I saw this billboard while driving towards the Bay Bridge in San Francisco a few days ago, and it just made me smile! Aside from the “whoa I just saw something in person that’s making national news” moment, it let me know about the rapture day even going on here. Crazy I know, I actually learned something from a billboard. Unfortunately I won’t be able to go because I’ll have some visitors from out of town in that weekend who are decidedly not atheist. I really really really wish I could go too, but it is what it is.
For those that don’t know, this specific prediction of the end of the world comes courtesy of Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster and head of Christian Radio, a radio broadcast network in California. He is based in Oakland (yes, we have religious crazies here too, sadly), so it makes sense that the American Atheist are holding a big Rapture Party in Oakland as well. Camping came up with the date by saying that the rapture will occur 7000 years after Noah’s flood, which he claims occurred in 4990 BC. Where did these numbers come from? Ignoring the most obvious response of “he pulled it out of his ass”, Camping cites various biblical passages as truth and does some Nostradamian number fudging to come up with his answer.  It would be funny, if it weren’t for the real tragedy this is inflicting on people 
I’ve heard the words “hoax” and “fraud” thrown around when describing Camping and his prediction. I don’t think these are accurate descriptions though, at least in the dictionary sense of the words. Being a fraud and pulling of a hoax requires the perpetrator to be aware that they are performing a hoax. We can’t know for certain what Camping’s motivations actually are, of course, but I suspect that he really and truly believes what he’s saying. I think he’s really that delusional. He strikes me as one of those Christians who believes the bible is word-for-word accurate. Once someone accepts that, then they can perform all sorts of “calculations” like Camping did. To them it’s like solving a logic puzzle (without the mathematical rigor of formal logic of course).
So why do other Christians believe this tripe? There are sure to be many reasons, of course, because everyone has their own motivations that vary from person to person. There are some common themes that I have observed among Christians though that I think apply here.
The first is that fundamentalist Christians (and fundamentalist people in general) have an incredible capacity for self-delusion. They live in a bubble where they concoct proof of their beliefs based purely on informal logic derived from the bible (and friends). Relying on informal logic alone without scientific observation to back it up can lead to all sorts of wrong ideas (note: future blog post idea). To make matters worse, these ideas tend to be shared and adopted by other people with a like-mindset. Even though there is some truth to the “wisdom of the group” when viewed in a vacuum, the opposite tends to be true once a collaborative framework is added . It’s very tough to dissuade someone who has all of these defense mechanisms in place that are reinforced by other like-minded people.
I think another reason that people believe the rapture will occur is simply because they want it to occur. Of course we all know that just simply wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true (religious crazies included), but it does predispose us to believing “evidence” put forth for it without critically analyzing it first. Combined with the self-delusion mentioned above, it becomes very easy for them to latch on to these crazy ideas. I’m sure there are many reasons why Christians want the rapture to be true, but I think it all comes down personal validation. We, as humans, like to be proven right, and we like to be proven better than everyone else. It’s just human nature. In the case of the religious, they want their beliefs to be validated, and what better way to validate their beliefs than for their end of the world prediction to come true. If the rapture were to occur exactly as predicted in the bible, then it would pretty much confirm that Christianity is real. I think there’s also a revenge thing going on: Christians have a severe persecution complex, and the rapture occurring would be the ultimate way to “get back” at everyone who they believe persecuted them.
Another thought is that the fundies realize they are on the loosing end of many battles, from the increasing acceptance of homosexuality to our gains in banning government led prayer. They obviously want to reverse this trend, and so they subconsciously are pushing the rapture as a means to an end. To me, this whole rapture thing is really pretty similar to passion plays of old (and movies of new). To devout Christians, the idea of the rapture is big, really big, as in “holy crap I gotta fix my life now” big. By saying the rapture will occur soon, I think the fundies are trying to get people to re-prioritize their lives accordingly. It’s really just advertising basics. As people become used to the everyday, something bigger and better is needed to garner the same interest that a lesser add would have garnered previously. The rapture is just a bigger and better scare story. I’m sure this is all happening subconsciously too.
Whatever the reasons, I can’t wait to see their reactions and backpedaling come Monday.
“That is my principle objection to life, I think: It is too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.” – Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 
 “2011 end times prediction.” Internet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_end_times_prediction
 H. Mehta. “Does the Upcoming Rapture Day Actually Hurt Anyone?” Internet: http://friendlyatheist.com/2011/05/13/does-the-upcoming-rapture-actually-hurt-anyone/, May 13, 2011
 J. Lorenza, H. Rauhutb, F. Schweitzera, D. Helbing. “How social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowd effect.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States and Canada. Available: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/05/10/1008636108
 K. Vonnegut (1982). Deadeye Dick (Dell Publishing).