What’s all this about the world ending on May 21?

Harold Camping and his Family Radio network claim that the Rapture will happen on May 21, 2011. As the time becomes 6:00 pm around the world on that date, they claim that several hundred million believers will rise up to meet Jesus and that global earthquakes will rock the earth. For those of us left behind, we’ll see five months of Armageddon and then the world will end.

Atheists supporting a Christian message? What’s going on here?

We think this prediction is laughable, and most Christians reject it as well. Instead of dismissing this and moving on, we’d like to find the lesson here. Perhaps there’s common ground between atheists and thoughtful Christians who want to minimize the harm that religion does.

I’m a Christian and I never heard of this. Anyway, the Bible says that no man knows the day or the hour of the Day of Judgment. Don’t put me in the same bin as this guy.

This group calls themselves Christians, just like you, and they’re preaching nonsense. If you disagree with this, say so! Pointing out the nonsense is much more effective when it comes from other Christians. You help everyone when you don’t ignore craziness within Christianity but work to eliminate it.

Sure, this prediction about Armageddon is wrong. But it will happen sometime.

Many Americans think that way. One third of Americans think that the Bible’s book of Revelation contains "true prophecy," and 50 million Americans think that the Apocalypse will happen within their lifetimes. It’s easy to imagine that these beliefs are widespread when those Christians surround themselves with like-minded people. But these are minority views even within Protestantism, which is not even 20% of all Christianity.

Demand the same high level of evidence for this claim as you do for any other extraordinary claim--that aliens have abducted humans, that Atlantis existed, or that the other guy’s religion is true.

OK, it’s a silly belief. But why make a big deal about it? We all have our harmless delusions.

May 21, the date of the Rapture, will come and go. Life will proceed pretty much as usual, except that a small group of Christians will wake up the next day and wonder why the prediction that they organized their lives around didn’t come true. Maybe they’ll say to themselves “Wow, that was really stupid! I’ve learned a lesson, and I will never be taken in by another religious charlatan.” But how likely is that? Will this very public humiliation leave Family Radio in tatters, with no listeners, advertisers, or donors? If reason mattered, then yes. But for some people, reason doesn’t much matter—and that’s the problem. That’s why this isn’t a harmless delusion.

A mind opened by faith can take in all sorts of nonsense. Faith is the excuse people give when they don’t have a good reason. Believing something because it is reasonable and rational requires no faith at all.

There are lots of problems in the world, but Judgment Day isn’t one of them. By approaching the world with reason instead of faith, we’ll make a lot more progress. Opening the mind to magical thinking like this opens it to other nonsense. Does God exist? If so, he gave you that big brain to use !

These people are trying to help other people by getting out the word. What have you done?

Seattle Atheists is not primarily a philanthropic organization, but we host blood drives, a year-round Season-less food drive, and charity events to help Children’s Hospital, among other events.

By educating people and making them aware of the problem of irrational thinking, we hope to make them better able to deal with reality--improving the one life we know we have.

What has Family Radio and Harold Camping himself done with their assets? Surely they don’t think that they’ll need them after May 21.

It would indeed make sense for them to arrange for the change in ownership now, when society is still functioning. Wouldn’t giving away your property to the poor be the Christian thing to do, especially since you’ll not need it?

Family Radio hasn’t responded to our inquiries, and Camping dodges the question when asked it on his program. Camping emphatically claims that the date is certain, but his actions make clear his thinking. That Family Radio is not putting its money where its mouth is makes it obvious that they have a very active "business as usual" Plan B (but probably with a little backpedaling).

(Isn’t it maddening that there will be minimal consequences for this--that they’ll probably still have followers and that no one would consider filing charges of fraud against them? There should be consequences, even for religion.)

Tell me more about Camp Quest.

From their web site: " Camp Quest is designed for children from non-religious families: atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers and others with a naturalistic world view. We blend world-class science and critical thinking games with the traditional all-American outdoor camp experience. Think the glories of evolution paired with campfires and canoeing! Along the way, we build community, letting kids know that the skeptical community has something special to offer the world and role models to emulate."

Camp Quest NorthWest is located in Seattle, and planning its first summer camp next year based on your contributions and excitement!

Has the end been predicted before?

May 21, 2011 is only the most recent prediction. Hundreds of predictions for the end of the world have been made using biblical justification, and obviously none have come true. In fact, the first failed prediction is significant: Jesus said that the end would come within the lifetimes of his followers. Didn’t happen.

What if the Rapture happens? Will you really provide aid for an earthquake?

Of course! If any Armageddon-sized disaster hits the Puget Sound, God or no God, we will be there to help the survivors. We'd be there whether we had a campaign or not. As atheists, we are entirely focused on making life in this world better.

Do you see these Family Radio people as evil?

No. We assume that Family Radio and its followers aren’t trying to deceive, but they’re damaging their lives of those who listen. Their belief is not founded on anything real. Beliefs have consequences.

Are you lampooning Christianity?

We’re using a nonsensical prediction to make a point: that religion has downsides. And we’re raising money for a good cause—Camp Quest.

Can’t atheists just leave Christians alone? What’s the harm in Christianity?

There’s no harm at all when Christianity is simply one’s beliefs, customs, or holidays. It’s when religion gets into schools, the legislature, or the courthouse that it becomes a problem. Or when it causes believers to do irrational things—like sell all their stuff because the end is near.

Religion is off limits to criticism.

Not in the United States. We don’t criticize for sport, and we’d focus our efforts elsewhere if religion were benign. But when the liberal Christians say that the somewhat-conservative Christians can’t be criticized, and the somewhat-conservative Christians say that the completely nutty Christians can’t be criticized, we’ve isolated a social institution from critique. That’s not the way it should work in a country governed by a secular constitution.

Are you participating in any Seattle-area events?

Seattle-area atheists will participate in several public events. There’s an end-of-the-world party in Tacoma the evening of May 21. Seattle Atheists will be at the University District StreetFair with their sandwich board sign on May 21 and 22. They will also be at Westlake Park, across from Westlake Center, May 23–27 around lunch time. Look for photos at rapture-relief.org.

Why pick May 21 for the Rapture?

The number of days from Jesus’ death (April 1, 33, according to Camping) until May 21, 2011 is 722,500. But 722,500 = 5² × 10² × 17². Jumping into the highly accurate (or completely speculative, depending on your worldview) science of numerology, 5 = atonement, 10 = completion, and 17 = heaven. So May 21 is the day of (Atonement × Completeness × Heaven) squared.

Curious, but hardly reason to give this calculation any weight.

(And anyway, that’s not even a factorization into primes. Why is 2² × 5 4 × 17² not correct?)

And why is the world ending on October 21?

It’s 153 days from May 21 to October 21. Since 153 = 3 2 × 17, we consult Camping’s numerological handbook to find that 3 = God’s purpose. He says that this means that it’s doubly sure that those for whom it was God’s purpose to take to heaven will indeed go there.

But 153 means nothing to the good souls who’ve already been raptured and applies only to the unfortunates left behind. Why not conclude instead that it’s doubly God’s purpose (3) that those suffering through Armageddon will go to heaven (17)?

And why stop at 153 = 3 2 × 17? The sum of the numbers 1–17 is 153. And if you cube the digits and add them up, you get the original number: 153 = 1 3 + 5 3 + 3 3 . It’s easy to find whatever magical message you want through numerology, though it’s no better at predicting the future than reading animal entrails.

Are donations tax exempt?

Yes. Seattle Atheists is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.