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The supernatural code


The new pope ascends the papacy under the cloud of a chilling prophecy. According to a famous 12th century clairvoyant there would be 112 more popes. Pope Benedict, who resigned recently, was the 111th. And thus the Pope Francis is the 112th, and final, in the line. During the reign of this last Pope, says the prophecy, Rome and the Church will be wiped out. 

What gives frightening credibility to this prophecy is that it has described each of the previous 111 popes with eerie accuracy, summing up each one with a vivid Latin phrase. And so far it's never been wrong. To take recent examples, it described Pope Paul VI (1963-78 ), as 'Flos Florum', meaning 'Flower of Flowers'. Paul VI's coat-of-arms, as it happened, featured three flower blossoms. His successor, Pope John Paul I, was described as 'De Medietate Lunae', or 'Of the half moon' : he became pope at the time of the half moon and died a month later, by the next half moon. His successor, John Paul II, was described as 'De Labore Solis', or 'Of the eclipse of the sun' : it turned out he was born during a solar eclipse. John Paul II's successor, in 2005, was described by the prophecy as 'Gloria Olivae', or 'The glory of the olive'. The candidate ultimately elected was Pope Benedict, who belonged to the Benedictine order - which is, sure enough, symbolised by the olive.

The final prophecy referred to a pope called 'Petrus Romanus', or 'Peter the Roman', going on to forecast, "In extreme persecution, the seat of the Holy Roman Church will be occupied by Petrus Romanus, who will lead his sheep through many tribulations, at the end of which the city of seven hills shall be destroyed, and the dreadful Judge shall judge the people. The End. "

So how does Pope Francis fit the description 'Petrus Romanus' ? Believers explain that Peter means 'the rock', which is a metaphor, not just a name, and they point out that the prophecy's clues sometimes become clear only later. For example, Benedict XV, who became pope in 1914, was referred to as 'Religio Depopulata', or 'Religion laid waste', which nobody could figure out until World War I, and the Russian Revolution that followed, made its meaning terribly clear.
So the questions being asked are: what will be the ominous "many tribulations" that the prophecy says the people will be led through? What will be the events leading to that ultimate "destruction" ? And who's the "dreadful Judge" who will appear in judgment? That doomsday scenario could presumably start playing out any day now . . .

Yes, it all sounds quite spooky. But scholars scoff at the prophecy and point to its many loopholes. First, its descriptions of future popes have often been cryptic (as is the case with many other famous clairvoyants, like Nostradamus ) and can be conveniently retro-fitted to almost any outcome. Second, there is intriguing evidence that the selection process of the popes has been influenced by the descriptions in the prophecy, instead of the other way around. Third, scholars say there's evidence that the supposed 12th century prophecy was probably a 16th century fake, which compromises its credibility. These are just some of the loopholes in the prophecy, which should make us sceptical. Yet, the prophecy seems to have a strange, powerful lure, and people around the globe are talking, blogging and tweeting about it with a chill of foreboding.

And the reason is, according to neurobiological research, that the human brain is hardwired to believe in superstition. In other words, there's a button inside our heads that pushes us to believe in the supernatural.

As Charles Darwin said, back in 1870, "A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal. " Contemporary studies of children have shown, for example, that their brains are biologically programmed to give them an exaggerated sense of cause and effect, as a result of which they see intention and design everywhere - even where there's none. For example, they hear a bush rustle and automatically think that there's someone - or something - hiding behind it. This sense of cause and effect probably developed in our brains nearly 200, 000 years ago, for survival reasons: if there was even a 1 per cent chance of a predator behind that bush, it made sense to be afraid, and take appropriate action. Those who developed that sense, survived;those who didn't, became extinct. Basically, that's what it's all about.

All of us are born with that brain circuitry and it never goes away completely. Education may diminish it, but studies of highly qualified scientists (or even atheists) have shown that they often tacitly attribute purpose to happenings in their lives, as if some intervening agency was involved. It could be the group of scientists who, in an experiment, hesitated irrationally to accept a blood transfusion from a donor whom they were told was a murderer;or the atheist who successfully comes through a cancer treatment at great odds, and looks for a story to explain his survival;or simply the housewife who sees the Virgin Mary in a damp wall-stain or Ganesh in an oddly shaped brinjal. It's no different, say scientists, from our primitive ancestors who believed that eclipses were caused by the forces of evil triumphing over the sun.

And that is the reason for superstitions, ghosts, gremlins, astrology, vaastu, all "miracles", authors like Dan Brown and Ashvin Sanghi... and, ultimately, for religion itself. Because that is what our brains were specifically hard-wired for.

The writer is an advertising professional 

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