Harold Camping's Rapture, and Making Religion Embarrassing

Today is the day that Harold Camping, creator of last May’s Rapture fiasco, has predicted the Rapture will actually be happening. No, really, This time for sure. The last time was a sort of secret Judgment, in which God decided who was going to be raptured and who was going to suffer the torments of Armageddon, but didn’t tell anybody or do anything about it. The actual, real Rapture… that’s today.

Except… have you noticed that Camping’s not making as big a fuss about it this time around? Have you noticed that this time, he’s not buying up billboards around the country, or generally making himself into a media darling? He’s keeping a much lower profile this time. In fact, he’s already started back-pedaling. Even before today’s deadline rolled around, he’d already started equivocating and making excuses, saying “it looks like” the end was “probably” coming on October 21. He thinks.

I obviously don’t know what’s going on in Harold Camping’s head, and I don’t know for sure why he’s changed his tactics. Even if I could get inside his head, I don’t think it would be informative: I think the man is so steeped in denial and self-delusion, even he doesn’t know why he does the things he does. But I’m going to speculate.

I think we successfully embarrassed him.

And by “we,” I don’t just mean atheists. Atheists were having a field day over the Rapture, of course — but so were a lot of people. On Rapture Day in May, there were Rapture parties big and small, all over the country, and indeed around the world. Facebook on Rapture Day was pretty much eaten up with jokes about the topic. I was at a Rapture-themed conference that day… and as a result, I had to miss the big public Rapture party in Dolores Park. Just about nobody except Camping’s followers actually took it seriously, except as a psychological and sociological phenomenon. It was one giant national joke. International, even. And of course, the media had a ball with it. I honestly don’t remember seeing anything like it before: there have been countless “end of the world” predictions in my lifetime, and none of them got the giant, world-wide horse laugh that this one did.

The supposed Rapture last May was a circus. And Harold Camping was the clown.

We embarrassed him. I think he’s being very cautious as a result. I think he’s reluctant to be quite so public about making such easily falsifiable claims about his purported God. I think he doesn’t want to get egg on his face again.


We should keep it up.

Not just with Camping — but with all religion.

This is a point JT Eberhard has been making in many of his talks and in much of his writing: We have to create a world in which people are embarrassed to express religious beliefs that are embarrassing. We have to create a world in which people think twice about saying that they have an invisible friend who came to earth in human form 2,000 years ago and sacrificed himself to himself so he could forgive the bad people who made him angry because their ancestors ate a forbidden magic fruit. We have to create a world… oh, I’m just going to quote JT:

Part of why people stay religious is because it is easy to do. I seek to make it less easy. I seek to create a world where people cannot open their mouths to tell someone about Jesus without wondering if, without the obligatory respect to which religion has grown accustomed, the target of their evangelism will make a public fool of them. I dream of a world where irrationality knows no sanctuary and no quarter outside the cathedral.

I don’t think it’s an accident that International Make Fun of the Rapture Day happened when it did. I think atheists are changing the culture. There are probably a lot of reasons why the Rapture caught the public imagination as much as it did: the ubiquitousness of the billboards leaps to mind, as does the fact that it happened on a Saturday when people could party. But I think the atheist movement can take at least some credit for it. Again: I seriously can’t remember any other end- of- the- world prediction that got a global pie in the face as much as this one did. And again: It wasn’t just atheists laughing themselves silly over this jackass and his laughable prediction. Loads of people were having fun with it. I think the atheist movement — and our questioning and criticism of religion, either overtly or simply by our very existence — has something to do with that. I think the atheist movement is beginning to strip religion of its armor, the layers of deference and special treatment that’s kept this ridiculous idea perpetuated for so long.

We have to keep it up.

We have to create an environment in which religion is treated like any other idea — and if it’s an unusually silly version of that idea, we should make fun of it. We make fun of silly political ideas, and scientific ideas, ideas about art and music and philosophy and medicine. We should feel no more compunction making fun of silly religious ideas than we do any other. As Ingrid likes to say: If you don’t want your beliefs to be ridiculed, don’t have such ridiculous beliefs.

