Today is May 22, 2011, the day after what was, according to a small but well publicized group of Christians, supposed to be the rapture. This non-event is evidently a disappointment to the faithful, but I believe the failure of the end times to begin presents a great opportunity for the saner among us and for our culture.
A curious feature about the popular discussion of the rapture over the past few weeks was referring to it as “the end of the world.” However, that is not really what the rapture represents in Christian mythology. It is, if anything, the beginning of the end, in which the Christian god ushers his faithful into heaven. At some point after this, the people left behind either repent or perish in Armageddon. Belief in the rapture is taken most seriously by fundamentalist Christians although among them there are a variety of opinions about the order of anticipated end time events. The lack of a coherent or correct understanding of the event, paired with the derisive regard for the belief is encouraging, especially when compared to the Y2K scare or the Jim Jones cult, because it indicates that the majority did not take it seriously. We’ll see how this apparent sanity fares in December 2012.
But the failure of the rapture to occur creates an important, but time-limited, opportunity to really talk some sense into the public. To use a pair of popular clichés, it is both a teachable moment and a useful crisis.
One of the attractions of religious belief, even for people who ought to know better, is that it provides a sense of order and understanding in a world that generally seems disordered and unpredictable. Watching the television news, reading the newspaper, or just observing daily life makes the world’s problems seem big and unsolvable. And learning more about them is usually not helpful because it reveals those problems to be ever more complex and difficult to grasp. Religious faith, particularly of the Abrahamic variety, tells the believer that there is a plan, that there is a way to understand it all, and in the end everything will be fine, provided you follow the rules. It’s an attractive sales pitch that has served religion well for centuries.
Religion and faith have historically been tough competitors with reason because the latter cannot use those appeals to market itself. Philosophy and science also tell us that the world is understandable but with the caveat that the world is not created with individuals, or group of people, or even a particular species in mind. Although that is the intellectually sound argument, it is emotionally dissatisfying and emotional appeals are almost always more persuasive.
Reason also requires study and effort. Part of the allure of faith, especially in common practice, is abandoning or ignoring our critical faculties. And even if we do adopt the intellectual rigor required by reason, what we might find is that everything we believe about the world is wrong. It’s a tough sell.
The Achilles’ heel of faith is that is has to be right. That’s why it is usually applied to things that can’t be proven or it is claimed to be proven in hindsight by retrofitting our understanding of past events to fit faith’s narrative. But when faith tries to play in the sandbox of reason, it has to play by reason’s rules. And this is where it all falls apart.
The belief that the rapture was going to occur on May 21, 2011 was a matter of faith masquerading as reason. The slogan and web domain for the believers was “We can know” and the date was pinpointed based upon pseudo-mathematical drivel. This façade of reason is easily punctured; the belief that there would be a rapture at all or at any time is a matter of faith and rooted in superstitious traditions. The attempt to pinpoint a date and time is just a bastardization of reason. But by attempting to adopt reason’s methods, the rapture claim was held to reason’s standards and like many matters of reason, it was proven wrong by observable data, as May 21, 2011 came and went without a mass resurrection.
On the day after the day that was supposed to herald the end of the world, the faith of many of these believers must be shaken. For those who bought into the nonsense of a spring 2011 rapture, May 22 and the days and weeks to follow will be a period of reorienting themselves to a new reality caused by the head-on collision of superstition and reality. This can create a fissure in a person’s armor of faith. It is into that opening that reason can enter. It is a narrow space of time; it won’t be long before the very people who predicted a spring 2011 apocalypse will announce some mathematical error and begin all over again. After all, the most recent hysteria about the rapture was instigated by Harold Camping, a preacher who had previously predicted that the rapture would occur in September 1994 (Note: He was wrong then, too).
I do not generally advocate proselytization. But for those of you who have loved ones who suffer from this abuse (and that is exactly what it is) from figures like Camping, this is an opportunity to stage something along the lines of an intervention. I am in no position to offer advice on how; that is for you to figure out based on the specifics of the case. But I can say this: if I had a close friend or loved one who was involved in stories like this one in which believers did damage not only to themselves and their finances but also to their family, a confrontation in the aftermath of their complete and unequivocal defeat would be a first priority. I don’t say that as an opportunity to sneer in ridicule but as someone who holds intellectual inquiry in the highest regard.
But there is another, and broader, element to the rapture story that applies to all believers in supernatural hokum. It is easy, especially now, to point and laugh at a group of people who thought that the rapture was going to happen yesterday. But a belief in Armageddon is an essential part of the Christian argument and there is little or no dispute among believers that it will happen one day. What separates the believers being ridiculed and the believers doing the ridiculing is a matter of timing. To call one’s self a Christian and to claim a belief in the Bible, and specifically the prophecy of the Book of Revelation, requires it.
This may be the most difficult thing for people to learn from this event but it is the most essential lesson if we hope to break out of this superstitious rut. The non-event that was the rapture of 2011 is fundamentally no different from the belief that the world will end in the distant future. For that matter, believing that the image of Mary the Virgin appears in a burned piece of toast is no different from believing that bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ. If, in the aftermath of the tension and hysteria of the past few weeks, we can look back and see illusions and wishful thinking—in a word, faith—for what they are, then we stand a chance of emancipating ourselves from doctrines and traditions that have retarded our ability to think critically about the world and about ourselves and finally achieve the kind of enlightenment and higher consciousness that religion has always advertised but never delivered.