When I was in college, I knew a guy named Mike who claimed to be a solipsist. Holders of this rather peculiar philosophy believe that they are the only thing that exists in the universe, and that the entire cosmos is a figment of their imagination. Therefore, large swaths of the universe vanish when they are not observing them (or thinking about them, which in their minds amounts to the same thing).
You can imagine how well this went down with Mike's classmates. We used to sneak up right behind him and say, "We're still heeeere!" And then duck, because he'd whirl around and try to whap us with the huge briefcase he always carried around. You have to wonder why, if he was manufacturing the world with his magnificent brain, he didn't people it with folks who were less determined to annoy the hell out of him.
All of this comes up, of course, because the Rapture is happening today, and in fact supposedly has already started. Harold Camping et al. used bible passages, dates of a number of historical events, and some fairly abstruse math to calculate the day on which the Righteous will be swept bodily into heaven, leaving behind the rest of us slobs to fall prey to beasts, fire, earthquakes, storms, and various other special offers from the God of Mercy, before Satan comes down on October 21 and turns the Earth into a giant charcoal briquet.
Well, of course, this has resulted in 99% of humanity pretty much reacting like my college buds and I did to Mike's pronouncements. Facebook now has events like "Post-Rapture Looting," which will take place Everywhere on May 22. The Twitterverse has been buzzing with humorous commentary on the situation. At least one person I know is planning on going to the Salvation Army today and buying armloads of old clothes, and draping them on park benches.
None of this has made the slightest difference to Camping and his followers. A news story today describes how some of the true believers are planning on tearful farewell lunches with their families, walks in favorite spots in the woods, and so on. Some have already arranged homes for their pets. A few have blown every cent they owned publicizing the Rapture -- according to a news story I read, one man spent his entire life savings of $140,000 buying billboard space, advertisements on the sides of buses, and so on, with the message, "Repent Now! The Lord is Coming on May 21!"
This kind of thing stirs the compassionate side of my personality. You have to wonder how these people are going to feel tomorrow morning. There are already plans by some churches to offer counseling to Camping's followers when the Rapture doesn't occur. On the one hand, I feel like anyone gullible enough to believe such a ridiculous prediction deserves everything (s)he gets, but then I put myself in the shoes of the believers. What if, for some reason, I did become convinced of some Great Big Cosmic Secret, and put everything I had into it, and then it turned out to be false?
And, of course, that's exactly what a lot of Christians think is going to happen to me when I die. The irony of this isn't lost on me. Not, mind you, that I'm planning to convert. But the point is, I guess we all have our convictions.
The difference, I think, is where they come from. I was asked by a student just a couple of days ago what it would take for me to believe in god. My answer was "hard evidence." Presented with evidence, I would change my beliefs -- but at that point, it wouldn't be belief any more, would it? It would be knowledge.
And that's what I find so baffling about people like Mike, and Harold Camping and his followers. For them, belief is enough. No evidence is needed. Camping says, "Such-and-so is true," and his followers just bleat and accept it all. Of course, they don't see it that way; they call it "faith." I've never quite understood the concept of faith, which is stressed so hard in the bible -- it's always seemed to me like, "Believe despite what you see, despite what you know, despite everything." I once asked a Christian to define the words "faith" and "delusion" in such a way that a non-believer would understand the difference. He just got pissed off and refused to answer (at least he didn't try to hit me with a briefcase).
Anyway, I think the great likelihood is that tomorrow morning we'll be able to sneak up behind Camping and say, "You're still heeeeere!" You have to wonder how he'll explain it all. Were his calculations off? Was the Earth issued a reprieve? Did god tell him that the Rapture had been called because of rain? Or were he and his followers just deluded wingnuts for believing the whole story in the first place?
I'm thinking that somehow, the last is the one he's least likely to say.