Like I wrote the other day: Religion relies on social consent to perpetuate itself. We have to deny that consent. We have to stop nodding and saying, “Yes, yes, the Emperor’s new clothes, aren’t they lovely?” We have to stop looking the other way and secretly facepalming when we see the Emperor parading down the boulevard stark naked. We have to be willing to say, out loud, “No, his clothes aren’t magnificent! Are you high? His clothes are non-existent! The man is naked, naked, naked!” And we have to be willing to point and laugh.

If we do, maybe the Emperor will think twice, and take a longer look in the mirror, before he parades his ridiculous and harmful ideas naked down the public streets.

Harold Camping's Rapture, and Making Religion Embarrassing
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35 thoughts on “Harold Camping's Rapture, and Making Religion Embarrassing

  1. 1

    My wife is struggling with severe health issues, and so my most recent experiences with religious statements are of the “my prayers are with you” variety from friends and co-workers. I don’t know how to respond to these prayers except with an awkward “I appreciate your thoughts”. Plus, although my wife and I are both atheists, she is seeking a bit of religious meaning and acceptance through her difficulties, and tries any number of woo supplements to try to get something to stick.
    I need to tread lightly in this environment, for many reasons. My thoughts on the matter would not be well received, I deem. I’m 100 miles from pointing and laughing.
    Greta, I’m curious if you are faced with a situation where the religious elements are closer to home, with someone you love. How do you finesse it?

  2. 2

    I’m sorry you and your wife are going through tough times.

    If you’re concerned that the woo is getting to her, and you really want to tackle this issue, my suggestion would be to ask her what she’s getting from the woo, or what she wants to get from it, or what she expects to get from it.

    If she can articulate the need, you have an opening to point out how she can get the need(s) filled by non-woo, or acknowledge that the need (such as a sense of security that she’s not going to suffer and die) cannot be filled, and can only be coped with.

    Nobody said it was easy to live without the comforting lies of religion. It’s just a lot more stable to build your house on the rock of reality instead of the sand of illusion.

  3. 3

    I think the extent to which he advertised it has a lot to do with it… Sure, people predict the end of the world all the time, but mostly nobody outside their congregation or immediate social circle hears about it. Camping made the mistake of having a truly massive international marketing campaign to advertise his foolishness. I mean, I saw several of those posters in a train station here in Edinburgh, Scotland. That’s really just asking for it… Especially when you consider that this whole “Rapture” business is almost entirely an American belief – there are very, very few people over here (even amongst the devout) who believe in a literal Second Coming of any kind, and the ones who do generally don’t believe in anything like that particular form of it. Try and talk up the Rapture in your typical CoE or CoS congregation, and they’re going to think you’re every bit as mad as we fire-breathing atheists would.

    So I’d have to say that I think the key difference was that he advertised one particular strange belief far beyond the specific culture in which that belief enjoys social consent, even amongst believers.

  4. 4

    Maybe he is on the down-low this time because he ran out of of cash. It takes a pile of it to embarrass oneself properly.

    As far as outing the Emperor for his new clothes, we should do it every day in every way!

  5. 5

    There seem to be a lot of Rapture believers who imagine themselves to be less nutty than Camping by virtue of their claim that no-one can know the date. They are just as deluded as he is, most of them seem to have some sort of deadline which coincides with their own likely life expectancy. Going from memory, I seem to think that Armaggeddon is an actual place in the Middle East where an actual battle is supposed to take place. The battle will probably involve swords, shields and spears.

  6. 6


    Naturally you wouldn’t point and laugh at a sick person about their religious beliefs, but when a person does something like Camping did with this end of the world nonsense then pointing and laughing is exactly the thing to do.

    I do think it’s worth talking to religious people who are sick or dying about their beliefs, though. How many people die afraid that they’re going to burn in hell? How many people spend the last bit of time they have on earth worrying about what is going to happen next rather than spending it focusing on someone or something they love?

    Probably not well said but hopefully you get the gist.

