The Real Apocalypse, and How to Avoid It

05/23/2011 01:07 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2011

OK, Fairy Tale Religion. You've had your chance. In fact, you've had hundreds of chances, and you've blown every one. Isn't it high time we give grown-up faith an opportunity?

Harold Camping made millions with his claim to have derived the date of the Rapture from the Bible. He was wrong the first time (1994), and he was wrong the second time (just this last weekend). So were all the other Christian doomsday prognosticators, going all the way back to the original: Jesus Christ.

How is it that people who claim to believe every word of the Bible literally blow right past these passages?

"Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God." (Mark 9:1)

"Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16:28)

In case those aren't clear enough, Paul goes on to confirm that the Second Coming is, well, coming any day. And to prove that he isn't speaking metaphorically, he advises singles to stay unmarried, cause after all, with the Kingdom of God at hand, what's the point?

This is what in science is known as a failed hypothesis. The prediction has been made and tested, and it has repeatedly failed. But of course that doesn't mean that apocalypse won't happen. In fact, there are good reasons to think that, in a purely secular sense, it will -- unless humanity can outgrow its dependence on fairy-tale beliefs.

Here's the problem, in a nutshell: too many people in this world believe one of the two following propositions:

a) The world operates according to the whims of a puppetmaster who pulls the strings, runs the special effects and changes the script in response to prayers.

b) Unless we cling to (a) despite the overwhelming evidence against it, everyone will become an atheist, society will collapse and chaos will follow.

Both (a) and (b) are demonstrably false, and what's more, believing either (a) or (b) actually puts us all in danger of seeing the collapse of civilization. Why? Because magical theism, to give it a more polite name than "fairy tale beliefs," relieves people of the responsibility for our world while simultaneously putting them into irresolvable conflict with others who hold different beliefs.

To take but one specific instance, people who cling to magical theism on average have more children -- far more children -- than others, despite the clear indications that the world's human population is red-lining. They feel no responsibility to limit their family size, because their magical theism tells them that God's got it all under control and wants them to have as many children as possible.

The idea that the world is run by a puppetmaster in the sky must have seemed plausible to the authors of the Bible. Even then, however, there were some people who perceived that the world operates according to discoverable laws and chance.

Today, it takes an act of willful ignorance to believe that tornadoes, earthquakes, diseases or plane crashes happen according to some moral pattern, or that prayer makes a difference in their course.

But you don't just have to rely on science to debunk magical theism. You can reason your way to the same conclusion. If the world were governed by an all powerful, all-good, hands-on God who sets up certain moral tests for people to pass, then it stands to reason that He would play fair. At the very least, you could expect that everyone would have access to the same information directly from the source.

The historical reality is very different. Whatever scriptural tradition you regard as authentic, the revelation always comes to few or one and then slowly radiates out to others, evolving as it spreads and leaving millions misinformed or entirely in the dark. That makes no sense. The teens who at first believed Camping and then jumped off a bridge to celebrate when he was wrong are a tragic example. Why didn't God just inform them directly in the first place?

On the other hand, if the world were ruled by a trickster God who cares nothing about being fair, then you'd have no way of knowing if you can trust the rules. Maybe the real test is to see if you defy the rules. The whole idea of arbitrary morality (implicit in the authoritarian view of God) collapses in self-contradiction.

What we're left with is a world that clearly operates according to natural law and chance. Does that entail atheism? Hardly. Atheism is a legitimate worldview, one that can underpin a morally progressive civilization. But adopting a realistic outlook does not force one to be an atheist.

There is plenty of scope for "good faith" in such a world. Indeed, there are plenty of religious people the world who accept naturalism as the explanation for how things work in this world, and yet hold onto belief that the Universe had a Creator with hopes for humanity.

People of good faith -- whether atheist, agnostic or religious -- can make common cause against apocalypse. Regardless of our view of ultimate reality, we can accept the world as science finds it and take responsibility for stewarding it. We can live as grown-ups. We can let go of fairy tales once and for all.