Review of Phil Torres’ The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse

By John G. Messerly

Phil Torres’ new book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse, is one of the most important books recently published. It offers a fascinating study of the many real threats to our existence, provides multiple insights as to how we might avoid extinction, and it is carefully and conscientiously crafted.

The basic theme is that powerful new technologies threaten the survival of the entire human species. Moreover, belief in religious eschatologies, or end-times narratives, greatly exacerbate the problem. These superstitious, faith-based beliefs greatly increase the probability that our species will either annihilate itself, or fail to anticipate various existential threats because, as technology becomes more powerful, the ability of religious fanatics to realize some of their apocalyptic visions increases. Our predicament then is that “neoteric technologies and archaic belief systems are colliding with potentially catastrophic consequences.” (18)

Now religious believers have been crying that the “end is near” for a long time. Most biblical scholars see Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet, and throughout history many Christians have forecast that the end of the world was imminent. Eschatological beliefs play a large role in Islam as well, and many Muslims believe that Madhi will descend from heaven along with Jesus to usher in the end of the world. While such beliefs are silly, they are not irrelevant. When false beliefs influence us, they also can harm us.


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20 COMMENTS

  1. We should be grateful to John Messerly, his review of this book reveals that it is not only not breaking new ground, it is navel gazing at its worst. The question will, I’m sure, come to many (after reading this review): Does this subject require another book, and a poorly written one at that?

    Whenever we feel downhearted about our endless struggle to get people to think critically we do need books that remind us that it could be worse – that we need to redouble our efforts, that we need to continue to follow the evidence and steer our collective course, together, towards a future where humanity’s decisions give us and our children, at least, a fighting chance. But it seems to me that this is not one of those books.

    John Messerly’s review is lengthy, and uses overly rich language. Here is a briefer, more accessible, synopsis.

    Phil Torres’ book The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse is about:

    …powerful new technologies threaten the survival of the entire human species [and] belief in religious … end-times [stories create a big] problem.
    .
    … everything we care about in the world, in this great experiment called civilization, depends on us preventing … catastrophe [because we, as individuals and as free and responsible agents, determine our collective future through acts of collective like-minds]
    .
    Our interaction with nature may imperil us too. More than 50% of vertebrates have gone extinct in the last fifty years
    .
    Torres [also talks about] risks caused by things that we cannot currently conceptualize …
    .
    [Torres discusses] … religious beliefs about the future negatively affect prudent actions in the present. The most prominent examples are Christian … and Islamic end-times[, apocalypse,] stories
    .
    … consider [the forecast] that by 2050 about 60% of the world’s population will be either Christian or Muslim …
    .
    Torres is [a pessimist]. The number of extinction scenarios has increased as our technology has advanced, so [Torres believes] inferences from the past about our future survival aren’t helpful
    .
    Torres offers 10 solutions [examples: Creating a super intelligence, improving education, teaching the critical thinking skills, defeating the anti-intellectualism that closes minds, better utilizing female minds, etc.

    John Messerly concludes his review with some minor disagreements:

    … consideration of biological, psychological, social, cultural and economic factors are also important … [threats posed by] human biology and psychology [are not clearly addressed in the book] … we would also need to [add to] our moral [know-how and skills] to enhance our chances of survival. However such recommendations obviously come with their own risks

    The review then ends with an extract from Torre’s conclusion. A key phrase jumped out at me:

    This makes [religious end-times stories], with its two [main] interacting branches [Islam and Christianity], the most important subject that one could study. Without an understanding of what the risks are before us, without an understanding of how [this] clash of [theologies] has shaped the course of world history, we will be impotent to defend against the threat of (self-)annihilation

    Is that true? Do I need to study religion in greater detail than a High School class in comparative religion in order to know that religions are dangerous, that they’re on a crash course, or that they undermine rational and evidential progress?

    No.

    Torre’s book obviously fails to build on previous attempts to highlight the dangers inherent in religions that survive in the modern World. There are more lucid accounts that express the problem more clearly and which build upon that fact to push forward the political dialogue.

    Forty four percent of the American population is convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead some time in the next fifty years.
    .
    According to the most common interpretation of biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on Earth. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves – socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. Government actually believed that the World was about to end and that its ending would be glorious.
    .
    The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

    Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 2006

    Peace.

  2. Another, much better, book.

    Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen – or the citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us.
    .
    In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

    Carl Sagan (with Ann Druyan), The Demon-Haunted World , 1996

    Peace.

