The Watchtower's Apocalyptic Pratfalls

Since we all had a hearty laugh at the antics of Harold Camping earlier this summer, I thought you might appreciate a little more light comedy. Presented here for your approval are some excerpts from Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a famous the-end-is-near book published in 1920. You can download the entire book in PDF form, or read some more background about it, from this link.

The emphatic announcement that millions now living on earth will never die must seem presumptuous to many people; but when the evidence is carefully considered I believe that almost every fair mind will concede that the conclusion is a reasonable one.

Millions was published by the Watchtower, also known as the Jehovah's Witnesses, which like Camping's cult has a record of publicly embarrassing itself with apocalyptic pratfalls. But even more significant is the identity of its author: J.F. Rutherford, the second president of the Watchtower Society and one of the founders of the Jehovah's Witness movement, which had its roots in the Bible Student movement begun by Charles Taze Russell after his split from the Millerites (whom I've written about here).

The conditions which have arisen in the world since 1914 are distressing and perplexing. All the rulers of earth are perplexed. The financiers are in perplexity; the business men are in perplexity; the people are in perplexity; and all are in distress. [p.57]

Like Camping, Rutherford bases his argument on numerology, stringing together various bible verses to "prove" that the end would come 2,520 years after Nebuchadnezzar's overthrow of the Israelites, which he says occurred in 606 BCE (most modern scholars think the date was 586 BCE). This brings us to 1914, the date of World War I, which he claims was the beginning of the end. Although the book was published after the war had ended, Rutherford didn't hesitate to treat it as a sign that the "old order of things" was passing away and God's kingdom on earth would soon arrive. And did you know that capitalism is a herald of the end of days?

Selfishness seems to pervade every line of business. The landlord, feeling that he may not get another such chance to reap a harvest, increases the rent upon his tenant. The groceryman, the dealer in other foodstuffs, clothing, etc., seem to fear that another opportunity will not come and that now advantage must be taken of this opportunity to get all the money possible... All of this is but in fulfillment of the words of Jesus. [p.58]

As with modern evangelicals, the emergence of the Zionist movement was a tremendous excitement to Rutherford's imagination. The first stirrings of intent to create a Jewish homeland, the first few settlers who moved back to Palestine, took on tremendous importance to him as fulfillment of the New Testament prophecy of the fig tree. And he explains clearly what the next sign will be:

...since other Scriptures definitely fix the fact that there will be a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful ones of old, and that these will have the first favor, we may expect 1925 to witness the return of these faithful men of Israel from the condition of death, being resurrected and fully restored to perfect humanity and made the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth. [p.88]

Rutherford makes good use of a standard trick of apocalypse-real-sooners: he switches freely between literal and metaphorical interpretations of different verses, or even different parts of the same verse, as needed to prove his point. For example, in Jesus' Olivet Discourse, he identifies the "wars and rumors of wars" as the literal World War I and the pestilence as the literal 1914 Spanish flu; but the "earthquakes", he says, were the communist revolutions in Russia and eastern Europe. (The fact that no major earthquake fitting the bill occurred in 1914 was probably the motivation for this creativity.) The verse about the sun and moon being darkened and the stars falling from heaven, meanwhile, magically becomes a reference to the ecumenical movement [p.42-44].

Every apocalypse-real-soon book contains a few bits of off-the-wall theology, and Rutherford's is no exception. He shows the paranoid hallmarks of the demonically obsessed, claiming that World War I was started by demons influencing world leaders [p.60], and maintains the belief, which the Jehovah's Witnesses hold to this day, that all world governments and institutions are controlled by Satan [p.81]. There's also this section about how God plans to make humankind immortal:

...had Adam remained in Eden, feeding upon the perfect food it afforded, he would have continued to live. The judgment was executed against him by causing him to feed upon imperfect food. Perfect food, therefore, seems a necessary element to sustain human life everlastingly. When the kingdom of Messiah is inaugurated, the great Messiah will make provision for right food conditions... a man of seventy years of age will gradually be restored to a condition of physical health and mental balance. [p.99-100]

Clearly, Pastor Rutherford missed his calling. He could have made a great deal of money if he'd published a diet book. ("The Divine Diet: Eat Well and Live Forever! It's how Jesus would have snacked!")

How do the Jehovah's Witnesses handle the embarrassment of a failed prophecy by one of their founders? For the most part, they ignore or downplay it as "overoptimism" or "merely an expressed opinion", even though Rutherford himself described his predictions for this date as "positive and indisputable" [p.97] and elsewhere called it "proven certainty" (source). Ironically, as recently as 1997, the Watchtower magazine recycled Rutherford's failed prediction and claimed "with full confidence" that it actually applies to people living today! These apocalyptic books must be a reliable source of income for publishers: once they've been written, they can be reissued every few decades with only minor corrections.

August 12, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink16 comments

I Have Returned

By Ebonmuse

Greetings, all. I'm back safely from Spain - actually, I was back yesterday, but pretty much went right to bed when I got home to sleep off the jet lag and recover from general sleep deprivation. (You see, we were in Barcelona on Saturday night, which was when the home team won an important soccer match. The people were very enthusiastic in their public displays of approval, resulting in neither my wife nor I getting much sleep the night before our flight...)

