An Abundance of Amusing Apocalypticism

I don’t know if it’s the warm weather here in New York that’s bringing out the crazies, but these past two weeks, I’ve encountered more than the usual number of street preachers handing out loony religious literature. Because I know you wicked, godless atheists need to hear the word of the Lord, I thought I’d share some of the best examples with you.

This first one is my favorite. Last week, I was out on my lunch break when I saw a teenager standing on the street corner handing out fliers. He looked like an average high-schooler – baseball cap, T-shirt, baggy jean shorts, and a perpetual surly scowl – but when I took one of his pamphlets and glanced at the first page, I realized he was far more of a fanatic than I’d guessed:

You may remember that I wrote about Tony Alamo and his bizarre, greedy cult in 2009. When we last checked in with Mr. Alamo, he had just been sentenced to 175 years in prison for taking underage girls across state lines for sex. But apparently, being incarcerated hasn’t dampened his high spirits. His ministry is still spewing its ultra-right-wing, frankly racist screeds, mixed in with a generous helping of loony Jack Chick-esque conspiracy theories (read the last column carefully and you’ll notice it claims that the Vatican is behind Muslim suicide bombers).

But as you might expect of a man in Alamo’s position, it’s his current living arrangements that concern him the most. That’s why the majority of this pamphlet – eight single-spaced pages – is a rant about how Mr. Alamo is a holy, selfless man whose only thought is of serving the poor, how he’s been viciously persecuted by the government for no good reason, and how all his accusers are hateful, wicked people on a vendetta against him. Because, of course, Christians are such an oppressed and powerless minority in the U.S.A. The irony of titling his newsletter “The Alamo Christian Nation” while simultaneously claiming that the government unjustly persecutes Christians clearly hasn’t occurred to him. (The awkward subject of Alamo’s teaching that God approves of polygamous marriage to preteen girls, which is what he’s actually in jail for, is politely ignored.)

Do you need more proof of Tony Alamo’s pure and noble spirit? Just look at how the last page of the pamphlet describes him:

So, when I was handed this flier by Alamo’s surly teenage follower, I couldn’t help myself; I burst into laughter. “Isn’t this guy in jail?” I said.

I’m guessing this was a sore point for him. “Yeah, on false charges!” he snapped.

Still laughing, I walked away. “Look into it!” he shouted after me. “I will,” I called back jauntily.

And there’s your update on Tony Alamo. My next encounter was even more amusing.

I was passing through Penn Station when I saw a stout black gentleman wearing glasses and headphones, leaning against a pillar with two handfuls of pamphlets which he was offering to every passerby. I took one, and noticed that the first page was familiar – it was a pamphlet I’d already gotten and written about once before – but there were others tucked inside of it which were new to me, though they all concerned the same general theme:

This is the handiwork of Family Radio, a network of Christian radio stations run by the evangelist Harold Camping, who’s slowly been getting crazier over the decades and who’s best known for his certainty that the Rapture will come in May 2011 (after his previous certainty that it would come in 1994). In case you’re curious how he arrived at that conclusion, I’ve scanned one page of the interior. I recommend not operating heavy machinery after reading this brilliant work of exegesis.

The mindset of people who believe this sort of thing genuinely intrigues me, so I stopped for a brief chat with the fellow.

“May 2011,” I observed. “That’s soon.”

“Uh-huh,” he said noncommittally, clearly not sure whether I was making fun of him.

“What happens on that day?” I asked.

“The universe will cease to exist,” he explained. He said it as calmly as if it was a weather forecast. (I have to admit, I was hoping for something a little more dramatic: boiling oceans, gouts of fire, that sort of thing.)

“What happens if that date comes and you’re still here?” I persisted.

“I’ll be in big trouble,” he said calmly.

I wanted to correspond with him, if for no other reason than to see his reaction on May 22 (and maybe to give him some gentle guidance toward atheism, if he was reconsidering his faith at that point). I asked him for his e-mail address, but he claimed he didn’t have one. “This is just the way I live now,” he said. I don’t know whether that meant he’s divested himself of worldly possessions like computers to prepare for the Rapture, or if he just spends 24 hours a day handing out literature in the subways and so doesn’t have time for e-mail.

I’m still looking for a devotee of Camping who’s willing to speak with me. I think it’d make for an interesting conversation. If I can find one who’s willing to go on the record, I’ll be sure to let you all know!

