The eternal appeal of doomsday cults.
"With no sign of Judgment Day arriving as he had forecast, the 89-year-old California evangelical broadcaster and former civil engineer behind the pronouncement seemed to have gone silent on Saturday," Reuters reports.
Talk about liberal media bias! Were they expecting him to keep broadcasting from heaven?
OK, that's a joke. We don't really expect doomsday cultists to be taken seriously. One could, indeed, fault the liberal media for taking Harold Camping too seriously, "as a prime piece of proof that American evangelicals are nuts," in the words of historian Tim Stanley, blogging for London's Daily Telegraph.
In fact, the Reuters piece respectfully quotes one Stuart Bechman, "national affiliate director of a group called American Atheists," who says: "There are a lot of silly and even unfounded beliefs that go on in the religious community that cause harm." That's such a broad-brush statement that one can't exactly claim it is false, and it's not hard to think of examples of harmful acts that result from religious beliefs: terrorism, widow-burning, refusing or withholding medical treatment. But these are practices of different faiths and are far from universal within them. The obvious flaw in Bechman's conception is his notion that there is a single "religious community" consisting of everyone outside the world of organized irreligion. In fact, that world is as tiny and eccentric as any religious sect or cult.
Something else bothers us about the media mockery of Harold Camping, as justifiable as it may be. Why are only religious doomsday cultists subjected to such ridicule? Reuters notes that "Camping previously made a failed prediction Jesus Christ would return to Earth in 1994." Ha ha, you can't believe anything this guy says! But who jeered at the U.N.'s false prediction that there would be 50 million "climate refugees" by 2010? We did, but not Reuters.
Doomsday superstitions seem to fulfill a basic psychological need. On the surface, the thought that God or global warming will destroy the world within our lifetimes is horrifying. But all of us are doomed; within a matter of decades, every person alive will experience the end of his own world. A belief in the hereafter makes the thought of death less terrifying. But so does a disbelief in the here, after. If the world is to end with us--if there is no life for anyone after our death--we are not so insignificant after all.
To reject traditional religion is not, as the American Atheists might have it, to transform oneself into a perfectly rational being. Nonbelievers are no less susceptible to doomsday cults than believers are; Harold Camping is merely the Christian Al Gore. But because secular doomsday cultism has a scientific gloss, journalists like our friends at Reuters treat it as if it were real science. So, too, do some scientists. It may be that the decline of religion made this corruption of science inevitable.
We Blame Global Wa--Oh, Look! A Squirrel!