In any case, I'm feeling rested and refreshed and more than ready to take up the reins of Daylight Atheism again. Many thanks to my guest admins, Leah, Ritchie and SuperHappyJen, for writing posts and looking after the site while I was away. I'm still catching up on comments, but things were certainly lively in my absence!

I'll have more to say about my trip soon, but for now, let me just say this: Spain is a beautiful, vital, romantic country with an almost ridiculously picturesque countryside, with vast fields of fiery red poppies and golden sunflowers, endless groves of olive and orange trees, mountaintop windmills, solar farms, and beaches and coasts overlooking the intense blue of the Mediterranean. It has spectacular art and architecture from every era from the Roman empire up to the modern day. And it has an abundance of the most morbid and gruesome religious iconography I've ever seen.

Despite its secular population and plummeting rates of church attendance, Spain bears the stamp of its long history as a Catholic theocracy. Churches and cathedrals dot every city, and most streets are named after Catholic kings, saints or religious figures. And all its churches, as well as most of its museums, contain endless depictions of Jesus being flagellated, Jesus being crucified, Jesus' dead body being taken down from the cross, and so on, all of them executed in all the gory and graphic detail that the greatest painters and sculptors of the Renaissance could conceive. It's not just Jesus who's shown suffering these torments, either: Peter being crucified and John the Baptist having his head cut off are also popular subjects.

This fixation on suffering is part of a larger, morbid fascination with death and martyrdom that's very much on display in the churches. One of the cathedrals we visited had the preserved, severed arm of a long-dead martyr on prominent display. The chapel where the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella are interred offers visitors the chance to descend into the crypt and see their lead-lined coffins. And in one cathedral we visited, the tour guide told us about the 600-year-old mummified body of a saint that's brought up from the crypt once per year and laid on the altar, in an open casket, as part of a popular festival that draws families. (She related with great amusement how parents warn their disobedient children that the dead saint would rise from his coffin and grab them if they didn't mend their ways.)

Anyway, I'll have more to say about that soon. I see there are a few important stories which happened while I was away, particularly the Damon Fowler case, which I'd like to tackle as well.

A couple of business items:

• The Rapture went off, or rather failed to go off, precisely on schedule. As predicted, Harold Camping has rejiggered his timetable to claim that May 21 was a "spiritual" event (where have we heard that before?) and that the rapture and global devastation he predicted are now delayed to October 21. (Predictably, there was no apology to the followers who quit their jobs or spent their savings to promote his message.) But it seems that he's now hedging his bets: he says that they "don't need to talk about it anymore", and the new, redesigned website no longer has any mention of the date.

• As I mentioned earlier this month, Team Awesome is still competing with PZ Myers in our fundraiser for Camp Quest. We put a variety of forfeits on the line depending on who wins... and, well, PZ made a snide remark about his adversaries lacking "manly facial hair", so I might have offered to grow some of my own in the event of our victory, just to make it clear who's got the testosterone around here. Only now I see that the dirty scoundrel is throwing the match!

This sort of skulduggery cannot stand. I hereby order you all to contribute to PZ!

May 30, 2011, 6:57 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments

News Round-up

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I just thought I’d do a quick whirl through some stories of note in the papers this week:

Firstly, and probably most obviously, the Rapture failed to materialise. The herald of doom for this event, Harold Camping announced his shock and surprise that a literal, physical Rapture did not arrive in exactly the way he prophesised. Instead, the Rapture was of a spiritual nature, and we are still on track for a 21st October Armageddon. To his credit, he did guardedly offer an apology to those who feel wronged by him (and much good may it do them). I confess I raised an eyebrow that he’d make another prediction dated for so soon. He might have fumbled his way through one failed prophecy with most devotees still loyal, but surely two in the space of five months will be a fatal blow to his credibility? Or am I crediting his followers too much?

Secondly, a doctor in Britain is being threatened with the sack for refusing a written warning for counselling patients with talk of Christian faith. Alone, the incident might be unremarkable, but what troubles me particularly is the way it has been portrayed in the British media. Many of Britain’s leading papers are none-too-subtly right wing, and though the church holds far less power and influence in Britain than in the USA, the right still equates Christian values with traditional British values to be conserved at all costs while society goes to Hell in a handbasket. Taken along with the Christian van driver who would not remove a crucifix from his work van, and a couple who owned a B&B and were sued for refusing double beds to non-married couples, citing their religious beliefs for justification, the pattern is hauntingly familiar: religious people feel entitled to special dispensation and feel discriminated against when they do not get it. The papers report it this way and a worrying number of their readers dance to their tune. Sensationalism still works, even on an audience semi-aware to look out for it.

Debate rages over whether the world’s last remaining samples of the smallpox virus should be destroyed. The lethal virus was officially eradicated in the wild in 1979, leaving only small samples in laboratories remaining. But fears that samples could be stolen and used for biological terrorism have prompted fresh pleas for their destruction. In truth, this issue has been smoldering at the World Health Organisation for the last 25 years, lost in a cycle of deferring verdicts and appeals.

