The year 2012 may be viewed as the best of times by some, the worst of times by others. But for the small percentage of individuals who believe in the doomsday predictions associated with the Mayan calendar – it is seen as the end of times.
The hullabaloo surrounding the latest prediction of the End Times has spurred two Southern faculty members – Marie McDaniel and Jessica Kenty-Drane – to use the hoopla as a teachable moment. The two are offering courses – one this fall and the other in the spring semester – which touch upon this newest myth, but primarily look at the broader phenomenon of apocalyptic predictions in America.
Some say that the Maya predicted the world would end on Dec. 21, 2012 based on their measurement of time. The Maya – actually a broad collection of Native American populations whose civilization flourished until the middle of the last millennium – inhabited what is today known as southern Mexico and the northern part of Central America.
Various methods of the earth’s destruction have been mentioned as possibilities, including some sort of cosmic catastrophe. Nevertheless, scientists said that no such event is even remotely in the works and many scholars have said even the Maya did not predict the end of the world.
“We have a long history of apocalyptic predictions in this country – generally rooted in religion or religious cults,” McDaniel said. She said some of the predictions are borrowed from the Europeans and date back to the Puritans’ settling of America. McDaniel points to the Millerites, and in modern times, the Jonestown tragedy and the Branch Dividians, as examples.
And while followers of false prophets sometimes encounter horrific, even fatal consequences, Kenty-Drane is also concerned about a growing, more pervasive culture of fear in the United States because of the constant drumbeat of doomsday predictions.
“Today, you can’t watch TV for very long without listening to some end-of-times narrative,” Kenty-Drane added. “How is this affecting people’s behavior? One of my concerns is that this fear may cause people to turn a blind eye to things that actually can affect their lives.”
She said the growing fear of vaccines is an example. “Obviously there can be rational reasons for not getting a vaccine – such as a medical condition or an allergic reaction,” Kenty-Drane said. “But not getting a vaccine because of some irrational fear – such as a conspiracy theory associated with the End Times — can actually jeopardize people’s health or lives for no logical reason.”
She said those types of irrational fears run the risk of becoming more widespread and more quickly as a result of globalization, the Internet and social media.
McDaniel’s course, being taught this fall, is called “Apocalypse Then: The End Times through History.” It is an online course in which students engage in much historical reading and respond to those readings each week, in lieu of a weekly or bi-weekly lecture. Kenty-Drane’s course, which will be held next spring, is called “Apocalypse Now? Culture of Fear in the U.S.” It will be a traditional lecture and discussion type of course.
Both say they hope to provide students with the tools needed to analyze what is happening and put things into a proper context. “People tend not to be very good statisticians – putting odds into perspective,” McDaniel said. “We might spend an inordinate amount of time and energy worrying about predictions of doom that are extremely unlikely to occur. Yet, a car accident is far more likely and so many people refuse to wear their seat belt, or are talking or texting on their phone.”