May 17, 2011 -- Throughout human history and especially in recent centuries, cults of all kinds have predicted the end of the world. You’ve probably noticed that they’ve all been seriously wrong.
The latest such silliness has come from 89-year-old Harold Camping’s Family Radio network of 66 stations. Based on his study of the Bible, Camping calculates that doomsday will be on Saturday, May 21, 2011.
Christianity is particularly prone to such nonsense. After all, the Book of Revelation is all about doomsday, though with details from a clearly delusional mind. The “son of man” appears out of the clouds with a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth: that makes it tough to eat and talk! He has seven stars in his hand: a star is a million miles in diameter and a million degrees at its core, making things pretty hot and crowded on the Earth. You get the picture.
American history is full of cults that saw no future for the world. Starting in 1843, William Miller and his followers predicted a dozen doomsdays. One would think that after the first few predictions failed, followers of the cult would disappear. Remarkably, more such cults and followers followed.
The problem is not only found in fringe Christian sects. The landscape of the twentieth century is littered with the failed predictions from a plethora of mystic and New Age groups. The members of the Heaven’s Gate flying saucer cult, to get ahead of the game, all committed suicide.
What is perhaps most disturbing about the adherents to cults that make such failed predictions or, more generally, are as crazy as March hares, is that they are not just the most poor, ignorant, or downtrodden in society.
The Heaven’s Gate members were mostly middle class and made money writing computer software. Scientology charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for their “courses” that in fact brainwash those naive enough to take them. Scientology’s victims must be smart enough to make enough money to pay the stiff cost in order to hear L. Ron Hubbard’s delusional alien fantasies. These dingbats count Fox talk show host Greta Van Susteren as one of their suckers.
And the Family Radio network has enough cash to plaster the country with the endtime ads. They’re apparently effective fundraisers.
Here’s a deal you might offer all believers in end-of-the-world predictions. Don’t worry if you’ve missed the May 21 doomsday deadline. There will be plenty more opportunities with new predictions in the future.
Seek out those who mouth a belief that the world will end on a certain date. Confirm that they have assets and possessions—a house, car, savings account, and/or 401(k). Then offer to turn over to them assets of your own, valued at half or less of the value of theirs. They can use your assets to pass out copies of the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, The Late, Great Planet Earth, or whatever on street corners. They can buy TV, radio, Internet, or print ads to announce Armageddon. But on the day after they predict the world will end, title to all of their asserts and possessions will transfer to you.
If the world ends, they’ll have used your assets to promote their cause and their assets will do you no good as you wallow in fire and brimstone. In the nineteenth century members of some sects did give away all their possessions as they anticipated the end. Today few believers in such things actually put their money where their mouths are. Oh ye of little faith!
Many such believers, especially those who hatch and propagate such nonsense, deserve to be countered with the weapon of ridicule. But such cases reveal a far more serious problem with the culture, one that is a major cause of both individual and societal ills.
Consider the report about Michael Finaldi, the 60-something-year-old head of Tele-Solution, a successful business in New Jersey. One watches with pain as this otherwise solid, responsible, individual talks about how Harold Camping’s ravings have convinced him that the world will end on a certain spring weekend. It’s like watching a sound human mind descending into mental illness, a sickening tragedy.
We might simply observe that many otherwise sensible individuals have blind spots, and in the case of cult believers, those spots are huge. But in the twenty-first century, with all the marvelous products of the human mind evident, the continued existence and even spread of new cults suggest something deeper. And we see the same mindset on display in politics. How can people in Greece or in California really expect governments to continue to spend massive amounts of money that they do not have and have no way of getting?
Individuals must think for themselves and make up their own minds on every matter that faces them in life. But what does it take for us to activate our analytic abilities? We must have a firm understanding that reality is objective. We must have an unswerving commitment to seeking the truth, whatever it might be. We must not let comforting fictions lull us into mental illusions of our own making. We must not let preconceptions or an ideology blind us to reality. That goes double for those like Objectivists and Ayn Rand fans who explicitly advocate a philosophy of reason but can let this fact make them uncritical of their own beliefs because they assume that they have a monopoly on truth. We should acknowledge that the root of all immorality is the refusal to think, to focus our minds, to honestly seek to know.
To the extent that we can, we should try to shake the unthinking out of their blindness. But in the long run we must understand the importance of fostering a culture that places reason and truth first. It took centuries in the West for that Enlightenment culture to develop—a culture that produced the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and the political revolution that gave rise to the United States. In this way the past should be our path not to the end of the world, but rather to a better tomorrow.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.