With all the talk about the Rapture that’s supposedly coming on May 21? With all the Rapture parties, the snarky jokes, the atheist conferences around the country specifically scheduled on Rapture Weekend for the purpose of making fun of it?
There is a tiny, tiny part of me that’s scared.
There is a tiny, tiny part of me that’s been wondering, for occasional intermittent nanoseconds, “What if they’re right?”
And I’m wondering if that’s happening with anyone else.
Now, let me make this very clear, very quickly: There is no part of me that seriously thinks this Rapture thing is going to happen. It’s beyond absurd. The number of times that people have predicted the exact date of the Rapture, or some other supernatural end of the world, is off the charts. Even if the hypothesis of any sort of God or supernatural world were plausible — which I don’t think it is — this particular hypothesis? The hypothesis that if you take a demonstrably inaccurate book written by Bronze Age goatherders and crunch the numbers in it in a special way like it was the Da Vinci Code or something, you’ll know the exact date and hour that God is coming to pour suckitude on his beloved creation while he carries a handful of his bestest friends to a permanent party in the sky? It’s laughable on the face of it. It’s the equivalent of a hand-scrawled sign held up by a raving street-corner preacher saying, “The End Is Nigh”… except it’s a really big sign, being held up on street corners around the country, by a preacher who happens to have a radio show and a budget instead of a soapbox on the corner. I am appalled at how many people are taking this thing so seriously, to the point where they’re quitting their jobs and spending their life savings on this stupid ad campaign. And I’m tickled pink at the degree to which the defiant, mocking, festively scornful response to it has caught on… not just among atheist activists, but in the public at large.
And yet, when I see the Rapture billboards or hear the news stories about them, there is this tiny part of me that — just for a nanosecond — gets scared. There’s a tiny part of me that wonders, just for a nanosecond, “Could this Rapture thing really happen?”
It’s embarrassing to admit this. I feel like it makes me a failure as an atheist, a failure as a skeptic. I haven’t wanted to say anything about it… even to myself. I had to screw up my courage even to mention it to Ingrid. Acknowledging it in public feels seriously uncomfortable.
But I’ve built my career on saying things that people don’t want to talk about; things that people are embarrassed and uncomfortable about; things that people keep secret. And almost every time I have, I’ve been glad. I’ve felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. And almost always every time, I’ve gotten a grateful and relieved response from other people saying, “Oh, thank goodness you said something — I thought I was the only one!”
I’m not going to stop now.
I want to talk about this — and I want to look at what’s going on.
Here’s what I think is going on. Part of my mammalian hindbrain reflexively assumes that, if a whole lot of other people believe something, it’s probably true. Or at least, that it’s plausible. Or at the very least, that it can’t be completely ruled out, and isn’t just flatly stupid on the face of it, and ought to be given a moment of serious consideration. There is a part of my mammalian hindbrain that, when it sees a whole bunch of people freaking out over what they see as an imminent terrible danger, gets a little jolt of alarmed adrenaline.
And it’s not just my own mammalian hindbrain. It’s all our mammalian hindbrains. (Even if you’re not scared about the Rapture.) The human brain is wired with a number of cognitive biases and errors in thinking: biases and errors that have good evolutionary reasons to be there, that have helped our ancestors survive and reproduce, but that do get in the way when we’re trying to carefully figure out what is and isn’t true in the world. And of all these biases, one of the trickiest is communal reinforcement — otherwise known as the argument from popularity. “If lots of other people think this,” our mammalian hindbrain tells us, “it must be true!”
It’s a bias that does have real evolutionary value. If everyone in your tribe is screaming “Tiger!”, and you don’t see one, it still makes sense to run. And I would argue that this bias has some genuine philosophical value as well. Other people can, in fact, be a useful reality check. After all, it’s not like I’m always right about everything. If everyone I know is telling me I’m wrong about something… well, that’s not automatically a reason to change my mind, but it is a reason to stop and think for a moment about whether I might want to.
So the more I thought about this, the more I realized that these fleeting moments of Rapture fear don’t actually make me a bad skeptic. In a sense, they make me a good skeptic. They show that I recognize my own limitations, and that I’m willing to consider the possibility that I might be mistaken.
And more to the point: They just make me human.
Being a good skeptic doesn’t mean that I don’t have cognitive biases. Skeptics still have human brains. Skeptics are still subject to confirmation bias, rationalization, wishful thinking, the perception of pattern where there is none, the perception of intention where there is none, yada yada yada… and yes, the argument from popularity.
Being good skeptics doesn’t mean we don’t have these cognitive biases. It means we’re aware of them. It means we can say, “My computer sure has been crashing a lot lately… but that could just be a pseudo-pattern.” It means we can say, “It seems like I’ve been getting sick less often since I started taking Vitamin C… but that could just be selective memory.” It means we can say, “I think cardamom is becoming the newest food trend… but that could be confirmation bias, and I’m just seeing the stuff everywhere because I’m looking for it.” Being good skeptics means we can see these cognitive biases, in ourselves as well as others. And that means we can compensate for them. It means that, when we’re trying to figure out what’s true in the world, we can set up systems specifically designed to filter them out, as much as we humanly can. It means we don’t have to let our lives be controlled by them.
So yes. When I see the Rapture billboards, for a flashing nanosecond, I get scared. I hear a bunch of other people in the tribe screaming, “Tiger!”, and I flinch and glance around reflexively for a nanosecond… before I remember that these are the same people who have been screaming “Tiger!” for years and decades and generations, and they have never once been right about the tiger or anything else, and it is entirely reasonable and safe to ignore them.
And then I come back to my senses, and rejoin the party.
P.S. Speaking of Rapture parties, just a quick reminder: I’m going to be speaking at one! The Regional Atheists Meeting in Oakland, hosted by American Atheists, is happening on Rapture weekend, May 21-22, at at the Oakland Masonic Center at 3903 Broadway. Other speakers will include Mr. Deity, Jen McCreight (Blag Hag), Matt Dillahunty (The Atheist Experience), Rebecca Watson (Skepchick), and many more. There’ll be stand-up comedy from Troy Conrad and Keith Lowell Jensen, as well as the fun, inspiring talks and an after- conference party. Advance tickets are no longer available, alas; tickets at the door are $59 for the whole weekend. The conference per se starts at 9:00 each morning, but registration takes some time, so they’re recommending that people arrive at 8:15.
My topic for the conference: “Why Are Atheists So Angry?” Summary: The atheist movement is often accused of being driven by anger. What are so many atheists so angry about? Is this anger legitimate? And can anger be an effective force behind a movement for social change? My talk is on Sunday, May 22. Assuming we’re not drowning in a sea of blood by then.
There’s also a special, pre-conference fundraising breakfast for Camp Quest West on Sunday 5/22 at 7:30 am. You’ll get to eat and schmooze with many of the featured speakers: me, Jen McCreight, Matt Dillahunty, Brian Dalton (Mr. Deity), Rebecca Watson, David Byars, Mark Calladus and Lewis Marshall. Menu options include blood pudding, steak a la brimstone (a Bay Area specialty!), honey-roasted locusts, and lamb. (Kidding. I wish. It’s been way too long since I’ve had a good locust.) Tickets are $50 each. Come join us! I’ll be as chatty and sparkly as I can be at 7:30 in the morning after a bath of sulfur and frogs.