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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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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.