Wednesday, June 1, 2011

End of the world (as we know it)

It was supposed to be the end of the world last May 21st. But the rapture many have been eagerly expecting turned out a dud just like all similar predictions in the past.
File:Judgment Bus New Orleans 2011.jpg
Judgment Bus. Photo courtesy of wikipedia.
This wasn’t the first time Harold Camping, the radio host and leader of a fringe and obscure Christian movement, has predicted the end of times. Camping also predicted a similar dystopian scenario in 1994. But of course, Camping’s “Judgment Day” is merely one of many predictions made for centuries, from the famed teachings of Nostradamus to a British hen’s egg-laying prophecy. They all have one thing in common: none ever came true. So, if another prediction comes out tomorrow or in the near future, it’s likely not going to materialize either.

If there’s any consolation about these doomsday predictions is that they only reassure us that life goes on as usual. Don’t blame the religious zealots who made up these prophecies, but vent it on the media instead for creating all the hysteria about the end of the world. After all, it’s a good story and a sideshow that’s impossible not to take notice.

Harold Camping’s fringe group believed that on May 21st a massive earthquake will make its way around the world, starting from the island of Fiji and New Zealand. Then graves will open and 200 million believers will float up to heaven, while the doomed remainder will continue to live unruly on earth for five months before God annihilates them five months later.
Signs on a van announce the end of the world outside of Harold Camping's ministry in Oakland, Calif., Monday, May 23, 2011. Camping, a radio and television preacher, had predicted the end of the world this past Saturday, May 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Judgment Day: May 21, 2100. Photo courtesy of Associated Press
We have seen this scenario many times before—from disaster films straight from Hollywood—maybe this why it entertains us. But why some people would believe it could happen is probably not that strange. After all, life is a passage into the future and preparing and planning for it becomes essential to make life worth living. And religious beliefs, whether based on Biblical teachings or something else, are part of this process of preparation for the future.

Human beings by nature are all insecure. Not even the enormity of one’s wealth and worldly possessions can give closure to this want. The richest individuals will continue to secure and protect their wealth as if nothing matters, accumulating more on the way, and always wary about the possibility of a financial meltdown or an economic depression. To promote a public image that they’re not just interested in materialistic acquisitions, the rich will pour tons of money to philanthropy and other causes that help the needy and the sick.

The rest of us who have less are equally unsure about our footing in life. In fact, individuals who have very little money or possessions are the most generous in contributing to fringe religious organizations like Camping’s Christian Family Radio. Imagine those followers of Camping who have donated money and rearranged their lives because of the impending doom, from exhausting their lifetime savings to quitting their jobs, all believing there would be no more need for any material acquisition anyway. What was their reaction the morning after realizing that the end of the world was not even near?

It would have been easy to point the finger at a religious zealot more than accepting their own individual faults. But not to Camping’s faithful followers. Life goes on as usual to them, as it does for most of us from the bleachers watching how the rapture will unfold.

Camping’s May 21st Judgment Day was just one in a long list of failed predictions that relied on faith, and perhaps, manipulation and psychology. Still, it pales in comparison with the 1978 mass suicide of more than 900 followers of Reverend Jim Jones and his People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. In 1961, Jones made his prophecy of a nuclear apocalypse. That nobody died among his followers after his failed prediction, however, doesn’t make Camping any more likable than a fake prophet. Right after his failed doomsday prediction, Camping now believes his cataclysmic apocalypse will actually occur five months later, or on October 21, explaining that his earlier forecast was playing out “spiritually.”

Believe it or not, for as long as doubt and scepticism continue to put blinders on people’s understanding of their faith, we will have more of Harold Camping and his like among us. There is nothing cynical or dirty about doubting or becoming sceptical—doubt is part and parcel of anyone’s belief. As Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote “doubt is part of all religions. All the religious thinkers were doubters.”

The real end of days will eventually happen as the sun slowly ages and changes the earth’s biosphere in ways that may not allow us to survive. Only by sheer negligence on our part or plain ignorance among a few others, can the signs and warnings of global warming remain unheeded. No need for Biblical numerology or religious hocus-focus. But that would be thousands of millennia away from now. That would be the end of the earth as we know it.

Perhaps, our modern prophets need more of libations and sacrifices as practised in the ancient world if they would want to ensure success of their oracles. There is at least some positive implication from this idea of making offerings to the gods, i.e., if we can influence the future, we are therefore responsible for what will happen afterwards. Looking at the future as an open opportunity we can support makes us responsible for our fate. Consider the stark opposite—that if the future is fixed, it makes us merely victims of fate.

So much about talk on the end of times. In the meantime, we have to wait till December 2012 when the world is supposed to end based on the Mayan calendar. This one will again disappoint many, but prophecies about the final chapter for life on earth will always be here to stay. If it doesn’t happen today, there will always be another day.

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