It seems almost inappropriate for an (occasional) atheist blogger not to write about the recent buzz surrounding the May 21st Rapture. After all, it’s not every day that the world is allegedly supposed to end. For must people, anyway.
As you’ve likely noticed, it’s not May 21st anymore, and the Rapture didn’t occur. Whoops. Big mistake on the part of Harold Camping and any others who helped him in crafting his apocalyptic prediction. Not that he or most of his devoted followers see it that way, of course. The Internet is humming with pieces about Camping and the Rapture: why he was wrong, what his followers are doing now, and, most prominently, slightly tongue-in-cheek posts and article starting with some variation on “Anyone still out there?”
I won’t be doing any of that. I’ve only a small bit to say on the topic, and then I’ll disappear into the nether once again.
One of the most fascinating parts of all of this for me is the media frenzy. People predict the end of the world all the time, but rarely does the mainstream news take the story and run with it. Perhaps this is the child of 24-hour newsfeeds and a viral-hungry populace looking for the next YouTube hit. Perhaps Harold Camping has enough of a flock built up that he warrants the spotlight. Which brings me to my next point: said spotlight was busy shining on the Rapture this past weekend, instead of other issues it might be focusing on: tornadoes in the Midwest, the conflict in Libya, volcanoes in Iceland, or even the murder trial of Casey Anthony or the continuing scandal surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
These are important things. These are things that are actually happening, to actual people. It’s a bit odd, really, that an event so few people believed would occur gained so much attention for the few weeks it did. It’s yet another case of non-news becoming news (celebrity gossip as news, “person-on-the-street” opinions as news, Donald Trump, etc.), and I find the whole thing horrifyingly intriguing. Why do people care so much?
Is it because secretly some of them hope it might happen? Is it because secretly some of them believe it will, despite knowing better? Or is it just a fun story, a vulnerable target for ridicule, like a comedic fountain into which anyone can toss a quip or one-liner?
Most importantly of all, why don’t more people ask the obvious question: is there a negative aspect to all this Rapture-rousing?
I say yes. First, the obvious: dozens of people drained their savings accounts, liquidated their assets, and left their families or friends behind in preparation for the event. Their lives, while perhaps not entirely ruined, are certainly changed forever. Imagine looking back on your life and realizing you gave up everything on the word of one very old man with a radio transmitter and a knack for speechmaking. Even if these poor victims get themselves back on their feet, they’ll always look back on that event and wince. They’ll know how far they went, and how close they came to the edge.
I’m speaking of the ones who leave the flock, of course. But what of the ones who stay? That’s the second danger. The subtler one. It’s not just these believers I’m thinking of: it’s the fact that we’ve validated their belief by speaking of it as a perfectly legitimate, reasonable course of action (or at least as one that few openly condemn as foolish). By giving Harold Camping’s Rapture a place in our news, we’ve legitimized it as a real concern. We spent hours talking about it, blogging it, Facebooking it, Tweeting it, and cracking jokes at its expense.
Why are we wasting our time with this? (he asks, and his voice echoes out to the furthest reaches of lolcats and failblog). Why are we handing a microphone to some kook who twisted his own delusional brain into a pretzel in order to concoct a rationalization for an almost certainly impossible event, and then received millions from those he managed to convince of his prediction’s truth? He does not deserve the megaphone, and the fact that he got it for a time shows the common denominator of American culture: we love spectacle. We love watching people make huge commotions as they spiral deeper and deeper into complete disaster.
This Rapture business is no different. It is, in effect, the religious equivalent of Charlie Sheen. But unlike the Vatican Assassin Warlock, Harold Camping’s Rapture isn’t funny, or even particularly clever. It’s just sad. Sad that people ruined their lives over it, sad that many will continue going along with the latest prediction (October 21), and sad that we lifted that charlatan on our media shoulders for a ride around the newsroom.