16 May 2011

Five days until… nothing much happens

Posted by Callan Bentley

Outside a metro station in DC a couple of months ago, I noticed a group of people with signs, pamphlets, and earnest expressions. They were advertising the “good news” that the end of the world was soon: May 21, in fact. They’ve been getting some more attention since, and since May 21 is this coming Saturday, I figured it’s about time I wrote it up.

According to this particular sect of Christianity, Saturday is the date predicted for Judgment Day, when all human souls get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the Great Reviewer In The Sky. This leads to an event called the “Rapture,” which is when all the “good”* people will ascend to heaven, and every one else gets “left behind” on Earth.

(* where “good” is defined as those who subscribe to the particular interpretation of Christian religion that God considers “correct.”)

Such a point of view is a delusion, without evidence, and it will not happen on Saturday. This sort of thinking could be viewed as a harmless, fodder for cartoons and nothing more, but I would argue that (a) it’s disconcerting on a deeper level and (b) it’s actively harmful for society.

Last weekend, NPR aired a story on the Christians who see themselves as messengers of the Apocalypse. The fellow who is the source of this particular promulgation of the date of the Rapture is Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster. Camping serves up the Rapture with a geological flavor:

On May 21, “starting in the Pacific Rim at around the 6 p.m. local time hour, in each time zone, there will be a great earthquake, such as has never been in the history of the Earth,” he says.

Cool! Magnitude 10+ earthquakes on the hour for 24 hours straight, marching around the globe? At what latitude in each time zone, I wonder? I ask this facetiously, since I’m sure Camping is imagining American latitudes; I doubt his awareness strays further south than Texas, or further north than Michigan. He’s almost certainly not predicting a big quake in the Peruvian Andes if it won’t be felt in New York. I won’t even ask about the triggering mechanisms, and how they relate to the heavenly ascent of worthy souls, since I’m sure such factual details aren’t part of Camping’s model. I’ll surely be disappointed if I expect coherence from a loon like him.

I like predictions like his, however, for silly as their foundations are, they are testable. I look forward to watching that hour roll by this weekend, and waiting for the apoplectic apocalyptic believers to explain the lack of megaseismicity. Their delusions can at least serve to amuse the rest of us. Some people are even planning a big party. Any excuse, I guess… “It’s six o’clock somewhere.”

Camping and his irrational followers also predict, according to Camping’s web site WeCanKnow.com, that while the faithful will be raptured away on May 21, five months hence, on October 21, the world itself will end. Those of us lucky enough not to be deluded with “notions of rapteur” will have the planet to ourselves for five months before the end. This sounds like a sweet deal from my perspective, a planet improved by the glorious removal of one of its parasitic, hate-inducing faiths. Of course, it’s only one religion that would get vacuumed off during the Rapture; I’ll still have to put up with the other equally-certain faithmongers of other sects.

Mr. Camping clearly has a big problem with reality, but that’s not his only issue. There’s also the Bible itself. Three different places in that book, it says that people won’t know when the day of judgement is coming. The Bible says living humans can’t know. Camping places his faith in that document as vested with authority, yet he’s saying that it is wrong about the Rapture date’s unknowability. With his numerological hocus-pocus, Camping is claiming that his authority outweighs that of the scriptural pages from which he derives his numbers. Hence the “We can know” bit. While I appreciate Camping’s interest in figuring things out for himself (as opposed to merely listening to an authoritative source), I’m afraid his technique is ludicrous and laughable.

So where did his May 21 date come from? Pharyngula detailed some of the preposterous details in February, quoting this article from the San Francisco Chronicle which explores the basis of Camping’s “calculation”:

The number 5, Camping concluded, equals “atonement.” Ten is “completeness.” Seventeen means “heaven.” Camping patiently explained how he reached his conclusion for May 21, 2011.

“Christ hung on the cross April 1, 33 A.D.,” he began. “Now go to April 1 of 2011 A.D., and that’s 1,978 years.”

Camping then multiplied 1,978 by 365.2422 days – the number of days in each solar year, not to be confused with a calendar year.

Next, Camping noted that April 1 to May 21 encompasses 51 days. Add 51 to the sum of previous multiplication total, and it equals 722,500.

Camping realized that (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500.

Or put into words: (Atonement x Completeness x Heaven), squared.

Stunning, right? How anyone finds this compelling is beyond me.

But should we expect a rational foundation for such an important and momentous belief ? I would reckon not — that these mathematical machinations are window dressing, and lie nowhere near the root of Camping’s belief. Reason and rapture are mutually exclusive; oxymoronic. Camping’s tools are flim-flam and wishful thinking; he’s not a brilliant maverick but a sad crank. Why this particular combination of numbers, with these particular mathematical operations? No justification is given, because it’s a matter of faith, numerology, and pseudoscience. Humanity is asked to take their word for it.

But… that’s exactly what some people do. Also from the NPR piece:

“Knowing the date of the end of the world changes all your future plans,” says 27-year-old Adrienne Martinez.

She thought she’d go to medical school, until she began tuning in to Family Radio. She and her husband, Joel, lived and worked in New York City. But a year ago, they decided they wanted to spend their remaining time on Earth with their infant daughter.

I’m all for spending time with your kids. And I’m all for credulous idiots not going to medical school, so that the rest of us are not at risk of them masquerading as medical professionals.  But this is why I see ‘end-is-nigh”ism as not merely injurious to the lives of the individual dupes, but injurious to society as well. If one thinks that the world is about to end, then why bother saving for your kids’ college fund? Why bother eating healthily? Why pay your mortgage? Why cut your carbon emissions? Why give back to your community, your planet, or your family? If they’re all doomed, then they aren’t worth your attention. Why protect the Earth’s biosphere if you think the Earth itself will soon cease to exist? ‘End-is-nigh”ism is the ultimate in short-term thinking. It’s bad for society and for the planet.

I find it worrisome on a reflective, psychological level too. These people believe this insane thing, and it worries me that they cannot see it, and have no wish to test it. I wonder how many similar delusions our brains accept without scrutiny — how much of what we each individually perceive as “reality” is in fact nothing of the sort? It’s obvious to us that Camping is wrong, and that the world is unlikely to end on Saturday evening, but which of our own perceptions are not so obviously wrong? My “outsider” perspective allows me to see the lack of logic and evidence for Camping’s delusion, but clearly he cannot. He is blinkered by the provincialism of his own limited perspective and lack of interest in testing its validity. I find this disconcerting, because I wonder if I too suffer from a Camping-like blinkered perspective, perhaps for something minor, but perhaps even for something important. How could I know?

The only way I can see to avoid “going Camping” is to be explicit in our predictions and our models for viewing the world, and to let others critique them with logic, reason, and evidence. While they do this, we must strain not to hold too emotionally to our ideas when we are shown to be wrong. We need to keep our minds open to being swayed by a tight argument or compelling evidence. We must, in other words, subscribe to learning through empiricism, logic, and skepticism. In other words: reality via science.

Unconstrained by the need for a coherent world view or validation from their peers, Camping’s followers say of Saturday’s Rapture prediction that the “Bible guarantees it.” Is that guarantee good for a refund? Because on May 22, I’d be pleased if all of Camping’s deluded followers could all turn their Bibles in and get their lives refunded.