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2006 has come and gone, and a new year is upon us. I don’t know about you, readers, but I feel a mood of unaccountable optimism. There seems to be a feeling of renewal in the air, one not solely accounted for by the unseasonably warm and pleasant weather in the northeastern United States, where I live. Despite all the evils and suffering still occurring in the world, which I don’t seek to deny or downplay, it seems to me as if we’ve been granted another chance to get things right: as if the new year is a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which we have the power to write whatever we like.

As does every year, 2007 brings with it a whole slew of things new and yet old. One of these things is a whole new crop of apocalyptic predictions, which pop up each year with the predictability of spring crocuses.

For example, Yahoo News recently reported on a decidedly pessimistic Associated Press poll which found that a substantial majority of Americans expect a major natural disaster or terrorist attack to take place this year. However, I also noticed the following bizarre statistic:

• 25 percent anticipate the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Let’s be clear about this and get our terms straight: 25% of Americans expect that sometime in 2007, the world will be destroyed. That is what the second coming of Jesus Christ implies in Christian theology: global disaster and catastrophe, the deaths of hundreds of millions, war and plague consuming humanity, and a day in which “the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). A large number of believers are looking forward to this event and believe it is a good and desirable thing.

It is depressing how many people still believe this will happen during their own lifetimes, considering how many previous generations have also lived and died expecting it and turned out to be absolutely and completely wrong. But the lack of actual evidence for a coming apocalypse does not make these views any less dangerous. As Sam Harris wrote, the fact that a significant percentage of society expects this event soon should be considered a full-scale emergency. All it would take would be one apocalypse-believer in a sufficiently high position to decide that it is their sacred duty to start this world-destroying war in order to hurry Christ’s return along. (I realize this is a departure from my stated mood of optimism, but I think it’s important not to leave myself open to accusations that I’m ignoring the full measure of the dangers we must face.)

Then again, the lay believers in an apocalypse are in good company. As reported by Americans United, Pat Robertson has joined in the fun, predicting “mass killings” to occur on American soil due to a terrorist attack sometime this year. (Robertson said he expected this to come in the form of a nuclear attack, but emphasized that this was only his educated guess – as opposed to the rest of this prophecy, which was clearly straight from God’s mouth and not at all just made up.) The AU blog gives several examples of Robertson’s past conspicuous prophetic failures, such as that World War III would occur in the 1980s, that the November midterm elections would leave the Republicans in charge, or that the American coast would be ravaged by more hurricanes in 2006 (Robertson must have thought this one a particularly safe guess). Of course, as with all psychic pretenders, Robertson’s devoted followers will very likely oblige him by forgetting his past failures, and continuing to gasp in amazement at every new wild guess he puts forth.

Finally, as testimony to the efficacy of prophets: Regular readers of Daylight Atheism may recall a post from July of last year titled “Watch This Space“, in which I mocked a Bible-code site that had, by that point, erroneously predicted the nuclear destruction of the United Nations five separate times. I recently checked back in with that site, on a whim, and realized that their delusions go far deeper than I had guessed: they are still at it. For the better part of a year now, they have been setting dates for the destruction of the UN every two or three weeks, and every time their prophecy fails, they simply set a new date and start over again. Their latest prediction forecasts the destruction of the UN between January 16 and 17, and not to be outdone, adds this coda:

Announcing the Good News that the Kingdom of God begins in 2008

This will mean an end to the injustice, the corruption, the abuse, the lawlessness, the murder, theft, rape, infidelity, genocide, the institutional dishonesty, the self interest, the win lose dynamic of this system. It will mean a start to truly transparent government, true peace and security, incredible creative and technological prosperity, and genuine love between all humans and our angelic brothers and sisters in an environment of righteousness, which is the soil in which love grows best.

However, the people behind this site may not be entirely incapable of learning from experience, as they also say this:

If nothing happens by the end of Tebbeth i.e. by January 23/24, 2007, then we again really really do run out of options in our present understanding.

It remains to be seen whether they will give up when nothing happens by this date, although I suspect that the key is the phrase “in our present understanding”. At the appropriate time, this will probably be a convenient excuse for them to adopt a whole new erroneous understanding and resume their date-setting exercises in futility.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...