  3. Frankly, reviewing my first two posts on this subject above, I’m surprised that in the last twenty years our progress has been so slow.

    Phil Torre’s book, and John Messerly’s reaction to it (he called it: “one of the most important [books] recently published”) suggests that there are significant social groups that our message still fails to reach.

    It behoves us all to consider whether books and speeches – the headline grabbing activities – are enough.

    My belief based on the shaky premise, I freely admit it, of personal experience is that we need to encourage more open person-to-person conversations on religion. Just as gays coming out since the ’70s has ensured that people confronted with ugly religious dogma about gay people can be compared to direct experiences of gay people as wholesome, happy, friendly and constructive members of society – thus undermining the dogma and the dogmatic – so too do we need to encourage our non-religious neighbor to speak up.

    Then we need to engage with the faithful wherever we meet them in a courteous and polite way – Peter Boghossian’s epistemological approach is the best I’ve seen so far – and we need to make discussing religion the norm, rather than the current exception.

    We’re making progress, despite Torre’s and Messerly’s demonstration that some of our fellow travellers have been slow off the start line. We just need to keep at it.

    Peace.

  4. Stephen:

    I’m impressed with your ability to make such strong claims about a book that you haven’t read. I would encourage you, though, to actually peruse the manuscript before arriving at any confident conclusions. As scholars of existential risks have affirmed, there isn’t a single book on the market that covers all the scenarios I discuss. Indeed, the book draws heavily from existential risk studies, a nascent field that was founded in 1996, and which has only recently gained momentum. Most of what I talk about is cutting-edge, and some of the scenarios weren’t even known by Carl Sagan.

    Furthermore, I would strongly affirm that studying religion is very important. This is a central claim of the book. How does one defeat apocalyptic movements without understanding the (ultimately Zoroastrian) eschatologies upon which they draw? Why should riskologists be specially worried about a catastrophe happening circa 2076? How can one possibly understand world history without a deep understanding of Christian, Islamic, Nazi, and Marxist eschatological narratives? One can’t, as I explain in the section on the “clash of eschatologies,” a concept that I elaborate considerably in a forthcoming Skeptic article.

    I would urge you not to be so hasty in your conclusions. Society suffers from an epidemic of overconfidence (in which people fail to proportion their beliefs to the evidence), and I’m afraid that your comments exemplify this exact phenomenon.

    If you don’t like Messerly’s review, then consider these:

    “If science and religion agree on nothing else, they agree on one singularly important thing: the world will one day come to an end. Any agreement stops there. As Phil Torres compellingly and forcefully argues, the surest way to avoid—or rather, delay—this inevitability, is to remove religion from the entire conversation. Only then will we begin to have a chance of accurately setting and slowing the Doomsday Clock.”
    —Peter Boghossian, author of A Manual for Creating Atheists

    “Like Dickens’ famously dire Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Phil Torres provides humans with a glimpse into our unenviable future. How are we doomed? Torres counts the ways in a surprisingly enjoyable and readable journey through the mine eld of modern-day apocalyptic hazards. By the way, Torres couldn’t be clearer that escaping religion’s thrall is an essential step to humans surviving a very dangerous century. So let’s give it a try, shall we?”
    —Robyn Blumner, President and CEO of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

    “The 21st century may well be the most important epoch in our species’ history, in which we either survive and flourish in centuries to come, or trigger our own extinction. Phil Torres’ The End is the most chilling reality check on over-optimism I’ve ever read, a gripping narrative that could be a Hollywood blockbuster film script but in fact is grounded in facts and data about what threatens to send humanity the way of the dinosaurs. Expect the best but prepare for the worst by reading this important book.”
    —Michael Shermer, Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and author of e Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

    “In atheism, as in many religious traditions, the end of the world has a special significance. For us, the goal is to make sure it doesn’t happen. Phil Torres’ book is a great start. It’s a provocative look at existential risks near and far, and is sure to get people thinking about these important questions.”
    —Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist at Caltech and author of e Particle at the End of the Universe

    “This one-of-a-kind-book provides an accessible yet expert education into several global doomsday threats, both secular and religious, both real and possible. Highly enlightening and very highly recommended!”
    —John W. Loftus, author of How to Defend the Christian Faith

    “David Hume famously said that mistakes in religion were dangerous. He didn’t know how dangerous, nor did we until Phil Torres explained it in The End.”
    —Alex Rosenberg, R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University and author of e Atheist’s Guide to Reality and e Girl from Krakow

  5. @ Phil Torres

    “How can one possibly understand world history without a deep understanding of Christian, Islamic, Nazi, and Marxist eschatological narratives?”

