Coming Soon to an Apocalypse Near You

Any informed observer of religious folly knows that setting dates for the apocalypse ranks among the major pastimes of fundamentalists and fanatics the world over. (The next most-popular pastime is explaining why those dates failed to pan out.) In fact, throughout human history, the years in which the end of the world has not been predicted to occur are probably far outnumbered by the ones in which it has. But what's most astonishing is the way these prophecies, after they have failed, are often taken up and recycled by the next generation of apocalyptic believers without a trace of shame, usually with little beside the date changed.

For example, take the Left Behind series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Despite the authors' claims that theirs is the "first fictional portrayal of events that are true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy", the truth is that the idea of novelizing the Rapture has been done not just once, but multiple times before. As Catholic critic Carl Olson points out, Salem Kirban's 1973 novel 666 - published by Tyndale House, LaHaye and Jenkins' publisher - has the same plot, right down to many small details, including the opening, where a main character who is a nonbelieving reporter witnesses the Rapture while on an airplane flight.

And before Kirban, Sydney Watson also fictionalized the Rapture in a trilogy - the last novel of which, In the Twinkling of an Eye, was published in 1916. Again, as Slacktivist points out, this series too employed several tropes and stock characters that would later show up in Left Behind.

Still more works of Christian apocalyptic literature - some intended as works of fiction, others not - flourished in the 20th century. Herbert Armstrong's 1975 in Prophecy! forecast the end of the world in the titular year, due to a nuclear world war waged by a Europe united under the Nazi banner. More famous still was Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, a blockbuster 1970 book which argued that the end was imminent. A slightly revised sequel, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, was published thereafter and boldly proclaimed, "The decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it."

Lindsey was not the only one swept up by prophecy mania in the 1980s. A previously obscure Bible student named Edgar Whisenant rose to prominence in that decade after publishing a book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 - specifically, on Rosh Hashanah of that year. Whisenant was taken so seriously by Paul and Jan Crouch, founders of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, that they altered their programming on that date to show prerecorded tapes giving advice to those who had been left behind. Shockingly, despite Whisenant's many reasons, the Rapture somehow failed to occur on schedule.

The 1990s, too, saw their false prophets - such as radio evangelist Harold Camping's book 1994?, which opened thusly: "No book ever written is as audacious or bold as one that claims to predict the timing of the end of the world, and that is precisely what this book presumes to do" (source). (For reference, Camping's Family Stations radio network broadcasts worldwide, with more than 150 outlets in the U.S. alone.) Undaunted, Camping has since published a sequel, Time Has An End, which forecasts the end of the world in 2011.

Christian fundamentalists are not the only ones who've made a career out of erroneously predicting the apocalypse. New Agers have also gotten in on the act, via beliefs like the "Photon Belt":

Nevertheless it appears that for mankind on this planet the photon belt encounter will be essentially a spiritual experience--but this really depends on man. If we are sufficiently evolved at the time, great advancements will occur in our consciousness as we attune to the high-frequency photon rays. If we are negative, that is, possess too many lower vibrations, the result of selfish actions, we are not expected to survive the radiation. In other words, there will be a natural spiritual selection.

How photons, which according to the laws of physics are constantly in motion at 186,000 miles per second, are supposed to sit in place to form a "belt" is not explained - but no matter. When are we going to encounter this marvelous celestial phenomenon?

Scientists around the globe in 1992 predicted that the encounter would occur within months to a year; with significant disagreements.

Not to worry, however - the date of Earth's encounter with the "photon belt" has been revised to 2012. Like every other false prophet, these ones rarely experience anything more than a temporary setback as a result of their errors. Though some believers become disillusioned, many more who've invested their entire lives in the cult and are unwilling to walk away will eagerly accept whatever flimsy rationalization the founder offers to excuse their failure.

All these false prophets made the same mistake, the only truly fatal mistake in religion: they made a claim sufficiently specific that it could be conclusively disproved by evidence. LaHaye and Jenkins seem to have learned from their predecessors in this regard, refusing to commit to any specific date or time frame, despite their repeated coy hints that the Rapture will be soon, probably within their lifetimes. (Fred Clark of Slacktivist suggests looking at their estate planning to see if they really believe that themselves.) But in either case, they are deluding themselves. Once several more decades have passed and the Rapture still has not happened, today's Left Behind books will look as silly as the earlier Rapture novels, whose authors likewise foolishly believed they were living just before the end.

