The Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock

Presenter: John Pope

November, 2012

“The belief that man is a rational animal has always been difficult to sustain and has especially received many nasty knocks during the last 40 years … but the question as to the extent of man’s irrationality is still debatable” (Bertrand Russell: New York Times Magazine, 1953)

The quotation comes from an essay entitled “What Would Help Mankind Most?”(Russell 1992) Bertrand Russell identified two conflicting “popular forces” in the early 1950s. The first he described as the hostility between the Communists and the non-Communist world, and the second, the wish to avoid another world war.

Since the end of the Cold War the utility of the so-called “Doomsday clock”, which I remember well, having been involved in the “Cold War”, as a diplomat in Moscow, and also being privileged to attend the equivalent of the demise of the Iron Curtain, seems to have all but vanished.

Many of the VSHA qualify as what my nephew would call “cotton tops” and so will remember “the Cold War”, and many of us will also remember the Doomsday clock. Each year it was estimated just how close to Armageddon, or “Midnight” the world had come. The threat was all-out nuclear war. My generation lived with this as a constant fear. Bertrand Russell himself frequently marched in opposition to nuclear weaponry as a founding member of CND (The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). The Aldermaston protest marches were often led by him. The US Base at Aldermaston was one of the overseas bases where the USA had ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons.

The apparent demise of the Doomsday clock seems to have gone unnoticed. My contention is that if anything rather than not needing such a measure today it is more than ever needed and not only on one front. The world seems to me to be just as dangerous, if not more dangerous than in the 1950s. In fact, as you will see from the Wikipedia entry, the Doomsday clock is still with us. It is simply that it is rarely reported nowadays. So, here are some questions for the topic:

Just how dangerous is the world today? What are these dangers? How do we feel about them, and how might we, as humanists, help resolve them? Does religion – as many politicians seem to believe – have a positive role to play in helping, or is it more than dangerous, precipitating us towards, rather than away from, “Midnight”.

At a recent café the Pugwash conferences were mentioned. Started in 1957 by Russell and Einstein among others they sought to answer the question posed above in the essay. “What Would Help Mankind Most?” As someone correctly stated scientists were involved in these conferences, and there was comparatively little difficulty in coming to a consensus until the involvement of economists in the process. There is less agreement about economics than there is about science even though economists like to call what they do ‘science’. “Social Science” always seems to me to be an oxymoron.(Hamm 1988;Sokal and Bricmont 1998)

There is a means of negotiation termed “principled negotiation”. This is described well in a popular paperback written in the 1980s called “Getting to Yes”.(Fisher and Ury 1987) At the outset both parties state what they see as a favourable outcome. What is their bottom line? They then work together to determine what is needed to achieve this. This differs from normal political negotiation, which I would characterise as “playing poker”: in other words keeping their cards close to their chest.

Something that perhaps ought to give us concern is Christian Millennialism (defined below), which has been a factor in American politics for nearly 30 years, and possibly more. It seems to be progressing northwards. Some of this is outlined in Marci McDonald’s book, The Armageddon Factor, recently updated.(McDonald 2010) There are now at least two factions both of which welcome Armageddon. Radical Muslims who believe that martyrdom, however it is achieved, grants them entry to the kingdom of heaven, and the millennial Christians who anticipate “the Rapture”, and End Times. These two groups, it would appear, would accept total annihilation of the world, and both factions are arming themselves or have armed themselves already with weapons that could quite easily achieve this end. Neither of these factions seems to be “reasonable”. When Stephen Harper finishes his speeches with “God bless Canada” it seems that yet another country has become defined as a Christian state. This denies the evident multiculturalism, not to mention the “first Nations”, here in Canada. As George Kateb discusses in an essay, “Constitutional democracy exists in order to give people a chance to be individuals. You look around and what do you find? People – citizens of constitutional democracies – clamouring for their groups. They demand that they be understood as group-members, as representatives of their groups, not as freestanding individuals; and that their groups be regarded as substantial entities needing and deserving not only respect but encouragement and perhaps even state subsidy. In recent years, there has been a renewed rush to join up.”(Kateb 2006) He makes a valid point elsewhere that we are, on the whole, not inclined to remain as individuals but wish to be “joiners”. Being part of a “movement” gives us “meaning”. However, it seems to me that this “meaning” is under threat, particularly as non-theists could become sidelined as anathema and immoral.(Edgell et al. 2006)

As a sort of side-thought, which may occur to some of us, would reintroducing the “Doomsday Clock” to reporting in the media merely encourage millennial thinkers to “push the world over the brink” in the hope of achieving Nirvana, The Rapture, or Paradise? It might act, for them, as a gauge of how close they are to the End Times!

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