End of the World: May 21st, 2011
Q. Family Radio evangelist Harold Camping believes that he has calculated the exact date of the rapture: May 21, 2011. While many are laughing at the suggestion, Camping’s followers are taking him seriously, bringing his message of impending doom to billboards and public spaces around the country. What does your tradition teach about the end of the world? How does end time theology impact real world behavior?
A. Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon? I suppose the answer must be that, unlike the average loon, this one has managed to raise enough money to launch a radio station and pay for billboards. I don’t know where he gets the money, but it would be no surprise to discover that it is contributed by gullible followers – gullible enough, we may guess, to go along with him when he will inevitably explain, on May 22nd, that there must have been some error in the calculation, the rapture is postponed to . . . and please send more money to pay for updated billboards.
So, the question becomes, why are there so many well-heeled, gullible idiots out there? Why is it that an idea can be as nuts as you like and still con enough backers to finance its advertising to acquire yet more backers . . . until eventually a national newspaper notices and makes it into a silly season filler?
I won’t waste any more time on that, but I do want to mention a less trivial point arising from the question posed by the Washington Post: ‘What does your tradition teach about the end of the world?’ It’s that word ‘tradition’ that should raise our critical hackles. It refers to a collection of beliefs handed down through generations – as opposed to beliefs founded on evidence. Evidence-free beliefs are, by definition, groundless. What my ‘tradition’ (or your ‘tradition’ or the Dalai Lama’s ‘tradition’ or Osama bin Laden’s ‘tradition’ or the bad-trip ‘tradition’ of whoever wrote Revelation) says about anything in the real world (including its end) is no more likely to be true than any urban legend, idle rumor, superstition, or science fiction novel. Yet, the moment you slap the word ‘tradition’ onto a made-up story you confer on it a spurious dignity, which we are solemnly asked to ‘respect’.
Science is not a tradition, it is the organized use of evidence from the real world to make inferences about the real world – meaning the real universe, which is, in Carl Sagan’s words, all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Science knows approximately how, and when, our Earth will end. In about five billion years the sun will run out of hydrogen, which will upset its self-regulating equilibrium; in its death-throes it will swell, and this planet will vaporise. Before that, we can expect, at unpredictable intervals measured in tens of millions of years, bombardment by dangerously large meteors or comets. Any one of these impacts could be catastrophic enough to destroy all life, as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago nearly did. In the nearer future, it is pretty likely that human life will become extinct – the fate of almost all species that have ever lived.
In our case, as the distinguished astronomer and former president of the Royal Society Martin Rees has conjectured, extinction is likely to be self-inflicted. Destructive technology becomes more powerful by the decade, and there is an ever-increasing danger that it will fall into the hands of some holy fool (Ian McEwan’s memorable phrase) whose ‘tradition’ glorifies death and longs for the hereafter: a ‘tradition’ which, not content with forecasting the end of the world, actively seeks to bring it about.
However it happens, the end of the world will be a parochial little affair, unnoticed in the universe at large. The end of the universe itself is a matter of current debate among physicists, a debate that I recommend as providing a salutary, long-term, humbling perspective on human preoccupations and follies.