August 9, 2007, 7:25 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink20 comments

A Religion Not Made for Success

Were I inclined to believe in them, I would say that the New Testament gospels were a set of maddeningly strange and frustrating documents. Although they contain some beautiful ideas, they always stop just short of bringing them to their logical conclusions. They contain moving admonitions of universal love, but never go so far as to extend that compassion to women or the enslaved. Although Jesus is said to have had pity on the sick and the infirm who came to him and cured them of their ailments, he never did anything to help the millions more who were too sick or too distant even to seek him out, although if he was truly omnipotent that would have been within his power. Though they repeatedly promise that the kingdom of God is just around the corner, that promise remains unfulfilled to this day.

In these ways and others, one could say that Christianity is a religion not made for success. It began as a small, fringe apocalyptic sect, and its originators apparently expected it would always remain so. To judge by what they wrote, the authors of the gospels expected Christianity to persist in its original state - its members penniless vagrant proselytizers, traveling from town to town to preach, sleeping on the ground and subsisting on alms - until Jesus' return and the end of the world, which the first generation of Christians clearly expected to happen within their own lifetimes.

As proof of this, consider that the gospels lack the sort of rules concerning organization and hierarchy that are ultimately needed for a church to survive in the long term. Other than a few vague references, Jesus never gives advice on how to ordain priests and bishops, how to establish a church hierarchy, or how to select new apostles. He never even defines a formal creed!

This lack of formalization has caused the fragmentation of Christianity into so many different sects and denominations, a degree of variation virtually unparalleled in any other major world religion. For example, Judaism is mainly divided into Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, while Islam is mainly divided into Sunni and Shiite. Christianity, by contrast, has literally dozens of major denominations, often separated by fierce and even violent disputes over the most trifling points of doctrine, such as whether the bread and wine used in communion "literally" (but not literally) become the body and blood of Jesus, or whether they only do so figuratively; or whether children should be baptized or only adults, and whether it is necessary to enter Heaven in any case. Given the grab-bag nature of the gospels, and the highly ambiguous and cryptic nature of many of their teachings, it is hardly surprising that such a diversity of interpretation has arisen.

Furthermore, much of the advice given in the gospels clearly assumes that Christianity will always consist of rootless bands of evangelists, such as Jesus' teachings that one must sell everything one owns and forsake one's family to be a Christian, or that people who follow him will always be rejected and reviled. Such teachings make perfect sense in the context of the outcast cult which Christianity started off as. Nowadays, of course, it is largely composed of the very kind of wealthy, settled, comfortable people that Jesus preached against, which is why these teachings are widely ignored by today's Christians. Some Christians even flatly contradict them, such as the teachers of the "prosperity gospel" who claim that that God wants all his followers to be rich. One need only consider the vast wealth and tremendous luxury enjoyed by Christian leaders, such as the pope or the powerful preachers of the Protestant right, to see how far the religion has diverged from its original teachings.

Finally, take Jesus' teachings that the end is imminent. These perpetually unfulfilled promises have led to the bizarre phenomenon of feverish apocalyptic speculation that has consumed every single generation of Christians, died away as that generation grew old and gray, and then was taken up just as eagerly by the next generation. Where other religions are more sensitive to history and continuity, the urgent and immediate nature of the gospels' end-time claims have made many Christian sects all but deaf to it.

In all these ways, Christianity has "stretched its boundaries" as it tries to build a large, mainstream religion on the precepts of a small, isolated cult. Its original infrastructure was not designed for future growth and success. Although later New Testament documents, such as the Pastoral epistles, attempt to provide some framework for this, for the most part Christianity did not become formalized in this way until long after the canon was closed. Much of its formal ideas are little more than the interpretations, and in some cases the outright inventions, of church figures who for the most part were making it up as they went along.

If this religion had been founded by an all-knowing god, it is more likely than not that he would have been aware of its future growth potential and set up its institutions accordingly. The ad hoc and arbitrary nature of the way Christianity has grown, however, points instead to the conclusion that it was invented by human beings who, regardless of their theological creativity, could not foresee the future.

