Harold Camping—Penny Guru of Spiritual Scams

By Michel-Camille Bordeau

I’m an Atheist who sees god.  Do laugh, but don’t click away, yet.  Seeing or perceiving god is really easy, even for a non-believer.  Even in my godfree world, God is a collage of artistic-aesthetic re-presentations, a sensory response to the magnificent beauty of a stunningly decorated church, a life-like statue, a painting, a ritual song or dance, a poem, etc.  To me, God exists as an awe inspiring anthropological artifact which can never be fully dead as long as I retain the ability to see, hear, smell, think, or touch.  Rare breed of Atheist, I believe that god is as alive as a tapestry, a reliquary, or a stele exhibited in the Louvre.  But as much as I love museums, and that particularly French museum, I don’t live in one.  My real dwelling is Humanity, you, us, my next of kin.

Because I’m an Atheist who is also a religion nerd, sometimes I wonder how gods survive the fierce competition of today’s abundance of sensory stimulations.  Let’s face it, gods are no longer the lone subjects or objects of our sensory attention. They used to be the tallest (building), the loudest (choir music), the innermost (thought-prayer), the most palatable (can you say flesh-wafer and blood thirst?), the finest (philosophy of life), the greatest (proto-science), and the wildest (crusader warriors).  They no longer are!  Nowadays, there’s too much competition, and that’s why, in order to be heard in the general cacophony, some religious leaders don’t hesitate to make exaggerated claims on behalf of their god.

Harold Camping’s Rapture prediction was one of these exaggerated claims.  It was a rather simple eschatological claim, dangerously simple some might say.  Indeed, it was no different than another advert trying to catch your attention at the end of online article:

May 21st, 2011 @ 6pm (your time) Game over! See you in Heaven, by God’s side! Click here for more information and begin the journey!

How is this not a scam?

Before I sat down to write this article I wondered if it would be too cynical to write about another Failed Rapture.  It’s a painful subject for most Christian friends who are willing to put faith into the certainty of their eschatological future, but rarely when it comes so soon or when it’s so clearly predetermined; and never when it’s as finite as death itself.  In truth, a countdown always defeats the metaphorical intent-purpose of an eschatological scheme.  And my Christian friends know that.

My Christian friends are a non-representative bunch and that’s why I try to be reasonable when I go for their hearts—I’m just warming up!  They’re all highly educated, most of them are trained in literature, religion, psychology, cultural studies, and a lot more.  They would never mistake a metaphor for death (the ‘rapture’ and other items on the list of eschatological trials) for its reality-realization.  They know that putting so much stock in a prediction is putting oneself at the mercy of a scam(mer).  And they know that religious scammers are no better than their cousins in the penny-stock industry.

But financial and religious scams don’t seem to hit the same buttons. They don’t trigger the same emotional awareness. We don’t view them with the same set of eyes.

A financial prediction promising great returns (dollars) on small investments (pennies) is easily ignored. We’ve all been warned, we’ve all been scammed really, and we know that in financial matters, a penny doesn’t grow into a dollar no more than a rotten fruit grows into a healthy tree overnight.

America may be a squandering culture; Americans may be overburden with debts, but they can tell when they’ve been duped economically.  They know a penny scam when they see one, and they can smell it and feel it, long before they will touch or be touched by it.  No one is immune and immutable to financial schemes, and that’s why we are always prepared to bring the fight to penny scammers or we’ll come after Banksters and other tax-free cheaters.

So the cynic wonders: How could Harold Camping rip so many hearts and wallets with his Rapture scheme?  He’s just another scammer, albeit a spiritual one.  Why are we so apathetic when dealing with spiritual scams?

Humanity’s heritage (call it History if you want) is a reminder that marketing creed has been religion’s number one priority since the dawn of proto-history.  And religious organizations have been successful at it—they’ve literally written the book on idea-product marketing.  If you ever asked yourself how our book-religions managed to survive centuries of well-recorded illiteracy, you know exactly what I mean. What marketing geniuses our Bronze-Axial Age forefathers were!

If you think about it, a book is a curious thing when you can’t read.  How does one believe in a book one can’t read?  How do you comprehend words you can’t decipher?  Theist friends might say by the Grace of God.  I might add by the Mouth of the Guru.  The translator of symbols, the scriptor of meaning, or what Erik Erikson called the ‘provider’ of divine knowledge always gladly assists.

Imagine what it would do to your curiosity, imagine how excited you would be, and trusting you’d likely become, if someone told you that he could turn the meaninglessness of the book into meaning that matters most to you: the meaning of (your) Life.

Can you imagine the excitement of a four-year-old when his dad comes to his bedroom for a bit of reading? You got it, then.

Now, if the father kept his promise to his son, the child would have good reasons (the primordial one being the love for his father) to be overwhelmed with joy.  He would be one happy bedtime kid!  But, what if the father didn’t keep his promise? What of the child’s emotional reaction?

In essence, Guru-Patriarch Harold Camping turned his followers into no more than innocent children when he proposed to deciphered the hidden meaning of the Bible and promised that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. He put them at his mercy and wasn’t merciful when,in the end, he broke his promise of the promise land.

