(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 of numbers.

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 sadly conceded:

"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' and 'X-files'...."

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 Convergence."

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 Land.


Why 2K?

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 timetables.