Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Harold Camping and May 21st, 2011

The Story

Now this may be old news, but this is a classic, and recent, example of a doomsday prophecy. To recap this saga, it began with a man called Harold Camping. In 1992, Camping published a book titled "1994?". I'll be honest, i haven't read it myself, but according to all available sources, it contains a proclamation that Christ's return "might" be on September 6, 1994. This prediction is based on a numerological analysis using various numbers from the bible. Now don't let the "logical" in "numerological" fool you; it is not a science. In fact, it seems to rank up there with astrology on the "ancient divination systems used to rip people off" scale. When September 6 passed with no holy wrath, Camping, citing a mathematical error, rescheduled his prediction for May 21, 2011.

Anyway, of course, May 21 passed and no one seems to have been "raptured". The earthquakes that Camping foretold would ripple across the globe at 6pm in each timezone didn't show up. The only plague i noticed around that time was the plague of Camping/Rapture-related jokes sweeping the internet. And i'm sure the only hell on earth was experienced by the people who drank too much at Rapture parties, but only until they got some morning-after hangover food into their systems. Camping has since (after going into hiding for a few days) modified his prediction again, stating that May 21st was a "spiritual" rapture (ie. final submission date for your soul), and "realized" that a merciful god would spare humanity 5 months of hell on earth and, you know, just destroy it all at once on October 21st instead. I guess procrastination is pretty universal.


Now, maybe Camping made these prophecies out of faith, maybe he really felt he had found something that he had to share with his fellow Christians. The thing that makes this wrong is the damage it caused to those who blindly followed this prophecy. Many people quit work, donated their life savings or paid enterprising atheists take care of their pets after they were raptured. Interestingly, according to a member of staff at Family Radio, 80% of employees there didn't buy it, and business carried on as per usual.

This date worked out very well for Camping's radio station. A quick glance at the financials for Family Stations, inc. (the name under which Family Radio files) on watchdog website www.ministrywatch.com, reveals that revenues have been on the lean side lately. As the organization's revenues are mainly from donations, raising awareness can be very profitable, and this awareness was raised all over the english speaking world - mostly with their street campaigns and billboards, but also fueled by the media. A search for Camping's name or "Family Radio" in Google Trends reveals a huge spike in the run up to May 21st. It would be very interesting to see the income figures for Family Stations for this year. Interestingly, in Minnesota, they applied for an extension for the filing of their nonprofit paperwork, from July 15th to November 15th. A month after the end of the world?

Some other interesting points in their financials include their Total Assets declining from $152 million in 2007, to $117 million in 2008. As a company fueled by charitable donations, it's understandable that their assets would jump around a little: '05-'06, assets declined by $7m; '06-'07 assets declined by $11m; but a $35m decline from '07-'08 does seem quite large. Also, while Camping doesn't receive a salary for his position as CEO, he's listed on their '09 tax return as having an outstanding loan of $175, 000 from the company. 

So, it seems that this May 21st "prophecy" was a theory based on flakey numerology, embraced by Camping's core group of followers, but nobody else. His staff, his fellow Christians, and well, just about everybody else, rejected the idea. It's definitely good business for his company, but i do believe that this was the work of numerology and self delusion. And if he's any kind of a man, he'll make things right with those followers who gave up everything to spread his flawed word.

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