John Michael Greer's "Apocalypse Not" gives the reader a historical overview and critique of apocalyptic thinking. The author is the current head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), but his own religious views are visible mostly by implication. Often, his criticism of apocalyptic thinking sounds like a version of secular conservatism.
"Apocalypse Not" was published in 2011, so it's hardly surprising that the brouhaha surrounding 2012 is prominently featured. Indeed, the main point of the book is probably to debunk the 2012 phenomenon, with the historical material (interesting in itself) as a gigantic backdrop. I must say that the origins of the 2012 "Mayan" date came as a surprise even to me. They are even sillier than I expected! While it's true that one Mayan calendric cycle does end on December 21, 2012, many others end on other dates, such as October 23, 4772, or even a million years into the future. It turns out that the 2012 date is known from one inscription only, found at a minor Mayan site in Mexico. The inscription is partly illegible, and essentially says that a minor Mayan deity (Bolon Yokte Ku) will descend. Nobody knows from where or to what - the text is damaged at this point. That's it! That's what the entire apocalypse fervour around 2012 was ultimately based on! Well, almost. The *real* source turns out to be modern: during the 1970's, one Terence McKenna had visions of the impending end of the world during a trip on ayahuasca and hallucinogenic mushrooms, and he somehow connected this to the Mayan cycle which ends on the now notorious date. During the 1980's, New Age writer José Argüellés popularized the date in a book and at an event known as the Harmonic Convergence. This set the snowball in motion, and the rest is history...
Here, the book could have ended, but Greer wants to know why apocalyptic thinking is so pervasive in our culture, and hence takes us on a long (and almost apocalyptic) journey through human history in search of its origins. If you guessed ancient Persia and Zoroastrianism, you guessed correctly. Zoroastrianism does indeed seem to be the first apocalyptic religion in world history. Interestingly, it's also one of the first monotheist religions. Greer argues that apocalypticism is a logical consequence of monotheism: if God is one, all-powerful and good, why is there evil in the world? One possible answer is that evil is a temporary aberration, and that God will soon vanquish it. According to Greer, Zoroaster's career was fairly typical of many later monotheist prophets: an exclusive revelation, condemnation of all old-thinking people as wicked, a confrontation with vested interests, and even a "holy war", a war which Zoroaster eventually lost. The first apocalyptic prophet in history also became the first martyr of apocalypticism. Despite Zoroaster's defeat, his message eventually became the state religion of Persia, and here the second stage of apocalyptic thinking began, as the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylon and released the Jews from their captivity. Greer argues that Judaism became heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism (a common position among modern critical scholars), taking over the apocalyptic perspective. The violent end of history, the resurrection of the dead, the coming of the Messiah: all these ideas can be found in Zoroastrianism before they entered Judaism.
Due to various historical accidents, two creeds inspired by Judaism became world religions: Christianity and Islam. Greer argues that all apocalyptic thinking in pagan cultures is the result of Zoroastrian, Christian or Muslim influence. Thus, ancient apocalyptic sects in China are derived from Zoroastrianism. While this is probably hard to prove conclusively, modern examples abound. The Taiping Rebellion in China and the Ghost Dance among American Indians were fuelled by apocalyptic ideas obviously modelled on Christianity. The same is true of the cargo cults in Melanesia (strangely enough, these are not mentioned in Greer's book). The apocalyptic delusions of New Age cults, often involving UFOs, are also derived from Christianity, while Ray Kurzweil's bizarre ideas about the coming Singularity (when we will all get immortal robot bodies and start journeying in the universe) sounds like a secular science fiction version of the Rapture... Marxism is often seen as a secular imitation of Christianity (although Islam would be a better comparison), and a detailed analysis of the antics of Marxist groups would no doubt show many parallels between them and traditional religion (including religious sects, cults, etc).
Apocalyptic movements are often seen as responses to social stress, rapid societal change, foreign invasion, etc. While this is certainly true, I believe Greer is on to something when he sees the "apocalyptic meme" as an independent factor. Social stress might be necessary for an apocalyptic movement to emerge, but it's not sufficient. There was plenty of social stress in the ancient world. The Jews weren't the only people deported by the Assyrians and Babylonians, Rome was constantly rocked by revolutions, Minoan Crete was destroyed by an "apocalyptic" volcanic eruption, yet only Persia and Judah developed truly apocalyptic thinking (never-ending cycles which ends in a disaster doesn't count). Thus, we really are dealing with a unique phenomenon in human history. Why it emerged is anybody's guess - some monotheists would *agree* with Greer, but claim that the unique character of their thinking proves that it's a divine revelation, something no human would have been able to come up with...
Greer sees apocalyptic thinking as a powerful delusion, a kind of mind-parasite, which feeds on people's insecurities, utopian dreams and/or hopes of swift revenge against real or imagined enemies. Indeed, it's success is due exactly to its multifaceted nature. It can satisfy different groups of people (or different urges within the same man) all at once. It's also impossible to absolutely disprove: what if the *next* prophecy turns out to be real? There's always a slight chance that William Miller, Judge Rutherford or the 2012 crowd will turn out to be right. That being said, Greer - no doubt because of his somewhat grouchy "old man with a big beard" conservatism - goes too far in the other direction, often forgetting the real social issues underlying apocalyptic thinking. The Peasants' War in Germany, the Thirty Years' War, or the French and Russian revolutions weren't *caused* by apocalyptic thinking, anymore than the plebeian or slave rebellions in Rome (which didn't have apocalyptic overtones). Sometimes, Greer's choice of examples are pretty weird. Why is Hegel an apocalyptic thinker? Or Francis Fukuyama?
That being said, I nevertheless consider "Apocalypse Not" to be a good, popularized introduction to a subject usually only found in super-scholarly studies (which Greer of course draws upon). And as a debunking of the 2012 phenomenon, the book is simply excellent. So it was a psychedelic trip all along... Well, no surprise there, I suppose. And now, on to 2032!