Existential Threats

In Existential Threats, Lisa Vox explores the growth of dispensationalist premillennialism alongside scientific understandings of the end of the world and contends that these two allegedly competing visions have converged to create an American apocalyptic imagination.

Existential Threats
American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era

Lisa Vox

2017 | 288 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History | Religion
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Secularizing the Apocalypse
Chapter 2. Race, Technology, and the Apocalypse
Chapter 3. Postnuclear Fantasies
Chapter 4. Spaceship Earth
Chapter 5. The Politics of Science and Religion
Chapter 6. Postapocalyptic American Identity
Chapter 7. Post-9/11 Despair

Selected Bibliography

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


I grew up during the Reagan era in a Southern Baptist stronghold—the suburbs of Memphis—where dispensationalist premillennialism bathed my childhood in apocalyptic anxiety. I worried about being "left behind" long before Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins wrote their series of novels under that title. In college and graduate school at the turn of the millennium, I discovered the extent to which nonevangelicals found it difficult to take such ideas seriously, which surprised me because I knew so many people for whom those ideas constituted a compelling reality. But my surprise was also because the dispensationalist concepts of the Rapture, societal decline, and an Antichrist never seemed that far afield from American culture to me, either as a child living in that milieu or as an adult working in the academy. I became interested in explaining the power of conservative evangelical beliefs about the end-times and understanding how they came to be. This book is the result. Existential Threats explores how dispensationalist premillennialism emerged alongside a scientific understanding of the end of the world during the late nineteenth century and how these two allegedly competing visions of the world have dominated American cultural conversations about the future since 1945.

During my 1980s childhood, fearing a nuclear war with the Soviets and worrying about the rise of the Antichrist didn't seem contradictory, though the adult purveyors of those two visions viewed each other with disdain. When we look at the history and development of the two worldviews, their similarities outshine their differences. Apocalyptic writers and commentators have acknowledged the similarities between dispensational premillennialism and scientific apocalypticism at times, but by the new millennium, proponents of each saw the other as knowingly dealing in false ideas.

The end of the Cold War in 1991 was supposed to end conflicts over big ideas, proving that secular democratic capitalism was, as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama put it, "the end of history." What a shock for secular Westerners that the even older wars of religion were not over. When 9/11 awakened the West to religiously fueled rage from the East, premillennialists incorporated the emergence of Islamic terrorism into their worldviews far more easily since they believed that the final battle of Armageddon would be the ultimate religious conflict. Liberal Americans struggled to balance a fear of Islamic terrorism with their ideals of tolerance and diversity. Some liberals, like conservatives, have since concluded that Islam itself is incompatible with Western ideals, but more often they have decided that a faulty reading of Islam or fundamentalist versions of religion in general is the problem. At its most extreme, this argument says rid the world of supernaturalism and we will all live happily together Star Trek-style on Spaceship Earth until the computers become sentient and either kill us or translate our spirits from our bodies into 0s and 1s for eternity.

Does that last bit seem far-fetched to you? Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones confronted with doubt or even ridicule for their beliefs about the destiny of humankind. Though we lack a scientific understanding of human consciousness, prominent figures in science and technology, such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniak, have warned that the development of artificial intelligence could lead to human extinction. Musk labeled smart computers as "our biggest existential threat" on a list that most recently includes climate change, species extinction, pandemics, and asteroid impacts.

Judging the likelihood of such scenarios is not the goal of my work. I do not treat science as a mere social construction, nor do I deny the reality of existential threats like climate change facing us today. Rather, my narrative describes how over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Americans interpreted scientific and technological threats to humanity through an eschatological framework by using the languages of science and religion.

The eschatological ideas monopolizing twenty-first-century American culture originated in the late nineteenth century. The theory of evolution as articulated by Charles Darwin provided the underpinnings for one scenario, while the other emerged among the conservative evangelicals who adopted a systematic version of Bible prophecy known as dispensational premillennialism. Contemporaries advanced the notion that these two understandings of the world diametrically opposed each other, a view that American scholars formally proclaimed in two histories: John William Draper's History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science in 1874 and Andrew Dickson White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom in 1896. These two works promoted the idea that there was an unbridgeable rift between religion and science that dated back centuries.

Modern scholars have largely rejected this thesis, sometimes called the "conflict thesis." Ronald L. Numbers, a historian of science who has written on the American historiography of this idea, complains that the warfare metaphor has disguised the complexities of the relationship between religion and science while unfairly maligning the former. Historians have shown that the usage of the terms "science" and "religion" to indicate discrete categories of human activity disguises how Westerners historically conducted investigations into the natural world and God in concert. Over the course of the 1800s, a wide range of partisans debated the origins of life as well as the ages of the Earth and the universe. As participants in these debates staked out their positions, especially regarding the role of God in these matters, they sought to differentiate themselves. Our inheritance from those disputes includes a vocabulary with terms like objectivity, technology, and the scientific method in addition to a categorization of bodies of knowledge and activities as distinct from one another, such as science, religion, theology, and technology.

