If you haven’t already noticed, May 21, 2011 came and went without the rapture of the Church taking place. Other than a variety of Harold Camping followers, no one was surprised. Camping himself said he was “flabbergasted” that the rapture didn’t happen and some of his ardent disciples were “disappointed”, but that’s all that’s come out of Family Radio at the moment (UPDATE: Now Camping says he is holding firm to his Oct. doomsday date).
However, that's not all that’s come out of the non-Christian camp. The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, wrote an editorial for CNN’s Belief Blog that began, “Let nobody doubt that religion hurts people. Good, intelligent, caring people suffer every day and everywhere at the hands of religion, the happy lie.”
Is Silverman right? Ask Family Radio listeners Adrienne and Joel Martinez. Both quit their jobs in New York City and moved to Orlando about a year ago after falling for Camping’s May 21 prediction. Adrienne planned to attend medical school but decided against it because she believed that the world would end when Camping said. The couple, who has a two-year-old daughter and a second child due next month, said they spent the past year distributing tracts. “We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left,” Adrienne told National Public Radio.
Or talk to Robert Fitzpatrick, who spent $140,000 of his life savings to advertise the Camping’s rapture prediction in New York. Fitzpatrick said he was dumbfounded when life went on as usual Saturday. "I do not understand why," he told Reuters while awaiting the event in Times Square. "I do not understand why nothing has happened."
Harold Camping might be able to cheer himself up and tell himself that everyone makes mistakes, but for some of his followers, it has been the end of the world in a manner of speaking. Their financial world, their career world, and more. Silverman is almost right when he says that religion hurts people; he needs to qualify the word “religion” with “bad”.
But there’s another observation I’d like to make. While the atheists, people of other religions, and other Christians comfort themselves that they were right and Camping was wrong, their comfort is undergirded by the unspoken declaration, “I’m glad I don’t believe false ideas like that!”
How do you know?
The atheist is sure there is no God. The Muslim is sure Muhammad was the last true prophet of God. The Christian is sure Christ came back from the dead.
Some Litmus Tests for Belief
To guard ourselves from believing lies and false ideas isn’t easy; it takes work. But there are three simple tests that can be used to check whether a teaching being presented is actually true or not. They are:
- Logical consistency
- Empirical adequacy
- Existential (or experiential) relevancy
Let’s look at what each is and see some examples of how they work.
The test of logical consistency asks the question: do the various teachings that comprise the belief cohere with one another and are they internally consistent, or do they contradict in one or more ways? As an example, in Buddhism, the key to achieving Nirvana is to rid oneself of all desire. But wait – doesn't a person have to have a desire to rid themselves of desire?
The followers of Camping could have protected themselves from the May 21 rapture episode if they had just understood that Camping teaches the inerrancy and truthfulness of Scripture, but yet ignored the clear statement of Jesus that says, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone" (Matthew 24:36). For Camping to have been logically consistent in his teachings, Matthew would have needed to add the phrase “and Harold Camping” to the end of the verse.
The test of empirical adequacy asks the question: do the various teachings pass the tests of falsification and verifiability where empirical methods can be applied? In other words, is there any externally verifiable evidence that supports the teaching?
For example, Mormonism teaches that Christ walked in North America and there were great cities that existed during that particular time. However, not one piece of archaeological evidence exists to support that claim, and in fact, the Mormon church has debated on what to do about this glaring issue.
By contrast, thousands of archaeological finds support the statements made in the Bible, and not one discovery has contradicted a single verse of Scripture.
Existential (or experiential) Relevancy
The test of existential/experiential relevancy asks the question: do the teachings match with what we experience, see, and have confirmed in the world in which we live? A demonstration of this in action is the atheist’s belief that everything we know and see (including us) came from non-personal matter plus time plus chance. And yet, science tells us that an effect must match its cause in essence or being. So how can an impersonal (defined as ‘not having intent’), meaningless, purposeless, and amoral universe accidentally create personal/intentional beings who are obsessed with meaning, purpose, and morals? Answer: it can’t.
Yes, Bad Religion Can Hurt
In his editorial, Silverman wraps up by saying, “This weekend, preachers from coast to coast will talk about why they are right and Camping is wrong, and I ask you all to listen closely. They will try to justify why one interpretation of the Bible (theirs) is right while the others are wrong. In the end, they are all interpreting the ‘perfect word of God’ in their own imperfect way so that God agrees with their own agenda. It’s obvious if you look for it; no preacher ever says ‘God disagrees with me’”.
He has a point. One of my seminary professors surprised us one day by saying he reads atheist literature as part of his devotion time. Why? “Because the better ones keep us honest,” he said.
Silverman is wrong in his atheism, but right in telegraphing the message that ideas must meet valid tests that confirm the validity of the teaching that’s being presented. If you disagree, just ask Adrienne and Joel Martinez or Robert Fitzpatrick if they’ll be a little more careful the next time sometime tells them the world will end on a particular date.