Humans believe in a lot of stupid shit, and we do something stupid as a result of those beliefs about, oh, once every five seconds. And sure, most of you reading this are educated types who don't believe in Bigfoot or psychic readings, but there are a whole bunch of equally stupid/harmful superstitions out there that are so commonly held that we don't even think of them as such. Very few of us don't fall victim to at least a few of them.
In fact, I'm something of an expert on this because I believe literally hundreds of idiotic things, and also because I wrote a ridiculous best-seller about an apocalypse brought about by people believing in apocalypses. And I say that, in order to keep humanity from imploding, we have to give up believing ...
5That We're Fulfilling a Prophecy
The headlines will make a lot more sense to you once you understand one simple fact: About 60 percent of Americans believe that Jesus Christ and his angels will descend from heaven and destroy the planet, and about 40 percent of Americans think it will happen within the next few decades.
Every decision they make, and every vote they cast, is done with this in mind. For instance, there is no reason not to drill all of the oil now, because who are we saving it for? The unsaved, who'll be left behind when the demons roam free? Those heathens can walk.
I am not trying to disrespect anyone's religion (and they're not the only ones with apocalypse fever -- more on that in a moment), but personally, I do think that's kind of weird.
And this affects your life. They -- that is, most people you pass on the street -- believe that the precursor to God tearing open the sky will be a sequence of political and military upheavals in the Middle East, mostly revolving around Israel, and that it is America's role to facilitate those events. And again, they vote accordingly. For example, have you been following the whole situation in Syria? To you it might seem like the Middle Eastern War of the Week, but 1 in 4 Americans thinks that U.S. intervention could lead to the apocalypse, in fulfillment of a prophecy from the book of Isaiah stating that the Syrian city of Damascus would be left in ruins prior to Armageddon. (Note: Islam's prophecy says the opposite.)
This voting bloc is also the reason why, if you're running for national office in the USA, criticizing Israel is political suicide. Many Christians believe the formation of the current state of Israel is the fulfillment of another biblical prophecy. That's why you have evangelical leaders urging Israel not to negotiate -- any lasting peace in the region would render the prophecy null and void.
At this point my young atheist readers are saying, "Exactly! Religion is a dangerous fairy tale we must all leave behind, Wong! I'll buy your book right now, and a tip of the fedora to you, sir!" but that's not the point, either -- there are lots of religious people who don't believe we're playing out a prophetic checklist, and lots of non-religious people who do.
Look at our pop culture -- how many futuristic movies automatically assume an impending collapse of human society? Just this year we've had Elysium (about an apocalyptic economic collapse), World War Z (zombie apocalypse), Oblivion (alien apocalypse), After Earth (environmental apocalypse), Pacific Rim (giant monster apocalypse), The Host (alien apocalypse), Dredd (societal breakdown in the wake of Armageddon), and The Purge (violent societal breakdown). On TV you've got The Walking Dead (zombie apocalypse) and Revolution (a world torn apart by a nonsensical plot and two-dimensional characters). None of those are Christian shows, yet all assume that we're living in the end times.
So in an era when things are going better than ever, we all assume it's about to fall apart. And we also vote accordingly. Check out any poll about what issues voters are most worried about. At the top you find things like the economy, health care, and the situation in the Middle East. What you find waaaay down at the bottom (if at all) are issues about the environment, natural resources, and education. Because those things only affect the future world our children will live in, and that world is a savage wasteland anyway. It has been foretold, either by the Bible or by RoboCop.
And I think it's bullshit.
I think you could have made a much better case for impending Armageddon 100 years ago (1913 -- the brink of World War I!) or 100 years before that (1813 -- the entire world at war, thanks to the man many believed to be the Antichrist, Napoleon!). Shit, go all the way back to 1363 and you find the Black Death, a plague that killed 75 million fucking people. A dude walking around back then with a sandwich board proclaiming the end times would have been impossible to argue with. Yet, 650 years later, here we still are, bitch.
So, with all due respect, fuck the apocalypse and everyone who believes in it. Let's try to fix the world instead. But that isn't easy, since most of us believe ...
4That the Ghost of a Different Person Is Living Inside Us
Chad Baker/Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty
Nope, I'm not talking about demon possession here, or even belief in a soul. I'm talking about the thing you, the reader, believe in, regardless of religion (or lack of). Here, I'll show you.
Stand up, wherever you are, and describe out loud the worst thing you've ever done. OK, sit back down. Unless you were in public and have been asked to leave, in which case you'll need to progress to another location to finish reading the article. Now, I bet for most of you, the story sounded something like this:
"One time, when I was drunk, I cheated on my wife."
"A year ago, when I was short on cash, I stole from my roommate."
"During an argument in high school, I totally lost it and beat my best friend so bad, he had to go to the hospital."
"I ate another man's flesh while infected with a mind-controlling brain parasite."
Do you spot the key phrases there? "When I was drunk." "When I was short on cash." "I totally lost it." "Brain parasite." It's not just that we make excuses for our behavior, it's that we make a really specific excuse: That the person who did the bad thing wasn't the "real" us.
"Man, it's a good thing we only steal things ironically."
Hell, go find any celebrity's scandal apology. Mel Gibson repeatedly rants about Jews, then says it was done "in a moment of insanity" and insists "I am not a bigot." Michael Vick's torturing and killing of dogs was due to immaturity. Tiger Woods announced he was getting therapy for whatever strange disease of the brain caused him to have sex with lots of beautiful women.
What a sick, crazy bastard.
In each case, the message is clear: This isn't who I "really" am on the inside. And we usually phrase it that way: "On the inside." As if there's another, real person living inside our meaty body who remains pure despite what the body does.
And I think that if aliens from another planet were examining the human race, this would make them think our goddamned brains were broken. This idea of the "ghost in the machine" lets us excuse anything we do (or more importantly, not do) and invent an identity for ourselves that has nothing to do with reality. "Sure, I've got six domestic battery convictions on my record, but it's not like I'm some wife beater." "I know I haven't been completely honest with you, but don't treat me like I'm some kind of liar." "Yeah, I took the sales job to make ends meet, but I'm not some salesman."*
*Note: He took the sales job 35 years ago.
Gloom is his only currency.
Here's the deal: That "real," perfect you on the inside is a figment of your imagination. Specifically, it's a flimsy excuse told by a squishy part of your brain that wants to get out of doing work. "Don't worry about what we did or didn't do, what matters is that the invisible 'real' person inside us remains perfect and above reproach."
And what makes it even weirder is that when it comes to other people, we still think ...