Posts Tagged ‘ Christianity ’

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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Miracles: What Do We Mean?


Have you ever described an event as miraculous? Perhaps it was a near-miss accident, recovery from an illness or some other fortuitous moment in your life. Did you stop to consider what you meant by that description or did or roll off your tongue like so many other cultural conventions, without a second thought?

One of the reasons I write this blog1 is to allow people the opportunity to examine the world and themselves in more detail and more reflectively than they might ordinarily be inclined to do. In this I have largely attempted to do so using science directly, by showing research that reveals facts about ourselves and the world around us that are not necessarily intuitively obvious (such as biases in our reasoning).

I thought I would deviate from the strictly scientific today to discuss miracles, especially the depiction of miracles in the media and what is really meant when we resort to the designation of “miracle” in describing events.

Recently I have started reading popular philosophy books, trying to be a well rounded person or something, or possibly just so I sound intelligent at parties2. I may delve a little bit into philosophy here but hopefully can keep it light enough that you won’t even notice.

One of the books on my reading list brought up the concept of miracles and attempted to outline the different definitions that are attached to this word3. This sparked in me a thought about how the word is used by those around me, in the general population these multiple versions of the meaning get seem to get merged into an amorphous description that verges on meaninglessness.

Many of the definitions of the word that I could find invoked some sort of supernatural component, in particular the assertion that such an event contravenes the laws of nature. By this criteria I have never witnessed, nor seen credible reports of a single miracle, yet I hear the word used all the time4. How can we reconcile how the word is defined and how it is used?

Let us note one instance of the (over)use of this word, last year when an aeroplane crash landed in the Hudson river after hitting a flock of birds soon after take off the event was labelled a miracle. Currently no fewer than ten news stories with the word “miracle” in the title are listed in the Wikipedia article about this event and I suspect there are many more not mentioned. This seems to be the type of event that attracts exclamations of “Miracle” yet if we delve into the details there is no point at which we can reliably determine that the laws of nature have been suspended or otherwise altered to allow the final outcome.

If we are committed to the definition that for a miracle to have occurred the laws of nature must be violated then this event does not qualify.

Of the multiple meanings that I mentioned above it would appear the most frequently used makes the word “miracle” synonymous with “unlikely coincidence”. This though is insufficient to describe what most people would consider to be miracles as it ignores whether or not an event has any beneficial consequences, so lets add that requirement into our ad hoc definition.

The trouble with this definition is that it leaves us unable to determine what we might term “True Miracles” from merely random (beneficial) occurrences. Especially in as much as, like the Hudson river crash above, said miracles have no religious significance5. This pre-supposes however that we would wish to make such a distinction, if (as I suspect) our use of the word actually no-longer assumes the intervention of supernatural forces then our definition of “True Miracles” becomes superfluous, no different than what we might consider a regular miracle.

In this case the word simply becomes short hand for an amazing6 coincidence that is of benefit to a person or persons7. It would then seem that our definition of miracle actually stems from our own inability to sufficiently appreciate how probability acts in our lives. How many of us are in a position to calculate how probable any particular event is? Our normal day-to-day experience is a poor guide regarding this but if we cannot perform the calculation then by what basis do we conclude that an event is likely or unlikely?

I will readily admit that musings like this are have little practical significance but I think are still worth considering in order to develop for ourselves a more consistent and precise outlook. I hope that there are others beside myself that also see value in this.

footnotes

1. In general not this particular entry.

2. Who am I kidding? I don’t go to parties.

3. The definitions were broken down into 4: a) Violation miracles where the laws of nature are violated; b) Willed miracles where miracles occur via an act of a supreme being’s will; c) Inexplicable miracles where the event is unexplainable via the laws of nature though does not necessarily violate them; and finally d) Coincidence miracles, as discussed in this article.
See Nicholas Everitt’s “The Non-Existence of God” p112-ish.

4. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but certainly more often than my experience tells me it should be used.

5. Try putting the word “miracle” into google news and see how many look explicitly religious.

6. Or not so amazing, depending on your point of view.

7. Miracle is definitely easier to say, though it does leave us open to misinterpretation by those who apply a more strict definition of the word than we do.

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