How “apocalypse” became each a secular and spiritual idea

The exponential growth of artificial intelligence over the past yr has sparked discussions about whether the era of human rule over our planet is coming to an end. The worst predictions are that machines will take over inside five to 10 years.

Fears about AI usually are not the one reasons driving public concern concerning the end of the world. Climate change and pandemics are also known threats. Reporting on these challenges and describing them as a possible “apocalypse” has turn out to be commonplace within the media – so common, in actual fact, that it might go unnoticed or just be dismissed as exaggeration.

Does using the word “apocalypse” within the media matter? Our shared interest in how the American public understands apocalyptic threats brought us together to reply this query. One of us is a Scholar of the Apocalypse in Antiquityand the opposite examines press coverage of current concerns.

By tracking what events the media describes as “apocalyptic,” we are able to gain insight into our changing fears about potential catastrophes. We have found that discussions of the apocalypse unite the traditional and the trendy, the religious and secular, and the revelatory and the rational. They show how a term with roots in classical Greece and early Christianity helps us express our deepest fears today.

What is an apocalypse?

The end of the world has fascinated people since precedent days. However, the word apocalypse shouldn’t express this concern. In Greece, the verb “Apokalyptein” originally meant simply uncover or reveal.

In his dialogue “ProtagorasPlato used this term to explain how a physician might ask a patient to uncover their body for a medical examination. He also used it metaphorically when asking an interlocutor to disclose his thoughts.

A black and white engraving depicting four horsemen striking people with their swords.  Behind them a figure sits on a throne, in front of which people bow.
A wood engraving by the German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld shows a scene from the Book of Revelation.
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New Testament writers used the noun “apocalypsis” to consult with the “revelation” of God’s divine plan for the world. In the unique Greek version of Koine, “Apocalypsis” is that this first word of the Book of Revelation, which describes not only the approaching arrival of a painful inferno for sinners, but in addition a second coming of Christ that can bring everlasting salvation to believers.

The apocalypse in today's world

Many American Christians today feel that God's day of judgment is imminent. In December 2022 Pew Research Center survey39% of respondents believed they were “living in the end times,” while 10% said Jesus would “definitely” or “probably” return of their lifetime.

Nevertheless, the Christian apocalypse will not be viewed entirely negatively by some believers. Rather, it’s a moment that can uplift the righteous and cleanse the world of sinners.

In the secular understanding of the word, nevertheless, this redemptive element isn’t included. An apocalypse is mostly understood to be a devastating, catastrophic event that can irretrievably change our world for the more serious. It is something to avoid, not something to attend for.

What we fear most, decade after decade

Political communication scientist Christopher Wlezien And Stuart Soroka show of their research that the Media is more likely to reflect public opinion much more so than they direct or change it. While her study focused largely on Americans' views on major policy decisions, she says her findings apply beyond those areas as well.

If they’re right, we are able to use discussions of the apocalypse within the media over the past few many years as a barometer of prevailing public concerns.

Following this logic, we collected all New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post articles between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 2023 that mentioned the words “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic.” After filtering out the articles specializing in religion and entertainment, there have been 9,380 articles that mentioned a number of of the 4 major apocalyptic issues: nuclear war, disease, climate change, and AI.

By the top of the Cold War, fears of a nuclear apocalypse were prevalent not only within the newspaper data we collected, but in addition in visual media reminiscent of the 1983 post-apocalyptic film The Day After, which was seen by as much as 300 viewers 100 million Americans.

However, within the Nineteen Nineties there have been more articles linking the word apocalypse to climate and disease – and to concerning the same extent – than those specializing in nuclear war. In the 2000s and much more so within the 2010s, newspaper attention was clearly focused on environmental concerns.

The 2020s have broken this pattern. COVID-19 led to a spike in articles mentioning the pandemic. In the primary 4 years of this decade, there have been nearly 3 times as many stories linking disease to the apocalypse than in the whole 2010s.

While AI played virtually no role within the media in 2015, recent technological breakthroughs in 2023 led to more apocalypse articles focused on AI than nuclear issues for the primary time ever.

What should we fear most?

Do the apocalyptic fears we examine most actually pose the best threat to humanity? Some journalists recently Warnings issued that nuclear war is more plausible than we realize.

This corresponds to the attitude of the scientists answerable for it Doomsday Clock who discover what they consider to be critical threats to human existence. She focus totally on nuclear issuesfollowed by climate, biological threats and AI.

It might sound that using apocalyptic language to explain these challenges represents an increasing secularization of the concept. For example the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has argued that the media's portrayal of COVID-19 as a potentially apocalyptic event reflects the alternative of faith by science. Likewise the cultural historian Eva Horn has claimed that the contemporary vision of the top of the world is an apocalypse without God.

However, like that Pew survey showsApocalyptic pondering stays widespread amongst American Christians.

The key point is that each religious and secular views concerning the end of the world use the identical word. The meaning of “apocalypse” has subsequently expanded in recent many years from an exclusively religious idea to other, more man-made apocalyptic scenarios, reminiscent of a “nuclear apocalypse”, a “climate apocalypse”, a “COVID-19 Apocalypse” etc. an “AI apocalypse”.

In short, media coverage of apocalypses actually provides a revelation – not about how the world will end, but about how it would end, increasingly. It also reveals a paradox: that folks today often imagine the long run most vividly by reviving and adapting an old word.

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