Post Rapture Looting

Around Saturday I was in a Chorlton bar on a sunny Manchester evening, going through the papers with a pint and thinking if this is the end of the world as we know it then I feel fine, or at least reasonably content. The apocalypse was meant to be at six that night – and six o’clock everywhere, for the Lord’s vengeance respects no timezones. The End Times have been put back to October.

The build up and non event of the Rapture caused considerable merriment on Twitter, blogs and atheist organisations. Via Gene, Tiffany Stanley of The New Republic thinks the joke has gone too far and that Harold Camping’s followers deserve pity, not derision:

Based on the high traffic the articles are garnering, it would seem as if many of us are intrigued voyeurs, gleeful in knowing the exact day when these people will experience their life’s greatest disappointment. We feel superior, knowing that even though they told us we were heading for death and destruction, now, they get theirs.

Do the end-timers seem ignorant? Yes. Are they insane? Possibly. But should our reaction to them be chuckling glee or something more like sadness? Pay attention to their individual stories—their willingness to sacrifice everything in anticipation that their earthly lives are over—and I dare you not to feel the latter. Ashley Parker of The New York Times writes about a mom who stopped working, and stopped saving for college for her three teenaged children. One of the kids admitted, ‘I don’t really have motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.’ At NPR, Barbara Brown Haggerty reports on a young couple, with a toddler and a baby on the way, who are spending the last of the savings. The wife says, ‘We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left.’

Laughing at religious fanatics is nothing new. And, at some level, there’s nothing wrong with it. But this story didn’t just take off in popularity because people wanted a quick laugh or some insight into a quirky subset of our country. There’s a cruelty underlying our desire to laugh at this story—a desire to see people humiliated and to revel in our own superiority and rationality—even though the people in question are pretty tragic characters, who either have serious problems themselves or perhaps are being taken advantage of, or both.

Sure, it’s an interesting story when a fringe group decides the world is ending tomorrow. But it’s also a small story. Come Sunday morning, as news articles flood in about the disillusioned end-timers, and those articles instantly become some of the most popular on the web—as they surely will—we might want to ask ourselves not what is wrong with this sad group of apocalyptic believers, but rather what is wrong with a society that takes such pleasure in their dysfunction.

Stanley has a point. Bad ideas do terrible things to people and their loved ones. Rapture believers have been the victims of a cruel trick, the con of faith itself as well as Camping’s deferred apocalypse.

Yet laughter can be kind. As they say in South Park, just because you laugh at someone doesn’t mean you don’t care about them. Ridicule from friends and family can save us from the wrong road. In later life you’re often grateful for this mockery (‘Seriously? Come on!’) because it’s given you perspective and steered you away from some ghastly fool’s errand. The Indian secularist Ajita Kamal has argued that laughter actually fulfills a role in the evolution of societies: ‘Ideas die in a culture when it becomes embarrassing to hold on to them.’

We’re told not to mock the afflicted because for some people faith is all that keeps them going. Apologists for religion quote the line from Marx – ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions’ – and translate it as: okay, we don’t believe the Harold Camping interpretation of the universe (although many of us did believe these things before it became embarrassing) but, look, religion makes poor people happy, promotes social cohesion, so why are you being so negative?

And yet people in Stanley’s piece do not seem happy. They are neglecting their children and spending hundreds of thousands in life savings on doomsday’s promise. Harold Camping’s company is reported as being worth around $120 million. Why is he not using this money to help America’s desperate and struggling Rapture believers?

The illusion has to be maintained, even if the only comfort that faith can give is the assurance that everything will be okay when the world ends.

Update: I once wrote an apocalypse story, available here

Thanks: Ebolaworld, Hagbard Celine

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