    This statement got my attention. To lump these heterogeneous movements together and label them all as eschatological suggests to this reader that you may have failed to acquire a deep understanding of any of them. Moreover, to have acquired a deep understanding of, say, Marxism alone – with all its many facets – is a rare feat in itself; but you advise us to acquire a deep understanding of Christianity (and Islam) and Nazism too, which are enormously complex and disparate subjects! A tall order, the labor of a lifetime. You must be a great scholar. Great scholars are usually modest, however; they understand the enormity, the seemingly infinite complexity, of these and other areas of expertise.

    Nazism. Have you read Mosse’s The Fascist Revolution? Is your understanding of National Socialism on a level of that great historian?

    I, like Hume, am a skeptic, but I congratulate you on the publication of your book. I will check it out.

  6. Hi Phil [#4],

    Thank you for responding.

    I’m impressed with your ability to make such strong claims about a book that you haven’t read

    You are too kind.

    It is an unfortunate fact of a World that publishes in excess of 530,000 books – in English alone – every year that we must rely on reviewers in some instances. It is, as the saying goes, a necessary evil.

    I would encourage you, though, to actually peruse the manuscript before arriving at any confident conclusions

    I must demur, as you can see my reading list is already too long … but don’t give up on me just yet …

    As scholars of existential risks have affirmed, there isn’t a single book on the market that covers all the scenarios I discuss

    I can see how that would be jolly useful to a student of existential risks.

    My intention, in summarising Mr. Messerly’s review, and in promoting the idea that other books might be more suitable, was to help those who are visitors to this site (regular or not) to decide how their time might be most productively spent.

    It therefore became necessary to set your book against others that cover the particular subjects that are of interest to readers of this Site, namely: the specific risks (existential and otherwise) that arise from religion, a lack of critical thinking skills and poor education – particularly science education.

    No doubt there are some people among that large audience who have a more than passing interest in existential risks as a broader category. Allow me to say to them, and you Phil, that if I have misunderstood the size of that audience my posts will have done your book a great disservice. If that is true I am sincerely sorry.

    That said, the focus of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is quite specific, and laid out on the About Us page: The Foundation has two distinct missions: (1) Teaching the value of science, and (2) Advancing secularism.

    On that basis, do we think that the minority who read this Site and who are also students of existential risk (in the broader category) is large? I believe my opinion is already clear.

    Most of what I talk about is cutting-edge, and some of the scenarios weren’t even known by Carl Sagan

    I relied entirely on Mr. Messerly’s review of your book – I did my best to neither add nor to subtract (other than to make it easy to scan). In addition, this Site continues to link to the full review for anyone who’s interest was piqued by my (over?) simplifications and summarizations. In short: If you didn’t like the review I suggest you speak to Mr. Messerly.

    Furthermore, I would strongly affirm that studying religion is very important. This is a central claim of the book. How does one defeat apocalyptic movements without understanding the (ultimately Zoroastrian) eschatologies upon which they draw?

    I don’t know.

    I have first-hand experience of the collapse of one category of eschatology [In the sense of: ideas concerned with the final destiny of humankind]: East European Communism.

    Sidebar: Perhaps my understanding of eschatology is not the same as yours?

    Let me think … was the collapse of Communism contingent on a deep understanding (amongst its opponents) of communist eschatology?

    No.

    There were a few who, undoubtedly, read the ’holy’ scriptures and produced critiques. But the fact is that Communism collapsed due to pressures that were divorced from such studies. Studies of Communist eschatology where not a necessary, nor a sufficient, condition for its collapse.

    Now, you may say that my single example is not representative of a trend or indicative of a set. I wouldn’t argue. I’m just saying that I’m skeptical that studying eschatologies has merit.

    Why should riskologists be especially worried about a catastrophe happening circa 2076?

    I don’t know.

    I speculate that it may have something to do with the fact that we humans have a habit of trying to muddle through and that some risks require winning political will, painstaking planning and the diversion of significant resources – and thus considerable time – to mitigate?

    There are people called riskologists? It takes all sorts to make a World.

    How can one possibly understand world history without a deep understanding of Christian, Islamic, Nazi, and Marxist eschatological narratives?

    Anthropology, history, psychology, archaeology, geography, politics … to be honest I don’t really understand where and how a study of eschatology adds to that body of work in any context.

