A reader writes:
We had some laughs at my church yesterday (Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York) about the non-event Rapture. A former curate had said on Facebook, "No Rapture, and a jockey named Jesus just won the Preakness." A woman had an automated text message that said, "I have been taken in the Rapture and will not be avialable to return your message." That sort of thing.
I got to thinking, and I remember a prediction that the world would end – I was about 10 years old at the time, in mid 1950s. I vividly recall feeling terribly frightened by this prospect, since I was not prepared to die and lose everything that I had. I felt sick to my stomach, and I lost several nights' sleep. The memory made me wonder how many children felt the same way yesterday. These thoughthless, self-aggrandizing prophets of "doom" do not realize how much harm they can do.
I'm not so much interested in mocking the poor delusioned people who got caught up in the hysteria. I want to call Howard Camping to account for hurting them.
This man managed to strike such fear into the hearts of certain gullible, frightened, un-educated people that one man committed suicide (Nairobi) and one attempted the murder of her own children (California). He terrified people into destroying their own lives. What happens on Monday morning when the guy who blew his $140K life savings on pamphlets about the Rapture which didn't happen wakes up and still has rent to pay? What happens to the child born to that couple in Florida who didn't plan on having any money in June? Granted that these people did these things on their own, but they wouldn't have come up with this particular idea of this particular date if Camping hadn't roused such utter fear in them.
When the jokes have died down and we're on to the next political scandal or summer blockbuster, these people's lives will still be in rubble. Camping must face charges of fraud, and take some kind of responsibility for the cruelty he visited on the foolish. Maybe then the next foaming-at-the-mouth prophet will be less likely to shout "fire" in a crowded church.
You said, "They are not examples of religious faith but of marginal nutballism." To an atheist, the belief in a omnipotent god is nutballism already – further marginalization is not needed. In my opinion, the reason this story had so much traction was because, for once, a self-proclaimed prophet made a specific prophecy of something easily disprovable. While there was an aspect of "look at those crazies!", to me the bigger story is how they were going to react when it didn't happen. To a strict rationalist, it's just one more in a long line of failures for religion and faith, but it's one we can definitely cite as being firmly incorrect (rather than True but pending).
The Daily What captions the above video:
“I do not understand why nothing has happened,” said former MTA employee Robert Fitzpatrick as it became evident that the Rapture was not taking place as Harold Camping had predicted. The 60-year-old spent $140k out-of-pocket to promote the Family Radio Network founder’s Judgment Day prophecy. “I did what I had to do,” Fitzpatrick told an angry Times Square mob that had gathered to excoriate him. “I did what the Bible said.”