Religious Belief Might Bring About the End of the World

I recently did a book review of Phil Torres‘ important new book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse. Here is a sample of my effusive praise for the book:

… Torres’ book is one of the most important ones recently published. It offers a fascinating study of the many real threats to our existence, provides multiple insights as to how we might avoid extinction, and it is carefully and conscientiously crafted. Perhaps what strikes me most about Torres’ book is how deeply it expresses his concern for the fate of conscious life, as well as his awareness of how tenuous consciousness is in the vast immensity of time and space. The author obviously loves life, and hates to see ignorance and superstition imperil it. He implores us to remember how the little light of consciousness that brightens this planet can be quickly extinguished—and that we will only be saved by reason and science.

This praise was ever so slightly mitigated by my concern that the “secular apocalypse can arrive independent of any belief in a religious eschatology … We might use nuclear or chemical weapons to kill each other because we are greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, or territorial . . . [so]. . . consideration of biological, psychological, social, cultural and economic factors are also important in understanding how we might avoid oblivion.”

Torres replied with a powerful response that I’ll reprint in full:

I would agree that the book doesn’t adequately deal with apocalyptic scenarios brought about by phenomena that are “non-religious” in nature. In one of the appendices, I do mention how eschatological beliefs imbue and animate strictly-speaking “secular” ideologies, such as Nazism and Marxism. The point of the book, though, is to specifically focus on the potential connections between religion and existential risks — to show that these two topics are mutually relevant, and therefore that the secular community and the x-risks community ought to be speaking to each other. According to the Global Terrorism Index, religious terrorism is the leading motivator of terrorism today, and as I attempt to argue in a forthcoming Skeptic article, I think there are fairly robust reasons for thinking that apocalyptic terrorism — arguably the most dangerous kind — will actually increase in the future. (Several terrorism scholars that I’ve sent the paper to share my conclusion, as it happens!)

Furthermore, while human irrationality — the ultimate danger here — can take many forms, such as nationalism, radical anarchism, and so on, I take it that religion offers perhaps the most compelling instance of bad epistemology in the world today. It’s also an immensely pervasive social-cultural phenomenon that, according to Pew, is projected to grow this century. Reasons like this are why I focus on religion in particular. But the ultimate point here is a very, very good one: there most definitely are other phenomena that could nontrivially increase the probability of an existential risk. (Is North Korea motivated by religion? Arguably, yes, a “cult of personality.” But there’s a lot more to be said here about this ongoing, and possibly increasing, danger, that doesn’t immediately fit into the categories that I discuss.) As John mentions, we could be greedy, aggressive, racist, ideological, territorial, and so on. So the point is definitely understood, and further exploration should be a focus of future work! In the last chapter of the book, I note that there are few shoulders upon which to stand when it comes to x-risks studies, simply because the field is a mere 20 years old, at most (in my estimation; starting with John Leslie’s The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction. Once the field emerges a bit more from a “pre-paradigmatic” state, perhaps a more comprehensive analysis can be given.

In conclusion let me reiterate that Torres’ book is extraordinarily important.

2 thoughts on “Religious Belief Might Bring About the End of the World

  1. One quibble: Naziism wasn’t secular. It was devoutly christian. Roman Catholic, specifically.

    Religious groups have been trying to wipe out humanity for centuries. They’ve come close to suceeding a few times. This subject deserves more attention.

  2. Thanks for your comments Mitch. And I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly.

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