It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

I’m sure that everyone has heard by now that the world did not, in fact, end on Saturday May 21, 2011, as was predicted by Harold Camping and his followers.

I must admit that I felt an odd blend of emotions in the lead-up to and aftermath of Saturday… a mix of theological revulsion, pity for the followers who had quit their jobs and caused strife in their families, thorough amusement at the Twitter and Facebook responses I was reading (#RapturePickupLines, anyone?), and a weird fascination with how the whole thing was happening.

By way of a news update, yesterday Camping announced that May 21 was more of a “spiritual” coming of Christ (more than another Saturday?) and that a merciful God must have decided to spare the world five months of Tribulation…but that his prediction that the whole world will end on October 21 was still correct. Here we go again.

Among the more interesting pieces I’ve found since Saturday are two responses to Camping from figures who have been fairly active in debates over the role of religion: John Shelby Spong, the ultra-liberal former Episcopal Bishop, and Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist and evolutionary biologist. In these pieces, Spong claims that Christianity should not be identified with Camping’s “nonsense,” and that science explains the end of the world. Meanwhile, Dawkins writes that science explains the end of the world and that anything taught by religious “traditions” is nonsense.

I was fascinated by the fact that, while the spirit in which the message is conveyed differs, Spong and Dawkins were basically expressing the same idea. Religions should not be troubling themselves with something like the end of the world, because science has already been explaining it. There is empirical evidence for how and (roughly) when the world is going to end, so these predictions of the Rapture are hogwash. (Incidentally, the Rapture is hogwash for more than one reason– I recommend this article from Methodist pastor Mark Schaefer for an in-depth explanation.)

I tend to agree with Dawkins and Spong that religion should not be troubling themselves with expecting the end of the world. First of all, it is both morbid and useless to worry over something that you cannot control. Second, and more importantly, the end-of-the-world mindset can encourage people to forget about responsibilities in the here and now. It broke my heart to read a story in the New York Times about a family in which the parents believed in the May 21 prophecy and the kids didn’t, in which one of the kids no longer felt motivated to pursue future plans– not because he believed the world was going to end, but because he no longer felt support from his parents for his hopes and aspirations. This is just wrong.

Expecting the end of the world can also lead to nihilistic politics that absolve us of our responsibilities to each other and to the earth. What would motivate us to care, if the world is just going to end soon anyway? Ironically enough, these sorts of policies make it more likely that humanity will destroy itself sooner versus later. As Spong wrote in his article, “Human life will come to an end a lot sooner if politicians lead us into either nuclear holocaust or environmental disaster.”

It is precisely this reality that religion should be fighting against. Religion should be a voice against dangerous (and anti-scientific) mindsets that would hasten the end of the world simply by believing it is imminent. Maybe the Biblical statement that “none shall know the day or hour” was meant to stop us from worrying about the problems of what is to come in the distant future, and keep us focused on solving problems that affect real people in the present and immediate future.

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