There once was a man. His name was Thales. He lived a long, long time ago in Miletus, an ancient Greek city on the western coast of Turkey. Thales had an idea. It was a new and dangerous idea. He thought that events in the world could be explained not as the consequence of supernatural gods (and their whims) but as the result of purely natural forces.
The natural forces Thales considered were part of the world. They were orderly and behaved in consistent and coherent ways that could be understood with careful observation and mindful effort. In this way many, if not all, the events we experience could be predicted — they could be anticipated as exactly as our understanding of the laws allowed. Thales apparently knew of what he spoke. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, using only principles of geometry and astronomy Thales successfully predicted an eclipse of the Sun. Such was the power of this perspective Thales, and the Greeks who would follow in his footsteps, offered unto the world.
Now that the predicted End of the World has come and passed, it is worth a moment of reflection to understand this most potent capacity of science. The ability to successfully predict the behavior of the natural world is one reason we accord science such high status. From predicting the date of eclipses to anticipating the trajectory of a disease, science does what no other field of human activity has managed — it gives us a window into time. It allows us to see though time and through the duration we must endure to gain some measured certainty on the succession of future events.
Harold Camping thought he had access to the same capacities. The 89-year-old retired civil engineer who built a multi-million-dollar Christian media empire to publicize his apocalyptic predictions was wrong. The spectacular failure of his predictions highlights what is right with science and what is wrong with using religion as a gateway to understanding the natural world.
Without a doubt there is a place for spiritual longing in human life. It opens our hearts to facets of human being that are rich and ancient and deepen our experience. But Thales' discovery 2,500 years ago marked the beginning of the end of looking to somebody's interpretation of somebody's scripture to gain insight into the physical world's movements. Perhaps we can use the sideshow of Camping's failure to ask some deeper questions about what religion is not, and what it might be. At the same time we can use this moment to remember why science gained its respected place in our culture in the first place.