NASA, the Mayan Apocalypse, and the Study of Non-Events

By Matt Sheedy, Religion Bulletin

A recent article posted on the Scientific American website entitled, “NASA Crushes 2012 Mayan Apocalypse Claims,” provides a good example of what is wrong with common secular approaches to religion in the public sphere. The article features a three-minute video put out by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where spokesperson Don Yeoman discusses “false claims about the Mayan apocalypse,” including fears that we will fall prey to solar flares, tidal effects or, even more fantastically, that the “imaginary planet Nibiru, will collide with earth,” a premise that, he notes with a chuckle, is impossible, for if it were true “we would have seen it long ago.” All things considered we can rest assured, the article’s author tells us, that this is a “non-event.”

While happily affirming the logic of these scientific claims, it is worth considering what type of social ontology this line of reasoning suggests. Among other things, this hermeneutic works through a binary logic where the actions or claims of an individual or group are measured solely on the basis of whether they are able to follow and assent to certain logical propositions about evidence-based reality regarding the workings of the natural world. What is concealed here are the ways in which this strategy serves to privilege a particular method of reasoning and system of knowledge production, while excluding the larger social field of political, historical, and cultural explanations that also contribute to seemingly bizarre claims.

Although the implications of this kind of taxonomy may appear relatively benign when classifying those who believe in the Mayan apocalypse, it is worth recalling how a similar taxonomy was deployed by the “New Atheists” in their classification of religion (especially Islam), where large groups of people from different countries, cultures, etc., were often reduced to the category of irrational social actors in need of our help, be it through forceful arguments or, failing that, through bombs raining down from the sky.

A more fruitful approach to phenomena like the Mayan apocalypse is one that begins with social practices as the primary site of investigation and expands outward towards other convergent ideas, be they historical, political, cognitive, or what have you. For example, Kate Dailey-Baley’s recent post, “Theorizing Zombies” looks at the ways in which Haitian zombies and the American zombie apocalypse genre are tied to 1) a history of colonial and racial oppression and 2) a culture of fear amidst economic troubles and the War on Terror. While this general approach is no doubt familiar to many of us, it is worth considering its value not only in the world of scholarship, but also as an alternative to more popular secular discourses about religion in the public sphere. While not discounting cognitive explanations like those offered by Yeoman, this approach has the additional merit of showing how seemingly irrational beliefs and practices must be explained not only in terms of individual minds, but also in relation to larger social forces that implicate society as a whole, thus making explicit the fact that we are all in the soup together.

At the risk of sounding apologetic, in this year of 2012, where increased public attention on the theme of apocalypse is on the rise, it is also worth considering how this so-called “non-event” offers scholars of religion an opportunity to contribute to a broader public conversation, drawing attention, for example, to how fears of apocalypse are connected to other myths and narratives, both historically and in the present, how they are reflected in popular culture (e.g., Hollywood films), or how this interest in the Maya might be situated in relation to new age movements and the long-standing Western idealization of so-called “Eastern” and/or polytheistic traditions. In these frightening and uncertain times (read “under the yoke of neo-liberal economic policies”), this may be just the kind of publicity that the academic study of religion needs to help save it from what looks to some like the dawn of our own impending doom!

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