Americans don't live as if science and religion are separate, nonoverlapping spheres, as the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould characterized the science-and-religion relationship in 1999. Neither do most people stagger around awkwardly in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance because they hold beliefs, at times contradictory, drawn from a variety of religious, scientific, and cultural sources. Perhaps, then, we should show no astonishment that an American history of ideas about the destiny of humanity since the late nineteenth century reveals similarities between scientific and religious visions of the End. This holds true even for science devotees who increasingly believed conservative evangelicals were dangerously antiscience and for conservative evangelicals who, by the end of the twentieth century, promoted the charge that scientists and their sympathizers actively deceive the public about threats like climate change.

That dispensational premillennialism in particular offers insight into understanding how scientists developed their own views about the future is a testament to what we can learn from subjecting both to the same historical analysis. For their part, far from challenging or failing to respect science, premillennialists have integrated scientific conclusions into biblical interpretations. Hewing to an older paradigm stressing that a lone scientist can conduct investigations into nature that prove Truth, dispensational premillennialists have continuously bolstered their biblical interpretations with reference to scientific figures, ideas, and works. Nor have scientific apocalypticists only engaged issues that fall strictly into the territory of what repeated experimentation and observation can determine. As they faced the threats they feared would cause the end of the world, scientific apocalypticists addressed matters such as the most ethical way to live and the purpose of human existence. When there appeared to be conflict between the two apocalyptics, scientific apocalypticists were the ones who initiated it by painting premillennialists in an unflattering light. In the 1990s, more premillennialists began to question the science behind environmentalism, but they did so in the context of both scientists and the wider public contesting the idea of infallible scientific authority.

In an analysis of nonfiction, novels, short stories, and films produced between the nineteenth century and the present day, I uncover rhetorical and thematic similarities between dispensational premillennialism and scientific apocalyptic beliefs, showing they are concerned with the same fundamental questions about the meaning of life and the fate of humankind. Science did not necessarily produce different, more realistic, or more rational responses to global problems; rather, both fields offered similar scenarios and solutions to man-made, existential threats emanating from technological developments for much of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The way Americans face existential threats today is indebted to the related histories and similarities between religion and science.

In the nineteenth century, the scientific apocalyptic was new and less like a religious apocalyptic at that time than at any other period since. Initial scientific apocalyptic musings wondered how nature could effect the end of the world. Soon, however, scientific apocalypticists wondered how humans could cause the end of the world or of the species; as they speculated on a man-made apocalypse, they adopted premillennial language and scenarios. Each apocalyptic during this period described a perpetual sense of crisis because of an impending catastrophe caused by human action. That the rhetoric of both religious and scientific apocalyptics was analogous is not a coincidence. Conservative evangelicals purposely incorporated science into their visions of the End. While scientific apocalypticists did not always consciously duplicate the way premillennialists envisioned the End, they did not have a language of crisis of their own. As scientific apocalypticists tried to warn humans about the dangers facing them and push the solutions that they thought were necessary to lessen such hazards, they tended to imagine scenarios and use language similar to what dispensational premillennialists used.

Science fiction has been key in the development of the scientific apocalyptic since the late 1800s. It fleshed out the apocalyptic by exposing what is only implicit in much popular science writing: that humanity is deserving of judgment, and only a worthy remnant emerging from a worldwide disaster will survive to build a better world—just as premillennialists believed would happen during the end-times. The historian James Gilbert has written about the relationship between science fiction and religion: "Frequently stories contained prophecy, revelation of things to come, secret knowledge, myths about origins and ends, the paranormal, and salvation imposed from beyond—all of which addressed the sorts of questions that religion traditionally answered." Gilbert maintains that science fiction counted among its readers professional scientists who appreciated that science fiction could deal with the implications of their discoveries and theories from a partisan perspective. As we shall see, American science fiction writers after 1945 assumed the mantle of prophecy, while scientists themselves sometimes wrote fiction in an advocacy role.

In addition to science fiction writers, the scientific apocalyptic included scientists who wrote books aimed at laypersons about the fate of humanity (and the world) and popular science journalists who wrote to warn Americans that they needed to change their way of life. All scientific apocalypticists, from scientists to science fiction authors, engaged the same basic questions about the purpose of life that premillennialists did. Michael Shermer, a science historian writing in 2006, argues, "Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going." In telling this epic saga, scientists and science fiction writers presented remarkably similar stories to the ones that conservative evangelicals told.

