If you're reading this column after 6 p.m. Saturday and the ground is not shaking beneath your feet, then Harold Camping was wrong. Again.
In case you haven't heard, Camping is the leader of a California-based Christian ministry called Family Radio Worldwide that has spent months proclaiming _ with highway billboards, bus stop benches, websites, emails and ads _ that May 21, 2011, is Judgment Day. To spread the word, believers have been traveling the country in RV caravans, handing out religious tracts on street corners and at parades to warn people that the End of the World As We Know It is near.
Based on a mathematical system he devised to interpret clues and prophecies in the Bible, the 89-year-old radio evangelist has predicted that today will be the Rapture _ the day when true Christian believers will ascend into heaven _ and the beginning of the end for everyone else.
Camping predicts that the biggest earthquake the world has ever seen will strike at 6 p.m., graves will be thrown open and the remains of the faithful will be transformed for eternal life. This will be followed, he says, by a five-month apocalyptic period of death and chaos, ending with a fire that will consume the Earth on Oct. 21, 2011.
It's not the first end-of-the-world prediction, and it surely won't be the last. Camping himself predicted that Judgment Day would occur in 1994, but now says he did not have enough data to make an accurate prediction.
This time, however, he is sure that there is "no possibility that it will not happen." Among the telltale signs that the end is nigh, he claims, are the recent string of severe earthquakes and crop losses, the rise of the "gay pride movement" and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Leaders of respected mainstream religions, of course, dismiss Camping's "findings" and are saddened by this distraction from their meaningful work. It's important to remember that, at its best, organized religion teaches lessons of peace, love and compassion; provides a sense of community and purpose; and betters society by ministering to the poor and the sick.
We hear a lot about the dangers of religious extremism. Fringe groups like Camping's, while apparently not violent, may be harmful in the sense that they promote irrational decisions by gullible people. It's a bit frightening to see folks who, on the surface, don't look or sound like crackpots dropping everything to attend conventions and abandoning their jobs to spread the word about Judgment Day.
Why are we so fascinated with doomsday scenarios? Fueled by fringe religious groups, survivalists and more than a few Hollywood movies, the apocalyptic worldview may be gaining traction.
Do people perceive the world as an increasingly scary place? We've always known that really bad things can happen. Humankind has always had a terrible capacity to kill and destroy; nature has always had the power to wipe out entire villages in a matter of minutes.
There's no question _ it's a scary world out there, and we've got big problems. Dwindling natural resources, along with climate-change-induced crop shortages and natural disasters, pose new challenges for our survival on this planet.
The young people getting diplomas from SUNY Oneonta this weekend may one day become the scientists, engineers, leaders and entrepreneurs who will help to solve these problems. They, and the generations to follow, are the hope for the world. They are the ones who should be in the news today, not some religious fanatic and his kooky predictions.
It's ironic that on this day, while college students in Oneonta and across the country are looking eagerly toward new beginnings, survivalists are stockpiling water for the end times.
As for me, I plan to mark this May 21 just as I've spent the past 18 _ and the same way I hope to spend many, many more May 21sts _ with a birthday celebration for my husband.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.