According to Harold Camping, today (October 21st) is to be the end of the world. This was part of the same prophecy that prompted the investment of millions of dollars campaigning to warn the public of the rapture that was to take place on May 21, 2011. As you are by now undoubtedly aware, neither of these prophecies have come to pass.
It’s tempting to simply dismiss people like this with a good laugh because their claims are absurd to the point of amusement, but to do this would be a disservice to those who have had their lives ruined in the aftermath of this nonsense. Those RVs had children on board that were convinced the world was going to end soon. To the people who live in thought reform groups like this, it isn’t just a goofy fantasy, to them it is very real.
Our brains run everything through a filter that abstracts the world we perceive into pre-processed concepts, much like computers do with caching. When we look at a tree we do not see individual leaves and branches, we see an abstraction of a tree and the brain fills in the rest with our preconceived notions. Our world is so full of information and complexity that we would never be able to function in real time without such a mechanism. As a byproduct of this we can perceive things that are not really there or observe a world that only exists within our own minds. With that in mind it should be perfectly clear that most of the people that hold beliefs like the May 21 rapture aren’t stupid, they were simply caught somehow in a state of vulnerability where their filter could be manipulated. For many this is at a time of tragedy, which is why Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists all famously target individuals who have just suffered loss.
So far it seems unlikely that we’ll ever be rid of self delusion. Areas of Europe that are largely atheistic have seen a rise of homeopathy, horoscopes, “alternative medicine” and similar magical nonsense. I may reject all of these but clearly I am no less vulnerable to some sort of delusion since at the end of the day my thoughts are still being formed on the same hardware as everyone else’s. The takeaway from Camping’s mess is to never hold onto any idea so tightly that it can’t be challenged lest we suffer a similar fate.