NASA, the Mayan Apocalypse, and the Study of Non-Events

By Matt Sheedy

A recent article posted on the Scientific American website entitled, “NASA Crushes 2012 Mayan Apocalypse Claims,” provides a good example of what is wrong with common secular approaches to religion in the public sphere. The article features a three-minute video put out by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where spokesperson Don Yeoman discusses “false claims about the Mayan apocalypse,” including fears that we will fall prey to solar flares, tidal effects or, even more fantastically, that the “imaginary planet Nibiru, will collide with earth,” a premise that, he notes with a chuckle, is impossible, for if it were true “we would have seen it long ago.” All things considered we can rest assured, the article’s author tells us, that this is a “non-event.”

While happily affirming the logic of these scientific claims, it is worth considering what type of social ontology this line of reasoning suggests. Among other things, this hermeneutic works through a binary logic where the actions or claims of an individual or group are measured solely on the basis of whether they are able to follow and assent to certain logical propositions about evidence-based reality regarding the workings of the natural world. What is concealed here are the ways in which this strategy serves to privilege a particular method of reasoning and system of knowledge production, while excluding the larger social field of political, historical, and cultural explanations that also contribute to seemingly bizarre claims.

Although the implications of this kind of taxonomy may appear relatively benign when classifying those who believe in the Mayan apocalypse, it is worth recalling how a similar taxonomy was deployed by the “New Atheists” in their classification of religion (especially Islam), where large groups of people from different countries, cultures, etc., were often reduced to the category of irrational social actors in need of our help, be it through forceful arguments or, failing that, through bombs raining down from the sky.

A more fruitful approach to phenomena like the Mayan apocalypse is one that begins with social practices as the primary site of investigation and expands outward towards other convergent ideas, be they historical, political, cognitive, or what have you. For example, Kate Dailey-Baley’s recent post, “Theorizing Zombies” looks at the ways in which Haitian zombies and the American zombie apocalypse genre are tied to 1) a history of colonial and racial oppression and 2) a culture of fear amidst economic troubles and the War on Terror. While this general approach is no doubt familiar to many of us, it is worth considering its value not only in the world of scholarship, but also as an alternative to more popular secular discourses about religion in the public sphere. While not discounting cognitive explanations like those offered by Yeoman, this approach has the additional merit of showing how seemingly irrational beliefs and practices must be explained not only in terms of individual minds, but also in relation to larger social forces that implicate society as a whole, thus making explicit the fact that we are all in the soup together.

At the risk of sounding apologetic, in this year of 2012, where increased public attention on the theme of apocalypse is on the rise, it is also worth considering how this so-called “non-event” offers scholars of religion an opportunity to contribute to a broader public conversation, drawing attention, for example, to how fears of apocalypse are connected to other myths and narratives, both historically and in the present, how they are reflected in popular culture (e.g., Hollywood films), or how this interest in the Maya might be situated in relation to new age movements and the long-standing Western idealization of so-called “Eastern” and/or polytheistic traditions. In these frightening and uncertain times (read “under the yoke of neo-liberal economic policies”), this may be just the kind of publicity that the academic study of religion needs to help save it from what looks to some like the dawn of our own impending doom!


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2 Responses to NASA, the Mayan Apocalypse, and the Study of Non-Events

