Currently, The Walking Dead is one of the most popular television programs. And movies about the end of the world are more common than iPhone releases. Our love of apocalyptic narratives ranges from the relatively harmless interest in fantasy fiction to the darker and more concerning existence of off-the-grid militias and doomsday religious cults. But why are we so fascinated by running mental simulations of possible world-destroying scenarios? Here are a couple of possibilities.
First, as humans we think about the end of life as we know it because we can. Our capacity for complex temporal and abstract thought is unparalleled. The same ability that allows us as a species to defy nature with incredible feats of science and engineering also renders us uniquely capable of creating fantasy worlds of what-if scenarios. In short, we have imaginations and we like to use them. Just as we like to imagine super heroes and unrealistic romances, we also like to think about ways the world could end.
Second, this advanced cognitive capacity that paved the way for our dominance of the planet also paved the way for existential anxiety. We can imagine all sorts of exciting and wonderful things. But we can also imagine all sorts of terrifying and horrible things. And as existential scholars have long discussed, we can contemplate the possibility that we are insignificant organisms that exist by chance and are born only to suffer the same mortal fate as every other organism. In other words, we can question our existential meaning, our reason for existing. And this questioning, this potential existential anxiety, may make apocalyptic narratives rather seductive because most apocalyptic narratives allow humans (or at least some of us) to be more than insignificant mortal beings. For example, many apocalyptic traditions are religious in nature and pave the way for the chosen people (insert your religious group here) to be rescued from the horrors of the world and taken to a new realm that is not filled with the human suffering and injustices that we cannot make sense of in our world.
Of course, this attraction to an apocalypse followed by a utopian rebirth is not specific to religion. Some apocalyptic narratives seem to be based on the appeal of a cultural and technological reboot in which we can escape all of the problems and complexities of modern living by simply starting over. That is, doomsday scenarios that focus on the collapse of governments and the social and technological infrastructure that seemingly control our daily lives may be attractive for some. This type of end of world thinking seems to be motivated by historical nostalgia in which people imagine that life was much simpler and better in the past. For many of us, a few days of primitive camping would probably reduce the allure of this type of apocalyptic scenario.
It is also worth emphasizing that many of these religious and non-religious apocalyptic narratives include some form of heroism in which good triumphs over evil. A redemptive sequence is also common. That is, something bad happens (e.g., zombies eat a bunch of people, robots become self-aware and kill a bunch of people) but people rise up and fight back or the true followers are saved from evil. This heroic redemption, whether secular or religious in nature, paves the way for a sense of meaning. It allows humans to feel like they are part of a larger and more cosmically significant drama.
Which of the following scenarios seems more appealing? We are no more significant than any other form of biological life and will live out our brief lives and be forgotten. Or, we are part of a meaningful universe in which there is an epic struggle between good and evil and we can play an important role in the fight for good.
To be human means to wonder what our place in this world is, to strive for meaning. We fill this need by investing in our families, friendships, careers, churches, and nations. Apocalyptic narratives may be one of many products of our quest to make sense of the world and our place in it.
A recent interview I did regarding this topic can be found at Prairie Public