The Rapture of Charlie Sheen

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

I’m sure this is just one blog post among many in your feed to reference the Rapture predictions of Harold Camping. His apocalyptic forecast for this weekend is all over the news cycle and even snagged front page coverage in The New York Times. And why is everyone telling this story? Because it’s fun to laugh at stupid people.

No one outside this small group of zealots gives their claims the slightest bit of credence; they don’t receive the “but who can ever know” kind of deferential treatment that more mainstream religions command. This laughable theology deserves no more attention than do the claims of the sedevacantist popes who’ve set up shop in Spain and Kansas. Camping and company get coverage because we all have a sickening urge to watch the rug pulled out from under this delusional sect.

The fascination of the media reminds me of the coverage surrounding Charlie Sheen at the height of his public flameout. Sheen was obviously unstable and addled, but we eagerly kept offering him more platforms to embarrass and endanger himself. For his family, it should have been a private tragedy, but we accepted it as entertainment that we were entitled to enjoy. Every time I hear one of my friends punctuate a conversation with “WINNING!” I flinch a little. The fact that Sheen’s troubles were self-inflicted makes him more pitiable, not more deserving of our contempt.

If the May 21st rapturists were isolated individuals, we would grieve that they had lost themselves in madness, but now that they’ve gathered together and entered the public eye, everyone feels a kind of license to mock them. Gizmodo has suggested that pranksters set up piles of abandoned clothes to trick believers into thinking the rapture has occurred, but they were left behind. It’s hard to find it funny once you listen to Elizabeth Esther’s childhood Rapture panic or read Fred Clark’s discussion of the toxic consequences of these beliefs.

Talk to anyone who grew up in a Rapture-believing church or family and they will tell you stories about panic-inducing moments when they found themselves suddenly alone and feared that everyone else had been raptured while they had been rejected by God. This guy thinks that’s funny, but it’s actually traumatic. That’s why no one forgets the horror of such moments…

And that terror is what Harold Camping and his followers are feeling now. And it is what they will be feeling again Saturday evening, after that terror and despair first abates, then metastasizes in the realization that the world has not ended and that they are not the righteous remnant they staked their identities on being.

Look back at that NYT story, and you’ll see that Camping’s followers have been sundered from their families and friends by the fervor of their beliefs. Their children feel a mix of pity and despair, burdened by parents who don’t plan for their futures on Earth. Although their premises are absurd, many of the rapturists are trying to be as kind and compassionate as possible within their twisted theological framework. Robert Fitzpatrick has spent his life savings blanketing New York with ads in the hope of saving even one person from perdition. Come Sunday, he’ll be counting his losses, but the more tragic harm is the way that false beliefs have blighted the lives and relationships of all of Campings adherents, including Camping himself.

By focusing on the absurdity of their beliefs, we’ve given ourselves permission to ignore the human cost of their derangement. The post-Rapture parties and merchandise hawked by atheists are in the same poor taste as the Sheen memes. Our sanity and stability is not the result of individual merit; we have no standing to delight in the dissolution of others.

  • http://eyesofscience.wordpress.com/ DavidD

    Honestly, I feel sorry that these people have been caught up in a scam. I remember well from my childhood experience in a personality cult, that if our guru said something like this was going to happen, we would have believed her. Luckily for us, I suppose, she was mostly interested in money.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    By focusing on the absurdity of their beliefs, we’ve given ourselves permission to ignore the human cost of their derangement.

    Agree. Read an article today about a guy on Long Island where I live who is not paying his bills anymore because he expects to be raptured tomorrow. Unfortunately for him, not only won’t he be raptured, neither will the collection agency personnel who will be hounding him in the months ahead to pay up what he owes.

  • Bob Carlson

    On my Kindle, I have been reading Mark Twain’s 1869 book Innocents Abroad and this morning encountered this paragraph in the book (readable on-line at mtwain.com):

    Twenty-five years ago, a multitude of people in America put on their
    ascension robes, took a tearful leave of their friends, and made ready to
    fly up into heaven at the first blast of the trumpet. But the angel did
    not blow it. Miller’s resurrection day was a failure. The Millerites
    were disgusted. I did not suspect that there were Millers in Asia Minor,
    but a gentleman tells me that they had it all set for the world to come
    to an end in Smyrna one day about three years ago. There was much
    buzzing and preparation for a long time previously, and it culminated in
    a wild excitement at the appointed time. A vast number of the populace
    ascended the citadel hill early in the morning, to get out of the way of
    the general destruction, and many of the infatuated closed up their shops
    and retired from all earthly business. But the strange part of it was
    that about three in the afternoon, while this gentleman and his friends
    were at dinner in the hotel, a terrific storm of rain, accompanied by
    thunder and lightning, broke forth and continued with dire fury for two
    or three hours. It was a thing unprecedented in Smyrna at that time of
    the year, and scared some of the most skeptical. The streets ran rivers
    and the hotel floor was flooded with water. The dinner had to be
    suspended. When the storm finished and left every body drenched through
    and through, and melancholy and half-drowned, the ascensionists came down
    from the mountain as dry as so many charity-sermons! They had been
    looking down upon the fearful storm going on below, and really believed
    that their proposed destruction of the world was proving a grand success.

