Saturday, May 21, 2011

0% success of doomsday prophecies

Faith is false certainty, pure and simple, and nowhere is more false certainty on display than in the actions of doomsday cultists. Every year, and often multiple times a year we hear about groups, large and small, arrogantly insisting that they have the all-important knowledge that the world will end. Of course, it always turns out the opposite, and we like to see such blatant arrogance fall upon its face. By its very nature, they can only be right once, so, in some sense, it might even seem unfair to point out that they have a 0.0000000% success rate at predicting the end of the world. However, in a more general sense, we do use trends to predict many other future events. Geology and Astronomy tell us that the Earth has existed for billions of years. Even our distant, caveman ancestors probably feared the world was ending every time an eclipse or a severe storm, earthquake, or volcano ravaged an area.

In the relatively short time that humans have been making up stories and pretending they were true, which is the basic role of religion, the predictions of final battles and supernatural cataclysms have been fulminated fast and furiously. The fact that none of these claims have even been close to correct might give us reason to question the fundamental premise of whether an immediately impending, supernatural doomsday is a justified belief at all. Sure, there might even eventual, natural phenomena that cause a global catastrophe, but what non-faith-based reason do we have for believing that non-natural world-ending events are even remotely reasonable?
In almost all cases, doomsday predictions are not just a little wrong, but starkly, dramatically wrong these days. That is, they are not even a little bit right. There isn't even a little event, like a moderate earthquake, or a respectably-sized hurricane, which frightened our caveman ancestors. We get a perfectly unremarkable day of mostly sunshine and clear skies. Of course, since true believers ignore evidence that contradicts the fictional narrative they enjoy telling to themselves, this has little effect. Yet, as alluded to above, we are actually worse off than our caveman ancestors in terms of our predictions, because now we can't even predict supernatural cataclysms based upon some kind of evidence that nature gives us.

I am suggesting that we should start counting, and why not arbitrarily decide to start counting now, when doomsday turns to dudsday. After all, the media devotes considerable hype and attention to these kinds of stories, if for no other reason than the human interest angle. Camping has been wrong before, and yet, people go on believing him anyway. However, for that matter, Pat Robertson also predicted that the world would end in the early 1980's and few people seem to hold that error against him. Shouldn't there be some kind of consequence for making a false prediction of this magnitude, which is at least as severe as a parking ticket or jaywalking? It would not infringe upon religious belief either, any more than current parking tickets infringe upon your ability to worship on a sunday morning. Saying that any minister who publicly predicts a current time frame for the end of the world, and then ends up being wrong should have to pay a symbolic fine of $50 would hardly seem excessive.

In any event, we certainly seem to have different standard for religion leaders than almost any other kind of leaders. If our political leaders screwed up in major ways like this, we would see considerably more ridicule. If a football coach bet everything on a play and lost then there would be massive scorn heaped upon him (or her). However, religion makes it against the rules to ridicule it, even when it produces ridiculous claims. Why is it that we have declared it off limits and in poor taste to ridicule the ridiculous, as long as a person declares the ridiculous statement to be religious?

Those who did criticize Camping often did so with kid gloves. Some religious people expressed their own religious certitude that Camping was wrong because of their different beliefs. Some have pointed out that Jesus himself declared that nobody except "the Father" knows when doomsday will happen (Mt 24:36). What is less well remembered is that Jesus also had his own failed doomsday predictions, and in many ways was the father of the Christian cottage industry of doomsday prophecy, claiming that the high priest caiphas would live to see Jesus return at the second coming (Mk 14:62).

The point is that it is not clear why we should feel any more comfortable with other religious beliefs using their whacky claims in an attempt to counter the whacky beliefs than Camping. Why should we believe their counter claim any more than Campings, when both are just going on unsupported claims? What got us into this mess, in the first place, was accepting, uncritically, whacky religious claims, and it would seem that the solution should be to reject them up front, or at least not give them so much deference and attention as we see today.

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