    To summarize: Eschatology is, to me, a branch of theology. What have I ever learned from theology. I understand that studying the goals, rules and social structures of groups (however crazy they may seem to those outside the Madhouse) is useful – know your enemy and all that. But their theology … not so much.

    One can’t, as I explain in the section on the “clash of eschatologies,” a concept that I elaborate considerably in a forthcoming Skeptic article.

    I look forward to reading it.

    I would urge you not to be so hasty in your conclusions. Society suffers from an epidemic of overconfidence (in which people fail to proportion their beliefs to the evidence), and I’m afraid that your comments exemplify this exact phenomenon.

    I gratefully accept the rebuke.

    I have never claimed to be perfect. Clearly, the tone of this response will hint that I don’t believe I am mistaken. Nevertheless, I remain open to new evidence. I may change my mind.

    If you don’t like Messerly’s review …

    Hang on, you’re putting words into my mouth. I actually said we should be grateful to Messerly. However, I can see that I may have been mistaken in one important way; I may have been the victim of a poorly written review that failed to highlight the strengths of the approach(es) you propose and the information your book contains.

    consider these [other review comments]

    That is a very impressive list of positive comments on your book.

    Peace.

  7. Eschatology is a branch of theology and has nothing to with understanding Marx, unless one’s premise is that Marxism is a kind of religion. That is a simplistic value judgment, not scholarly, not really accurate; it is the voice of legion, and betrays deep ignorance and bias.

    I reviewed your thought-experiment, OHooligan. Go there.

    Good job, Stephen.

    And again, congrats to Phil. It’s a big deal to get a book published, and I hope it does well.

  8. Hm.
    Unlike Religion (where the end-game is painstakingly written in pig-ignorant fashion by a bunch of long-dead misogynists) – Science can predict a set of potential end-games (end of life/mankind on earth), which can then be modeled and run-through as simulations. Thus eschatology is possibly owned by the scientists and the computers that they can use to model their hypotheses…..Am I wrong?
    It is certainly out of the magesteria of the theologians surely? Very soon they will have nothing left and POOF…..they will all disappear (but hopefully not with the rest of us joining them!).

  9. While perhaps interesting as a philosophical exercise, any direct relationship of this to science is likely to be purely coincidental.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eschatology
    Definition of eschatology – plural eschatologies
    1
    a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind

    2
    a belief concerning death, the end of the world, or the ultimate destiny of humankind; specifically : any of various Christian doctrines concerning the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, or the Last Judgement

    However the behaviours of believers and their interactions with technologies and politics, could certainly have impacts when operating on large enough scales.

    Scientific studies of the behavioural psychology behind these behaviours could aid planning in societies.

  10. Science certainly has the capability to predict possible catastrophic (for humans or Earth organisms) future events;

    The cycles of ice-ages.

    Runaway global warming.

    Asteroid, comet or meteorite impacts http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/.

    The Sun coming to the end of its main-stream life.

    The collision of the Milky-Way and Andromeda galaxies, etc.

    But there is nothing to connect these to religious beliefs.

  11. @ review link – Some are omnipresent, like the nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. Their use could cause nuclear winter and the starvation, disease, or extinction that might follow. Pandemics caused by viruses and bacteria pose another threat, as does bio-terror unleashed by deranged individuals or groups, as well as the simple errors caused by the application of biotechnology. Molecular manufacturing may bring abundance, but may be used for nefarious purposes too. Moreover, out of control nanobots could conceivably destroy the biosphere. Superintelligence is also a danger, as unfriendly, indifferent or even friendly AI might destroy us, either accidentally or on purpose.

    As doomsday scenarios, these are often greatly over-rated.
    Some would undoubtedly cause major disaster areas, but probably not human extinction.

    @link quote – This makes eschatology, with its two interacting branches, the most important subject that one could study. Without an understanding of what the risks are before us, without an understanding of how the clash of eschatologies has shaped the course of world history, we will be impotent to defend against the threat of (self-)annihilation

    Not really! – Clashes of eschatologies have caused genocides and the collapse of kingdoms or empires, but have no more threatened humans with extinction, than the extermination of one Honey Ant colony by a raiding party from another nest threatens the ants with extinction.

    Our situation has always been precarious, but it’s never been as precarious as it is today.

