(Secular Humanist Bulletin, spring 1999)
Y2K - Don't Yield to Kooks
By James A. Haught
Some Colorado cultists were arrested in Israel Jan. 3 on charges of planning
a massacre to hasten the return of Jesus. This may be a taste of what's
to come as magic-minded people count down to the millennium.
The Denver-based Concerned Christians are led by Monte Kim Miller, who sometimes
speaks in a booming voice as God. He prophesied that he will be killed in
Jerusalem in December 1999, triggering the end of the world. (He also predicted
that Denver would be destroyed by an earthquake last October, but his ardent
followers don't seem to notice that it didn't happen.) Miller and his flock
mysteriously vanished in November, after selling their homes and cars. This
raised fears of another cult suicide. Later they were found in Israel, preparing
for doomsday, and a police probe brought their arrest.
Meanwhile, about 100 other American Christians have moved to the Mount of
Olives section of Jerusalem to await the end of time, according to religion
professor Brenda Brasher of Mount Union College in Ohio. She predicts that
many Bible prophecy adherents will do likewise, "dropping out, severing
all ties and heading to Israel." Absurdity is sprouting from a rollover
Intelligent people know there's nothing magical about the year 2000. It
will be just another trip around the sun, like billions before it. Nonetheless,
the Western calendar is about to turn over like a car's odometer, and superstitious
people see awesome portent in it. Their apprehensions are magnified by the
"Y2K problem," possible electronic chaos arising from the inability
of computers to recognize "00."
Evangelist Jerry Falwell is selling a $28 video declaring that "Y2K
may be God's instrument to shake this nation" and "start a revival
that spreads over the face of the Earth before the Rapture." The TV
preacher says he "wouldn't be a bit surprised" if Jesus returns
in 2000. Falwell says he will stock up on food as 2000 approaches -- and
ammunition, to shoot any hungry neighbors trying to enter his house. (Falwell's
record for accuracy isn't the best. He previously sold a video saying that
President Clinton plotted murders and sold narcotics.)
Evangelists Jack Van Impe, Ron Graff and Gary North also are spreading apocalyptic
visions of 2000. And evangelist Tim LaHaye has sold three million copies
of a four-volume novel about the impending end of time.
For several years, observers have been warning that mystical madness may
soar as 2000 nears. After David Koresh and his cultists died in their Waco
compound in 1993, theologian John Roth of Claremont-McKenna College in California
"Religion is as full of pathology as it is of health and life-giving
resources.... Outbreaks like these only confirm people's deepest suspicion
about religion; that it's manipulative, exploitive of the naive, and a bad
deal.... We're approaching the end of the millennium, and it wouldn't be
surprising to see more instances of armed believers anticipating the end
of the world."
Last year, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a major report on
the kooky countdown:
"Apocalyptic images are everywhere," the paper said. "They
are depicted in churches across the country, where ministers preach passionately
about the end times, when a great Middle East showdown leads to Armageddon
and the return of Christ. They are in local bookstores and libraries, where
books about Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce and New Age beliefs are popular. On
college campuses, they're in the curriculum. And they're on TV, in 'Millennium'
In addition to the calendar change, other events also can push supernaturalism
over the brink. Remember when the Hale-Bopp Comet caused Heaven's Gate cultists
to kill themselves, thinking they would magically travel to UFO behind the
comet? After the tragedy, Time noted: "When Halley's Comet returned
in 1910, an Oklahoma religious sect, the Select Followers, had to be stopped
by the police from sacrificing a virgin."
And this isn't the first calendar craze. When the first millennium arrived
ten centuries ago, it was preceded by mass hysteria and bizarre behavior.
Also, remember when New Agers proclaimed that a "Harmonic Convergence"
of Mayan, Aztec and Hopi calendars would magically transform life in 1987?
A tough old lady in my Unitarian congregation called it the "Moronic
Nothing magical happened at the first millennium. Nor at the Harmonic Convergence.
And nothing will happen at the second millennium - except that evangelists
and kooks once again will demonstrate that part of humanity lives in La-La
The "turn of the millennium" is merely an accident of our ten-digit
counting system. If humans had eight fingers, and counted by recurring sets
of eight, millennia would arrive much sooner. And why does our calendar
date from 1,999 years ago? Because, 1,467 years ago, a Roman abbot named
Dionysius Exiguus concluded that Christ had been born 532 years earlier.
The abbot proclaimed that year 532 Anno Domini, and his numbering system
slowly spread through the West. (Most historians now say his chronology
of preceding time was wrong.) Meanwhile, the Jewish calender, supposedly
counting since Creation, says this is year 5759. The Muslim calendar counts
from Muhammad's flight from Mecca in 622, and other religions have other