William Egginton on the Rapture

William Egginton on the RaptureThe following post is by William Egginton, author of In Defense of Religious Moderation.

Let’s face it. Looking forward to May 22, 2011, as a day to laugh in the face of apocalypse-nowers makes about as much sense as getting excited about showing birthers another copy of Obama’s birth certificate.

What these groups have in common is a singular disregard for what most of us might call evidence.

It would be easier to dismiss such people altogether if it weren’t for reports that up to 56% of Americans, according to a Time Magazine poll, “believe the prophecies in the Book of Revelation will come true.” 

Indeed, such proportions seem in line with the circa 60% of Americans who, according to a CNN poll taken last August, doubted that President Obama was in fact born in the US.

Bill Maher’s laugh line that those awaiting the rapture this Saturday should “put their money where their mouth is,” and wager $5,000 with him, overlooks that some have done just that, resigning from their jobs, ceasing to save for their children’s educations, or letting their savings run out.

Others have been considerably more pragmatic, however: taking vacation time in case their jobs and the need to earn a living survive the weekend. This seems more like Pascal’s wager than Maher’s: if the risks are minim and the potential rewards are infinite, you might as well play along.

Indeed, if economic activity is any indication, nothing like 56% of the public is willing to take Maher’s bet; unemployment figures show lots of people vying for the few jobs out there.

But claiming that someone was not born in the US and claiming that massive earthquakes are currently rolling across the world’s time zones have different reality thresholds to overcome. In other words, it’s much easier to believe everyone else is deluded about a piece of paper being authentic than to believe your own senses are deluded about the world not exploding all around you.

So, what’s in a poll? Most of the 56% who purportedly “believe” the prophecies probably aren’t ready to give up their jobs over them yet. And if 60% of Americans really doubted Obama was a natural born citizen when asked last August, a poll taken in May of this year showed that number had declined to 3%, suggesting that in the case of birthers, at least, the reality threshold was a little closer to earth.

Maybe the question the pollsters should ask on Sunday is: does the world still exist? If you’re around to answer this question, please select “yes.”

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