Seven Italian scientists were indicted this week in Italy for not predicting the April 2009 earthquake which devastated L’Aquila. Weeks before the quake, locals were worried by tremors, but the seismologists described a big forthcoming quake as “improbable”. The following disaster killed over 300 people. On the 20th September, the scientists will face charges of manslaughter. Many scientists have rallied around and tried to defend their colleagues – there is still no reliable way to predict an earthquake. A devastating case, and once which raises extremely important questions about the faith we should place in science and the culpability we should lay at the door of the experts.

Finally, I'd like to indulge you all in a bit of British trash. Our papers have been rather preoccupied with a story about a top, well-respected footballer, married with children, who was found to have had a six-month affair with a model and ex-reality TV star. So far, so unsurprising. But the case is of note firstly because of its legal implications - the footballer took out an injunction against his former lover, while she was thrown to the wolves. This sparked, as much as anything, a rethink of the uses of injunctions for personal cases. In the end, the truth got out via Twitter, and the police could not prosecute several thousand people breaching the injunction. But it also makes me reflect on a particular essay by Richard Dawkins in which he decries sexual jealousy. Far from being the appropriate default response for a jilted lover (justifying, apparently, all manner of revenge), he argues, we humans should try to rise above such jealousy. I'll leave it for you to savour in his own words here. It's an old essay, and the particular affair which prompted it is unrelated, but still it is a very stimulating read.

May 27, 2011, 12:58 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments

Covering All the Rapture Bases

By Ebonmuse

Greetings all,

As I mentioned previously, I'm away this week, having gone to Spain with my wife to celebrate our first anniversary. My only regret is that because of this trip, I was out of the country on May 21, when self-appointed prophet Harold Camping told us that the Rapture would absolutely, definitely occur. By now, you all know whether that prediction came true, and I only wish I could be there to join in the rejoicing - unless, of course, it turned out that he was right.

Well, either way, I wouldn't want to leave you bereft of my thoughts on the matter. That's why, before I left, I wrote this two-part post - one section for if the Rapture didn't happen, one section for if it did - and scheduled it for automatic publication today. Please comment on whichever section is appropriate.

* * *

May 21, 2011 has come and gone, and to no one's surprise, the Rapture failed to arrive on schedule. Harold Camping now stands fully exposed and shamed as a fraud, taking his place in the ranks of self-deluded false prophets that pop up throughout the history of Christendom. To atheists, of course, this was no surprise at all. Anyone who took the time to actually read Camping's thesis knows that it was based on tortured reinterpretations and bizarre numerological arguments that ludicrously asserted to uncover hidden truths buried in the Bible. The only evidence he ever really had to offer was his utter certainty - but even when dignified with the name of "faith", mere subjective certainty offers no insight into the true nature of reality.

Camping was undoubtedly deluded, but I believe that he was honestly deluded. Human beings are very good at convincing ourselves of what we most wish to be true, and for those unschooled in critical thinking, that tendency can quickly grow out of control, consuming all skepticism like a malignant tumor of the mind. If Camping was an intentional deceiver, he wouldn't have staked his credibility on a definite test, this being one of the few fatal errors in religion. He would have just perpetually predicted that the Rapture was sometime in the near but indefinite future, and continued to rake in the bucks from followers - just as many of the more "mainstream" end-times prophets have successfully done.

Nevertheless, it's not him I feel pity for, but his sadly deceived followers. We learned from stories like this one that many of them quit their jobs, sold their homes, emptied their savings in an attempt to help get the word out. The most striking and consistent element of these reports is how they refused to even consider that they were mistaken, as if to express any doubt might jeopardize the truth of the prophecy. But again, objective reality stands unmocked and unbowed by our beliefs about it, however fervent they may be.

What will happen to the Camping cult? This is actually one of the easiest questions to answer, since history offers so many examples of how failed apocalyptic prophets deal with their failure. Almost certainly, Camping will recheck his figures, announce he's found some minor mathematical error that redates the Rapture to six months or a year from now, and repeat the whole charade all over again. And most of his flock will stay faithful. Despite his obvious and undeniable failure, his hardcore followers have invested too much of their lives in him to walk away. In a sense, his failure is their failure, and so they're just as eager as he is to accept a face-saving explanation. This process may continue through several iterations, but as less committed members drift away, the Camping cult will gradually fade into the pages of history - to be remembered, if at all, as a footnote in the story of the next apocalyptic sect to fall for this seemingly endless foolishness.

* * *

May 21, 2011 has come and gone, and to everyone's surprise, the Rapture arrived exactly on schedule. Harold Camping now stands fully proven as a prophet and a hero, the crowning figure of the history of Christendom. To atheists, of course, this was a terrible surprise. If we had taken the time to read Camping's thesis, we would have known that it was based on true interpretations and clever numerological arguments that unlocked the hidden truths buried in the Bible. The best evidence he had to offer was his utter certainty, and as we now know, a faith so strong can only indicate genuine insight into the true nature of reality. Why, oh, why didn't we believe while there was still time?!

