Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Rapture that wasn't

As you have probably heard by now, the end of the world was supposed to have occurred yesterday at 6 pm Eastern Daylight Time, at least according to a radio minister from California. Of course, Saturday came and went, and we're still here.

Believers had spent months warning the world of the pending cataclysm. Some had given away earthly belongings. Others took long journeys to be with loved ones. And there were those who drained their savings accounts.

All were responding to the May 21 doomsday message by Harold Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer who has built a multi-million-dollar Christian media empire that publicizes his apocalyptic prediction.

Camping, who is not an ordained minister but who nevertheless claims to have made the Bible "his university" for the past fifty years, seemed to have skipped past Jesus's own words regarding the Rapture in Matthew 24:36: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." But that didn't stop him or his ardent followers from spreading word of the impending doomsday. Now, some of his followers are understandably confused:
In New York's Times Square, Robert Fitzpatrick, of Staten Island, said he was surprised when the six o'clock hour simply came and went. He had spent his own money to put up advertising about the end of the world.

"I can't tell you what I feel right now," he said, surrounded by tourists. "Obviously, I haven't understood it correctly because we're still here."

Of course, news of the impending end of the world created a lot of buzz yesterday, since so many people had heard about Camping's prediction; if it wasn't due the fact that Camping's Family Radio spent millions of dollars on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 RVs plastered with signage driving around the country, it was due to the fact that, in the age of the internet, Facebook, Twitter and text messaging, the story went viral:

The Internet was alive with discussion, humorous or not, about the end of the world and its apparent failure to occur on cue. Many tweets declared Camping's prediction a dud or shared, tongue-in-cheek, their relief at not having to do weekend chores or take a shower.

The top trends on Twitter at midday included, at No. 1, "endofworldconfessions," followed by "myraptureplaylist."

I was, admittedly, among those having fun with yesterday's apocalypse-that-wasn't with my friends. "It's too bad the world is supposed to end on Saturday. I wanted to take Kirby to the Art Car Parade on Sunday," I texted Allysa. "I just felt a rumble... Oh, wait, that was just a truck passing in front of the house," I texted Danny. "Maybe the rapture did occur today. When I drove to the store there was a guy waiting at the bus stop, but when I drove back home I noticed he was gone!" I texted Rachel.

But while it might be one thing to make jokes about a crazy old minister's outlandish prophecy, it's something else to ridicule or otherwise feel a sense of schadenfreude towards those who actually believed that the world was going to end yesterday. As The New Republic's Tiffany Stanley writes:
Do the end-timers seem ignorant? Yes. Are they insane? Possibly. But should our reaction to them be chuckling glee or something more like sadness? Pay attention to their individual stories—their willingness to sacrifice everything in anticipation that their earthly lives are over—and I dare you not to feel the latter. Ashley Parker of The New York Times writes about a mom who stopped working, and stopped saving for college for her three teenaged children. One of the kids admitted, “I don’t really have motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.” At NPR, Barbara Brown Haggerty reports on a young couple, with a toddler and a baby on the way, who are spending the last of the savings. The wife says, “We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left.”

Laughing at religious fanatics is nothing new. And, at some level, there’s nothing wrong with it. But this story didn’t just take off in popularity because people wanted a quick laugh or some insight into a quirky subset of our country. There’s a cruelty underlying our desire to laugh at this story—a desire to see people humiliated and to revel in our own superiority and rationality—even though the people in question are pretty tragic characters, who either have serious problems themselves or perhaps are being taken advantage of, or both.

And I agree. I'm not laughing at these people. I am, instead, feeling sorry for them.

It can be said that people are gullible, and I think that's true to a certain extent. But I also think that it's just a part of human nature for people to really want to believe in something extraordinary, regardless of how far-fetched it actually is. Whether it's a person who is convinced by the e-mail from somebody in Nigeria claiming that they'll share a great deal of money with them if they can only get access to an American bank account, or a lonely bachelor that falls for the beautiful Russian woman on who promises to marry him if he'll only send her a few thousand dollars for airfare, or a religiously fervent person who fully trusts a preacher's words that, yes, Jesus is coming back on a certain day, these people all have the same thing in common: an overwhelming desire to believe in something incredible or amazing that gets the better of their senses.

If it's any consolation, at least Mr. Camping's doomsday prophecy did not result in the suicides or murders of his followers, a la Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians or Marshall Applewhite and Heaven's Gate. But there are nevertheless a lot of people who have quit their jobs, sold all of their possessions and emptied their bank accounts in preparation for this doomsday-that-wasn't. Their lives, and the lives of their families, are forever going to be changed. I think back to Mr. Fitzgerald (profiled here), who spent his life's savings warning people in New York City that the world would end on May 21st. What is he going to do now? Given the hardships these people face, it seems rather cruel to revel in their misfortune. I feel nothing but sympathy for these poor folks.

My sympathy, however, does not extend to Mr. Camping himself. While I'm sure he honestly believed that the world would end on May 21st, that does not make his any less of a fraud (especially considering that he's been wrong about the end of the world before; he previously declared that the Rapture would occur in September 1994). It is time for Camping to put down his microphone and retire from his ministry before he hurts any more people with his false prophecies.

More coverage, including a slideshow of previous doomsdays-that-weren't, here. A discussion of how Camping's followers might cope in the aftermath of his false prediction here.

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