You may have noticed I skipped out last Monday. WHOOPS. MY BAD.
Part of that was me still recovering from being in New York for a week. While there, I lost my favorite hoodie. I bought a backpack with wheels in Chinatown for thirty-six dollars. And I got some good books, like this one:
So far it’s like hearing a creepy orchestra tucked in the walls, or crawling up from the basement. Sometimes it’s too quiet for comfort and sometimes it accompanies a loud chill on my shoulders. It keeps on bowing strings in a way that buzzes my bones. An unresolved chord.
I got to hear Pete Davis and Jill Christman read at the Vouched reading the day after I got back. I expected to laugh a lot during Pete. I expected plenty of heart from Jill. Expectations fulfilled. But I didn’t realize how hilariously informative Jill’s essay would be, and needed to be reminded of the strange pinpricks of sadness and wonder that dot Pete’s works, especially when read aloud.
But I’ll admit: I feel preoccupied. Not with typical things, but because it’s May 23rd and I’m not covered in boils I’ve been Googling phrases like “rapture news,” “rapture disappointment,” and “where the hell is harold camping.”
Securely apostate, I was not and do not ever expect a Rapture no more than I expect judgment from Thor for my failure to perform the summer blót. But I am fascinated, hungry-curious to know how Camping’s individual followers have taken the past day or so. I’m not really interested in poking fun – I mean, I think some of the signs, stunts, and events I’ve seen photos of have been great examples of witty and creative ways of dealing with the attention surrounding The Judgment Day That Wasn’t – but I’m more wanting to know how Camping’s followers have felt having to face skeptical spouses and children, emptied bank accounts, and their own disillusionment, or at least confusion and disappointment.
I’m trying to find as many news stories as I can with information about their reactions. The accompanying comment threads are generally pretty horrible, but not surprising. The kinder, if patronizingly saccharine comments are mostly from believers of non-Family Radio persuasion, admonishing the internet about no one knowing the hour and the day of Jesus’ return.
Rewarding the act of asserting truth without sufficient evidence – or, “having faith” — is increasingly strange to me, but I understand the appeal. It seems ingrained and protected in our culture as a heroic and romantic act, a sign of some sort of moral purity and enlightenment. It’s what annoying goody-two-shoes-es in Bible studies usually answer hard questions with to the joy and approval of youth pastors everywhere. (“Well, if we just have faith in God…” – I mean, what youth pastor is going to respond with “Now Timmy, that wasn’t a real answer; that was a thoughtless copout.”) But keeping faith against all odds and coming out victorious is a powerful theme in general, and central to a lot of Judeo-Christian narratives, the kind Bible study kids are pointed to as examples of great faith worth imitating.
That is until you have faith in something falsifiable, like the world ending on a specific day. Then you’re nuts.
I want to acknowledge that Camping’s followers put themselves in a position where they could be proven wrong, something it seems believers of many stripes are rarely willing to do. My experiences with Christianity showed me that there’s a whole vocabulary of vague yet acceptably devout language for back-pedaling when prayers, the Holy Spirit “moving,” or other faith-encouraged ways of setting up expectations for certain events don’t lead to anticipated outcomes. While I doubt that absolutely no back-pedaling will occur regarding May 21st, declaring to the world that certain events will happen on a certain day at a certain time makes that much more difficult. With that degree of specificity, those faith claims can be refuted. I don’t know if I’ve ever known a Christian to have the kind of faith Matthew 21.22 encourages for prayer, and probably with good reason: there’s a good chance ‘whatever is asked for’ won’t be received. Not if language used is specific enough to risk falsifiability, to carry any real meaning.
I’ve seen a lot of brutal posts on those article comment threads from rationalists. And that is unfortunate. Granted, I think I agree with P.Z. Meyers, whose conclusion might be considered harsh.
But American society, it seems, privileges and coddles the idea of having faith. Social conservatism that aims to take away rights from women, GLBT individuals, and other “others” often stems from particularly strict brands of religion, and that attachment to religion I think gives such bigotry a significant chunk of immunity. Statements along the lines of “this is just what I believe and you don’t have the right to criticize my faith” are unfortunately still considered legitimate arguing points, even when said faith is causing other human beings suffering.
So it isn’t surprising to me that when faith is afforded immunity to criticism and generally perpetuated as a good thing in and of itself, there are going to be a lot of people having faith — and it follows, having faith in some things that simply are not. And not just the exceptionally gullible or naïve; I really doubt every single one of the thousands who listened to Harold Camping were just stupid – more likely misguided, vulnerable, and seeking purpose, pretty common states of being for humans.
And now some of these people have had their lives shattered. If you didn’t catch from the P.Z. Meyers link above, some pretty awful things have happened. I don’t think the majority of these people deserve malicious ridicule or broad stereotyping as one-sided religious nuts. Rather, it’s hard for me to not see them as victims of a society that undervalues reasoned thought, and privileges and encourages believing in things without first having good reason to think those things are true.
But that’s just me.