We were undoubtedly deluded, honestly so, though that's little consolation now that all the world's coastal regions are flooded and its cities in flames from the series of massive earthquakes. From what I'm told, it's too late to repent, and we know what's coming. Well, here's what I'm going to do, and if you have any sense, you'll do the same: Bring all the warm clothes you own, and if there's a camping store near where you live, a tent or sleeping bag. Stock up on freeze-dried meals, beef jerky, granola bars, dried fruit: food that requires little or no preparation and won't spoil. Be sure to bring a good-quality water filter, a sharp knife, a lighter for starting fires, and an assortment of tools, including basic medical supplies and, if you have it, fishing gear. A firearm is a must, if at all possible.

Go to the nearest national park, or some other large wilderness area or isolated rural region - drive if you can, take public transportation or hitchhike if you have to. (Be aware that roads may be blocked by pileups of burning wreckage from Christians who were raptured out of their cars.) Once you're sure that you're far from any roads or settlements, find a sheltered place near a source of fresh water, make camp, and settle in. If you see any strangers, shoot on sight. It won't be easy, but if Camping was right, we'll only have to hold out for six months. And yes, we're all doomed when Jesus Christ returns, but at least we can hope to escape the notice of the Antichrist's global dictatorship and his stormtrooper hordes in the meantime!

May 22, 2011, 12:32 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments

The Rapture of Charlie Sheen

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

I'm sure this is just one blog post among many in your feed to reference the Rapture predictions of Harold Camping. His apocalyptic forecast for this weekend is all over the news cycle and even snagged front page coverage in The New York Times. And why is everyone telling this story? Because it's fun to laugh at stupid people.

No one outside this small group of zealots gives their claims the slightest bit of credence; they don't receive the "but who can ever know" kind of deferential treatment that more mainstream religions command. This laughable theology deserves no more attention than do the claims of the sedevacantist popes who've set up shop in Spain and Kansas. Camping and company get coverage because we all have a sickening urge to watch the rug pulled out from under this delusional sect.

The fascination of the media reminds me of the coverage surrounding Charlie Sheen at the height of his public flameout. Sheen was obviously unstable and addled, but we eagerly kept offering him more platforms to embarrass and endanger himself. For his family, it should have been a private tragedy, but we accepted it as entertainment that we were entitled to enjoy. Every time I hear one of my friends punctuate a conversation with "WINNING!" I flinch a little. The fact that Sheen's troubles were self-inflicted makes him more pitiable, not more deserving of our contempt.

If the May 21st rapturists were isolated individuals, we would grieve that they had lost themselves in madness, but now that they've gathered together and entered the public eye, everyone feels a kind of license to mock them. Gizmodo has suggested that pranksters set up piles of abandoned clothes to trick believers into thinking the rapture has occurred, but they were left behind. It's hard to find it funny once you listen to Elizabeth Esther's childhood Rapture panic or read Fred Clark's discussion of the toxic consequences of these beliefs.

Talk to anyone who grew up in a Rapture-believing church or family and they will tell you stories about panic-inducing moments when they found themselves suddenly alone and feared that everyone else had been raptured while they had been rejected by God. This guy thinks that's funny, but it's actually traumatic. That's why no one forgets the horror of such moments...

And that terror is what Harold Camping and his followers are feeling now. And it is what they will be feeling again Saturday evening, after that terror and despair first abates, then metastasizes in the realization that the world has not ended and that they are not the righteous remnant they staked their identities on being.

Look back at that NYT story, and you'll see that Camping's followers have been sundered from their families and friends by the fervor of their beliefs. Their children feel a mix of pity and despair, burdened by parents who don't plan for their futures on Earth. Although their premises are absurd, many of the rapturists are trying to be as kind and compassionate as possible within their twisted theological framework. Robert Fitzpatrick has spent his life savings blanketing New York with ads in the hope of saving even one person from perdition. Come Sunday, he'll be counting his losses, but the more tragic harm is the way that false beliefs have blighted the lives and relationships of all of Campings adherents, including Camping himself.

By focusing on the absurdity of their beliefs, we've given ourselves permission to ignore the human cost of their derangement. The post-Rapture parties and merchandise hawked by atheists are in the same poor taste as the Sheen memes. Our sanity and stability is not the result of individual merit; we have no standing to delight in the dissolution of others.

May 20, 2011, 6:18 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments
Tags: A Case Study in Failed Prophecy

Since I've written recently about the rapidly approaching failure of Harold Camping's 2011 doomsday prediction, I thought it'd be amusing to take a look back at another prophetic misfire. Our case study is the website, which for obvious reasons is now defunct - but the Internet Archive has snapshots that show how the author, one Shelby Corbitt, reacted to her prediction's failure.

