Doomsday Psychology: The Appeal of Armageddon

Why people like believing the end is near.

ByABC News
May 19, 2011, 11:52 AM

May 20, 2011— -- This Saturday in Times Square, amidst bewildered tourists and hot dog vendors, Robert Fitzpatrick will be waiting for the world to end.

This 60-year-old MTA retiree from Staten Island joins the hordes who follow the Biblical calculation of Family Radio preacher Harold Camping. Camping predicts that the End of Days is near -- in fact, it's tomorrow, May 21, at about 5:59 p.m. ET.

"Judgment day will begin very shortly before midnight Jerusalem standard time. I think it's going to be instantaneous. Everything will be destroyed and God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth," says Fitzpatrick, who spent his $140,000 life savings to have 3,000 posters put up in New York City's subway and bus system, warning of this impending End of Days.

Though many are chalking up this May 21 hysteria to religious zeal, leaders among mainstream Christian denominations have largely condemned date-setting, citing Bible verses that say no man can know the time of the Rapture.

Why are Fitzpatrick and those on Family Radio's recent proselytizing tour convinced that the end is upon us, despite centuries of failed predictions?

That's hard to answer, but psychologists and religious scholars say it derives from a number of very human urges: from the fear of death to the desire for justice to the fatalistic despair that this world is too broken ever to be fixed.

Although there's no way to gauge how many people actually think the world will end with a bang (or a whimper) on Saturday, doomsday is big in the U.S.

"Thirty to forty percent of Americans report believing that the end times are coming eventually, so while most reject the teachings of Camping, there is a strong strain of this kind of thinking in this country," says Christopher Lane, author of "The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty."

So for some, anxiety spurred by the recent natural and economic disasters makes apocalyptic thinking more appealing, he says. "It becomes easier to convince people that things are getting worse and that the answer will come through divine dispensation, rather than have them face the fact that humanity must fix its own problems."

Gary Laderman, chairman of the department of religion at Emory University, says the story of ultimate reckoning is very popular in religious texts and popular culture.

"It's a scenario where you can pinpoint the heroes from the villains, good from evil. It's a powerful story that people identify with. It's not so foreign to be fixated on the end of the world, our society today just fixates on it in popular culture instead, with Armageddon movies," he says.

Nevertheless, Camping's campaign isn't likely to win many converts, says Stephen O'Leary, an expert in religious communication at University of Southern California.

"The people following his predictions are apocalyptic enthusiasts already looking for signs of the end times. They want to reinforce their idea that these are the last days," he says. They are "unable to face up to the reality of their mistakes and misplaced faith when the prophecy is wrong," he adds.