January 23, 2007, 11:14 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments

The World Is Ending, Send Money

2006 has come and gone, and a new year is upon us. I don't know about you, readers, but I feel a mood of unaccountable optimism. There seems to be a feeling of renewal in the air, one not solely accounted for by the unseasonably warm and pleasant weather in the northeastern United States, where I live. Despite all the evils and suffering still occurring in the world, which I don't seek to deny or downplay, it seems to me as if we've been granted another chance to get things right: as if the new year is a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which we have the power to write whatever we like.

As does every year, 2007 brings with it a whole slew of things new and yet old. One of these things is a whole new crop of apocalyptic predictions, which pop up each year with the predictability of spring crocuses.

For example, Yahoo News recently reported on a decidedly pessimistic Associated Press poll which found that a substantial majority of Americans expect a major natural disaster or terrorist attack to take place this year. However, I also noticed the following bizarre statistic:

• 25 percent anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Let's be clear about this and get our terms straight: 25% of Americans expect that sometime in 2007, the world will be destroyed. That is what the second coming of Jesus Christ implies in Christian theology: global disaster and catastrophe, the deaths of hundreds of millions, war and plague consuming humanity, and a day in which "the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10). A large number of believers are looking forward to this event and believe it is a good and desirable thing.

It is depressing how many people still believe this will happen during their own lifetimes, considering how many previous generations have also lived and died expecting it and turned out to be absolutely and completely wrong. But the lack of actual evidence for a coming apocalypse does not make these views any less dangerous. As Sam Harris wrote, the fact that a significant percentage of society expects this event soon should be considered a full-scale emergency. All it would take would be one apocalypse-believer in a sufficiently high position to decide that it is their sacred duty to start this world-destroying war in order to hurry Christ's return along. (I realize this is a departure from my stated mood of optimism, but I think it's important not to leave myself open to accusations that I'm ignoring the full measure of the dangers we must face.)

Then again, the lay believers in an apocalypse are in good company. As reported by Americans United, Pat Robertson has joined in the fun, predicting "mass killings" to occur on American soil due to a terrorist attack sometime this year. (Robertson said he expected this to come in the form of a nuclear attack, but emphasized that this was only his educated guess - as opposed to the rest of this prophecy, which was clearly straight from God's mouth and not at all just made up.) The AU blog gives several examples of Robertson's past conspicuous prophetic failures, such as that World War III would occur in the 1980s, that the November midterm elections would leave the Republicans in charge, or that the American coast would be ravaged by more hurricanes in 2006 (Robertson must have thought this one a particularly safe guess). Of course, as with all psychic pretenders, Robertson's devoted followers will very likely oblige him by forgetting his past failures, and continuing to gasp in amazement at every new wild guess he puts forth.

Finally, as testimony to the efficacy of prophets: Regular readers of Daylight Atheism may recall a post from July of last year titled "Watch This Space", in which I mocked a Bible-code site that had, by that point, erroneously predicted the nuclear destruction of the United Nations five separate times. I recently checked back in with that site, on a whim, and realized that their delusions go far deeper than I had guessed: they are still at it. For the better part of a year now, they have been setting dates for the destruction of the UN every two or three weeks, and every time their prophecy fails, they simply set a new date and start over again. Their latest prediction forecasts the destruction of the UN between January 16 and 17, and not to be outdone, adds this coda:

Announcing the Good News that the Kingdom of God begins in 2008

This will mean an end to the injustice, the corruption, the abuse, the lawlessness, the murder, theft, rape, infidelity, genocide, the institutional dishonesty, the self interest, the win lose dynamic of this system. It will mean a start to truly transparent government, true peace and security, incredible creative and technological prosperity, and genuine love between all humans and our angelic brothers and sisters in an environment of righteousness, which is the soil in which love grows best.

However, the people behind this site may not be entirely incapable of learning from experience, as they also say this:

If nothing happens by the end of Tebbeth i.e. by January 23/24, 2007, then we again really really do run out of options in our present understanding.

It remains to be seen whether they will give up when nothing happens by this date, although I suspect that the key is the phrase "in our present understanding". At the appropriate time, this will probably be a convenient excuse for them to adopt a whole new erroneous understanding and resume their date-setting exercises in futility.