The Internet Archive's first capture of the site, back in August 2004, starts with a bold warning:

The rapture of the church (God's children) willl happen JULY 2007. This means Jesus Christ is going to appear in the eastern sky and call all His children up to Heaven, leaving all the sinners and unbelievers behind - this is not the end of the world - but it will be the beginning of a terrible tribulation for those left behind. DON'T GET LEFT BEHIND!

For a while there's no change, but by December 2005, the author had backtracked slightly to allow herself some wiggle room:

The rapture of the church (God's children) will happen during the SUMMER OF 2007. This could be anytime from June 21-September 21. This means Jesus Christ is going to appear in the eastern sky and call all His children up to Heaven, leaving all the sinners and unbelievers behind - this is not the end of the world - but it will be the beginning of a terrible tribulation for those left behind.

As this date drew nearer, the author also explains how she came by these beliefs: a vivid prophetic dream that she'd had years prior, which she'd written down but kept a secret until a strange coincidence.

In 2003, a woman from church said she had a word from God for me. It was for me to get the word out that God had given me. She said now was the time. She didn't really know what that word was, but I knew. I immediately thought of the vision God had given me 17 years earlier. I found the vision that I had written down, opened it up, and reread it. Everything God had shown me that was going to happen in my life had happened, and I knew she was right, that now is finally the time to release the vision. God was using this woman to be the voice I had been waiting to hear to tell me when to release the vision.

By December 2006, the author was getting more and more excited, and was disclosing specific details of her dream:

God specifically told me 2007 was the year. He showed me that me and my family were swimming in the swimming pool the day before the rapture. I interpret this to mean summertime. Therefore the prophetic message is that the rapture of the church (God's children) will happen during the SUMMER OF 2007.

The next major update is on June 29, just after the start of the predicted interval, and the site has worked itself into a fever pitch of excitement, with this headline in large type:


On August 20, that headline was still up, but it seems the author was feeling a tinge of uncertainty:

God specifically told me 2007 was the year. He showed me that me and my family were swimming in the swimming pool the day before the rapture. I interpret this to mean summertime. I live in Florida, and although we are normally able to swim through October, I am still interpreting the vision to mean literal summertime.

September 21 came and went. For several weeks there was no update, but at the beginning of November, the site offered this lengthy excuse:

God revealed to me two things about the timing of the rapture. God specifically told me 2007 was the year, because I was only going to have from 3 to 3 1/2 years to spread the message after my book was published. It was published in June 2004. Then He showed me that me and my family were swimming in the swimming pool the day before the rapture. The fact that we were swimming immediately made me think summer. I was not sure if God was showing me summerlike weather or if He was trying to tell me literal summertime. Since literal summer ended on September 21st, God obviously meant it would be summerlike weather here where I live in Florida. It is summerlike weather here the majority of the year. This year 2007 we seem to be breaking all kinds of heatwave records.... Even if it stays warm enough to swim all year, 2007 is still the year of the rapture.

The weeks ticked by and the year slipped away. Even by the last week of December, the author's faith remained unshaken:

We are down to the last few days until 2007 is over. This could be your first, last and/or ONLY warning you get from God to repent and prepare yourself for the return of Jesus Christ. God has made it possible for me to reach you and get this warning to you. You do not have time to think about this any longer. Today is your day and NOW is your time!!

The Wayback Machine's final snapshot was on January 2, 2008. The author updated the site one last time with a long, all-caps message plainly conveying her bewilderment and despair:


But in one last, defiant message before signing off, she declares that the utter failure of her prophetic vision hasn't changed her beliefs at all:


(Side note: Ms. Corbitt's magnum opus is still available on Amazon!)

As I've written before, possibly the only fatal error in religion is staking your beliefs on a definitive test. I suspect that many apocalyptic movements and other new religious ideas originate this way: a dream, hallucination or other misfire of the brain which the ignorant believe to be a divine communication. If the recipient's understanding of the "message" is seemingly corroborated by an unusual coincidence, so much the better. For atheists, it shouldn't be surprising that such things happen from time to time. Nor should it be surprising that most self-appointed prophets end up falling flat on their faces, since random brain firings, no matter how subjectively compelling, don't give any insight into the true nature of the world.

But devotees of superstition have an incredible ability to take failure in stride, and Shelby Corbitt is no exception. She's since launched a new site that's basically identical to the last, except that she no longer tries to predict a date. Of course, she still insists, "I know the rapture will happen in my lifetime." As James Randi has said, people like this are "unsinkable rubber ducks": her belief isn't driven by facts, but by a desire to believe, which makes the unbroken string of prophetic failures irrelevant.

September 22, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments

An Abundance of Amusing Apocalypticism

I don't know if it's the warm weather here in New York that's bringing out the crazies, but these past two weeks, I've encountered more than the usual number of street preachers handing out loony religious literature. Because I know you wicked, godless atheists need to hear the word of the Lord, I thought I'd share some of the best examples with you.

