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After months of warnings and fear, the Day of Rapture, as predicted by apocalyptic Christian broadcaster Harold Camping, passed without apparent calamity. But is this really a surprise to anyone? Personally, I do not know of one person who did not bring up this story to me without a great deal of incredulity. Sure, the world didn’t end, Jesus didn’t return, and no one was judged, but does that mean everything is OK?

I would disagree. Although these “predictions” have certainly become inflated by social media and the 24-hour news cycle, I think that this kind of widespread rapture fear is indicative of something deeply wrong. We can dismiss them as wing-nuts or religious zealots, but is there something wrong with a belief that can make followers sell all of their possessions etc., based upon the ramblings of one man and his holy book?

Belief Systems

In Christian eschatology, the Rapture is a reference to the being caught up referred to in the Biblical passage 1 Thess 4:17, when in the End Times the Christians of the world will be gathered together in the air to meet Jesus Christ.

Let’s be clear. Christians have been assuring the media that the true belief that today was the rapture, the “end times”, is only held by a fundamentalist minority, and does not represent the opinions of the whole. But I want to also make clear that this sort of panic, without evidence, could only be generated by a deeply seeded faith or belief, even if it only affected fundamentalists.

So then what is the problem? Why could otherwise rational people, operating normally in their daily lives, be so compelled by the apocalypse?

I argue that this sort of acceptance is created by the structure of the belief system itself. Plausibly, a system that depended on evidence, confirmation, and testability (science), would never produce such an uncritical, traditionally inspired panic. Further, compare the number of legitimate scientists you hear preaching about the end times versus the number of ministers or pastors that do. Comparatively, a belief system that relied on confirmation from “authorities”, blind faith, untested tradition, and the supernatural, would certainly have more leeway to convince, or at least internally resolve, a true belief in the end of the universe.

Crazy? Maybe

As I said above, the people who preach these cosmic ultimatums are objectively fringe, and do not represent the mainstream. But can we really accept a belief system that produces such premonitions? Think of the fear, the panic, and more importantly, think of all the times that these premonitions are wrong. They are always wrong. I assume that you could find at least one person on this planet that would think that the world is ending tomorrow, but they are never correct. Don’t we typically assume those who make such claims to be mentally unstable? Generalization may just be the easy way out, but this specific rapture panic was not created by the mentally unstable, but fundamentalist religion, based upon “calculations” from their holy text. How suitable is a belief system that can create legitimate fear about something that we usually associate with the mentally ill?

Guess we interpreted the Bible "wrong". That usually never happens!

Belief systems will always produce fringe elements, and should not be characterized to be the picture of the whole system. But isn’t this sort of belief in rapture only produced by some sort of faith? Surely, there are sci-fi cults which believe in rapture-like events, and seemingly have bases in science. But I don’t think that this is true. A cult based in real science would not allow for untestable, exceedingly unlikely, evidence lacking beliefs to take hold. Therefore, only with an appropriate injection of faith, in the absence of reason, could such rapture fears take root.

And this of course is the problem with faith. Let me quote the late, great Carl Sagan:

If we don’t allow ourselves to ask skeptical questions, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs.

This is exactly what we see happening. Atheists have even made boat-loads of money off theists who worry that their pets won’t be taken care of after they are sucked up into heaven. A faith-based system that allows for uncritical ideas to be justified and popularized is dangerous to the intellectual well-being of our society. Ideas once relegated to the annals of mania can now make headlines everywhere, for months, and have people legitimately frightened, if they are apart of their own faith-based system.

So You’re Still Here, Now What?

Of course, a reason-based system, like science, can produce fears about the end of the world, but these are legitimate. Cosmic gamma-ray bursts, killer asteroids, supernovae, and galactic collisions are all very real possibilities (albeit insignificant ones or beyond our lifetimes). But these are actual possibilities, and even so, you never see a billboard on the highway saying that the sun is going to destroy the Earth in 5 billion years (which it is). Science not only operates in real risk, it also doesn’t create unnecessary fear, panic, and pandemonium.

Maybe those who thought the rapture was really coming can go back to their normal lives, hopefully they can be reflective on the fact that their religious authorities were wrong (again). But what will most likely happen is that they will make some hand-waving excuse like “we believed that the rapture was coming so it didn’t come, because no one can really know the end times.” This sort of retro-fitting fallacy can only be perpetuated, I argue, by a faith-based belief system.

You were so devout, you were a good person, you read the Bible, you interpreted everything right. You were certain that the rapture was coming but you’re still here. So now what?

Update 5.24.11

I told you! I specifically said a few days ago:

But what will most likely happen is that they will make some hand-waving excuse like “we believed that the rapture was coming so it didn’t come, because no one can really know the end times.

These people really are easy to predict.

Problem solved.  Just move the goal post a little further off, dismiss all our other predictive nonsense, and keep peddling the meaningless, life-destroying, theological drivel.