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Kane Augustus

    Ah, yes: Harold Camping. I wrote a brief snark-piece on this lunatic back in January of this year. He’s part of the lower caste of evangelical “thinkers”, and a prime example of why people should distance themselves from loose-lipped eschatolo-talk.

    Your article is much more informative. I enjoyed it very much. I look forward to more of your writings.

    Take care,

  • Eurekus

    ‘The mindset of people who believe this sort of thing genuinely intrigues me, so I stopped for a brief chat with the fellow’.

    I used to be an apocalyptic similar to him, just the religion I was in never gave an exact date. If they can get you to deny rationality and believe in a literal 6 day creation, they can get you to believe anything.

    When I read this kind of thing I wonder, what chance do we as atheists have in purging our species of religious fundamentalism? Then I consider, if it worked on me it can work on others too.

    Our species needs us. I as an ex fundie probably understand that more than most.

  • Lewin

    There’s a classic book on this called “When Prophecy Fails” by the social psychologist Leon Festinger. They infiltrate a UFO cult that believes in the end of the world. Counter-intuitively, the group becomes MORE zealous after the date passes and the world does not end.

    It’s explained in terms of cognitive dissonance: Because Camping is so committed to the end of the world it would be difficult for him to change that belief. Rather, he’d rationalize it and increase his commitment.

  • SuperHappyJen

    May 21st is my brother’s birthday. I guess I don’t have to worry about buying him anything next year!

  • Sharmin

    The obsession with figuring out when the world is ending and especially looking forward to it is something I find strange. To me, it’s much better to look forward to a better future in this world. Why don’t they realize it may be a hoax when the predicted date has been wrong so many times?

    Your entries on this topic are always fascinating; although I’ve heard Christian leaders talk a lot about the End Times, I really am not very familiar with the people and groups who really focus on it and try to predict the date.

  • Wednesday

    @Sharmin – there’s an interesting discussion on Slacktivist about whether or not people who believe the Rapture mythos as peddled by LaHaye and Jenkins actually want the Rapture to happen in their lifetime. It’s going on in the comments to this post. A few former Charismatic Christians have weighed in, which I found to be particularly edifying.

  • Stephen P

    @SuperHappyJen: how about sending him a copy of this leaflet? (Followed a couple of days later by a present and an appropriately humorous note.)

  • Zietlos

    They always come out on the warm days…

    Well, it’s always nice to see that the death cults are going strong. They’re a sign of a thriving society, you see, in that people can be so well off, or at least their society is, that they can afford to kill themselves in all meanings of the word instead of farm and cling to dear life. Indulging in feeling persecuted, such indulgence!

    The only problem of course is unlike suicide cults, death cults tend to get violent near the end of days. Suicide cults are an effective non-war way to reduce the surface population, thus decreasing humanity’s carbon footprint and saving Earth, with no problems since the people did it willingly. Death cults are more likely to riot, or cause economic chaos with fast cash drains and then drag on society when their prediction fails, making them far inferior.

    Not to sound ivory-tower-elitist, but it is kind of funny, like watching an emo kid who comes from an upper class home, seeing those kinds of people. The variety in human nature is endless. It’s really quite wonderful. It is a shame to not be able to interact with one after their apocalypse doesn’t arrive, since you can’t indulge in feeding off their misery (since they will have likely spent all their life savings and are swimming in debt).

    Depressing, really. Like a real live soap opera.

  • Jerryd
  • Kennypo65

    There is a book I read many years ago “Another Roadside Attraction” by Tom Robbins. In it a character recounts a story about a guy that decided to invent a religion. So he creates a backstory and a “holy book” with rituals and associated dogma. He then goes about converting people to his “faith” and when the “faith” has enough adherents, he comes clean and says that it’s not real, and that he made it all up. His followers, understandably pissed off, rise up, kill him, and go right on believing. These people are just like those people. Sometimes for some people, the need to believe in some Truth, is more important than the actual truth.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Jerry –

    I’m betting accidental, given the number of intervening random circumstances. For instance, they had no way of knowing Constantine would make it the state religion of Rome, or of knowing about the Council of Nicaea.

  • KShep

    I wonder, Ebon, if your correspondent from Harold Camping Inc. wasn’t an actual member of the cult, but a down-and-out man so desperate for work that he answered an ad for a job “helping spread the word!!” or some such thing. It would explain why he seemed reluctant to engage with you, his “the way I live now” comment, and why he has no email address.

    Just a thought.