January 9, 2007, 7:33 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink24 comments

Watch This Space

Offered for my readers' amusement, I recently came across the following humbly named site: The True Bible Code. As with all devotees of the Bible code, this site works by randomly stringing together letters from randomly chosen chapters of the Bible until they manage to come up with one pattern that spells something and that seems applicable to future events.

Their latest startling prediction runs as follows:

The UN in Midtown Manhattan will be hit by a sea borne nuclear bomb sometime in the Biblical month of Tammuz, i.e. before Sundown July 28th, 2006. We expect this to happen on 2006Tammuz28/29 i.e. between Sundown Tuesday July 25th and Sundown Thursday July 27th, 2006.

I say "latest" for a good reason: namely, because the authors of this site have already erroneously predicted the nuclear annihilation of the United Nations four different times during this year alone. Needless to say, none of those predictions came to pass. However, unusually for devotees of this type, the authors of this site forthrightly admit their previous errors rather than taking the usual approach of failed prognosticators everywhere, which is to attempt to erase their mistakes from history and deny that they were ever made. In my book, this gets them high marks for honesty. Now the only step remaining is for them to acknowledge that the Bible code is a bunch of pseudoscientific nonsense and an utter failure when it comes to predicting any future event. Perhaps they will recognize this when their newest prophecy of doom fails to come to pass, although I cannot say I am optimistic. After all, the Bible clearly predicted the apocalypse in the first century CE, and believers have been busily making excuses for it ever since, without betraying the slightest apparent awareness of their scripture's abject failure.

Then again, perhaps I speak too soon. By this time, two of the days in their self-granted three-day window have elapsed, and the United Nations remains conspicuously undestroyed. There are still twenty-four hours left, give or take. Will the Bible code finally, shockingly, be vindicated in a most dramatic fashion? Or will the skeptics be proven correct yet again when we say that no one can divine the future? This post will be updated with the answer at midnight on July 27, Eastern Standard Time. Watch this space!

UPDATE: July 27 has come and gone, and the United Nations remains steadfastly undestroyed, by atomic bombs or otherwise. Was there ever any doubt?

* * *

On another note, I recently came across an irritating review, in the New York Times, of several recent books discussing the connection (or lack thereof) between evolutionary biology and Christian faith. The author, Cornelia Dean, condescends to inform us that the writings of atheist scientists and philosophers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are "unsatisfying", and that by arguing for atheism, they are driving people away from science and towards creationism.

P.Z. Myers has already torn this nonsense to shreds in his usual inimitable take-no-prisoners fashion, but I would like to offer one more remark:

In any event... in simultaneously defending evolution and insisting upon atheism, Dr. Dawkins probably "single-handedly makes more converts to intelligent design than any of the leading intelligent design theorists."

Ah yes - that must be it! The masses of people who believe in creationism could not possibly be because of the massive, multimillion-dollar propaganda efforts organized by Christian megachurches and creationist think tanks such as the Discovery Institute; it could not be because creationists are every day working their hardest at spreading patent falsehoods about what evolution is and what it implies; it could not be because a huge industry of Christian TV channels, Christian books, Christian magazines, and Christian politicians are pumping lies about evolution straight into the heads of their followers; it could not even be because a mostly religious public is accustomed to unquestioningly believing whatever nonsense their pastors tell them and unaccustomed to viewing the world in the light of scientific reason. No, it's got to be because those dreaded, curmudgeonly atheists like Richard Dawkins have the unmitigated gall to put forward their own view of the world and argue for it! (I guarantee Ms. Dean that the percentage of the creationist public that even knows who Richard Dawkins is is in single digits. People who reject evolution know very little about science in general, as a rule.)

I do not think the general public is such a group of shrinking violets that we atheists must stay silent lest we drive people away via our extremist, unhinged rhetoric. That sort of self-defeating belief can only arise from unconsciously absorbing the rhetoric of the enemy. Follow that logic through and soon we'll be hearing that scientists must not defend science at all lest they persuade more people to forsake it for religion. No, Ms. Dean, I will continue to speak out in defense of atheism, thank you very much, and I hope people like Dawkins, Dennett and Myers continue to do so as well. It is the correct position, and I am not in the least apologetic about defending it.