The endpoints of the stories that each provided to make sense of the world and ease the fears of worried Americans differed from one another. Premillennialists' answer to all problems facing humanity was Jesus Christ, whose return was the event all of human history led up to. Christ would stop humans from destroying each other in a nuclear war and would cleanse the Earth of pollution. Meanwhile, scientific apocalypticists, despite using the language and formulae of premillennialists, looked at the same problems facing the world and proposed political, technological, and, toward the end of the twentieth century, vaguely spiritual solutions. Both felt that humans were guilty of terrible acts (and feared that humanity would not restrain itself in the future from even worse acts involving nuclear war or damage to the environment). For premillennialists, Christ could change an individual's heart to make him or her more mindful of the environment; accepting Christ was also the only way to live through any final nuclear or environmental crisis. Scientific apocalypticists envisioned a fundamental flaw within the human species itself, akin to original sin. Without a messiah to save individuals, science fiction writers came up with various salvation plans, including purging the species through nuclear war, but also imagined that humans might simply pollute their surroundings to the extent that all life would simply perish. Since 9/11, this fatalism has suffused the scientific apocalyptic, bringing it even closer to the perspective of premillennialists who have washed their hands of the world.

As the scientific apocalyptic developed alongside dispensational premillennialism in the United States, these theories responded to the same societal trends. Despite their similarities, the two apocalyptics consciously characterized themselves as constituting opposing worldviews by the end of the twentieth century. Chapter 1 describes how dispensational premillennialism, imported from Britain, began making inroads among evangelicals during the same period that witnessed the emergence of the scientific apocalyptic among the British and Europeans in the wake of On the Origin of Species (1859). Both were initially minority viewpoints in the United States. Postrevolutionary Americans had entered the nineteenth century having embraced the empirical and political ideals of the Enlightenment as well as the emphases on personal salvation and evangelism of the Great Awakening. Even after the Civil War, Americans were confident in the human capability for progress, but racial superiority helped broker the peace between Yankee and Confederate. By the turn of the century, most white Americans agreed with Europeans that Western nations were spiritually, culturally, and racially better suited to lead the rest of the world.

Chapter 2 demonstrates how the development of the scientific apocalyptic and the spread of dispensational premillennialism proceeded apace up until World War II, despite this optimism. Americans prided themselves on their technological accomplishments, but, whether evangelical or not, there was also a growing foreboding about the future of the United States and the world. Christian and secular-minded British and Europeans alike shared in this mounting fear that the world was in a state of decline with destruction perpetually threatening, and Americans engaged this viewpoint in fiction and nonfiction.

The idea that human history was not a never-ending story of progress eventually gave way to apocalypticism among scientists and science fiction writers on both sides of the Atlantic with the invention of the nuclear bomb in 1945. Chapter 3 focuses on how the bomb became the first existential threat to penetrate the public consciousness, captivating both religious and scientific apocalypticists in the United States. As scientific apocalypticists learned to live with the perennial threat of destruction, the scientific doomsday became as ingrained and commonplace as that of premillennialists.

In Chapter 4's chronicle of environmentalism, atomic fears led naturally to environmental ones and the incorporation of environmental disasters into the scientific apocalyptic occurred within the religious apocalyptic. Fame and profit accrued to both religious and scientific apocalyptic writers and observers during the 1970s, accompanying a decline among Americans in their faith in government, national destiny, and scientific authority.

By the 1980s, the period covered in Chapter 5, the politicization of evangelicals had happened alongside the politicization of nuclear and environmental threats, and scientific and religious apocalypticists had begun to address one another overtly while still sharing assumptions about the state of the world. Chapter 6 covers the interregnum between the Cold War and the War on Terror, when nuclear anxiety receded in favor of environmental worries. Though dispensational premillennialists started to question the science behind the environmental threat, scientists and their supporters joined the rest of the country in worrying that science, without a spiritual transformation, could not solve the world's problems.

From 9/11 to the present, as I portray in Chapter 7, scientific and religious apocalypticists have produced an incredible amount of fiction and nonfiction, flooding all forms of media with apocalyptic fantasies. Even as Americans have become aware of the differences between dispensational premillennialism (minus the details) and a scientific understanding of how the world will end, the two still share language and scenarios as well as assumptions about the future. The result is a distinctive American apocalypticism that enthralls a divided country in the context of mounting doubts over the War on Terror, continued American power, and the fate of humanity in a warming world.

Recognizing the entanglement of religious and scientific understandings of the world should encourage more empathy from people who place themselves firmly in one camp or the other. Though the media continues to speak of red states pitted against blue, history can show the common ground that even the extremes of those two perspectives occupy. When we look at the history and evolution of scientific apocalyptic beliefs as well as of dispensational premillennialism, we could impose a simplistic story of good versus evil on the one hand or of ignorant superstition versus rational intellect on the other. Neither narrative would capture adequately how and why Americans have responded to modern-day existential threats in ways that recall both the book of Revelation and On the Origin of Species.