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May 31 2011

The normal kind of crazy

I might be the only atheist blogger in the world that hasn’t yet talked about the absurdity of the Family Radio rapture announcement last Saturday. For those of you that didn’t read my post that preceded the event, a radio host from the United States (of course) named Harold Camping performed a rigorous mathematical analysis of the Bible (read: pulled some numbers out of his ass) and announced that the world would be judged on May 21st, 2011. Jesus would return in glory and take faithful to heaven. He also ‘prophesied’ that there would be massive earthquakes and millions of deaths on that day, which would continue until the world actually ends in October of this year.

As you’ll remember, he was totally correct, and that’s exactly what happened.

Well, no. What actually happened is that the universe has existed for billions of years. For some of those billions, there has been one star among trillions that had a handful of planets. On one of those planets existed the proper chemical conditions for self-replicating molecules to form and propagate. Some of those molecules spontaneously organized to form multicellular organisms, one of which eventually became capable of organizing into units capable of exchanging ideas. Among the thousands of stupid ideas that this random process inevitably spit out, one of them was about a man who was the son of one of the gods who was killed but promised to come back and avenge his death in a most bloody fashion.

One of the multicellular organisms took the stupid idea to a wacky conclusion based on weird information, and got it dead wrong. Instead of being among the small minority of multicellulars that is willing to admit when it does something wrong, this one decided instead to engage in stereotypical hand-waving and try to change its story:

As crestfallen followers of a California preacher who foresaw the world’s end strained to find meaning in their lives, Harold Camping revised his apocalyptic prophecy, saying he was off by five months and the Earth actually will be obliterated on Oct. 21. Camping, who predicted that 200 million Christians would be taken to heaven Saturday before global cataclysm struck the planet, said Monday that he felt so terrible when his doomsday message did not come true that he left home and took refuge in a motel with his wife. His independent ministry, Family Radio International, spent millions — some of it from donations made by followers — on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 recreational vehicles plastered with the Judgment Day message.

First off, I have a bone to pick not only with this article, but with the slavering hordes of people eager to make jokes at Camping’s expense. Strictly speaking, he did not predict the world would end on May 21st; he predicted that Jesus would judge mankind on that day. All along he said that the final day of the Earth would be in October, and he hasn’t changed his mind about that.

Secondly, there’s a larger point to be made here. Harold Camping is a guy with really weird ideas. They’re bizarre and nonsensical and have only a fleeting and occasional relationship with observable reality. He has taken those beliefs out of the privacy of his head and has decided to plaster them all over the place, gathering followers and collecting vast sums of money in the process. The people who follow him appear to be earnest and kind but simple-minded fools who have fallen victim to Camping’s particular brand of lunacy.

Here’s the point: what Harold Camping believes is different from what the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury or Billy Graham or (insert famous religious personality) believes only in terms of magnitude, not type. Belief in a supernatural entity in the absence of evidence is what licenses all kinds of weird beliefs, even those as extreme as Camping’s. I will avoid, for now, the obvious temptation of comparing his nuttiness to fanatics like Ayatollah Khomeni or Joseph Kony – Camping did not advocate violence or totalitarian rule. However, the fundamental basis of his position is rooted on identical grounds: the will of an undefinable and unobservable supreme being.

And so while believers and non-believers alike spent the day laughing at the stupidity of the May 21st Rapture, we were laughing at two different things. Believers (the Christian ones, anyway) were yukking it up at the audacity of trying to pick a date for the return of the human son of the supreme being on the universe:

Tim LaHaye, co-author of the bestselling Left Behind novels about the end times, recently called Camping’s prediction “not only bizarre but 100 per cent wrong!” He cited the Bible verse Matthew 24:36, “but about that day or hour no one knows” except God. “While it may be in the near future, many signs of our times certainly indicate so, but anyone who thinks they ‘know’ the day and the hour is flat out wrong,” LaHaye wrote on his website, leftbehind.com.

Everyone else was laughing at how stupid the idea is.

When black people in the United States jumped on the Proposition 8 bandwagon to pass an amendment to ban gay marriage, I couldn’t fathom how a group that has experienced (and continues to experience) the suppression of its civil rights would be so eager to take the same rights away from other people. It was the same blindness I saw at work in believers who were happy to deride Camping but couldn’t see that their own religious beliefs were simply a diluted aspect of the same irrationality at work. While I’ve discussed the recalcitrance of the religious to examine their own behaviour, I am slowly learning that this is simply a product of human brains, not something unique to religious faith alone.

So what happened on the 21st? As it had for the past billions of years, the particular planet orbited about the particular star in the particular far-flung region of the universe, completely oblivious to the stupidity happening on its surface. Who wants to take bets on what’s going to happen in 5 months?

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4 comments

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  1. 1
    Katalina

    I’m a Californian with very religious conservative parents whose church (guess which one) basically told them they HAD to support Prop 8. It was so disturbing to me that their church was stepping into politics and telling people how to vote… and then to have not only the religious right but also the majority of black voters back it was so very disappointing. While I am totally thrilled that we didn’t end up with a McCain/Palin white house, Prop 8 continues to be a humiliating loss for all of us who want equal rights for everyone, especially those of us from “ethnic groups” that have been marginalized in American history.

    Do you buy the argument that Obama was the rallying force that got a lot of the American black voters out that year because they wanted to vote for Obama and just voted anti-gay at the same time? There’s clearly a lot more stigma in the black community on being gay than in other cultures, but what do you think about that argument? I’ve heard it a lot in the aftermath of Prop 8 passing.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    I think the situation of why black voters voted against Prop 8 has a couple of important sociocultural reasons. First, the black community has been far less supportive of the gay community than the general population. Much of this is cultural standards of machismo, which you also see in the Latin population. To be sure, this trend is changing rapidly as pro-gay voices are heard more frequently in cultural institutions like sport and music, but there is definitely a lag.

    Second, the influence of the churches should not be underestimated. Because of the serious lack of both competent social programming and a general distrust of the intentions of government, black communities tend to be more self-organized and insular than white communities. This organization tends to be centred around the church, since it already fulfills the role of providing a social structure, and it has deep historical roots. It is, therefore, no simple matter to stand up and rebel against the church’s doctrine. This too is changing, but it’s not there yet.

    I don’t think much of the hypothesis that Obama was much of a deciding factor, except that his presence may have spurred people to become more politically active. I think trying to give any one factor overarching explanatory power for a large and diverse community is begging to oversimplify. The question will be, I think, how does the black community begin to move forward on civil rights for others?

  3. 3
    Katalina

    Ah yes, I tend to forget about the church because it seems so un-unified. But “the church” seems to have a fluid composition but a pretty standard dogma. I understand how hard it can be to go against the grain, having been raised mormon and finally escaped.

  4. 4
    jamessweet

    their own religious beliefs were simply a diluted aspect of the same irrationality at work.

    Would that be a Delusion Dilution then?

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