  1. Kevin Whitesides says:

    As someone currently writing a thesis on the so-called 2012 phenomenon and who is very familiar with the type of output about 2012, I feel that a few comments are warranted here. Kenny is, of course, quite correct that this contemporary millennialist phenomenon is an excellent opportunity for humanities scholars. He is also quite right to point out that the treatment of 2012 by people like Yeomans and organizations like NASA could be more culturally nuanced in its approach than the simple mode of debunking that they have tended to take. However, I would caution that we not blur the lines between disciplinary goals. While scholars of Religious Studies are well-suited to deal with historical intricacies and hermeneutical nuances, approaching 2012 with a sort of methodological agnosticism, we should not be so quick to judge our fellow scholars in other fields. In my research I have collaborated with many scholars of Maya culture and many scientists (particularly astronomers) and it is clear enough to me that they have their own legitimate research goals and public agendas that are not the same as ours in Religious Studies. Academic Mayanists are perfectly in the right to point out mistaken claims that people make about the culture that they study. Astronomers are perfectly in the right to point out misunderstandings and mistakes in astronomy proposed by 2012 proponents. In fact, I know that most of the NASA 2012 debunking, along with the website, among others, were produced specifically in response to abundances of e-mails and phone calls from frightened people (mostly teenagers) looking for reassurance after watching History Channel documentaries about how the world will be destroyed in 2012. As astronomers, I would consider them failing in their responsibilities to the public if they failed to set the scientific record straight out of some pedantic vow to the humanities to proceed with epoche. The founder of the website has literally had hundreds of people who have e-mailed him frightened about the end of the world in 2012?

    It is one thing for humanities scholars to, as I have done, take the time to develop a close historical understanding of how the 2012 phenomenon developed, how it ties into influences from the ‘new age’, from conspiracy circles, from perennialism and orientialism, etc. It is another thing for humanities scholars to assume that everyone else should necessarily apply the same exact standards to their own treatment of the material. Of course, disciplines are not worlds unto their own and religious studies scholars SHOULD, by all means, be in dialogue with astronomers and other scientists to figure out how best to approach topics of such public interest and import. But, we can’t take our own research agendas as the only available standard. And, given a frightened public, we can’t expect our scientists to waffle about epistemological power structures.

    When you suggest that NASA is concealing “the ways in which [their] strategy serves to privilege a particular method of reasoning and system of knowledge production,” you are basically asking scientists to stop privileging science as their epistemic standard. Why should they? How would you react if NASA told you to give up your methodology? I am sympathetic to the observation that religious studies can and should provide a more nuanced historical account of the 2012 phenomenon than NASA can, but I am not at all convinced that scientists should be asked to stop analyzing claims within the framework of their disciplines.

    • mattsheedy says:

      Thanks for your reply Kevin. To clarify, Kenny Paul Smith posted this piece while I, Matt Sheedy, am its author.

      Your points are well-taken and I think that any longer treatment on this topic would do well to consider the various methodological and disciplinary claims involved. What is implicit in my statement that this a critique of “common secular approaches to religion in the public sphere” is the all too common tendency to frame “religion” along either theological or “secular” lines or insider vs. outsider claims, which are usually sympathetic or hostile to their object rather than scholarly (i.e., nuanced in an interdisciplinary way). Notwithstanding the motivations of the NASA scientists in putting forward this video (and I would agree that these motivations are important) my main concerns revolve around how 1) discourses about religion are typically narrowed within the public sphere and, 2) how such discourses can serve to mask domination by ceding power to certain groups.

      While it may be true that scientists have a certain epistemic standard that is viable in its own domain, once that standard is used as a stand-in or representation of a broader public narrative (e.g., about “religion”) it becomes an object of critique. And this is all that I am trying to argue/do–to suggest that taken on its own, this representation of “religion” does not provide a nuanced perspective and if left unchallenged can and does serve to privilege certain groups over others.

      I would certainly not want scientists to give up their rigor nor am I suggesting that they stop “analyzing claims within the framework of their disciples.” Likewise, I am not so naive as to assume that such specialists would necessarily hold an interdisciplinary view, but I am arguing that this is an important thing to do–both from a scholarly perspective as well as one with an eye toward a more reasoned discourse within the public sphere.

      And so I do stand by the claim that “[their] strategy serves to privilege a particular method of reasoning and system of knowledge production,” but only as it exists as a lone discourse about “religion” and not as it exists as a methodology. As a scholar of religion, I feel it important to point this out since, again, as a lone discourse, this particular narrative obscures the various social/cultural and political variables that are involved and implicitly supports/upholds the all too common and reactionary tendency to reduce “religion” or related phenomenon to limited set of variables.

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