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Michael Chorost, Ph.D.

Michael Chorost Ph.D.

Why The Rapture Was Fascinating

Laughing at pseudo-apocalypses is a way of coping with fears of real ones.

I have to admit, I was fascinated by the Rapture coverage yesterday. I couldn't get enough of reading about Harold Camping and his hapless followers. And I clearly had a lot of company: according to Google News, there were at least 2,890 items on the Web about it.

Much of it was the sheer fun of imagining the believers' reactions. Religion doesn't usually make predictions that can be easily and publicly disproved. Mainstream Christianity predicts a rapture, but it's conveniently vague about when. So when some group names a specific date and time, it's fun to enjoy its discomfiture when it turns out to be wrong. It's a cheap pleasure, the snack food of rationality.

But Camping's group got more press than usual, and I've been thinking about why. Predictions of the Apocalypse happen all the time. A famous one was made by the Millerites, a sect that claimed it would happen on October 22, 1844. The appointed day came and went. Nothing happened. (A terrific article by Vaughan Bell examines how believers react to failed prophecies.)

Other sects have named dates in 1914, 1918, 1925, 1942, 1981, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994, 2000, and 2001. Most of them got only passing mentions in the news. Why did this one get so much attention?

One reason is that Harold Camping's group advertised the date unusually aggressively. And the Internet's 24-hour news cycle amplified its reach.

The end of it all.

But I think there's more to it than that. These pseudo-apocalypses are proxies for American fears about very real events: global climate change, peak oil, and terrorism. Laughing at the people who believed in a fake apocalypse is a way of dealing with entirely reasonable fears of the real thing.

And we've seen the real thing now. 9/11 introduced boomer and GenX Americans to real history, where terrible things happen without warning. Before then, we'd assumed we were immune to catastrophes. In a conversation I had with Steve Coll at the New America Foundation a few weeks ago, he speculated that the last few decades have been a period of unusual stability that are now coming to a messy end. And all indications are that he is right.

Ironically, the events predicted by models of global climate change are a lot like the Bible's stock-in-trade of divine wrath. Hurricanes. Fires. Floods. Droughts. But it was assumed in Biblical times that only a god had the power to change the weather. Today we know better. We've been burning carbon for centuries. It's altering the weather, and we can see it happening in our daily lives now.

And while the future of oil is much-debated, everyone can see prices spiraling at the pump. It's not hard to foresee a future where it's much scarcer and more expensive than it is now - and our entire economy relies on it.

That's why religious extremists can get our attention in a way they couldn't before. We laugh at them to cover up our growing unease. However, once the laughing ends, rational analysis shows that real apocalypses can happen. And they will if we don't get to work to stop them.

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About the Author

Michael Chorost, Ph.D.

Michael Chorost, Ph.D., is the author of World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humans,.