Monday, March 28, 2011

I Love When Religions Make Testable Predictions

Because when they're in any way significant or interesting, they pretty much always fail. A small faction of Christians has announced that, based on some arcane biblical calculations, the rapture will occur on May 21st of this year. Their leader is an evangelical radio broadcaster named Harold Camping. He had previously predicted that the second coming would occur way back in 1994, but this time he's sure of it. No, really, he's gonna get it this time. He promises.

I actually e-mailed them last September to ask a few questions. I got two responses from a woman who I'll call Ms. M. She was generally very polite, although her responses showed me just how difficult it is to reason with people like these. Here's my first e-mail:

I am very interested in your claim that judgment will come on May 21, 2011. In particular, I have three questions for you:

1. Are you aware that hundreds of dates have been predicted for the Rapture, judgment, etc. in the past, all of which have turned out to be wrong?

2. What makes you so certain that your prediction will succeed when all others have failed?

3. What would you do if your prediction turned out to be wrong? Even if you feel this is very unlikely, you must admit that it is at least possible. Would you claim that your prediction had been fulfilled, but in a different way than you had originally thought? Would you claim that you had somehow miscalculated, and then set a new date for judgment? Or would you simply admit that you were wrong? I ask this because these are some of the ways that others have reacted when their predictions turned out to be incorrect.

Please understand that I mean no disrespect by suggesting that your prediction may be wrong. I hope you can understand my skepticism, given the number of incorrect predictions made in the past. Thank you very much, and I look forward to answers to these questions.

Instead of answering my questions, Ms. M directed me to a few links on their web site and said that their prediction could not be wrong because the date was appointed by God. There's an obvious problem with this view, and I told her as much in my reply:
Dear Ms. M,

Thank you very much for your response.

I understand your belief that because the date of 5/21/11 is appointed by God, there can be no possibility for error. However, to point solely to God on this matter misses a crucial point: any revelation from God must inevitably be interpreted by man. Human interpretation is always subject to error, and thus you cannot rule out the possibility (however unlikely) that this date could be a misinterpretation of God's word. Even if you believe that God is guiding you so as not to make any errors, this belief could itself be mistaken. Since many past predictions that were also based on God's word failed due to human misinterpretation, I think it makes sense to give this point serious consideration.

In light of this possibility, please reconsider the third question from my previous email.

She seemed to understand my argument. By appealing to human fallibility, which Christians have a strong tendency to focus on, I may have actually made a slight dent in her dogmatic armor. But she quickly recovered by comparing their situation to that of Noah: everyone thought he was wrong, but he knew he was right because God had revealed the truth to him. I suppose I could have pointed out that the failed doomsday prophets of the past could have advanced this argument just as easily, and they were still wrong. But I don't think I would have gotten any further with her using that line of reasoning; we probably would have ended up talking in circles. Instead I closed with this:
Dear Ms. M,

Thanks again for your response.

I see that nothing I can say will convince you that your belief may be misguided. Although I disagree with you, I can appreciate why you feel the way you do. However, I do have one last request for you:

Should it happen (and I realize that for you this seems like an impossibility) that May 22nd rolls around and no judgment has taken place, re-read the third question I gave you, and think calmly and carefully about what option to choose.

That shouldn't be a difficult request, since if you are correct you won't need to fulfill it anyway.

I doubt she'll actually do it, but I figured it was worth a shot. My concern is that the true believers won't lose their faith after May 21 has come and gone. On the contrary, there's a good chance that it will grow even stronger than before.

I'll be sure to do a follow-up post once the big day has hit. (Update: here it is.)

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