  7. 8

    Como, I hope things get better for you and your wife. I’ve found a good way to reply to “I’ll be praying for you” statements is to immediately follow up with a request to fulfill a real, actual need. Sometimes the person offering prayers either doesn’t know what they can do, or feels like there’s nothing they can do. So give them something to do!

    For example:

    “I am keeping you and your wife in my prayers.”
    “Well actually, taking care of her keeps me really busy, and I haven’t had time to mow my lawn in weeks. Could you come by this weekend and help out?”

    This has a twofold effect. First, it’s a more tactful way to say “I don’t need you to beg your magical friend for favors on my behalf, I need you to actually DO something instead!”

    Second, most people I’ve used this on are happy to respond to reasonable requests – they get to help somebody they care about AND they get to feel like they’re DOING SOMETHING, which is what “I’m praying for you” seems to be a substitute for anyway. Even if they don’t get the ultimate point you’re making and feel like they’re just being good Christians, at least you’re getting them used to actually doing something useful.

    Just realized this before I hit ‘submit comment’. The other effect this has is that it weeds out the people who don’t want to back their words with actions, and just say “I’m praying” so they can count it as doing something without having to do anything. You don’t need those people in your life anyway, now’s a good time to get rid of them.

  8. 10

    There seem to be a lot of Rapture believers who imagine themselves to be less nutty than Camping by virtue of their claim that no-one can know the date. They are just as deluded as he is, most of them seem to have some sort of deadline which coincides with their own likely life expectancy.

    Yep. Whenever I see a Christian pretending that Camping is some crazy outlier who doesn’t represent “true” Christianity, I like to pass this on.

  9. 11

    I’m really kind of fascinated by the reaction of believers who think that someone else’s mythology is crazy and weird, but theirs isn’t. I just can’t get my head around that disconnect. It’s showing up a lot in the media now because Mitt Romney is looking like the GOP nominee and people are starting to look at Mormonism more closely. For some reason, it’s considered rude—even hateful—the weirdness of having an invisible real estate agent, haberdasher, or diet consultant, but it’s quite okay to giggle at the Mormon idea that in the afterlife, everyone becomes giant gods who rule over their own planets. (Honestly, a much cooler sounding afterlife than the clouds and harps scenario.) Similarly, you’re odd but sane if you believe in the Rapture, but kind of a looney if you put a specific date on it. The drawing of these arbitrary lines between reasonable belief and just plain NUTS is even odder than the beliefs themselves.

    All of which is a somewhat longwinded way of saying that I agree with you completely, Greta.

  10. 12

    Lauren –

    I can’t speak for Como or anyone else, but I know that if I had serious health problems, I would be looking at the woo. I’d be up to my eyeballs in science-based medicine, of course, but I’d also be looking at the woo for that one-in-a-million chance of its being effective.

    I don’t mean psychic surgery, for instance, or magnets, but if someone were to tell me that some bizarre combination of Chinese herbs and earthworm penises had a known curative effect for whatever I had, yeah, I’d seriously consider trying it.

    Dunc –

    He put up a billboard in my town. It’s still up. We can’t quite figure out why, either. I’d assume he wouldn’t have paid his ad contract beyond May 22nd, but apparently the lease is still active.

  11. 13

    After May 21st Camping and his organization decided not to return any of the money that they had collected to, supposedly, let as much of the world know the end was coming as they could. But why was there money left after the 21st? Why didn’t they spend it all on saving souls. I mean, if you really believed it, wouldn’t that be the single most important thing that you could do with your life? Give up a few measly years and some money saving souls for all of eternity? I was always bad at math, but I’m pretty sure that eternity is very long.

    But it turns out that there was money left. Okay. But they can’t use it anymore for salvation advertising because we were all judged on May 21st; there’s no point, your ultimate destination is decided. (Why are we still having babies?) But he won’t return the money. He says, “We’re not at the end, so why return it?” He didn’t close his organization, which doesn’t need to exist anymore, he didn’t stop taking money.

    My guess isn’t that he’s embarrassed, but that he’s guilty. Camping is a little quieter now because he is a crook, a fraud and a liar, stealing money from the gullible faithful. And the whole damned world — except for a few suckers — knows it.

