13. Doesn’t faith make us more susceptible to delusions? (E.g. Harold Camping)

It’s the end of the world and Harold Camping knows it…

With only a few days left until the end of the world, I thought I’d honor Harold Camping by questioning if faith makes us more susceptible to delusions, like how Harold Camping’s faith led him to believe the world is ending on May 21, 2011.

Harold Camping: Wrong, but still fascinating

Mr. Camping is a case study in how faith sometimes evolves into grand delusions, and I find his delusion to be absolutely fascinating.  It’s like being able to witness the Great Disappointment first hand!

The people who call into his Family Radio show amaze me as well, they all seem to be drinking the same Kool-Aid. The vast majority call in to thank Mr. Camping, tell him they agree with his findings, and then ask what time they can expect the world to end in their time zone (no, I’m not kidding). Listening to the show is like overhearing a conversation in an insane asylum.

In fact, Harold Camping reminds me a lot of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Shutter Island: [SPOILER ALERT] He’s completely taken-in by his own delusion.

But how did this happen?

This 90 year old man has spent more hours in the Bible than 99% of the people on earth. For decades, he has spent hours each day discussing the Bible with callers.  He continually reminds us that the Bible says:

Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
~Romans 10:17

So if he’s doing what God asks us to — spending time in the Word — how did he get caught up in such a grand delusion?

I reckon that studying the Bible for 50 years is a lot like staring at ink blots for a long time, eventually you start to see things that aren’t really there.  This is especially true of the Bible, since its parables and mysterious texts practically force the reader to engage in speculative spiritual interpretations.  And before you know it, you’ve connected all the ink blots and the world is ending… Saturday.  Wait… what?

But perhaps what’s going on with Harold Camping and his followers is just an exaggerated example of what goes on in every church.  Namely, at some point, someone has a new story, prophet, interpretation or prediction and a new religion, sect or denomination is born.  Like-minds then gather together and reinforce the new shared delusion.  When the only requirement is faith, the possibilities are endless.

Why do I believe Harold Camping is wrong?

Because history teaches us that people make up religions, follow them, and evolve them with new stories, prophets, interpretations, and predictions.  History also shows us that people make end-time predictions that always fail.  I simply think it’s more likely that a man would delude himself (and others) than one such delusion might actually be true. 

But what if he’s right?

I’m willing to bet that my foolish secular world view actually turns out to be more accurate than his narrow Biblical view (with its custom Camping lens).  

But what the heck do I know?  I’m just some dumb bloke with a blog.  Harold’s the one with the worldwide radio broadcast and thousands of followers.  Could I possibly have more wisdom than a guy who’s dedicated his entire life to the Bible?  I’ll let you know next week.

UPDATE: Post-Rapture Follow-up…

I’m still here (whew!).  I guess my reasoning was more sound than Harold Camping’s!  As a souvenir, I grabbed this screen-shot of their website on May 22nd before they pulled it:

UPDATE: Post-Rapture Follow-up #2…

Guess I spoke too soon, the rapture has been rescheduled for October 21, 2011.

I just got done writing about how believers will sometimes apply a “spiritual” interpretation to Biblical verses they don’t like, such as the earth being literally set on pillars.  Camping seems to do the same for his own failed predictions; if a literal rapture doesn’t come to pass, it means it’s “the end of the church age” or a “spiritual judgement day”.  I suppose after October 21st, he will say we just experienced the end of the world… spiritually!  At what point does he say to himself, “Maybe NOTHING has ever happened spiritually, and I have it all wrong.”  Probably not before his passing.

The lesson here?  Always be on guard against self-delusion.

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17 Responses to 13. Doesn’t faith make us more susceptible to delusions? (E.g. Harold Camping)

  1. nrhatch says:

    Just in case he’s right . . . I’m going to eat as much chocolate as I want this week.

    Mmm . . . chocolate!

  2. Pingback: What is “G~O~D”? « Spirit Lights The Way

  3. rautakyy says:

    Well, I have to say Mr. Camping has failed miserably allready, because most of the people on Earth have not heard of his message. Or maybe that was never the intention of the god of the Bible. It is possible, that the god wants only to save Mr. Camping and his followers. It is also possible, that god wanted Mr. Camping to have a good living with this easily marketable product of the end-of-the-World as long as he could have paid himself a fair pension. Do you think he has done so, or has he spent all of his earnings before the claimed date? How many of his followers will have spent all of their money and property (on chocolate;-) before the end?

    We have a saying here in Finland: Stupidity is concentrated in crowds.

    Christianity is originally an end-of-the-world cult. That is why they were persecuted by the Romans. They have waited for it, now some 2000 years. The bible predicts the end of the world to come soon. It did so allready when the New Testament was written. The World did not end then, it did not end 30, 300, 666, or 1000 years after Christ. It did not end on any of the predicted and much preached dates. Even within the last hundred years some christian cults have predicted the World to end several times. 1914, 1923 and 2000 come to mind. How did these people took the disappointment? I bet they told each other, that they saved the planet by prayer or such means. This is propably what will happen with Mr. Campings followers. A clever demagogue usually leaves the back door open for his predictions.