This first one is my favorite. Last week, I was out on my lunch break when I saw a teenager standing on the street corner handing out fliers. He looked like an average high-schooler - baseball cap, T-shirt, baggy jean shorts, and a perpetual surly scowl - but when I took one of his pamphlets and glanced at the first page, I realized he was far more of a fanatic than I'd guessed:

You may remember that I wrote about Tony Alamo and his bizarre, greedy cult in 2009. When we last checked in with Mr. Alamo, he had just been sentenced to 175 years in prison for taking underage girls across state lines for sex. But apparently, being incarcerated hasn't dampened his high spirits. His ministry is still spewing its ultra-right-wing, frankly racist screeds, mixed in with a generous helping of loony Jack Chick-esque conspiracy theories (read the last column carefully and you'll notice it claims that the Vatican is behind Muslim suicide bombers).

But as you might expect of a man in Alamo's position, it's his current living arrangements that concern him the most. That's why the majority of this pamphlet - eight single-spaced pages - is a rant about how Mr. Alamo is a holy, selfless man whose only thought is of serving the poor, how he's been viciously persecuted by the government for no good reason, and how all his accusers are hateful, wicked people on a vendetta against him. Because, of course, Christians are such an oppressed and powerless minority in the U.S.A. The irony of titling his newsletter "The Alamo Christian Nation" while simultaneously claiming that the government unjustly persecutes Christians clearly hasn't occurred to him. (The awkward subject of Alamo's teaching that God approves of polygamous marriage to preteen girls, which is what he's actually in jail for, is politely ignored.)

Do you need more proof of Tony Alamo's pure and noble spirit? Just look at how the last page of the pamphlet describes him:

So, when I was handed this flier by Alamo's surly teenage follower, I couldn't help myself; I burst into laughter. "Isn't this guy in jail?" I said.

I'm guessing this was a sore point for him. "Yeah, on false charges!" he snapped.

Still laughing, I walked away. "Look into it!" he shouted after me. "I will," I called back jauntily.

And there's your update on Tony Alamo. My next encounter was even more amusing.

I was passing through Penn Station when I saw a stout black gentleman wearing glasses and headphones, leaning against a pillar with two handfuls of pamphlets which he was offering to every passerby. I took one, and noticed that the first page was familiar - it was a pamphlet I'd already gotten and written about once before - but there were others tucked inside of it which were new to me, though they all concerned the same general theme:

This is the handiwork of Family Radio, a network of Christian radio stations run by the evangelist Harold Camping, who's slowly been getting crazier over the decades and who's best known for his certainty that the Rapture will come in May 2011 (after his previous certainty that it would come in 1994). In case you're curious how he arrived at that conclusion, I've scanned one page of the interior. I recommend not operating heavy machinery after reading this brilliant work of exegesis.

The mindset of people who believe this sort of thing genuinely intrigues me, so I stopped for a brief chat with the fellow.

"May 2011," I observed. "That's soon."

"Uh-huh," he said noncommittally, clearly not sure whether I was making fun of him.

"What happens on that day?" I asked.

"The universe will cease to exist," he explained. He said it as calmly as if it was a weather forecast. (I have to admit, I was hoping for something a little more dramatic: boiling oceans, gouts of fire, that sort of thing.)

"What happens if that date comes and you're still here?" I persisted.

"I'll be in big trouble," he said calmly.

I wanted to correspond with him, if for no other reason than to see his reaction on May 22 (and maybe to give him some gentle guidance toward atheism, if he was reconsidering his faith at that point). I asked him for his e-mail address, but he claimed he didn't have one. "This is just the way I live now," he said. I don't know whether that meant he's divested himself of worldly possessions like computers to prepare for the Rapture, or if he just spends 24 hours a day handing out literature in the subways and so doesn't have time for e-mail.

I'm still looking for a devotee of Camping who's willing to speak with me. I think it'd make for an interesting conversation. If I can find one who's willing to go on the record, I'll be sure to let you all know!

July 6, 2010, 5:37 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink12 comments

A Daylight Atheism Public Service Announcement

I have some urgent news to pass along to my readers:

If you have any vacation time accrued, you may want to use it before May 2011.

Why, you may ask? Well, because the world is ending - again:

I learned this important news from a pamphlet that a street preacher was passing out at the Veterans' Day parade the other week. (You can read the full thing if you're really interested: pages 1-8, 2-3, 4-5, 6-7.) This information was brought to you by Family Radio, the "Bible-based Christian broadcasting ministry" whose founder, Harold Camping, has been slowly but surely getting crazier as the decades pass. One of his more notable eccentricities is his belief that the "church age" has ended and that all faithful believers should therefore stop going. Needless to say, this hasn't endeared him to his fellow Christians.

Camping last predicted the end of the world in 1994, as I wrote in "Coming Soon to an Apocalypse Near You" - but hey, we all make mistakes, and this time he's really sure he's got the date right. How can he be so confident, you ask? Well, Mr. Smart-Aleck Atheist, just you try to argue with this irrefutable logic:

See? All you have to do is take the date of Noah's Flood (which really happened, and the date of which Harold Camping knows precisely, down to the day), add 7,000 years, and there you are. Just try to find a logical hole in that!

