Eighty-nine-year-old religious nut Harold Camping (pictured below) prophesized that the world would end on May 21, 2011, at 6:00 p.m. local time. A woman who believed him wanted to get a jump on Armageddon and avoid the horrors of fire and brimstone. So she slit her 11- and 14-year-old daughters’ throats with a box cutter and then slit her own.
The Rapture did not occur. The world didn’t end. The two daughters and mother survived. The mother is in jail where she belongs. Camping, sadly, also survives and is free to cause the world more grief.
Camping promoted his prophecy through his 66-station Family Radio network. He convinced followers to plaster the message on billboards and hand out leaflets coast to coast. Some now-destitute disciples emptied their bank accounts to advertise the Apocalypse.
Camping himself was reported to be confused and flabbergasted that his prediction was wrong, even though he was wrong with a similar prediction decades ago. He now thinks the world will end in October. What we really need is an end to the root of all immorality, a root that gives rise to people like Camping.
What is this root? And how ought we to deal with Camping and his followers?
Children often behave in an irresponsible, irrational, emotionally charged manner with very bad results—valuables broken, someone hurt. In the aftermath they’re often confused and torn inside. They might cry out of shame for what they’ve done. Or they might block out unpleasant realities and anger at their own negligence by making excuses or lashing out at others. Good parents will also try to correct them and to change their moral habits lest they have miserable lives ahead of them.
While Camping himself and those who propagated his nonsense deserve derision, let us assume that some, like bad children, might be savable, or that at least we might dissuade others from falling for such foolishness in the future.
So let’s ask some questions of these acolytes and offer them some lessons.
1) Did you examine the record of doomsday predictions made over past millennia? How did those predictions fare? Obviously, all have failed; otherwise, none of us would be here. Doesn’t this fact suggest that, if you accept such predictions, you’ll end up as just another transient target of jokes by late-night comedians, as you just did? And why did all those other predictions fail?
2) Did you seriously consider objections to and the case against the end-of-the-world prediction? Good thinkers always ask if they might be wrong. They consider whether there is good evidence and good arguments to indicate that they are mistaken.
3) Did you really want the prediction to be true? Some of you no doubt didn’t want the world to end, fearing that you might go to a hellish reward rather than a heavenly one. But others of you probably welcomed what you imagined would be a future ethereal Eden or all-inclusive luxury resort in the sky. But wishing doesn’t make it so, and wishful thinking can blind one to reality.
4) Did you seek an easy, simple way of making sense of the world? We all want certainty about life, the universe, and everything. But reality is complex: we must earn our knowledge through mental and moral work. If you’re lazy and seek instant knowledge, you make yourself susceptible to the fairytales of self-deluded con-men like Camping.
5) Were you trapped by your own theology? Your religion is based on assumptions about the nature of the world, the universe, man, and human consciousness. An honest look at your beliefs will show them to be highly questionable if not downright absurd.
Tops is your belief that the Bible is a divinely inspired book that allows you to make predictions about the end of the world. Given all evidence to the contrary, if you allow that meme to stay in your head, you’ll keep banging your head up against failed prophecies.
Incidentally, scientific cosmology, based on decades of factual research, shows that the world—or the Earth, at least—will end in 5 billion years when the Sun balloons to a red giant. No need right now to give away all your wealth or murder your children!
6) Are you honestly seeking the truth about objective reality? I argue that concerning many matters you are not. You rationalize and cherry-pick information and call it “reason.” But it isn’t. You willfully evade. You engage in egregious self-deception. You blank out your mind to that which you suspect or know to be true but which you don’t want to accept. This practice led you to believe the silliness you just swallowed.
And it is this practice that is the root of evil, the first and greatest immoral act: the willful refusal to think, the refusal to focus, the refusal to step back and ask whether you’re honestly seeking the truth. You often label this practice “faith” and argue that it should be respected. It shouldn’t. And throwing out that word like a witch doctor trying to cast a spell on imagined enemies only makes your offense worse.
The act of refusing to face reality is not confined to members of fringe Christian cults. It is found among the believers in all religions. It is found in adherents to all ideologies. It is a danger for all individuals. This is why it is important to promote an Enlightenment culture that values the virtue of rationality and critical thinking above all else.
The scorn heaped on Camping was appropriate, but it should not only have been confined to his bound-to-fail predictions. It should have been focused on the contrast between his and his followers' irrationality and a rational approach to life and knowledge, the only approach for those who cherish life in this world.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.