As Erik Erikson puts it in Childhood and Society (page 404):

All religions have in common the periodical childlike surrender to a Provider or providers who dispense earthly fortune [not in monetary sense, that’s for sure!] as well as spiritual health; some demonstration of man’s [childlike] smallness by way of reduced posture and humble gesture; the admission in prayer and song of misdeeds, of misthoughts, and of evil intentions; fervent appeal for inner unification by divine guidance; and finally, the insight that individual trust must become a common faith, individual mistrust a commonly formulated evil, while the individual’s restoration must become part of the ritual practice of many, and must become a sign of trustworthiness in the community.

We can’t expect restoration of trustworthiness with the likes of Harold Camping.  He’s already made that very clear.  After the fiasco of May 21st, he took time to regroup, and when he was ready to face the public, he came out to announce that he wasn’t wrong, he couldn’t be wrong, and he would never be wrong.

The Patriarch, provider of eschatological hope, had spoken.

But these were not the expected words. He did not seek forgiveness or offer an apology to his wounded children and/or the rest of the world. Being wrong was the right thing for him—and he was certain that God would forgive him. In fact, he was convinced that it was in God’s plan…for him…through him… and for the rest of the world… whether we liked it or not.  Even if some of us, his dearest fans, suffered great emotional injury.

But being wrong is one thing and doing wrong is another. If Harold Camping had been wrong and hadn’t pocketed tax-free dollars, we might feel sorry for that senile delinquent. Unfortunately, the patriarch-provider deceived the children-followers, he did wrong to them.

And that’s wrong!

At 6:01pm on May 21st, 2001, after a lifetime of waiting, the gates of eternity (he’d promise to open) were shut in the face of his most trusted followers. In that moment, to them, life became death. The anxiety of life and the great fear of death were indivisible again. It was punishment by Death! The greatest spiritually injury of all! 

As Matthew Alper remind us in The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God, we can’t forget that “Living with certain knowledge of imminent death leaves us in a perpetual anxiety.” (117)  It is cruel to tease with what Alper calls our species’ ‘anxiety function.’  It is humanly criminal to promise healing from the anxiety of death-survival and deliver the absolute opposite.  Stuck between delusion of life and the illusion of life after death, caught between fear and anxiety, helpless, homeless, hopeless, Harold Camping’s followers are no longer provided for.  They surrendered their spiritual lives to him, all $80 million of their material worth, and, though the Rapture failed miserably, he has no intention to return the favor.

The Patriarch has abandoned his Children: he’s closed the book on them—the Bible, not the checkbook. He’s left them in ghost town, trapped between life and death. He failed them spiritually, scammed them economically, and he will not fix them emotionally.

Harold Camping is the great Guru of Spiritual Scam.  An example never to follow!

Now, what?  Humanity must and will come to the emotional rescue.  And as friends, family, and even (Atheist) foes, like myself, help these dead-again be live again, whether we are godfree-gurufree or not (nobody is perfect), we must always remember that the emotional price of these eschatological scams is very steep. And, since as Americans, we seem to have a keener eye for anything that resembles financial schemes, we should never forget the heavy economical price of Harold Camping’s Rapture campaign.

He’s pocketed 80 million tax-free dollars in various revenue schemes since 2005. It’s his money to keep. Followers will never see it back and we, tax-p(r)ayers, will never see it back either. Yep, we should never forget that we, the tax-paying people, are all contributors to the lifestyle of these penny-prophets.  And we, the tax-paying people, should never be victimized by spiritual scammers like Harold Camping any more than by banksters or tax-free cheaters.


Michel-Camille Bordeau is the founder and author of The School of Seshata  (www.scriptotheism.net), a blog about Liberal Spirituality, a concept of spirituality based on compassion and reason, core principles of Humanistic Ethics. Michel is also a regular contributor to www.ReligionNerd.com.  He’s recently started “Freethinking Tomorrow: In the Words of Today’s Freethinkers,” an interview series about the past, present, and future [OF] secular scholarship.

Michel earned an M.A. in French Studies from The Ohio State University (1998) and is A.B.D., also in French Studies, from the University of Michigan (2001). Mid-life crisis oblige, he is returning to college in August 2011, to pursue an M.S.W. with a specialization in Mental Health & Drugs of Abuse. Before relocating to Atlanta, Michel was an Academic Advisor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor campus, for nearly ten years. He has advised many students (and parents) on academic and life matters. He taught English, Public Speaking, Humanities, and French at various colleges and universities. In 2002, Michel published Poire Sucrée, Salée, Epicée, a short novel about a dance teacher forced to face the demons of her past. He is currently seeking representation for Seeing Purple, a dystopian novel set in Anaïs Abelard’s hometown, the New Orleans of tomorrow, also home to the power-hungry mega church known as the Calvinistry. Michel considers himself an amateur ‘atheologist,’ and writes and speaks primarily about religious determinism, atheist spirituality, and freethinking therapy.  


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