A painful correction about the end of the world

John Kelly
Columnist March 19, 2012

I could say that I wished Bart Centre would burn in hell for his sins, but I don’t think that’s going to worry him much.

Bart, you see, is an atheist and so doesn’t go in for that eternal damnation stuff. He is retired and lives in New Hampshire where he plays with his dogs, putters around the house and pens various anti-organized religion tracts under the pen name “Dromedary Hump.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

In 2009, Bart launched Eternal-Earthbound-Pets.com, a Web site that purported to serve those who believe in the rapture — that eruption of flame and brimstone that some believe heralds the return of Jesus. He advertised that he had a team of certified atheists who, for $135, would care for any dog, cat, bird or rabbit left behind when their Christian owners were whisked up to heaven. I wrote about his service in a column in May 2011.

Except, Bart told me Monday, the whole thing was a hoax. Yes, he had a Web site. Yes, he even had a PayPal account. But the people he said would care for pets after their owners had departed were actually atheists in on the joke.

The whole scheme was to sell copies of his new book, a ploy he says worked. His “service” was covered by Business Week, Bloomberg News, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and the Huffington Post. It was covered by the BBC, NPR and Fox. Bart heard from journalists in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Russia.

“I think they were very willing participants,” he said of the reporters who clamored for interviews. He thinks the media wanted to jump on the end-of-the-world bandwagon that the loopy Harold Camping got rolling.

“I think they were eager to get as much going on that as they could,” Bart said. “They kind of sidestepped their journalistic authority. When something is as outlandish as my offering, maybe they forgot to corroborate and countercheck their own facts.”

Bart said at least two fundamentalists believed him. When they got in touch seeking his service, Bart told them he didn’t have pet-sitters in their area and then shut down his PayPal button. Then last week two men from the state’s Insurance Department showed up at Bart’s house, served him with a subpoena and summoned him to a meeting later this month. The subpoena directs him to bring copies of any applications for rapture coverage and the names, addresses and phone numbers of any customers.

Bart thinks the subpoena is the result of his tweakage of right-wing lawmakers. “I believe it’s politically motivated,” he said.

Not so, said compliance and enforcement counsel Richard McCaffrey. “The Insurance Department is unaware of any of Mr. Centre’s political views,” he said. “Our issue is only to find out whether he is engaged in the unlicensed business of insurance in New Hampshire.”

Unlicensed insurance? You do realize we’re talking about the rapture — an event that in all likelihood is in no danger of actually happening. It kind of makes the whole thing slightly ridiculous.

“I agree that it added interest to the story,” Richard said. “But as a boring insurance regulator it didn’t alter my perspective.”

If Bart was selling what amounted to pet rapture insurance, he would need to be licensed. But remember, he now says he wasn’t. He was not selling insurance for a thing he never thought would happen.

I will admit to being irritated by Bart’s shenanigans. No one likes to be hoodwinked. I’m not soothed by the fact that I had some good company. It’s kind of a jerky thing to do, Bart.

“If this is considered going beyond the pale in terms of deception what do people say about the L. Ron Hubbards, the Joseph Smiths and the Sauls of Tarsus?” he asked.

I believe firmly in the strict separation of church and state, so I’m sympathetic to many of Bart’s opinions. But he strikes me as the sort of person whose embrace of anti-religion reaches an almost religious fervor. Zealots are zealots no matter what they’re zealous about.

I asked Bart whether his prank taught him anything about fundamentalist Christians. Yes, he said. “I have to give them a little more credit than I think I did initially.”

To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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