Since he seems so confident about himself the second time around, I wonder if I could interest Mr. Camping in the purchase of a Rapture Bond, or otherwise making some sort of wager on his certainty. I tried, but failed, to find contact information for him on his website, which also looks like it was designed circa 1994. If you care to look and have more success than me, please do let me know.

If Camping was just one lone kook, I wouldn't bother discussing him. But he's still the president of a large ministry on dozens of radio stations nationwide, which means he must still have thousands of followers willing to fund him, despite his 1994 failure. That's the way it usually is: to believers enraptured by prophecy mania, even repeated failures of their prophet are no discouragement. When 2011 comes and goes and nothing happens, Harold Camping, if he's still alive, will probably just pick a new date, and his true devotees will faithfully follow for as many times as this charade is repeated.

December 4, 2009, 6:46 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink27 comments

More on the Rapture

After writing "Life Goes On", I had some extra material that had been left on the cutting room floor. Since it was too good to pass up, I just had to write another post. How could I pass up the opportunity to share a belly laugh like this?

Because the tribulation will be hell on earth, there is hope that even the most stubborn of sinners will be forced to admit he or she needs a savior. In the following section, I’ve selected a group of celebrities who are known to be atheists, or who are hostile toward the Christian faith.

This article, from the reliably hilarious Rapture Ready website - which has been faithfully charting the signs of the end for almost twenty years, and has steadfastly refused to draw any conclusions from this - is titled "Future Employees of Rapture Ready" and lists some prominent nonbelievers whom the author fantasizes will become converted evangelical Christians in the days after the Rapture (which, as always, is due to happen any day now). A few examples:

Richard Dawkins - A biologist by trade, he has written several books that promote evolution and debunk the idea that there is a God. I've read Mr. Dawkins' book, "The God Delusion," and I was surprised to find him mention Rapture Ready. On page 254 of his book, he focused on a comment I made about the site, which is a perfect fit for this article. At the bottom of RR's main page is an announcement that reads, "If the rapture should take place, resulting in my absence, it will be necessary for tribulation saints to mirror or financially support this site." I don't understand why Dawkins found offense in an obligation that he believes will never come his way. Well, Dick, that obligation may soon be upon you, and I think it would be a very fitting end to have the money you earned debunking the idea of a God to someday be used to magnify His glory.

Penn Jillette & Teller - The team of Penn & Teller are most widely known as professional magicians. They also host a program on the premium cable channel Showtime that debunks pseudoscientific ideas, supernatural beliefs, popular fads and misconceptions. There will be plenty of falsehood in the days that follow the rapture, so Penn & Teller's skills would be very helpful in combating error.

I ought to write the author of this site and ask to be listed on that page. Granted, it would be a great honor to me, as I'd be among most illustrious company! Regardless, I find it greatly amusing that the author finds solace in daydreaming about famous atheists converting to Christianity - the outward sign, perhaps, of a tacit recognition that his arguments are unlikely to convince anyone without supernatural aid.

Another amusing commentary on the Rapture warns believers not to try setting dates, but seems to overlook an obvious implication of its own words:

The Word of God is clear on this subject of Date-setting. To set dates on the return of Christ is to err.

Does that mean Jesus will not return on any date when he is expected to return? Ironically, the perpetual date-setting by Christian believers may be what's keeping him from coming back!

And lastly, another excerpt from Rapture Ready, this time from their feedback. I'm surprised they chose to post this, without even a response, but it gives important insight into how the ceaseless frenzy of end-times anticipation does real harm to human beings:

I grew up in a rapture believing church. I was a premillenial dispensationalist for many years. I was sincere in this belief and found your site during that time of my life.

To make a rather long story much shorter, it was very spiritually damaging for me. I was so caught up in thinking the world was ending tomorrow or in the next moment that I was in a constant state of fear. The here and now became pointless. Would my unsaved loved ones make it in time? Was this or that particular political figure the next anti-Christ? Which poor deluded souls deceived by Satan would find themselves part of a group that thought they were Christian but were really part of the 'one world religion of the beast'? It was an awful and extraordinarily stressful way to live.

It's a tragedy that so many millions still lead lives full of stress and fear brought on by their belief in an imminent end. Contrary to the often-heard claim that religion brings peace and comfort, many variants of religion are intended to inspire terror and paranoia in their followers, the better to secure their unquestioning allegiance against the external world.

April 22, 2009, 9:07 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink26 comments

Life Goes On

"If the Devil's Time were above a thousand years ago, pronounced short, what may we suppose it now in our Time? Surely we are not a thousand years distant from those happy thousand years of rest and peace and (which is better) Holiness reserved for the People of God in the latter days; and if we are not a thousand years yet short of that Golden Age, there is cause to think, that we are not an hundred."

—Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World, 1692

In every era since the beginning of recorded history, prophets and mystics have predicted the imminent end of the world, some with dread and foreboding, others with glee. The desperate and downtrodden bereft of earthly hope have prayed for God to come and give them succor, reigning with justice and creating a paradise free from suffering and want. Others, acting from baser motives, viewed the world as hopelessly evil and sinful and longed for the apocalypse so that they, the righteous, would be exalted and their enemies would be delivered to the flames of damnation. Often, these motives could be found in combination.

