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Is Millenarianism Really So Bad?

Ross Douthat, one of the blogging editors at The Atlantic, critiques an Ian McEwan essay that rings similar alarm about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Branch Davidian inferno.

McEwan writes in the Guardian:

I began with the idea of photography as the inventory of mortality, and I will end with a photograph of a group death. It shows fierce flames and smoke rising from a building in Waco, Texas, at the end of a 51-day siege in 1993. The group inside was the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists. Its leader, David Koresh, was a man steeped in biblical, end-time theology, convinced that America was Babylon, the agent of Satan, come in the form of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the FBI to destroy the Sabbath-keeping remnant, who would emerge from the cleansing, suicidal fire to witness the dawn of a new Kingdom … In that grim inferno, children, their mothers, and other followers died. Even more died two years later when Timothy McVeigh, exacting revenge against the government for its attack on Waco, committed his slaughter in Oklahoma City. It is not for nothing that one of the symptoms in a developing psychosis, noted and described by psychiatrists, is “religiosity”.

Douthat concludes:

Now obviously there are more dangerous religious madmen in the world than David Koresh, and obviously McEwan is on firm ground when he argues that some of the various great crimes of history have been rooted in apocalyptic hopes and fears. But his own anecdotes offer a useful reminder that worldly motivations tend to play a vastly larger role in war and terrorism and similar evils than do spurious prophecies of an imminent Armageddon or dumb misreadings of the Book of Revelation. This is true even among religious believers: From Crusaders trying to conquer the Holy Land to contemporary jihadis hoping to restore the Caliphate, from Woodrow Wilson trying to make the world safe for democracy to George W. Bush trying to, well, make the world safe for democracy, religiously-motivated political actors are much more likely to believe that God wants them to pursue a particular geopolitical objective than they are to assume that He wants them to ring in the actual End of History with a hail of bombs (or suicide bombers). People whose fondest wish is to hasten end of the world can be dangerous, no doubt, and perhaps one such fanatic will yet succeed in ringing in the apocalypse with a suitcase nuke or a vial of Captain Trips. But in general, such people tend not to advance to positions where they can do world-historical damage. Which is why the worst crimes, well-meaning and otherwise, usually aren’t committed by the millenarians who keep a good secularist like McEwan up at night; they’re committed by rational actors, religious and secular alike, who want to change the world we live in, rather than bring it to an end, and fail to count the fatal cost of pursuing their ambitions.

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