18 August 2017

How religious and non-religious people view the apocalypse

Phil Torres

Phil Torres

Phil Torres is the founding director of the X-Risks Institute, an affiliate scholar at the ...


“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” This quote has been variously attributed to the comedian and social critic Jon Stewart, as well as to the vaudeville movie star Charlie Chaplin. Whoever uttered these words, they gesture at an important truth: Religion has been both a positive and negative force in the world.

Although writing about religion can be difficult, given how dearly held religious beliefs tend to be, it’s important to do so because religion will likely have a significant impact on global society in the coming decades. The Pew Research Center projects that the demographic of religiously affiliated people will grow four percentage points to 87 percent of the world’s population by 2050, with roughly 8 billion of the 9.3 billion people subscribing to one or another religion. (The United States is expected to buck the global trend, with the religious share of its population shrinking from 84 percent to 74 percent.) Islam and Christianity will end up with nearly 3 billion adherents each by the middle of the century. This will have a significant impact on how the world deals with climate change and other existential risks.

Apocalyptic beliefs abound. What are the consequences of growing religious affiliation around the world? First, consider the prevalence of apocalyptic beliefs today. According to a 2010 Pew poll, 41 percent of Americans overall and 58 percent of white evangelical Christians believe that Jesus will either “probably” or “definitely” return by 2050. Within the Muslim world, a 2012 poll found a similar prevalence of beliefs, with 83 percent of Muslims in Afghanistan, 72 percent in Iraq, and 68 percent in Turkey anticipating the return of the Madhi (the end-times messiah) in their lifetime. While such beliefs are passive for most adherents, they can become active for others, leading to extremist movements like the Islamic State, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, and Christian Identity in the United States.

If these percentages remain relatively constant, then we should expect several billion people by 2050 who genuinely believe the end of the world is imminent. But it seems more probable that these percentages will increase, given that apocalyptic memes tend to propagate and intensify during periods of societal stress, which is a likely outcome of climate change, environmental degradation, and other global catastrophes. Even the possibility of technological breakthroughs like the creation of superintelligence (a computer program with greater-than-human-level general intelligence) could fertilize end-times enthusiasm, something that is already happening among some fringe Christian apocalypticists who identify artificial intelligence as a possible manifestation of the Antichrist.

Religion and climate change. Religious beliefs could also fuel climate denialism or apathy. According to a 2016 survey, 15 percent of Americans believe that “God controls the climate” and 14 percent think that climate change is a sign of the world’s approaching termination. Another 11 percent report that since the apocalypse is imminent, there’s no need to worry about climate change. These views are most prevalent among evangelical Christians, conservative Republicans, Tea Party members, and Trump supporters. For example, Republican Congressman and former evangelical pastor Tim Walberg of Michigan, who endorsed Trump, recently told constituents that “if there’s a real problem [with climate change],” God will “take care of it.”

A 2014 study of Christians, Muslims, and non-religious participants in the United Kingdom affirms that both Christians and Muslims interpret climate change through the prism of their faith-based commitments. It found that both groups have “low perceptions of urgency for environmental issues, particularly climate change, due to beliefs in an afterlife and divine intervention.” For Muslims, the Qur’an and Hadith command them to be good stewards of the environment, which they see as having intrinsic value, by existing in harmony with the natural world; but in the end, “like the Christian participants they trusted in God to assure their ultimate welfare.” The study also found greater resistance among Muslims than Christians to carbon capture and storage (CCS) because this technology would, according to Muslims, negatively affect “being in balance and harmony with nature.”

Yet another issue worth reflecting on is that the theological doctrines of Christianity and Islam are incompatible with the very possibility of human extinction. On the one hand, both religions teach that every person has an immortal soul that survives bodily death and is eventually resurrected. On the other hand, the human species will be ultimately divided between eternal heaven and eternal hell (at least in the most commonly held interpretations). Human extinction simply isn’t an option.

This suggests that religious individuals will be less concerned about climate change, nuclear conflict, and other catastrophic risks that could lead to total annihilation. In fact, University of Tennessee professor Bruce Tonn published a survey in 2009 confirming that “Christians … overwhelmingly do not believe that humans will become extinct.” Although Muslims were not included in the survey, an understanding of Islamic theology strongly implies that they would avow the same thing.

Dismissing existential risks. There are several issues here to tease apart. The first concerns global catastrophic risks: Religious beliefs could lead people to either ignore dangerous phenomena (because God’s in control, for example) or, at the extreme, to welcome such events with “a certain grim satisfaction,” as the philosopher Jerry Walls writes in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. The second issue concerns extinction risks: The termination of humanity’s evolutionary lineage, as occurred with the dodo and dinosaurs before us, will never happen, so we shouldn’t worry about it.

The third issue concerns existential risks, or events that would permanently prevent humanity from achieving a superior “posthuman civilization,” described by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom as “a society of technologically highly enhanced beings with much greater intellectual and physical capacities” than today’s humans. According to some scholars, posthumanity is desirable because it would allow us to transcend the “human condition,” which is marked by, first, harms like suffering, misery, pain, disease, and death; and second, limitations like short lifespans, bounded emotional ranges, and restricted cognitive abilities. A posthuman state would be one in which, by definition, life improves along both axes.

Religious belief could lead people to dismiss the goal of attaining some form of posthumanity. Consider a 2016 Pew poll that shows that religious people are the most resistant of any demographic to using cutting-edge biomedical technologies to “enhance” humans. This is, at least in part, because human enhancement threatens to alter what many religious folks identify as our special “essence”: a unique property that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Humans were created “in the image of God,” as Christians would put it, which suggests that any fundamental changes to the human “image” would be against God’s will. As Pew puts it:

In general, the most religious are the most wary about potential enhancements. For example, those who score high on a three-item index of religious commitment are more likely than those who are lower in religious commitment to say [that] all three types of enhancement—gene editing to give babies a lifetime with much reduced risk of disease, brain chip implants to give people much improved cognitive abilities, and transfusions with synthetic blood to give people much improved physical capacities—would be meddling with nature and crossing a line that should not be crossed.

Challenges ahead. Although there are many positives to religious belief, I have here focused on some potential downsides to the growth of religious adherence around the world. The situation becomes even more worrisome when one recognizes that the threat of a global—or, even worse, an existential—catastrophe appears to be rising. The Doomsday Clock is currently set to two and a half minutes before midnight, the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953—which was the closest it’s ever been. And some experts argue that the probability of encountering an existential catastrophe in one’s lifetime is currently thousands of times higher than, say, the likelihood of the average person dying in a plane crash.

More than at any moment in the past, we need a global population of informed people who recognize the immense challenges before us and take seriously the possibility of civilizational collapse and human extinction. Those worried about major disasters from a secular perspective will need to find more effective ways to communicate these dangers to religious folks while respecting the personal importance of their belief traditions. Religion isn’t going anywhere, but neither are the threats to our survival.