July 26, 2006, 6:22 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink12 comments

The Apocalypse Cheerleaders

As many others have observed, the right wing in modern American politics subsists in a near-perpetual state of frothing rage. This situation serves the purpose of leaders of the religious right, since after all, angry people are more easily led and less likely to think coherently; and to encourage it to continue, they whip their followers into a frenzy with inflammatory accusations and keep their rage alive through the constant creation of new scapegoats. This pattern has recently repeated, and their target du jour is the University of Texas ecologist Eric Pianka.

Briefly, Dr. Pianka gave a talk last week in which he stated his belief that the human population, by exploiting the planet's now dwindling natural resources, has exceeded sustainable levels, and that we are headed for a catastrophic Malthusian crash in which a vast number of people will die. One of the hypothetical scenarios he described by which this might happen is the evolution of the lethal Ebola virus into an airborne form, giving rise to a global pandemic.

This talk was attended by a creationist named Forrest Mims. Somehow, Mims decided that Dr. Pianka was actually advocating mass genocide by deliberate bioengineering of Ebola (which could not be farther from the truth, as transcripts of the talk and subsequent interviews have made clear). Mims then spread this misleading summary to other creationists, from which point it spread into the right-wing community in general. Although the slightest modicum of fact-checking would have made it obvious that Mims' accusations were completely false, this modicum was, as usual, not performed, and the predictable torrent of rage and invective followed in utter ignorance of Pianka's actual beliefs. Nick Matzke of The Panda's Thumb has compiled a list of examples, most notably Texas' governor and friend to theocrats Rick Perry, who compared Pianka to the Nazis.

This utter disregard for the facts is standard operating procedure of right-wing ideologues. But what is notable about this story is the rank hypocrisy that accompanies it. In one staggering example, Mims - the man who accused Dr. Eric Pianka of advocating a bioengineered holocaust - is now claiming that his reputation is being defamed by scientists who were at the talk and are accusing him of misrepresenting its content, and is threatening them with blustery legal letters.

But the hypocrisy displayed by Mims is not even the depths of it. Many of the right-wingers who denounced Pianka either believe, or are prominently associated with others who believe, in the doctrine of the Rapture - in which true Christians will be miraculously snatched off the planet, while those left behind will be stricken with a variety of apocalyptic disasters that, according to the Bible, will result in the deaths of millions of people and the damnation of millions more. This is a view far more evil, far more loathsome, and far more deserving of condemnation than anything that Pianka has ever said, but right-wing voices raised against it are all but absent. Where are the condemnations of this view from those who denounced Pianka? Why do they attack him so viciously, why do they label him an apologist for genocide, a terrorist, a Nazi, while simultaneously utterly ignoring the religious zealots who hold a far more radical version of the view they criticized him for presumptively holding? (For one thing, Pianka does not expect to escape the crash he predicted, while Rapture-believers fully expect to be sitting on a cloud when the time comes and chortling at the misfortune of the unsaved down below.)

To name one example, creationist William Dembski, who played a major role in initiating this fracas, bragged about how he had reported Pianka to the Department of Homeland Security. Where is Dembski's patriotic concern when it comes to the religious right fanatics who look forward to the destruction of America in the nuclear war that they believe will follow the Rapture? How many of these people has he reported to the authorities?

Or take Rick Perry, whose office openly accused Pianka of solidarity with the Third Reich. Perry's press secretary castigated Pianka for his "gleeful embracing of the destruction of 90 percent of the earth's population". Meanwhile, Perry himself has appeared at campaign rallies side-by-side with Rod Parsley, a virulently anti-gay religious right pastor who also believes in an imminent Rapture - which is a gleeful embrace of the destruction of the Earth's entire population. Before complaining about the motes in others' eyes, Governor Perry has several very large beams to pull out of his own.

Other examples could be listed, but the point is made. Those religious right figures who criticize Pianka, but have never criticized fundamentalists who cheer the destruction of the world, are engaging in hypocrisy of the highest order. When they attack Rapture believers with the same vehemence with which they attacked Pianka, they will have a legitimate claim to at least being intellectually consistent. Until then, the glaring inconsistency in the targets of their denunciation shows that their anger is not sincere, but politically motivated, intended to harass and demonize those with whom they disagree and chill the speech of messages they dislike.

April 8, 2006, 6:31 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink11 comments

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