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© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

What, me worry? End Times Edition

My daughter Delaney (9) is no sucker. She has a mind like a steel trap, a phrase which I’m sure must mean something. But she’s worried that the world might end on December 21, 2012.

“I know it probably won’t,” she said, almost precisely echoing the preamble of my own fears at different points in my life — of hell, of radon, of cults, of the Mafia, of my heart stopping just for laughs, of that itchy mole. The preamble is always followed quickly, as am I, by a big but.

“…but how do you KNOW?” she asked. “How do you KNOW it isn’t going to end?”

“I don’t,” I admitted. “It might.”

“What?!”

“Well of course it might. Might end tomorrow, too.”

“Yeah but nobody says it’s going to end tomorrow. LOTS of people think it’s going to end in 2012.”

“Why do they think that?”

She shrugged. “I dunno. But they do. And it makes me worried.”

“When you get old enough to see about ten of these end-of-the-world things not happen, you’ll stop worrying.”

“Yeah, IF I get old enough.”

Laney was actually a bit obsessed with this one, simply because of this big unknown Claim, something so entirely credible they’d made a movie about it.

Time for an intervention.

I explained that somebody who knew nothing about the Mayan calendar apparently got hold of it, saw that it “ends” on December 21, 2012, and started in with the Chicken Little. I told her that it “ends” in the same way ours “ends” on December 31. Which is to say it doesn’t.

“We have weeks that repeat, right? When we get to Saturday, we go back to Sunday. Months repeat. When we get to the 31st, or whatever, we go back to the 1st. And when we get to the last day of December, every year, you don’t scream that the world is going to end — you just flip the page, and you’re back in January. The Mayans had another big cycle called a baktun. It’s like 400 years long. And when you get to the end of a baktun, you just flip the page. New baktun.”

“Oh. So somebody just didn’t know how it worked.”

“Yeah. Still worried?”

She paused, then grinned sheepishly. “A little.”

That’s the way it goes. Even with the Wire Brush of Reason, once the chicken has shit, it’s hard to get it out of every corner of the henhouse.

The malformed chicken that is the human brain is in a state of perpetual defecation, so I wasn’t too surprised when only last week I learned that we’ve shit out yet another pellet. Turns out the world is also ending a week from tomorrow. I hadn’t heard.

I immediately informed Delaney, whose eyes inflated nicely.

“Next Saturday?” I knew she was running her soccer schedule through her head.

“Yep.”

“Who said this one?”

I pulled out the news story I’d printed up, with the ridiculous headline, “Biblical scholar’s date for rapture: May 21, 2011“. I said that the guy in the story is not a scholar but some minor Christian radio host named Harold Camping (whose website is still for some reason accepting donations). Seems Camping crunched the numbers in the Bible and came up with a “guarantee” that Jesus will return on May 21, 2011, rapture up 3 percent of the world’s population, and commence a five-month smiting of the rest of you.

Turns out it’s not the first time he made such a guarantee. His book 1994 also predicted the end, though I can’t remember what year.

“Huh. Just like that other guy, with the people on the hilltops.” That would be Baptist minister William Miller, whose prediction of apocalypse sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844 was called, on March 22, 1844, “The Great Disappointment.” He moved the date to October 22, 1884, which became the Second Great Disappointment. His followers, many of whom had sold everything they owned and left crops to rot in the fields, were mostly (to their credit) disinclined to make it a trilogy.

Camping and Miller both used Bible roulette for their calculations, which makes it especially surprising that they came up with such wildly different dates. But I shared Camping’s method with Laney so she could decide whether to worry.

And that, before we get off-topic, is what this post is about — not whether Camping and Miller are reflections on other believers, not whether eschatology in general is silly. This is about how to help kids develop the ability to decide on their own whether to believe a claim.

I looked her in the eye. “When you’re trying to figure out what to believe, a good way to start is to just ask why other people believe it, then decide whether it’s a good reason. So this man says Jesus was crucified on April 1st in the year 33. There are 722,500 days between that day and next Saturday. Now, the number 5 equals ‘atonement’…”

“What?!” Connor (15) had wandered in. “Where’d he get that?”

“Dunno. So he says 5 equals ‘atonement,’ and 10 equals ‘completeness,’ and 17 equals ‘heaven.’ Multiply those together, then square the whole thing, and you get 722,500, again.”

Laney blinked. “So?”

“Well exactly. That’s why I’m not worried — because the reason he gives for believing it doesn’t make any sense. Add that to the fact that he’s been wrong before, and a hundred other people have been wrong before, and I don’t worry when somebody says the world will end on a certain day.”

This might seem like a small thing, but it’s huge, and it applies to countless things, including religion. After years of wondering whether the God question was even askable, I realized I could indeed come to an intelligent conclusion not by looking for God, but by looking at the reasons others believe.

Once I decided the reasons were poor, I stepped away from religious belief, and all the false hopes and real fears it brings, with very little difficulty.

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This was written on Friday, 13. May 2011 at 13:09 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, fear, My kids, Parenting, Raising Freethinkers. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Oh yes. Definitely a post for the parental tool kit!
    Dale, I often wish I had had this website (or any website, come to think of it! or a computer!) back when I was raising young children. My “babies” are 15 now and my eldest is getting married in four weeks (nearly 24), and I was (and still am!) a computer illiterate, so I had to fly by my own imperfect radar for too many years. Just want you to know that your books and your blog will be resources made available to my children when they are raising my grandchildren!!