    Smyrna is now known as Izmir, Turkey.

  • mj

    The fact that some people will be harmed by their laughable absurd beliefs does not make the beliefs less laughable or absurd.

  • Dan

    I am going to disagree with you on this one … Camping’s followers are beyond gullible dupes. They’re willfully blind to watching Camping’s own behavior … did he sell off his chain of “Family Radio” stations and use the money to save a few more souls? Did he spend his last dime to make sure as many could be Raptured as possible? Nah … the Camping Empire remains in place. It’ll be interesting to see how he $ells ts to his followers come Sunday morning. These people deserve the mockery. Maybe the humiliation will make some of the more marginal belivers question their own faith.

  • Void000

    I also can’t really agree with you on this. Your argument strikes me as a bit too close to the classic ‘but we need to respect* these beliefs’ that are so often thrown around by theists and some atheists. (*Note: respect here meaning silent deference and acceptance of the belief, no matter how ridiculous).

    When someone publicly says something spectacularly stupid, something contradicted by all available evidence, build on a foundation of nothing, and insists that it MUST BE true…mockery is deserved. I should also point out that public mockery can have a purpose other than entertainment or meanness. Humor is a powerful tool for social commentary, and is often more easily remembered than a dispassionate argument. I will not take pleasure in the suffering of those in this cult when their beliefs don’t pan out, but I can and do hope that this failure and the public mockery of it will help some of the cult members to come to their senses and not act like such credulous idiots next time. If public mockery helps to change these people’s beliefs for the better, or encourages other people who would otherwise have participated in similar cults in the future to be more skeptical, I’d say that its worth it.

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    But the human costs of all the delusional beliefs is very real (punishment in hell, rewards in afterlife, money given to priests/bishops/popes/ministers rather than to real charities, families torn apart because of apostasy). And yet we mock and criticize those beliefs mercilessly. I’ll admit the clothes-on-the-ground is a bit prickish (tempted though I have been to participate), but I still see that as mockery not cruelty. Perhaps there isn’t much difference, or is perhaps in the eye of the beholder.

    So, no, I don’t think we should hold back the laughter, at least in print and on-line. Were I to come face to face with a real rapture believer, I would feel pity more than anything. And I desperately hope no one commits suicide as a result. The stories of financial ruin will hopefully turn to stories of class-action lawsuits. And maybe some folks who are on the edge of disbelief will see Camping shenanigans and start to question their own interpretation of the bible.

  • Dave

    No one outside this small group of zealots gives their claims the slightest bit of credence; they don’t receive the “but who can ever know” kind of deferential treatment that more mainstream religions command.

    I don’t think mainstream Christians are down on them because their claims are ridiculous, it’s because their claims are testable, and that is a cardinal sin among believers. (You may draw your own conclusions as to why this might be so)

  • Ash

    I’m with Rick on this one – this isn’t really a huge leap above all the other superstition that regularly gets made fun of. And because this prediction is refutable, this has to potential to shake lots of blind faith – there could be a lot of benefit to this event as well.

  • Steffen

    Here is a very interesting blog entry, written by a christian, giving some very valuable insider insights into the mind of Harold Camping:

    http://alephblog.com/2011/05/20/on-harold-camping-and-the-end-of-the-world/

    It all becomes more clear when taking into account that Harold Camping got more than 100 million dollars in donations over the last years, and his personal fortune is estimated to be around 75 million dollars.

    It’s rather unimportant whether Harold Camping is believing his own nonsense or not. But what is quite clear in my humble opinion: He is a ruthless malicious businessman, who doesn’t care at all about the misery he induces in other people.

    The international attention he got was the worst thing that could happen. The best thing would have been to ignore him completely.

  • Penguin_Factory

    I partially agree with this.

    I have absolutely no sympathy for most of the ringleaders and organizers of this because to me, they’re not just victims of delusion, they’re trying to make other people victims as well. Making a mockery of their beliefs might help to stop gullible people from getting taken along for the ride.

