For those of us outside one particular extremist Christian circle, May 21st is expected to be just another Saturday. There are errands to be run and friends to see, sleep to catch up on and bills to be tackled. (And for Washington D.C. residents so inclined, the first strategic summit of the Secular Coalition for America is being held.) But in preparation for May 21, some Americans have quit their jobs, settled their affairs, and arranged for their care of their earth-bound pets, for they believe this Saturday is the Rapture.
The Rapture refers to a passage in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, describing what is also referred to as End Times, when God calls all good Christians home to Heaven, leaving the non-believers to an Armageddon plagued planet.
... and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord
This doomsday calculation has been most loudly touted by Harold Camping, founder of Family Radio Worldwide, who also predicted the Rapture to fall up on the earth in 1994. He was wrong then and he's wrong now, but followers continue to line up behind his word, preparing for the final countdown. Why?
History is wrought with false prophets, men and women offering to lead the way and claiming to know the "truth." These misguided movements aren't always steeped in religion, either. From the large scale atrocity of the Holocaust to the cult-oriented tragedy at Waco, humanity is frequently wounded by such belief-based fanaticism. Actions taken without reason or rationality pose a danger, not only to the individual, but to society as well.
Expert analysis isn't required to confirm that Camping's theories, just like other religious zealot rantings, are without a scientific basis. The clash of science and religious belief is a frequent narrative and old tale. In 1633, Galileo was tried for heresy in Rome, namely due to his support for heliocentrism, the since-confirmed theory that the earth revolves around the sun. Leaders within the Catholic Church were outraged by his assertions, referring to the scriptural claims of the earth's position within the universe. Galileo, who refused to withdraw his theory, was sentenced to a life under house arrest.
Galileo's discoveries, so vehemently opposed by the religious powers of the time, set the groundwork for modern science. This begs the question, how much of our earthly life could be improved and revolutionized without the cries and protests from the religious fundamentalists, who continue to look for meaning in dogmatic outdated texts, instead of seeking meaning in the only world they will ever know.
Many humanists and atheists are finding great opportunity in May 21st. Not only has this proven to be a business prospect (some have started a pet care service for families who believe they will be taken to heaven without their cats and dogs), but other humanists and atheists are taking time to celebrate the event, throwing "after rapture parties" across the country. With the devout either gone or (much more likely) rationalizing another failed faith prediction, nontheists will have reason to celebrate reason. It certainly frames those who don't believe in any gods in a favorable light when we are seen having a good time instead of preparing for an eternal exit or mourning our continued existence on Earth.
Unfortunately for some of Camping's followers, the repercussions of May 22nd will be considerable. The thousands of bus, billboard, and radio ads weren't free, but were funded by many people who didn't expect to need the money much longer. There will be no divine safety net for those who have just spent their life savings. Will they turn to each other for support? Or will they turn away from the dogmatic teachings that sadly lead them astray in the first place? I suppose we'll find out on May 22.