    Comment: niftywriter – 13. May 2011 @ 1:30 pm

  2. I love this post. While I obviously love hearing things I agree with (isn’t that some bias I should be working to get rid of?) what I truly appreciate the most is how you “explain” things to your kids, by letting them work through it on their own.

    I’ve got just a little’un (not quite crawling yet) and I can’t wait to see him start figuring things out.

    Also, this quote:

    “That’s the way it goes. Even with the Wire Brush of Reason, once the chicken has shit, it’s hard to get it out of every corner of the henhouse.”

    has got to be the best ever!

    Comment: jdcollins – 13. May 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  3. I think it should be, “once the chicken has shat…”

    But seriously, I want to thank not only Dale, but everyone who comments on his posts. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in wanting to explain things to my son as thoroughly as I can…and to have him feel comfortable looking for answers beyond what I can give him when that becomes necessary. He’s only two-and-a-half, but he already likes to find his own answers. It can be hair-pullingly frustrating at times, but it makes me proud.

    Comment: Maximum08 – 13. May 2011 @ 8:04 pm

  4. My son’s birthday is May 21. He scoffed at the idea that it would be his last.

    Comment: codysmom – 13. May 2011 @ 8:24 pm

  5. @Max: One would think, but no. “Shat is a humorous past tense form, not etymological, first recorded 18c.” — Online Etymology Dictionary

    Comment: Dale – 13. May 2011 @ 9:32 pm

  6. I’m teaching 6th graders at my local UU. For my next two classes our question of the day is “How can I know what to believe?” The official curriculum materials are pretty boring and generic, so I’m mostly writing my own lesson plans. I’m totally using the line “When you’re trying to figure out what to believe, a good way to start is to just ask why other people believe it, then decide whether it’s a good reason”, that fits perfectly with the other ideas I have.

    Comment: ubi dubium – 14. May 2011 @ 9:12 am

  7. I think we should turn the shit/shat question over to Delaney and her new critical thinking skills.

    Comment: Hallucigenia – 14. May 2011 @ 10:11 am

  8. @ ubi dubium: Would you be willing to share those lesson plans? I have a 6th grader, and we do all of our religious education at home.

    Comment: codysmom – 14. May 2011 @ 2:02 pm

  9. @uni dubium: Fantastic! That made my day.

    Comment: Dale – 14. May 2011 @ 8:54 pm

  10. @codysmom

    When I get done with writing this set, yes I could share. If you are registered at Atheist Nexus (or the Venganza forums) you can send me a private message with your email address and I’ll send you a copy.

    Our UU has a class for 7th graders called “neighboring faiths”. It’s a world religions class that’s mostly field trips. For instance, this morning the class is visiting the Sikhs, and next week it’s the Hare Krishnas. When my kids were little we also did all their religious education at home – when people said “Aren’t you sending them to Sunday School?” we’d reply “We’re ‘Home Sunday Schooling’ “. But this class is more extensive than I’d be able to do at home, so I’m glad that I’ve found it.

    Comment: ubi dubium – 15. May 2011 @ 5:30 am

  11. This is a really nice post, Dale. I LOVE the posts where you recount interactions with your kids, always great reads.

    I had played this out in my head a couple time for when the inevitable dire prediction is made in my daughter’s lifetime (she’s almost 5 months now), whether it’s a claim of a massive earthquake on a specific day, being taken – entire body and all – into the void of space, or the invisible monkey jumps out of my car trunk and kills everyone with a crossbow, something stupid is going to be predicted.

    I was planning on attacking it with data about previous predictions, spanning as far back as the Assyrian tablet from 2800BCE predicting the end times, thru history (including new testament authors), and to Camping’s and (the eventually) 2012 failures. Kinda like the thousands of religions, “there were all those in the past that didn’t work out, what makes this one any different?” I can add to this your idea of “Why do they believe this?”

    There’s a 3rd method here I think, one mirroring more closely to peer-review in science. “Is this something that another person could come to the exact same conclusion without having this information?” Basically, it’s like Neil deGrasse Tyson said “When you’re scientifically literate the world looks very different to you.” If she can ask herself, “does the claim fit with other things we understand” – like in Camping’s instance (or any rapture claim) being able to breathe without oxygen in the vacuum of space – it’ll make it easier on her to fight these stupid notions as well as other baseless claims like creationism, bigotry, homophobia, etc…

    Basically, installing scientific literacy is like installing a fancy-schmancy Bullshit Detector.

    Comment: TomZ – 16. May 2011 @ 3:03 pm

  12. @ubi dubium: Thanks! I am registered on Atheist Nexus but I haven’t done anything with it since I signed up. I’m having some trouble adding you as a friend; I’ll keep trying.

    Comment: codysmom – 17. May 2011 @ 8:14 am

  13. Some atheists in Seattle decided to use the End of Days to their advantage:
    http://www.downtownseattlenews.com/2011/atheists-in-westlake-park/#more-1116

    It’s good to see a sense of humor put to use.

    Comment: Chiggiweb – 27. May 2011 @ 11:22 pm

  14. I don’t think this has much significance, but I was interested to see that I think “When we get to Sunday, we go back to Monday” rather than “When we get to Saturday, we go back to Sunday”.

    Comment: Rob A – 03. November 2011 @ 4:20 am

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