She is not obviously deranged or cripplingly stupid. So I’m left to wonder why this kind, articulate middle-aged woman standing before me believes what she believes. Her small body is draped in a large sandwich board sign with “End of the World: May 21, 2011” handwritten in black ink. It also includes the line: “The Bible proves it”. She patrols the sidewalk offering a warning to anyone who will listen.
I interviewed the woman a week before her doomsday date for a book I am writing about weird beliefs. I’ve talked to many people in many countries about odd claims and it never bores me. I am fascinated by how human minds can be so easily seduced by the most outrageous ideas that have no logic or evidence behind them. Intelligence and education are relevant factors in this phenomenon, of course, but it’s far from everything. Many very intelligent and highly educated people can and do embrace baseless beliefs. To some degree, we are all vulnerable to nonsense. Don’t doubt the importance of this. Lives are diminished and lives are lost. All because people can’t or won’t think critically and challenge extraordinary claims. This is why I preach the value of scepticism and critical thinking skills.
The woman was absolutely confident that the world would end on May 21, 2011. She told me she would not even entertain the possibility that the prediction would not come true. “It will happen,” she said. “I don’t even think about the rapture not happening on May 21st because I know that it will. You will see.” Wherever she is right now, I hope that woman is able to adjust and reenter the real world.
In case you are curious, I did the necessary mind-numbing research into the tortured and twisted reasoning of Rev. Harold Camping who came up with that May 21, 2011 date. I’ll spare you the details, but a key was the supposed date of the Noah’s Ark story. Camping places that event at precisely 4990 BCE or 7,000 years ago. This is where any 12 year-old with a half-decent education would begin to have doubts about anything further Camping says. For the entire planet to have been completely flooded over a mere seven thousand years ago would mean that all of geology and archaeology are a farce. From the start it was a mistake based on a mistake. If I said something big was going to happen because it was the anniversary of the Roswell UFO crash or the first sighting of Elvis after his death, would you be impressed?
Warning people about the eminent end of the world is standard operating procedure for many preachers. They have been scaring people for centuries. It’s always just around the corner, minutes away, but it never comes. Preachers exploit common perceptions of decay and destruction to convince people who don’t know much about history, prehistory and how nature works that the end is upon us. Our world never seems short of wars, hunger, disease and natural disasters, so uninformed people tend to be impressed when the doomsday salesmen point to current headlines as “signs of the end”. It works generation after generation. I recall a few years ago when there was a spike in violence in the Middle East, hardly unusual, and a popular Caymanian pastor spoke on the radio about it. He confidently declared that this was a clear sign of the end times and that the rapture would happen “very soon”. Don’t hold your breath.
The constant cycle of warnings, predictions and failures might seem comical to some but they are not without serious consequences. Some people actually put their money where their delusion is. They quit their jobs and sell their homes in anticipation of the end. Some end-of-the-world fantasies have even ended in deaths. And what about the children? Does anyone ever consider what sort of psychological harm this nonsense might cause children? “Sorry, little Timmy, we can’t have a birthday party for you this year because of the apocalypse. And better say goodbye to your friends because most of them won’t be getting raptured like us.”
The ripple effects of these weird episodes of failed predictions can be surprising. In the mid-1800s, for example, a preacher named William Miller did more than disappoint tens of thousands of true believers with his incorrect doomsday dates. The stir he caused eventually gave rise to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists denominations.
By no means do Christians have an exclusive on apocalyptic fantasies. Many religions have similar ideas. While it’s socially acceptable in some circles to laugh at doomsday believers, I tend to refrain. These beliefs are so common across cultures and have been around for so long that I suspect there must be some inherent quirk or vulnerability within all or most of us that allows them to take root easily. It’s not fair to mock people who may be guilty of nothing more than being human. I believe the best we can do in reaction is to preach reason and teach science.
During my interview with the May 21st believer, I found myself worrying about the inevitable collision with reality she was destined for. It must be difficult to believe in something so important only to have it fall flat. I don’t know where she is or how she is today, but I wish her well.
We are not so different, really. She believed she had a vital warning for her fellow human beings and so she was willing to face criticism to spread that message. I write essays and books that encourage people to turn away from superstition and fear in order to fully embrace reality and hope. Sometimes I am criticized for this. But I do it anyway because I care about others—just like my acquaintance who saw the mirage of yet another apocalypse on the horizon. People like her believe that the world will end in destruction very soon. I believe the world will keep spinning and life will go on, at least until the Sun dies in a few billion years. I suppose only time will tell who is right, but I suggest that my outlook is the healthiest for all.
Guy P. Harrison is the author of two non-fiction books, including “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God.” Contact him at email@example.com