Coming to terms with extinction

Throughout human history, people have had a compelling desire to know how things will turn out. Prophets, soothsayers, fortune tellers, clairvoyants, astrologers, and sorcerers were all in the business of foretelling the future. It is always interesting to see how seemingly intelligent and educated people still rely on these prognosticators, how they swallow their predictions without question.

A curiosity to know the future was irresistible. The inquisitiveness was especially evident during the Biblical period. To deter the willingness of people to believe soothsayers, Deuteronomy had this to say, “Prophets and dreamers are to be executed if they say or dream the wrong things” (13-1-5). Also, written in Isaiah, “The priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink. You can’t even trust a drunken prophet anymore” (28:7).

One of the world’s most famous prophets was Michel de Nostradamus, a French apothecary who published collections of prophecies that have since gained worldwide popularity. Most critics of his prophesies (written in quatrains -- a type of stanza, or a complete poem, consisting of four lines) maintain that they are largely the result of misinterpretations or mistranslations, or so tenuous as to render them useless as evidence of any genuine predictive power. His predictions dealt mainly with disasters, such as plagues, earthquakes, wars, floods, invasions, murders, droughts, and battles.

Taken together, the majority of prophecies made throughout the centuries were made by pretenders and revealed as hoaxes. The most popular prophecy has been the end of the world, also known by names such as Armageddon, apocalypse, or the end of time.

Harold E. Camping an American Christian radio broadcaster, author, and evangelist predicted that the world would end in 1994. When that did not happen, he set another date as May 21, 2011 at exactly 6 p.m. (sunset in Jerusalem). Obviously, that, too, did not happen. Other audacious prophets have wrongly predicted the world to end in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994 and Dec. 21, 2012 by the Mayans. What will be the next date? Eventually, one prophecy will be correct, but we will not be around to acknowledge it.

The compulsive desire to know when the world will end will always be with us. When people are asked why they want to know, they usually say it will allow them to make the most of their remaining years. At one point, a scientist, priest, and a ten-year-old boy were asked what they would do if a tidal wave was coming that would destroy the world.

The scientist said that he would try to figure out a way to prevent it. The priest prayed for God’s intervention. The young boy said, “I would try to find out how to live under water.” More optimistic individuals simply wanted the outcome to be a surprise.

Most people live an “as if” life. While their intellect tells them otherwise, they continue to live life “as if” it will go on indefinitely. They refuse to think or talk about a time when their life will end. They find any conversation about mortality depressing. Paradoxically, the thought of humanity becoming extinct does not bode well in the human mind.

There are six questions skeptics usually ask when confronted by a prophecy. Is it credible? Should it be taken literally or figuratively? Is it specific or a generalization? How probable is it? Is the language used consistent with the time in which it was made? What was the prophet’s motivation?

No matter how these questions are answered, gullible individuals will believe them. A closed mind is extremely difficult to penetrate. If the apocalypse were to come in the form of a global flood, they would try to figure out how to live under water. Apparently, no amount of absurdity could deter those who want to believe from believing.

Professor Eisenberg was born in New York City and now lives in Belleair Bluffs. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. His career consisted of teaching interpersonal/intercultural communication, public speaking, organizational communication, nonverbal communication, group dynamics, and persuasion at four major universities including Pace University and Manhattanville College in New York. His publications include 19 textbooks on various aspects of communication. Send comments to: aeisenberg3@tampabay.rr.com.

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