciprocal respect to reason.

We should be worried about Armageddon not as a prelude to an imaginary divine Day of Judgement, but as a particular, maladaptive mindset that seems to be flourishing despite unparalleled access to scientific knowledge. Paradoxically, it may flourish because of this. Ignorance is easy and science is demanding; but, more tellingly, being neither tribal nor dogmatic, science directly challenges ideologues who need their followers to believe them to be infallible. We should not underestimate the glamour and influence of anti-science ideologies. Left unchecked, they could usher in a new intellectual Dark Age.

And this is what has happened in Nigeria, whose populous north now languishes under the baleful Islamist ideology of Jama'atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda'Awaiti Wal Jihad, known more pithily as Boko Haram (loosely 'Books are Forbidden'). Boko Haram maintains that we inhabit a flat, six-thousand-year-old earth, and that the disc-shaped sun, which is smaller, passes over it daily. Heresy (such as belief in evolution, or that rain is predicated on evaporation) can lead to a judgment of apostasy, which is punished by death. Reason having fled, the people are increasingly struggling with malnutrition, drought and disease. But that, too, feeds back into the ideology: in their death notes, the bomb-murderers of Boko Haram articulate detailed visions of the rewards of an afterlife that must seem tragically attractive.

These days when I stand at the doorstep with a winged apocalyptic evangelist behind me and an anoraked one before me, I feel obliged to put over a scientific view of the world, civilly, firmly, clearly. Even with optimism. After all, I am not so in thrall to Armageddon as to think that a coming intellectual Dark Age, even a global one, would last forever.