Pastor Harold Camping — the strangely-named 89-year-old retired engineer preaching the apocalypse — has broken his silence over the failure of the rapture to materialise on the weekend, expressing his fundamental bewilderment by the failure of the world to end:

“I can tell you when May 21 came and went it was a very difficult time for me — a very difficult time. I was truly wondering what is going on. In my mind I went back through all of the promises God had made. What in the world was happening?”

But eventually he came up with an explanation: God was so merciful that the original timetable of an initial apocalypse followed by five months of earthly torment had been revised because God has been so merciful:

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“The great earthquake and rapture and the universe melting in fervent heat will be happening on the last day — October 21, 2011. It’s all going to happen on the last day.”

And in speaking to his followers, he gave one of the great unintentional explanations of religion of all time:

“It was marvellous how everything was going until May 21 came…”

Yeah, it sure was. That warning of the apocalypse thing was just swimming along until that one small detail ruined everything. It’s right up there with “apart from that, how did you like our fair city of Dallas, Mrs Kennedy?”

Yet the most amazing thing about the “Family Radio” apocalypse was not the fervent activity of its relatively small number of followers, but the fervent attention it gained from the world’s media, and from a global network of atheists and humanists.

The group isn’t the first sect to attract widespread derision as they prepare for the end times — 19th century sects who periodically gathered for the end attracted huge, derisive crowds, and often managed to convert a few of them — but they’re the first to become a part of the global news system for more than a week.

Something that would have hitherto rated a brief mention at the end of a news bulletin became a key story, often an anchor story of whole news bulletins.

In part this was due to the huge presence of the Family Radio crowd — particularly in the US, but also across Asia — via their billboards and ads bought with the life savings of thousands of hapless followers.

Yet the excitement and sheer glee with which their inevitable disappointment was awaited was a new thing. It appeared to be expressing something entirely other. In part it was a measure of the weakness of militant neo-atheism as a movement, its perpetual need to have the most absurd religious expressions to ridicule.

But perhaps the “family radio” prophecy also served as some sort of proxy for the increasing imposition of the rise of incommensurable beliefs in a way that doesn’t even bother to make sense — creationism and extreme climate change denialism being two of the major candidates.

These days, practically all of the US Republican Party in Congress, and a fair slew of the Australian Right, simply refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming probability of man-made global warming — while relying in their everyday lives on a world made by the science that predicts it.

We won’t be around to yell at them when it comes to pass — indeed, that is part of the sheer nihilism that underlies much of the denialist push. The “family radio” apocalypse served as a useful substitute.

The same goes for creationism, hardly a major force in Australia (though if the evangelical Right can infiltrate the government-funded chaplaincy programme it may become so).

People who will fight to prevent their children being taught evolution will fight just as hard, in times of illness, to get them drugs designed and tested by principles that use evolution as a given.

Such petty and partial fundamentalisms are spreading, in a borderless world which is sold as a new utopia — but which simply compels many people to a more desperate search for a rigid framework to live their lives by. These sub-movements crowd out more reasoned and tentative philosophies, because they offer a greater psychic reward; more energy, before the great crash.

Look, for example, in the US at the way the cult of Ayn Rand has crowded out reasoned conservatism on the Right. For standard US conservatism, government was something to be judiciously minimised, but was nevertheless part of the whole life of the nation.

For Randians — which include Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan, the current GOP author of the 2011 budget proposal — government is a pure parasite, a leach which should not merely be minimised but despised. Armed with this faith, they contemplate their role as government to destroy government; render it unworkable.

When their works end in disaster, they can usually shift the blame onto others. Harold Camping and Family Radio were that rare thing: falsifiable fundamentalists. Jeering at their dazed followers in Times Square was satisfying because it is all but impossible to make any sort of impression on far more powerful figures — such as Greenspan, who sounded, in testifying on the 2008 crash, as bewildered as any unraptured evangelical, as he contemplated the ruins of the US investment banking system and the wreck of his theory.

Despite that, the apocalypse goes on.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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