    Again, I don’t think extinction is an issue, although the end of particular societies, cultures, or standards of life, is quite possible

    If we want our children to have the opportunity of living the Good Life, or even existing at all, it’s essential that we learn to favor evidence over faith, observation over revelation, and science over religion as we venture into a dangerously wonderful future. (249)

    Absolutely! When scientists give evidence based warnings, they need to be heeded and taken seriously.
    Dogmatic preconceptions, wilful denial, and wish-thinking are very counter productive.

  12. Forward by Russell Blackford

    A4D, remember him from the “old” RD site? I’ve the impression he was an esteemed heavy hitter.

    Utilizing your line of reasoning from the other tread (where there’s smoke, there’s fire), I personally would not dismiss the book considering Blackford’s “endorsement”. Just a thought.

  13. bonnie2 #13
    Jun 24, 2016 at 9:05 am

    Forward by Russell Blackford

    A4D, remember him from the “old” RD site? I’ve the impression he was an esteemed heavy hitter.

    I personally would not dismiss the book considering Blackford’s “endorsement”.

    My comments @#12, are more in the way of discouraging exaggerated claims which actually leave the book open to criticism, and weaken the valid arguments being made.
    Regional disasters are not global extinctions.

    I have listed some long term serious natural threats @#11.

  14. I think, perhaps, that what this guy is getting at – and this is just a hunch – is that religion influences certain policies, and those policies may be hastening our demise. Case in point: the rapture group. They are all supporting Israel, and not because they have any great love for Israel, but because they believe in Biblical prophecy, and want it to be “proven” true, no matter what the cost. Is this right, Phil?

    But I stand by my earlier comment: Nazism and Marxism (although fascism can be characterized as a political liturgy) does does not fall under the category of eschatology per se. That is just bad history, is simplistic. Marx wrote a lot, said a lot. His collected writings do not constitute a “Holy Book.” Disagree with it, but don’t appropriate it and label it; that is intellectually irresponsible.

    Here is my late father, once again, on Marxism as approached by the greatest Marxist thinker of all times Antonio Gramsci, and by the Trinidadian political scientist C.L.R. James:

    “First of all, organicist imagery is pervasive in the writings of both men. They both sought to integrate it into their understanding of Marxism as an integral, comprehensive conception of the world. They were both disturbed by the tendency of many self-styled Marxists to apply Marxist theory in a mechanistic manner, which accounts in part for their frequent recourse to the word “organic.” Marxism for Gramsci and James was not a closed, static system unaffected by change. They believed that Marxism, like all bodies of thought rooted in human experience, must constantly renew itself, must draw from other currents of thought in order to remain relevant and viable. As a result of this premise, they were able in large measure to avoid the dangers of sectarianism and dogmatism. Neither felt constrained to reject automatically insights into historical, political and cultural problems merely because they did not conform to an established set of canonical doctrines and texts.”

  15. Dan

    This is a mountain out of a molehill.

    Nazism and Marxism (although fascism can be characterized as a political liturgy) does does not fall under the category of eschatology per se.

    All that’s needed is that Marx and Engels disagreed with Malthus and Hitler embraced Welteislehre.

  16. Maybe I’m just feeling a little apocalyptic today….

    I read the other helpful reviews on Amazon and bought the ebook. Looks good.

    Sadly, no section explaining terminal political entropy (The Worse Angels of our Nature) and the break up of large political systems by communitarians taking us on the journey back to tribes….

  17. Dan:

    Thanks so much for your feedback. A quick note:

    “But I stand by my earlier comment: Nazism and Marxism (although fascism can be characterized as a political liturgy) does does not fall under the category of eschatology per se. That is just bad history, is simplistic.”

    I strongly disagree, as would scholars like Daniel Chirot, Clark McCauley, and Steven Pinker (see Pinker’s Better Angles for details about the eschatological nature of Marxism and Nazism, both of which more or less plagiarized from Christianity, which itself borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism). Indeed, one of the first things one finds in scholarly books about apocalypticism is the authors saying, “What a tremendous shame it is that historians often gloss over the role of eschatological thinking in major world events, because it’s often significant.” I concur. As mentioned above, I have a forthcoming Skeptic article called “The Clash of Eschatologies” that provides lots of juicy details about how end-times ideas have shaped and molded and determined some of history’s most momentous happenings. (Really, there’s a very genuine sense in which WWII was a conflict driven by apocalyptic worldviews. Same with the Cold War, Korean War, and so on.) Should be out this summer, next issue. This is an incredibly fascinating issue, and I appreciate your skepticism. Perhaps my articles and book, though, could convince you to change your mind. 🙂

    Thanks and take care, Phil

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