For the third time in a year, a piece of spam has been sent to me, each time slightly altered. The idea is that some month will have five full weekends, five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays. The e-mail or blog post I read tells me this is a wonderful and rare event, something that only happens once in 823 years, and you should send this message along to your friends because this is good fortune. The month shown on this calendar, July 2011, is such a month.
The thing is, it isn't rare at all. There are seven months every year - January, March, May, June, August, October and December - that have 31 days, so on average, there is one Friday a year that is the first of a month with 31 days, which means five full weekends that month. (It isn't every year. In non-leap years, some day of the week starts two 31 day months and one day is skipped. In leap years, two days are doubled up and two days are skipped. But if January 1, 2011 is a Saturday - and it was - January 1, 2012 will be a Sunday, so a different day gets skipped and a different day doubled up from one year to the next.)
Why do people believe this? Well, it helps if they do not naturally think mathematically about things, and most people don't. I'm a math teacher and I have plenty of evidence of this. Most people will be able to follow the idea that five Friday/Saturday/Sunday combinations in a single month is EXACTLY EQUIVALENT to saying a month with 31 days starts on a Friday, but only a minority of people will try to prove this themselves.
It would be easy for me to turn up my nose and think myself superior to the people fooled by this, but I know my own limitations too well. There are things I tried to learn that never became second nature to me the way math is second nature. (It might be more precise to say math is first nature to me.) I learned Spanish, French and Italian in school, but I can't make subtle statements in those languages the way I can in English. I can't casually eavesdrop on a conversation in Spanish, for example. If a catch a phrase - pure luck - I may be able to follow, but eavesdropping in English doesn't take effort, it just takes proximity and a loud enough speaker. I have to focus to NOT eavesdrop in English.
More than that, I understand the allure of thinking that you are witnessing something special. Once in 823 years, that would really be something. Only this time, it's not even remotely true. If you are waiting for the next Friday the first of a month with 31 days, you likely won't have to wait 823 days.
And then there are the people who believe in next Saturday but not next Sunday. KEAR, broadcasting out of my hometown of Oakland, is the flagship station of the innocuously named Family Radio Network, and they have given a platform to Dr. Harold Camping, a man with a degree in engineering and a bug up his butt about the end of the world. He predicted the end in 1994, when it didn't come recalculated for six months later. When that one missed, he proclaimed "The Lord has decided to tarry." Instead of being a good and humble Christian man who admitted both his own fallibility and the word of Christ in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that no one but God the Father knows the last day, he pulled out his slide rule again and recalculated for May 21, 2011 being the day of the Rapture and October 21, 2011 being the complete and final destruction of the planet.
Next Saturday, Dr. Camping's FAQ website says there will be an earthquake so strong it will open every grave on earth, and the remains of the saved will be gloriously reborn into perfect bodies. There is no direct mention what will happen to those alive whose names are written in the Book of Life on the website. Five months from now, the great tribulation for those who survived will be over and the world will be destroyed completely. Many Christians believe in the Nicene Creed, which says Jesus will return to Earth and his Kingdom shall have no end. Obviously, if Dr, Camping believes this, he thinks the Kingdom is someplace else.
Can I get inside Dr. Camping's head? Yes. I don't need Dr. Camping explained to me.
Obsessiveness. Stubbornness. Vanity.
I can look in the mirror and figure those out.
What I don't understand is who decides to believe him. For this, I turned to two very smart people whom I love dearly and who know a lot more about the subject than I do.
My close personal bud Padre Mickey and my sister Karlacita!
In seminary, Padre Mickey made a deep study of both eschatology, the end of the world, and on Adventism, the cults that have claimed to know the exact day. He was able to tell me why the number 144,000 shows up so often (12 tribes of Israel, 12,000 souls of each tribe written in the Book of Life) and the subtle differences in the various cults that sprung up. Last year, Padre wrote a terrific post comparing Dr. Camping to William Miller, an American Adventist who had calculated the End of the World for 1843, then re-calculated to 1844. When 1845 came, which started with a very harsh winter, his followers experienced a horrible, soul crushing personal defeat they called The Great Disappointment.
My sister Karlacita! has studied cults from the sociological end of things. It's easy for us unbelievers to think of these people as chuckleheads, but that wasn't what she found among Adventists. Like the people who want to think a five weekend month is an extreme rarity, many of these people also are drawn to the feeling that they will see a special thing with their own eyes. Some, of course, believe they are saved, so this end of the world is just the beginning of their life in glory. Others follow a stricter view called Calvinism, that the Book Of Life has already been written and all your prayers and good works are worth nothing. Either you are in or you are out and when the time comes, you'll know one way or the other only on that day.
My sister says that many of these people are very sensitive souls. They see the world around them as a very dark place. The idea that the end is near is as simple as the faith "Surely God must see this, too."
Karlacita! posits that a lot of the followers may be people with undiagnosed depression. It certainly makes sense, especially for the Calvinists.
She is a sensitive soul herself. Her most pressing concern is about Sunday, May 22. "When it comes, who will be in Oakland and around the country to help these people through their Great Disappointment?"
Here endeth the lesson.
This blog is still alive, just in semi-hibernation.
When I want to write something longer than a tweet about something other than math or sci-fi, here is where I'll write it.