But whether hopeful or vengeful, all the seers and prophets of the apocalypse have had this in common: they were all wrong. Their prophecies failed; their deadlines came and went and the world did not end; and life went on, just as it always has.

One would think that this lengthy and unbroken record of failure exhibited by past prophets of doom would give the believing masses pause, and perhaps a measure of skepticism, when it comes to the latest apocalyptic excitements. But if you thought that, you would be underestimating humanity's near-limitless capacity for self-delusion. Those who are dedicated followers of prophecy have always been able to find some conjunction of world events which they believe heralds the end. Their scenarios have identified a bewildering variety of historical figures and events as antichrists, messiahs, final battles, false prophets, omens, portents, and signs from heaven. In Robert Price's The Paperback Apocalypse, there is a cross-section:

The current crisis is always identified as a sign of the end, whether it was the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Palestine War, the Suez Crisis, the June War, or the Yom Kippur War. The revival of the Roman Empire has been identified variously as Mussolini's empire, the League of Nations, the United Nations, the European Defense Community, the Common Market and NATO. Speculation on the Antichrist has included Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, and Henry Kissinger. The northern confederation was supposedly formed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Rapallo Treaty, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and then the Soviet Bloc. The "kings of the east" have been variously the Turks, the lost tribes of Israel, Japan, India, and China. [p.153]

In fact, the only thing that remains constant about all these end-times frenzies is how many people eagerly flock to the next one, and how many preachers recycle the same warnings without a hint of awareness that this is what they are doing. Just as Cotton Mather predicted the imminent end of the world in 1692, Christians are still doing it today, and this passage is a perfect example:

But if there are no signs for the Rapture itself, what are the legitimate grounds for believing that the Rapture could be especially near of this generation? The answer is not found in any prophetic events predicted before the Rapture but in understanding the events that will follow the Rapture. Just as history was prepared for Christ's first coming, in a similar way history is preparing for the events leading up to His Second Coming.... If this is the case, it leads to the inevitable conclusion that the Rapture may be excitingly near.

Ironically, although this text is approvingly quoted in a 2009 essay by Thomas Ice, it was originally written in 1973 by John Walvoord, in Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis. That book was then revised and reissued in 1991 (why on earth would a prophetic book need to be revised?). And as Rapture Ready's biography of Walvoord says, without a glimmer of self-awareness:

I am sure that, were Walvoord still alive, he would be ready to revise once again!

Indeed, Walvoord, who is now deceased, churned out books on the Rapture throughout the twentieth century. Again from Rapture Ready, here's a partial bibliography - see if you can spot the increasing desperation of the titles:

The Return of the Lord (1955)
The Rapture Question (1957, 1979)
Israel in Prophecy (1962)
The Church in Prophecy (1964)
The Nations in Prophecy (1967)
Daniel, the Key to Prophetic Revelation (1971)
The Holy Spirit at Work Today (1973)
The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (1976)
The Millennial Kingdom (1983)
The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook (1990 — retitled in 1999 as Every Prophecy of the Bible)
Major Bible Prophecies: 37 Crucial Prophecies That Affect You Today (1991)
The Final Drama: 14 Keys to Understanding the Prophetic Scriptures (1993, 1997)
End Times: An Explanation of World Events in Biblical Prophecy (1998)

And just when you think he'd finally given up, the cycle starts all over again with:

Prophecy in the New Millennium: A Fresh Look at Future Events (2001)

In the end, Walvoord had the same destiny as Cotton Mather and all other apocalyptic prophets: he died of natural causes, his predictions went unfulfilled, and life went on. This is as it has always been, and always will be - and life on Earth will continue its complex, winding, glorious course, untroubled by the fulminatings of apocalyptic prophets. They may preach however they will; the sun will rise the next day, regardless. And when their words have faded to silence and their bodies to dust, our planet will continue, revolving on its grand and stately path through space. Disasters will happen, and trouble will be with us again, but we will survive and life will endure.

In fact, I recommend it as an experiment. Search the internet for a near-future date when the world is predicted to end. (You'll have no trouble finding one.) Then, on the morning of that date, step out of your front door and take a look around. You'll find that the earth did not rise in upheaval, the seas did not turn to blood, and the sky did not turn dark as sackcloth. Instead, you'll see golden sunrises, trees putting forth new leaves, waves crashing gently on the shore, and soft rains quenching the land. Life will go on, just as it always has and always will. Think on this, and reflect, the next time your serenity is disturbed by another in the never-ending parade of heralds of imaginary doom.

April 1, 2009, 6:41 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink50 comments

Older Posts >

Now available from Big Think!


MUST-READ POSTS (view all)


SITE CATEGORIES (explanation)




see all >













SSA Speaker Page
Find Me on Facebook Find Me on Atheist Nexus
Kiva - loans that change lives
Foundation Beyond Belief
The Out Campaign
Winner of the 2009 3 Quarks Daily Science Writing Prize