It’s easy to mock Harold Camping and his followers. They’ve decided that the end of times starts today at 6 pm. They’ve come to this conclusion with some fancy math based on Biblical statements, despite the fact that the Bible itself says no one will know the day or hour (see Matthew 24:36) and the fact that Camping’s previous calculations predicted doomsday in 1994. Yet a few people are taking him seriously. Some are even donating their life savings to spread the word. Rather than simply mock them, I think it’s important to try and understand what’s going on here.
I’m offering a simple explanation: uncertainty. When people feel uncertain about their world views, their control over their own lives, or their very identities, they turn to religion. (See here.) The more uncertain we feel, the greater chance that we would turn to extremism. And what could be more extreme than concluding that the world will end today?
Many Americans find this all a little embarrassing. Atheists are especially likely to conclude that we left religion behind as modern life reduced uncertainty through better science, functioning markets, government safety nets, and other institutions. However, sources of uncertainty remain. Many Americans see the personal impacts of an unemployment rate at 9% and the fact that nearly a quarter of mortgages are underwater. At a broader level, we have a political system incapable of dealing with our deficit, we’re involved in multiple wars, and we’re worried that China and India are eating our lunch.
Compared to many others in the world, Americans still face little uncertainty in life. Few would trade places with a subsistence farmer whose crops are at the whims of the seasons, and who lacks formal education, health care services, or police protection. But we’re not in the habit of comparing ourselves to people in distant countries. The implicit comparison we make when assessing uncertainty in our life is with our own aspirations — the “American dream” of owning a home, having a chicken in the pot, and sending our kids to college — not with the reality faced by others.
This means that no amount of affluence and personal security will replace religion. People will always seek something that gives them certainty. Uncertainty might also explain the rise of Christian fundamentalism in East Africa and elsewhere, or the spread of Salafism. Development (in its broadest, historical sense) means change and uncertainty. People facing it will look for something steady that will sustain them.