    However, today we have the means to end all life on Earth. We also are destroying the envarioment at rapidly accelerating phase. Religions and the false security they offer are a dangerous thing in this respect. Especially so, if religious end-of-the-World predictions will recieve artificial help from religiously motivated people in positions of power. Or even if people become indifferent of the World we live ín, because they rather escape to the imaginary salvation of their superstitions.

    • Obviously some of Camping’s followers are spending down, the billboard campaign alone cost $3 – $5 million dollars. I even read about one couple who’d planned their lives so they would run out of money on May 21st.

      Harold Camping recently had a caller ask if he planned to return all those donations should the world not end — he refused to entertain the possibility.

      I think there are definitely verses that strongly imply the immediate return of Christ (2000 years ago) which have undergone some serious reinterpretation to extend the date (like “generation” meaning a type of believer rather than a literal generation). If Christ indeed predicted his immediate return and failed, that should’ve ended the story. Hopefully May 21st will end Camping’s story.

      I still have the book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988 that I read when I was a kid. I keep it around as a reminder not to fall for such claims. Maybe I should get a copy of Camping’s book and start a collection! 😉

      But my biggest concern is for Camping’s followers, I really feel for them. They are some really sweet people who are being suckered out of their money and their minds. My biggest fear is that Camping will tell them on May 22nd that some kind of “spiritual” Judgment Day has come, and they need to sacrifice themselves to take part. (Don’t do it!!!)

      My advice to his followers on May 22nd: Recognize that everyone plays the fool from time to time, it’s how we learn and grow smarter. Don’t blame yourself, you didn’t come up with the idea, Harold Camping did. Blame him, and stop supporting him. Oh… and stupidity is concentrated in crowds. 😉

      I’ll be deeply disappointed if he’s still on the air a year from now.

  4. Kilre says:

    Just to add, I don’t know if you guys reading this entry are aware at this time, but Camping has already pulled this shit before, which kinda makes me a little pissed: http://www.equip.org/articles/harold-camping-1994-

  5. rautakyy says:

    Is it not from the Orpheus cult that the early christians learned the numerological mysticism? It seems the christianity has so many cultural connections to the other myths and religious ideas in the Roman empire. Even most of the festive dates…

    The basic idea of monotheism was the jewish nomadic cultural base on which to build, but the worship of saints is a clearly pantheistic trait. The angels, demons and even Satan are clearly ideas widely used among pantheistic religions. The whole idea of fight between good and evil seems to contradict the idea of monotheism. Actually most interresting part of the history of christianity is the change from a persecuted cult among numerous cults to a sole religion recognized by the military empire of Rome. They did not simply assume the truth of christianity is better explained than all the other cults, but Constantine saw political power there to be used.

  6. rautakyy says:

    Well, surprice, surprice the World did not end. How does the story continue? Has Mr. Camping made any appearances since? Has anyone inteviewed his followers?

    • Technically the rapture was to occur on May 21st, and the end of the world would occur on October 21st.

      Mr. Camping and his followers were shocked when the rapture and earthquakes didn’t occur, and he quickly patched things up by saying May 21st was a “spiritual” judgement day, and the end of the world would STILL come on October 21st (contradicting his earlier statements that May 21st would be a LITERAL judgement day).

      Camping says that God, being the nice guy, didn’t want people to suffer through 5 months of earthquakes and torture, so He’ll just kill us all off at the same time he raptures everyone. (Pretty thoughtful, eh?)

      Interestingly, Camping says that no one else can be saved after May 21st judgement day. So if you’re not saved already, it’s too late. HOWEVER, Camping still encourages people to pray for salvation… as God may have saved them in advance knowing they’d repent after May 21st. Makes sense to me.

  7. Mary says:

    And now Harold Camping is dead and Jesus has still not returned. Enjoying your blog.

    • Thanks Mary — I did see that he had died recently (though I don’t rejoice in his death, no matter how much I disagreed with him). I do give him credit for setting a firm date. If Jesus had just set a firm date (and there is some evidence that he did: one generation), we could’ve dismissed him a long time ago.

  8. Mary says:

    Didn’t mean to sound like I was rejoicing in his death. Jesus is a failed prophet because he didn’t return when he said he would.

  9. bbnewsab says:

    How do people react when a strongly believed in prophecy fails? Here’s a good article trying to answer that question: http://religiondispatches.org/a-year-after-the-non-apocalypse-where-are-they-now/

  10. bbnewsab says:

    Oh, I just forgot to mention, that this 500 Questions Blog is both well-written and full of interesting facts. Absolutely one of the best blogs I’ve ever found on the Internet. Exceptionally good!

    Keep your good work up, Mr. Anonymous Blogger! 🙂

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