Enraptured with Sociology
The group who believed that the world would end on May 21st could be considered a cult. In sociology, a cult is a “fragmentary religious group that lacks a permanent structure.” They have fragmented out of an established legitimately recognized religion, yet it may not last because of a lack of structure. If it lasts over time and achieves legitimacy from a host culture, then it could achieve the status of a religion. Of course, that’s not their current goal.
If you listen to or read this NPR story, you will hear the faithful who believe in the (currently predicted) rapture. That the prognosticator, Harold Camping, had previously and erroneously predicted the rapture in the mid 1990s doesn’t seem to matter to those who believe him. Some left their families, emptied out their retirement accounts, and have altered their entire life to spread the word. (After May 21st passed without incident, Camping predicted the rapture will occur on October 21, 2011.)
Holding placards and banding together with others who believe the same is creating a group of people outside the bandwidth offered by a radio show. These people have come together in real time to share their fears and hopes of salvation. This comforts them in the short term --at least until the due date comes.
The “rapture” is an idea with Biblical origins. Those who believe in the rapture think that the Christian faithful will be taken up to heaven while the non-believers will be left to an earth doomed to experience the end of the world.
Let’s look at this sociologically to see how religion and religious ideas fit into society.
Those who find codes within the Bible often frame what they find as messages from a greater being. While science can neither prove nor disprove this, the history of all religions shows us that man creates or alters religious structures when tremendous social change or upheaval occurs. (Watch The History of God documentary or take a Religious Science class for more on this.)
Thus, men wrote the Bible, accounting for events and situations that happened years previous. As it has been translated and edited over the years, both the text and its interpretations have changed. That religious holidays occur on the same dates as older religious holidays, often the ones that a newer religion replaces is not an accident of history.
Emile Durkheim has a lot to say about religion, and the most important of his ideas is that the religious structures that we build in society offer to us a place to glean meaning and create solidarity. Churches, temples and other religious sites give us a place to gather and share common meanings, to reinforce the bonds that hold us together. The services, Sunday schools, rites, and calls to prayer give us behaviors that pull us together every day and in special situations to learn and reinforce the customs, courtesies, and tenets of belief. The symbols used in religious rituals, including those we wear as jewelry or other adornments (if allowed by our religion) marks us as members of a group so that we may be noticed as tied to that group, help others know how to interact with us, and reinforce, again, our bonds with that group.
While walking through a health center with my young child and her friend, a volunteer called out to the friend, “Hi! What temple do you go to?” The friend, surprised, said, “What?!” The volunteer explained that she saw her necklace and assumed she was Jewish due to the pendant hanging on the chain. The friend explained that it was just a necklace given to her by a relative and that she was not a member of a temple. The volunteer then invited her to attend her temple any time and we went on our way. I love this anecdote as it shows that when we wear specific symbols, others may read us as belonging to their same group, whether or not we are aware of the importance of those connections.
Most end-of-world predictions come during rough times, when society seems to be falling apart. This is one of those times! We are living through tremendous social changes. With our instant media attention to things that get people’s attention and fears, we are certainly very aware of all the scary things that happen. When unseasonable weather, natural disasters, social upheaval, and economic depressions are all in our face, linking salvation with familiar meaningful texts can give us comfort. It takes our attention off of other issues such as declining civil liberties and democratic participation, the need to develop sustainable energies and infrastructure, and the many other issues that might do more to fix our problems in the long run.
So regardless of what happened (or didn’t) on May 22, are we are still part of a society that needs help to make it through this difficult time? The “prophet” often disappears or apologizes for figuring the date wrong, and life goes on.