Thursday, May 19, 2011


I've been hearing that the world will end on Saturday. OK, it will SORT of end. It is supposed to be the day of "Rapture", when the righteous are assumed into Heaven. The actual end of the world is supposed to take place 6 months later.

This latest apocalyptic prediction is brought to you by Harold Camping, head of California's Family Radio Ministry. Camping is not associated with any church or religious denomination; it is entirely centered around his interpretation of the Bible, and what he thinks are its prophecies. You might be surprised at his lack of Church affiliation, but really, nothing should surprise you when it comes to American religion.

In any case, Harold is sure enough of his prediction for his group to purchase large billboard ads around the country advertising the eschatological event. I've seen two distinct reactions to this prediction, besides "yeah, whatever". The first was from a Baptist minister, who criticized the prediction, saying that it was false--the Bible says that "no man shall know the day or the hour". He also felt that people already didn't take the Bible seriously, and when May 21 came and went with no event, it would just give more fodder to the anti-Bible camp, even though the prediction is Camping's, not the Bible's.

The other reaction, of course, is delight at the thought that those "saved by Jesus" will finally leave this earth, and the rest of us can loot, pillage, and party. I saw at least one reaction to one of these "post rapture looting" events on Facebook, with a guy saying, "Hey, that's disrespectful to their beliefs". While I am certainly open to anyone believing what they want, I can't help but think of the great Eugene Mirman quote, "Follow your dreams, unless your dreams are stupid." If we want to be kind, we can say that the prediction is "misguided". And Harold has no sense of history, as he is apparently unaware of all of the other "day of apocalypse" predictions that came and went. Even the Jehovah's Witnesses have stopped trying to name dates.

The whole thing is an absurdity, because it's more Biblical literalism gone wrong. (Yes, I realize that is a redundant statement.) You can support almost any point of view with the Bible; it is so disjointed and contradictory. There is not a linear narrative running through, and those reading it in this way today have no understanding of why the various books were written, or what the writers had in mind. The prophets were writing for their own groups (usually Jews on the verge of war or exile). While you might find bits of timeless wisdom in some of their sayings, they have to do with their contemporary events, not with future ones.

In any case, May 21 will come and go, I will have my garage sale, and Camping's group will either claim a Rapture occurred (though the fact that they're still here would be interesting), his radio ministry will go down the toilet, or--more than likely--his group will engage in what religion scholars call "routinization of charisma", a fancy term for "justifying your beliefs when they turn out to be wrong". If you think humans who do that are stupid--it's one of the most basic elements of human psychology. We stick to our stories, regardless of facts. Another example of humans being essentially irrational rather than rational creatures.

Speaking of future life, I mentioned Stephen Hawking's declaration that there is no Heaven in yesterday's post. Well, that pre-eminent Bible scholar Kirk Cameron (annoying actor from the 1980s TV series "Growing Pains") has declared Stephen Hawking to be unequivocally WRONG. Why? Because Hawking is like John Lennon, who said "imagine there's no Heaven", and they're both just quoting their religious beliefs. Or something like that. His argument makes no sense at all, but then again, most of his arguments are equally prosaic. I think it's funny that he says Hawking is quoting his "religious" beliefs. More than likely, it's his scientific opinion, though Hawking has no more proof of a Heaven or lack thereof than Cameron does. "Religious" belief is not the right word in Hawking's case--it's part of his narrative, what he accepts as truth a priori.

Which brings me back to science and scientific method. There is often a curious blending of religion and science that we refer to as "scientism". I've noticed that Richard Dawkins has a new book for children coming out about "truth" and "reality". This is scientism, pure and simple. Science provides us with tests and measurements, and may teach us the mechanics of nature and the universe, but whether or not they are the ultimate keepers of "truth" can be very much debated. Scientific facts are only part of truth, and reason is only a means of organizing and labeling our thoughts and perceptions. Most of our "psychical" life (meaning life of the mind) does not fit into neat categories. Just as religion should not try to use science to justify itself, science should not get into the business of interpreting religion. And religion should not be in the business of "facts". Religion is about the stories and mythologies that tie us together, and the reality of the unknown, and our terror and wonder of it. It often has little to do with "facts".


Mary Jo said...

Thank you, Brigid! Insightful and educational blog on the May 21st prediction.

Anonymous said...

Fortunately there are a few, like you, that have some insight into the human zoo. I'm not sure that evolution is real. Consider that most humans are not much smarter than the monkeys they came from makes me doubt it.

tom sheepandgoats said...

The formula was simplistic. The notion (nailing the day) was presumptuous. The baggage (trinity and hellfire) was typical. And he sure did flummox a lot of followers. But he is 'keeping on the watch.' No one can say he's not doing that. As so many before him have done. As you pointed out.