Wednesday, June 4, 2008

It's the End of the World and We Know It

by Christian Walters

I was talking politics with the guy at the security desk at my office. A stupid thing to do on my part, since he was armed. But it was going well, since we agreed the place had gone to Hell in a handbasket since Jennifer Connelly got married.

Then he said something that pretty much wrapped the conversation up: "I shouldn't be surprised, since we're living in the End Times. None of this will matter soon."

Dude. Harsh.

One off-putting thing about Christianity and some other religions is that it adds a silver lining to the end of the world. I tend to view the death of the entire human race, not to mention all the puppies, as a bad thing. I know it'll finally kill all the spiders, but I'd rather just stomp them than be martyred to the spider-killing cause. Still, if you think that Jesus' return trip heralds an endless trip to Six Flags Over Eternity, you can find the upside in your new lawn tractor becoming rapidly cooling particles. The grass doesn't get too long in Heaven anyway.

And, like my security guard friend implies, believing all this is happening soon doesn't encourage you to take the long view for things like dependency on foreign oil, global warming, the Israel-Palestine conflict, more Ben Affleck movies, etc. Sorry Dr. Gould, but there's nothing non-overlapping about those magisteria.

Typically, there are people who take it too far. In this case, those people coalesce into "doomsday cults." We're going to talk about one of them: Aum Shinrikyo. Aum Shinrikyo was part of the subset of doomsday cults that likes killing other people, as opposed to the pro-suicide cults like Heaven's Gate. Aum Shinrikyo is more Charles Mansony than Jim Jonesy.

Aum Shinrikyo is a Japanese group that cobbled together a hodgepodge of Christianity and Buddhism (to the dismay of Christians and Buddhists everywhere), smeared on a creamy yoga center. They are probably best known as the benevolent ministers of truth behind the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subways in 1995, the city of Matsumoto in 1994, and at least half a dozen others, giving a bunch of people the chance to not wait any longer for doomsday, and sending thousands more to the hospital.

Anyway, this group's leader was Shoko Asahara (or, as he was known to his followers, "Christ"). Shoko cribbed heavily from Revelations and, oddly, Nostradamus. He preached that the end of the world was pretty friggin' NIGH. The love for Sarin comes because Shoko claimed to have traveled forward in time to 2006 (this was in the late 80s) and spoke to survivors of World War III. Those survivors convinced him to go back and start attacking Japan's enemies, including the United States. How Shoko decided that Japan's enemies all hung out in the Tokyo subway is anyone's guess.

However, this story has a happy ending. After the subway debacle earned the group some international scrutiny, things went downhill fast for them.

* World War III hasn't broken out, except in the minds of the more colorful conspiracy theorists.

* The group's membership, once estimated to between 20-40k, has shrunk to the 1-2k range. That's not enough for a low-budget martial arts movie.

* The group re-branded itself with the Aleph label and spends about half of its website pointing out the apologies made to its victims. The other half is an exercise routine. (Notice that the Research Center section doesn't actually have a link. Interesting.)

* Shoko went to trial and lost, and was denied an appeal. He has since taken a sort of vow of silence and spends all his time meditating. I guess he could still be the Christ, but he's a Christ without a contingency plan. He was sentenced to death in 2006, but it hasn't happened yet. Things were more swift and certain with the first Christ.

The new Aleph is a more warm Hello Kitty sort of group, compared to its Fritz the Cat predecessor. Apparently, they still believe Shoko is Christ and that we're living in the End Times. But they've turned away from biological weapons, or at least run out of them. They are under constant surveillance, since they still revere a condemned murderer.

So, rest easy in the knowledge that, if you've made it this long, you aren't going to be killed by Aum Shinrikyo any more than you are going to be eviscerated by the Manson Family. Aum Shinrikyo put all their homicidal eggs into one lunatic basket and even the most ravening of them has seen that their basic premise was flawed. When the people who brought us Hentai porn and Pokémon have decided you're full of crap, you have to know your Christ-picking skills are substandard. Gamera is more likely to be Christ than Shoko.

One last note: among the revered writings of this group were Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. Isaac would have been annoyed. In addition to his other faults, Shoko doesn't read dust jackets.

Christian Walters lives, loves, and drives in the Atlanta area. He's a technical writer by training, and a Rock Band Adonis by nature. He has honed his reviewing skills on bad movies, which are as rare as pollen grains these days. He has always been a fan of science, and has studied it as much as he could by flinging a Frisbee around campus while getting a liberal arts degree.

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