Selling Fear: How to Survive Doomsday Predictions

A couple of weeks ago published “Confessions of a Former Apocalypse Survival Guide Writer,” by Christopher Moyer, a freelance writer who accepted ghostwriting gigs from a business that caters to the survivalist community. Although Moyer had no experience in doomsday preparation and survival, he was hired anyway. As he’d later learn, having real-life experience or even believing (or not) in an imminent apocalyptic event didn’t matter. He could write. The need for this very specific niche of writers became so great that it quickly became his main source of income. Big companies like Walmart and Costco sell survival items, as well as small companies geared specifically to the “doomsday prepper” market. However, as Moyer continued writing, he realized that the purpose of these guides was not only to increase profits, but to recruit people into a lifestyle. Moyer explains that the main goal was to create devoted, lifelong customers who believe these products are necessities rather than hobbies. As time went on, he understood that he wasn’t writing preparation manuals. Rather, he was writing propaganda to cause paranoia.

Some people may see doomsday preppers’ views as a bit unusual, even though they make up as many as 3.7 million Americans. The same sales pitch that made them doomsday believers is no different than any lie told to us by religion. After all, frightening followers into obedience is nothing new. In his 1927 lecture “Why I Am Not A Christian,” Bertrand Russell claims that all religion is based in fear. While fear has evolutionarily been used as a valuable survival trait, it has become exploited to such lengths that many of us are in a constant state of anxiety.

Honestly, any person who holds power over others or strives to do so will likely turn to fear as a tactic to elicit control. Priests, politicians, a business leaders,  parents attempting to get their children to behave (especially by using religion), and  paranoid right-wing conspiracy theorists looking to cash in all use fear as the easiest way to convince others to follow them. The use of fear seems especially potent when a leader’s goals may not be in other people’s best interests. According to Bertrand Russell:

It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing—fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.

So what do we do about fear mongers? How do we know when to legitimately fear something and when we are listening to a sales pitch? How do we avoid authoritarians who present themselves as our saviors while really taking advantage of us? For a start, we can think critically. In questioning religion, humanists are experts at refusing to blindly accept everything they are being told by religious authority figures, and this insistence on seeking the truth can also be applied to other areas of life, like politics. Rather than naively accepting messages from advertisements, we should investigate and understand the facts before making a conclusion based upon someone else’s fears. As Moyers concludes in his account of his experiences writing survivalist manuals, “There’s a fine line between being prepared and being paranoid… we’ll all be better off if we’re a little more prepared and a lot less paranoid. It’s not always easy to tell the difference.” Only by applying critical thinking and reason can we truly understand if our fear is misplaced. But to apply this rationality, we must trust ourselves, and that requires courage in a world that attempts to convince us to doubt ourselves, whether to sell us survivalist products in preparation for the end of the world or to convince us to follow a particular politician or religious figure.

In this climate of fear, we would do well to heed the advice of Bertrand Russell, who writes:

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.