Few in the U.S. are buying all the hype about an ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. But other religious beliefs about the end of the world still have influence among millions of Americans.
A recent poll showed just 2 percent of Americans believe the myth that the world will end when the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar hits a symbolic turning point.
Anthropologists and NASA scientists have debunked the prediction as a misreading of the ancient Mayan calendar. Faith leaders have called it "unbiblical" because it sets a date.
But Americans haven't entirely dismissed the idea that the world will come to end someday — possibly someday soon. A survey by Public Religion Research Institute showed 36 percent believe that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence that we are in the biblically prophesied end times. That's down from 44 percent when PRRI asked the same question in March 2011.
“It's hardly a fringe belief. It’s nearly four in 10 Americans who are embracing this,” Daniel Cox, research director at PRRI, told Religion News Service, which was a partner in the poll of more than 1,000 people in early December.
Experts in eschatology, or end-times theology, agree it is only human to focus on the future and the end, whether it be our own death or the demise of the earth. And all major faith traditions have a theology that spells out what will happen when the end comes — teachings that can influence both personal and political views. But what experts say distinguishes the fringe groups from the mainstream is an underlying message of fear, along with the setting of a concrete date for the end of the world.
"All groups construct some type of history and make projections into the future," said Frederick Ware, a theology professor at Howard University School of Divinity. "Where some groups put forward a hopeful vision, others put forth a horrible nightmare."
'Called to contribute'
The most fervent believers in end-times theology are white evangelical Protestants, the PRRI survey indicated. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) believe recent natural disasters are a sign of the end times, compared with 21 percent of Catholics and 15 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans.
Just under 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants and minority Christians believe that the end of the world, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, will occur in their lifetime. That compares with no more than 10 percent of Catholics, 8 percent of white mainline Protestants and 7 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans. Overall, 15 percent of Americans believe the world will end in their lifetime.
Since Protestantism has been the dominant faith tradition in the United States, it's no coincidence that end-times theology runs through the patriotic narrative of America, said Jonathan Kirsch, a publishing attorney and author who penned the cleverly titled "A History of the End of the World."
He said the early settlers "saw themselves as literally in the new world predicted in Revelation. 'Terra nova' is a phrase from Revelation where the old passes away and a new world is provided."
That thinking has continued to modern times. Kirsch wrote that former President Ronald Reagan was a big believer in end-times theology, and he surrounded himself with like-minded believers. Among them was former Interior Secretary James Watt, who "demurred to a question about his plans for protecting the environment for the benefit of future generations by invoking the Second Coming. 'I don't how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.'"
Not surprisingly, that type of thinking frustrates the environmental and scientific community, particularly on the issue of global warming.
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