    On the other hand, it occurred to me recently that a lot of these people are probably convincing their children that the world is ending today, and I obviously don’t blame kids for being indoctrinated by their parents. I’d hate to think what kind of effect this is having on them.

  • Alex Weaver

    I think it’s not only excessively uncharitable to assume that “making fun of stupid people” is the only reason people use ridicule to attack destructive social phenomena, it ignores a great deal of what we know about how people are actually persuaded of things.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    I don’t see why I can’t make fun of stupid beliefs and have sympathy for those who hold them.

  • Vin720

    I would not laugh at them or even know about them, if they hadn’t pushed the issue. BTW, just how many followers do they have? It seems to me that it’s just a bought way to get media attention.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    I’m not sure how many Rapture seekers are actually mad (or otherwise mentally ill), and how many are simply caught in a temporarily heightened state of wishful thinking and/or desperation.

    I don’t think mockery actually directly convinces any substantial group of faith-driven people about anything. In some cases, it may heighten their feeling of need and cause them to cling ever more devotedly to their ideas. That doesn’t mean mockery is necessarily an inappropriate response, nor guarantee that there is some notably better method.

    It is fairly tragic and pitiful that people find actual entertainment in others’ delusional suffering. We can try to control that response, but it seems pretty deeply rooted in the social dynamics of in/out group behavior. In no other context have we gained full control of that, so I don’t think it will happen in this case, either.

    What I find worst, though, is that media outlets go out of their way to actively exploit these situations for profit. Especially with the celebrity cases, even when the situation has faded away, they find ways to revive it. It never ceases to amaze me how many are drawn into that gossip-and-rumors nonsense, but it must be making massive money considering how much air time it occupies.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Leah, I applaud your compassion, but I’m not sure that our public pity would be any more welcome than our scorn.

  • TommyP

    I really can’t stop laughing. Not only is it funny… I was raised to expect the Rapture in my lifetime, and the ridicule of others was a critical catalyst in getting my head out of my butt on that one.

  • Alex SL

    Difficult topic, and one that applies to every question of responsibility.

    Yes, we are the products of our upbringing, education, environment, indoctrination, and we cannot really help how we are. But then again, once somebody is of age, they generally assume the rights to vote, to sign contracts, to sue other people, to raise their own children, and many more. With those rights comes responsibility for their actions. If you think they are, essentially, too ignorant, dumb and indoctrinated to be made fun of when they do really stupid things, what you are implicitly saying is that they should all be put under tutelage. With people as religious as that, I am tempted to agree, by the way. But they aren’t under tutelage, they are generally not considered to be insane enough to warrant that. It is assumed that they are grown ups, and as such they can be treated as fools when they behave like fools. The real tragedy here is about their children.

  • Alex SL

    By the way, while Fred Clark’s posts on Left Behind are often interesting to read, I cannot help but finding them creepy just as often. The completely oblivious way in which he criticizes people like LaHaye and Camping for the irrationality and counter-factuality of their beliefs without… well, how can I possibly phrase that in a non-offensive way? …without realizing that his own beliefs are precisely as ridiculous and irrational as theirs is kind of depressing. The main difference between them is that Fred Clark promotes lies and delusions to exhort people to be kinder and more empathetic, which is much preferable of course, but it does not change the fact that he has a major case of beam in his own eye going on.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    So…. I’m posting from Heaven. You a-theists must be feeling pretty stupid now, eh?

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Wait, maybe it’s tomorrow. Did Camping take into account when God made the sun stand still for a day in Joshua?

  • archimedez

    Ridiculing bad ideas and people who espouse them is a way of punishing and therefore discouraging people from having those bad ideas.

    In a sense, we regulate and try to influence each other much of the time in our social interactions. We reward and encourage what we think is good and true, and we punish what we think is bad and false.

    Leah wrote: “By focusing on the absurdity of their beliefs, we’ve given ourselves permission to ignore the human cost of their derangement.”

    No we (those of us who’ve mocked and joked about this nonsense) haven’t; the two are not mutually exclusive. There is a cost to their bad ideas, and ridiculing them over this doesn’t mean we are ignoring the cost.

  • HighDudgeonAZ

    I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it was that Harold Camping and his followers were praying for: The Deliberate End Of Everything (TM).

    Earthquakes. Famine. War. Disease. The deaths of billions of people, followed by eternal torment for the unsaved and “unworthy,” so that a few, a scant relative few, could ascend into a magical sky kingdom, look down upon endless suffering, and feel a smug sense of self-righteous justification at being one of the chosen elect.

    You’re right. A stony silence of contempt, not mockery, is what is called for.