It was the end of the world as we knew it ... I feel fine. Well, that's not completely true. I haven't been feeling so fine lately about the powers that religious leaders seem to hold over individuals. I'm not just talking about Harold Camping -- I'm thinking of others that are spoken of as mystical or prophetic or are placed on a ridiculously high pedestal because of their connection to God -- a connection that seems much closer than our own. I really wanted to know what types of individuals were so rapt by the rapture and what Harold Camping had to say, so I spoke with a Christian Pastor, a best-selling Christian author and a hypnotist with a Masters in Religion.
The pastor, Chris Williamson of Tower Bible Church in Franklin Tennessee, explains that we are all God's sheep but in the case of Rapturegate 2011 "sheep" was taken to the extreme. While he maintains that Christians want to believe, he feels Camping's followers were despondent individuals who really wanted to believe so hard and so much that they clung to every word of a false prophet without paying close attention to scripture. Pastor Williamson reminds me that in biblical times, punishment for false prophecy was stoning.
"I tell my congregants 'when somebody picks a date that's usually not the date.'" He cites Mark 13:32 where it says that Jesus taught no one the day or hour of his return, including himself. "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father," the passage reads.
"God holds us accountable as teachers for how we instruct people," Pastor Williams emphasizes, "As a preacher, I don't have more access to God than anyone else -- we are all priests of God. I think that the people who believed in what Harold had to say and spent their lives savings ... they felt he had a more direct line of communication than they have. There are no modern day prophets that can speak some message on behalf of God."
When I interview Dillon Burroughs, author of Undefending Christianity: Embracing Truth Without Having All the Answers, he says that Christians are looking for the return of Christ and while the majority remain realistic, it is a certain type of personality -- "the same type that would believe in conspiracy theories" -- that becomes so hopeful it's difficult not to cling to the notion that it could finally happen and imminently (especially seeing as how passages in Genesis and Peter were cited and a mathematical formula was presented -- albeit one that was later revised by Camping who corrected his math! Don't worry Harold, we all make mistakes. It's not the end of the world!).
I remember walking around Queens College in 1994 and hearing then that the world was coming to an end. Unsurprisingly, it was what everyone was joking about on campus and it was also, unbeknownst to me, coming from Camping's camp! When I reached for a second bagel in the cafeteria I made some half-hearted remark about not having to regret the calories the next day if the prediction indeed came true.
Both Dillon Burroughs and Pastor Williamson stress that it is important to note the pattern here and we all wonder how many of Camping's followers had researched his history of similar proclamations. They also both emphasize that when one claims to study the bible, that individual should be taking all passages into account when interpreting it.
I consult with Jess Marion, a Philadelphia-based hypnotist who holds a Masters in Religion, to get her take. "Why did some people give up everything?" I want to know, "Why did a woman attempt to kill her children and then herself? Why did a man jump off a building?"
Marion says that when reading through Harold Camping's Family Radio website days before the impending apocalypse, it become painfully clear to her that his ministry knowingly or unknowingly utilized many of the key linguistic and psychological elements of highly effective influence. "His followers were not low in intelligence nor were they necessarily crazy," she says, "Instead they were strategically manipulated into believing Camping's message."
"This type of influence happened at multiple levels," Marion goes on to explain, "First Camping was appealing to a very particular type of Christian who would have openly accepted the prophetic authority of a pastor. This is tied into a theology that is founded on the concept of gifts from the Spirit. For certain Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, religious authority is bestowed on particular individuals by God through the Holy Spirit. These individuals will exhibit special abilities including the ability to conduct faith healing or advanced knowledge of scriptures." Marion says that Camping would have fallen into the latter category.
Camping utilized very effective strategies to get his message out. When reading through his web site (prior to the failed apocalypse), one would have found a very seemingly logical explanation for why his message was correct. Digging a bit deeper however it becomes clear that he was appealing to pseudo logic. This is a method of connecting ideas which in reality have little to no connection but through certain linguist maneuvers they appear closely linked. If one was not on the look out for this it would have slipped by completely unnoticed.
Next, she says, Camping appealed to authority. Linking his claims to Bible scriptures gave the message that much more strength in the minds of potential believers. "For Camping the Bible is both the source and confirmation of his calculations," she explains "Tied into this also was Camping's unwavering frame -- the absolute consistency in message. If Camping did not truly believe his own message some of his doubts would have leaked through in either his verbal or nonverbal communication. The fact that this did not happen shows that he either truly believed the message or he is a psychopath. In communication and influence, the one who holds the stronger frame is the one who influences the others."
Essentially, Camping's message turned into overt manipulation through the elicitation of a fear response in the potential believer. "The actual description of the post rapture world was something out of a horror film," says Marion, "Not only would those of us left behind have to contend with earthquakes but also famines, plagues, violence, and the millions of dead bodies ejected from the ground. After presenting this, he very deftly offers the solutions, claim your salvation through participating in the message he was preaching.
All of this would not have been enough for most people to jump on board with the rapture message. There are also a number of psychological factors at play for individual believers. For some the threat of being left out of God's salvation plan would have been intense enough to push them into believing. For others it would have been the drive to feel special, to be one of the elect who are better than and separate from the rest of humanity. Finally there are those who find the trials of everyday life so difficult to cope with that they reach out to these types of ministries with the hope of escaping their current situations."
In order for a doomsday prophecy to take hold it requires not just one of these elements but all of them to some extent. According to Marion, "Camping's example is just one in a long list of failed predictions that relied on faith, manipulation, and psychology to rake in millions of dollars while leaving thousands of people empty after the date passed without a Judgement Day."
To a much lesser extent, I have personally seen how certain learned individuals are respected and some (dare I say it) even seem somewhat revered. I have seen individuals rely on superstitions to allay fears. I have seen how we too become sheep (and quite sheepish) in the presence of someone who offers a confident argument with citations included, how we follow without feeling totally secure. I expect some of my atheist friends to comment in the section below about how much less complicated it is without religion. I expect someone to write "if you doubt, why do?" Or "how can you call yourself religious when you question?" The list of potential comments is endless, but I think that people have to remember the importance of doubt and skepticism -- they are not dirty words or forbidden thoughts -- for belief. As the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote "Doubt is part of all religion. All the religious thinkers were doubters." And Voltaire put it this way "Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one."