  12. 14

    This is the opportunity being missed. Camping’s lunacy should be tied to all Christians who believe in the Rapture.

    There is no difference between the two, especially when the only difference in the delusional event is a date.

  13. 15

    So true, shripathikamath. Most Rapture believers that I’ve run into are convinced that it will happen sometime in their life, usually insisting that it’s just around the corner, but they’re not often openly criticized. It’s like saying, “The guy who says there are tiny unicorns living in his brain is insane, but the one who knows only that there is some kind of small horse in his head is fine.”

  14. 16

    The DAY has passed, Australia is still here. The Spring Racing Carnival is in full swing in Melbourne. Queen Elizabeth II is touring Australia. So what went wrong Harold?

  15. 18

    Like Dunc, I give Camping most of the credit for his own humiliation. It was the most-mocked apocalyptic prediction, sure, but it was the most publicized to begin with. With the possible exceptions of January 1, 2000 and December 21, 2012.

  16. 19

    I think in terms of making religion embarrassing, the model should be smoking. Two generations ago everyone did it, a generation ago lots of people still did but it was generally considered better if you didn’t. Now you can do it in your house, but if you want to at work, you have to go outside, and it’s disgusting to see anyone doing it anywhere near a child.

    It ties in with what Greta’s said before – the social acceptability of it is the key. And the thing about smoking is that changed very fast, and it turned out that, no, most people didn’t actually like smoke blown in their face.

  17. 20

    Are there really people that openly admit they believe in god in America?
    I’ve hardly ever met someone like that here in Germany, except for very old people and some obvious exeptions like priest.
    Seems were are quite a far way into making ridiculous claims ridiculous. But still there are a lot of special rights the religions get here.

  18. 21

    We have to create a world in which people are embarrassed to express religious beliefs that are embarrassing.

    Beautiful. I’m totally stealing that line. 🙂

  19. 22

    This piece is very reassuring. Still leaving religion when my children were born, I didn’t get them baptised just because it felt wrong. However, I’d more or less promised the priests that I would (so that they’d marry me & my nominally Episcopalean husband in a Carholic Church and make my parents happy) and I felt pretty guilty about that decision. One thing I was certain of, I wanted to tell my children truthfully how the world worked, which sometimes involved finding out more about it myself. Well, you know where that leads.

    The thing is, they are now of an age to say skeptical things about religion, things that would have been completely unsayable among the (very nice) people I grew up with. When I hear these things come out of their mouths and see them make the “Really?!” face, part of my mind still mutters “What have you done?” But then I can read lovely Greta Christina and think, “Nope, this is OK. Really doing the right thing here.”

  20. 23


    It is happening .

    God is just erasing every memory you have of the raptured ones around you.

    He also erasing every scrap of evidence so that you are unaware that it’s happening.

    Unfortunately I’m not being raptured either.

    Wait a minute! What’s that light in the sky? Can it be? What joy… urrrfghh!

  21. 24

    I don’t get this obsession with the end of the world that so many devoutly religious people have. From the outside in, it looks like they’re not only anticipating it, but actually looking forward to it. If that’s the case, why wait for May 21 or October 21. Why aren’t they just jumping off bridges? Why wait (and by no means am I insinuating that I want anyone to do such a thing) ?

  22. 26

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Camping’s children and grandchildren have been keeping him under wraps since May 21st. His religious organisation has tens of millions of dollars floating around and the family was probably dismayed to see so much of it being frittered away on advertising during the last few years. Now that contributions have slowed to a trickle, the family will be doing everything it can to keep hold of whatever cash remains – and if that means Harold has to kept under house arrest, then that’s what will happen. No way do they want the silly old fart to spend their inheritance on some stupid religious idea that nobody believes anyway.

  23. 27

    I don’t get this obsession with the end of the world that so many devoutly religious people have.

    Two camps: One group wants to spend eternity dry-humping Jaysus and his genocidal daddy.

    Vindictiveness: They want to be sitting up in heaven and watching all the people they hate burn.

  24. 28

    >>Two camps: One group wants to spend eternity dry-humping Jaysus and his genocidal daddy.

