September 13, 2007

"End Times" Theology Endangers Us All

end times
Christians are expected to swallow all sorts of nonsense about the existence of supernatural entities, beliefs about the natural world which have repeatedly been falsified, and assorted logical contradictions. The rest of us are expected to keep our criticism to ourselves in the interest of respect or tolerance (yes, to point out someone's religiously-motivated intolerance is regularly considered intolerant). And yet, withholding criticism of certain irrational beliefs imperils us all.

In a recent column for The State News, John Bice, author of A 21st Century Rationalist in Medieval America, points out that belief in a "second coming" and the accompanying end times theology is just such a dangerous belief.

In fairness to the many Christians who have managed to retain some shred of sanity, I will distinguish between those who passively believe that Jesus will someday return and those who think such a return is imminent and that they should do something to speed it up. The former is simply deluded and making it more difficult to challenge the latter without being accused of intolerance. This is a problem to which I will return, but the second group requires our immediate attention.

Bice points out that belief in an imminent "second coming" can lead to apathy and a refuse to engage in meaningful long-term planning. After all, if Jesus will be here in the next 5-10 years, there is little point in conservation, worries about depleting oil reserves, or global warming. Bice quotes from a 2004 article in The Christian Science Monitor to hammer this point home:
"I know people who have sold their houses and lived with relatives because they thought the world would soon come to an end ... I know others who've cut their education short because they thought it more important to witness to people than to get their degree."
But surely these fears are exaggerated. It has to only be a tiny lunatic fringe who believes that the world is about to end. Right? Sadly, this conviction is far more pervasive than I even realized. Bice cites from a 2006 AP poll in which 25% of Americans said that their Jesus would return in 2007. This can no longer be ignored; they are jeopardizing our future.

As Bice notes, they have already managed to shift much of the political discourse away from important issues such as renewable energy, global warming, health care, and the eradication of poverty to a host of so-called "moral" concerns such as gay marriage and stem cell research. But even this pales in comparison to the possibility that these Christian extremists will continue to seek war in order to fulfill some imagined prophecy.

As valuable as it is, we need to go beyond what Bice is suggesting. It isn't just a matter of convincing people that Jesus isn't coming back; it is about convincing everyone who doesn't fall into the camp of imminent Jesus returns to say enough is enough. No more can we grant these delusional freaks the power to exert their will. It is time to speak out. Our very lives (and most certainly the lives of our children and grandchildren) are on the line. Any politician who dares to profess belief in living to see a "second coming" must be laughed out of office before he or she can do more harm.

Now let me return to the group of Christians who do not believe in an imminent apocalypse. It is high time for these folks to get off their asses and join us in saving humanity from the clutches of religious extremism. I know they are embarrassed of Pat Robertson and his kind, but their inaction fosters extremism and increases the risk we face together. If you want to passively believe that someone who may have never lived in the first place but who presumably has been dead for 2000 years is going to visit you someday, so be it. But do not risk our lives at the hands of the zealots who are determined to squander our future and/or accelerate our destruction. Think of your children and grandchildren. Don't they deserve better?

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