Unsurprisingly Harold Camping’s prediction that the devout would ascend and that Armageddon would commence on May 21 turned out to equal the Millenium bug for sheer anticlimax and wasted column inches. So much has been written, so much of it satirical, that I can’t really decide whether the world need to read my own brief thoughts at all.
But today, thousands of vulnerable and confused people woke up still mired in their decidedly ordinary lives, no doubt deeply disappointed that they weren’t lifted up to heaven and that the world is not imploding. Many of those people, in embracing Camping’s end-of-times predictions, have alienated their less gullible families and friends.
The Carson family of Maryland (see Ashley Parker’s article in the New York Times) will have plenty of healing to do this morning. For months the parents have been desperately sounding the apocalyptic trumpet to strangers, yet they have told their unbelieving children that they will definitely not be going to heaven. Not only have these so-called parents embarrassed their own children above and beyond the call of normal parental duty, but for two years they have completely neglected their family’s future. College funds are gone, the house is a wreck, and the family is in deep crisis.
Camping with his imbecilic prophecies has led thousands of people astray. They have certainly been complicit in messing up their own lives, and those of their loved ones, but I have a special scorn for Camping.
People look to their leaders, and devout people look especially to their religious leaders for guidance on the most important questions in their lives. When preachers lead their flocks astray, they should be held entirely responsible. When parents gamble their children’s future on a crackpot prophecy that even a young child wouldn’t believe, it is worse than neglect. It is abuse. And it should be punished as abuse.
Harold Camping’s biggest mistake was to utter a testable prediction. Either the end would beset us on 21 May or it wouldn’t. That’s what we normally do with rational ideas – we put them to the test. If they fail then rational people admit their mistakes and set about trying to find better ideas.
In the stories I read last week, leading up to the May 21 prophecy, I was struck by the fact that so many evangelical Christians found only Camping’s certainty over the date to be odd. For so many of them, the rapture is real and coming soon. The charlatans who head these congregations and peddle these superstitions at least have the self-respect not to predict the precise date and time. Yet they stoke the thrilling blend of hope, self-righteousness and schadenfreude (“I’m going to heaven, you’re goping to suffer in eternal torment”) to maximum effect, so that their parishoners will empty their pockets into tax-free church coffers week after week. And without a definite date, they can continue to cynically tap the Rapture gold-mine indefinitely.
I do hope the world’s reporters follow up every one of the people they wrote about last week, to see how they are coping with the fact that life goes on. I can’t imagine their devastation, but I do hope that many of those people can begin with three of the most important words in our language: “I was wrong”.
I somehow don’t imagine we’ll hear those words from Camping. A true leader who makes a mistake of this magnitude would first admit wrongdoing. Then he would seek not only to repent but to help repair the lives his stupidity has ruined. The man has millions of dollars and considerable platform. Surely he can help to heal the lives of those people whose gullibility put him in that position. That would be an impressive feat.