It’s the End of the World as we Know it and I Feel Fine

By now you will have probably heard that this Saturday (21-May-2011 for future historians) is the beginning of the end, the Rapture. Don’t panic*, please conduct yourselves in an orderly manner at the appointed time. I recommend congregating in open spaces with no overhead power lines or air traffic. Safety first[1].

Ok that’s enough fun. I have seen a number of stories[2] regarding this alleged event and while many make note of the fact that the main promoter of this year’s doomsday has been wrong before I have not yet seen anyone attempt to put this latest foretelling in historical context. By one estimate there have been at least 275 end of the world predictions in the last two thousand years. 116 of those were predicted for the years 2000 to 2010[3].

That’s a whole lot of wrongness right there. Those guys couldn’t have been more wrong if their name was W. Wrongy Wrongenstein.

One of the more remembered failed apocalypses was the one predicted by William Miller for 1843. Offshoots of this group became the Seventh-day Adventist Church once the predicted day came and went without incident.

While that is a memorable one in “recent” times, end of the world predictions go back to the first century. The writings attributed to Paul the Apostle, if read literally, imply that the end of the world would occur sometime in the first century[4]. At least within the writer’s lifetime. As this obviously didn’t happen room was left for subsequent predictive hopefuls to insert their own dates for the apocalypse.

Here is a (small) sampling:

  • Pope Clement I predicts the world could end at any time ~90CE
  • Sextus Julius Africanus predicts Armageddon for 500CE
  • John of Toledo Predicts the end of the world in 1186CE
  • Pope Innocent III thinks the last date is 1284CE
  • Gerard of Poehlde predicts the end of the world date to be 1306CE
  • Melchior Hoffman thinks the real date is 1533CE
  • Benjamin Keach put’s his money on 1689
  • Charles Wesley (one of the founders of Methodism) goes for 1794CE as the date.
  • The Jehovah’s Witnesses First predicted 1914 as the date to remember[5].
  • Pat Robertson predicted 1982. This and other failed predictions do not seem to have dimmed his popularity in some circles.
  • Peter Ruckman (an Independent Baptist Pastor) calculated the date to be around 1990-ish. Other than that he is a completely reliable source.
  • The year 2000 alone had about 32 predictions of the “End Times” to contend with[6]. We’re lucky to have made it out of that year alive. Or not.

Most disturbing is the number of Americans who believe that we are actually are living in the end times. This specific prediction is laughed off as being naive or false teachings but the concept itself is embraced. Harold Camping may be ridiculed but the only thing that is fringe about his beliefs is that he dares put a date on them. Now that’s scary stuff right there. Think about that and try not to have your opinion of humanity lowered just a little.

Quite frankly, when I decided a few of weeks ago to post about this near the date predicted I had no idea that this would be taken up by the media to such an extent. Just goes to show; any crazy thing can be news worthy – given a low enough threshold of “news”.

Still, some good may come of all this hysteria. If we take the opportunity. If some research psychologists out there are willing to exploit the disappointment that is bound to strike the adherents of this belief we may gain some insight into the workings of the human mind. While it may seem like there is no overlap between you and those that hold the Earth to be ending soon the mechanisms that they use to deal with the eventual disillusionment are the same that help you function in everyday life.

The extreme case may illuminate the more mundane.

Everyday we must reconcile the actions we take with the self image we have created. Sometimes this is easy, I’m a good person so I help out my co-workers when they are having trouble. Sometimes we run into difficulty; I’m honest but I also lied to my mother about being busy so I didn’t have to attend that awkward family thing. Discrepancies like this can cause us discomfort – this is referred to as Cognitive Dissonance[7]. In this case we come up with personal stories that explain to ourselves why we acted in  a manor inconsistent with our self image.

Those who wake up May 22nd to the realization that they are still here will have to do some fancy mental footwork to fit their belief in a failed prediction into the image of themselves as intelligent, rational people. Rich fodder for investigation into the human psyche.

Now I’ve had a bit of fun at the expense of this belief but I want to point out that these people are not objects for our amusement. In some cases on May 22nd there are going to be individuals who realize that their lives are ruined. No jobs, no money and families to support. Those who propagate damaging ideologies such as this have some responsibility towards those whose lives they destroy.

By some estimates[8] Harold Camping’s media empire is in control of millions of dollars worth of assets. How much of this will nice old Mr Camping be willing to part with in order to help those who have lost everything because they trusted him?

The depressing part is that the inevitable failure of this prophecy will have absolutely no impact on those who fancy themselves end of the world prognosticators. People will continue to generate beliefs based on untestable propositions. Those people will continue to influence others to their detriment. Post non-rapture the world will go on and with regard to con-men and scam artists (sincere and otherwise alike) it will be SSDD.

————————————————–

Footnotes:

*Sorry Douglass.

1. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+thessalonians%204-4&version=KJV
Verse 17

2. Like here or here or here.

3. http://www.religioustolerance.org/end_wrld.htm 
about half way down. This is likely to be a low estimate.

4. http://www.religioustolerance.org/end_wrl16.htm

5. The Witnesses have turned end of the world predictions into something of a cottage industry having at least 9 different dates for the last days.

http://www.religioustolerance.org/witness8.htm

6. http://www.religioustolerance.org/end_wrl10.htm

7. I cannot recommend Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts” Highly enough for a look at our inner justifications.

8. http://www.ministrywatch.com/profile/family-stations.aspx

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  1. May 25th, 2011
  2. March 29th, 2012

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