    Vindictiveness: They want to be sitting up in heaven and watching all the people they hate burn. <<

    I wonder how they're going to feel sitting up in heaven watching all those they hate AND the ones they love sitting in hell. After all, with the gays, abortionists, non-believers, prostitutes, and gamblers downstairs whoever makes it up to the imaginary place in the sky won't have much company.

  25. 29

    On Friday I spend part of the day mocking the Christians in the office about Camping and the cRapture. I know it was petty of me but I really enjoyed it and everyone had a good laugh at their expense. We also had fun mocking the woman who married so that she could have sex. Seriously.

    Hey, it isn’t my fault that they believe such weird stuff and I’m hardly likely to pass up the opportunity to mock them.

  26. 30

    Henning –

    They more than openly admit it; they proclaim it, and wear it as a badge of honor.

    Steeped as I am in the religious christard fuckwit ninnery the US exudes, it’s difficult for me to conceive of a culture that’s not even aware of just how backward this nation is. There are millions of US citizens whose sole raison d’etre is to ‘witness for Jesus’, meaning to blather endlessly and mindlessly about their crucifixion poster boy. These halfwits are responsible for edifices such as the ‘Creation Museum’ and the fact that nearly half of Americans still think there’s a controversy surrounding the fact of evolution.

    Believe me. They are everywhere. His nation is more or less literally crawling with them.

    hoverfrog –

    Were those people there when you were mocking them? I’d hope so, or your words will have had no effect.

  27. 32

    The only difference between Harold Camping and everyone else who believes in the superstition of “The Rapture” is that HE was dumb enough to actually pick a date. All those Rapture believers who are laughing at him along with us? You are just as looney as him, but without the gusto to mark your calendar like Harold did.

  28. 33

    ‘They are everywhere. His nation is more or less literally crawling with them.’

    I’m British, moved to the US five years ago. It’s amazingly Christy here, even on the East Coast, which is the normal bit. Once you drive an hour West of here, there are Noah’s Arks and huge crosses on the hillsides.

    But even in a college town, East Coast, normal … people pour into the churches on Sundays. There are so many Jesus bumper stickers, people routinely drop ‘God willing’ or whatever into conversation, they credit God with every minor success.

    I feel a bit like Gene Hackman’s character in the Birdcage, it’s like ‘who are these flamboyant freaks?’.

    The thing Americans don’t realize … you are the outliers. The rest of the developed world has grown out of this. Britain is so staggeringly irreligious that a politician *dare* not mention his faith because we’d know he was a candidate for the funny farm. When an American politician ends ever paragraph with ‘and God bless America’ it really does register as intrusive and weird – imagine him ending a speech with a very loud fart: that’s how it sounds to us. Politicans in the UK have to defend their religious beliefs, never their lack of them.

    And when you get to Denmark, or Australia … these are entirely god-free countries. Religion exists, people are free to … but give people *actual* freedom of religion, and they’ll free themselves from religion.

    There is another way. And once you stop being a Christian country, you start feeding the poor, giving them health care, seeing the end to inequality, seeing a real care for the environment.

    Put it this way: Britain legalized civil partnerships ten years ago, and a couple of weeks ago *a right wing* government just upgraded that to allow gay couples to get married. There was no fuss, no bullshit, it just happened.

    Don’t worry, America, it’ll happen. You’re just lagging a generation behind.

  29. 34

    +1 Steve Jeffers except that I find that Britain panders far too much to the religious and needs to reform to remove things like the Lords Spiritual from the legislature and the Queen as head of state and church.

  30. 35

    “+1 Steve Jeffers except that I find that Britain panders far too much to the religious and needs to reform to remove things like the Lords Spiritual from the legislature and the Queen as head of state and church.”

    I’d agree with the theory of that. In practice … well, does it make a huge difference? Totting up what people think about it, the biggest complaints about that seem to be come from the other religious factions moaning they don’t get their own Lords Spiritual. And there’s an established Church … that 400,000 people out of sixty million visit on a regular basis. Better that than something like the US where rich religions throw around actual influence on specific votes.

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