It’ll be very interesting to see what happens to Harold Camping‘s followers in the aftermath of his failed attempt to predict the “Rapture” (and subsequent end of the world). These people have embraced Camping’s prediction to the point of personally bankrupting themselves (like this 60-year-old retiree who spent his $140,000 life savings to buy billboards announcing the end) and will surely feel devastated, disappointed, humiliated, and confused by the fact that Camping was wrong. (Of course, the way Camping has put it, it’s really the Bible that’s on trial here since his interpretation is perfect.) The high degree of cognitive dissonance experienced by these folks who have shattered their own lives by following Camping is sure to have some significant aftereffects for many years to come.
This has obviously happened before, but it has been a while since there was a relatively public group this convinced of an end-times scenario pinpointed to a specific date. The classic study on this is of course When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. That book traces the fallout amidst the “Seekers,” a group of people that had followed Dorothy Martin, a Chicago housewife and student of L. Ron Hubbard‘s Dianetics (which was later incorporated into Scientology), who claimed to have come into contact (through automatic writing) with beings from the planet Clarion, who told her that the world would be destroyed by flood and that the faithful would be rescued at midnight by a flying saucer at midnight on Dec 21, 1954. Many of her followers gave away their possessions, quit their jobs, and then waited together in Martin’s house for the saucer to abduct them—until Martin received another message from the aliens at around 4:45am (after the group had become agitated) that God had been so impressed by the group’s actions that he had chosen to spare the world. (I find it hilarious that her husband didn’t believe a thing and was upstairs sleeping the whole time.)
Festinger and his colleagues had infiltrated the group to get an inside view of exactly how the failed prophecy would be received. One might have expected the failed prophecy to have led to group members leaving and turning away from Martin, who was shown to be mistaken. As it turns out, the opposite occurred: the once-shy group suddenly gained a missionary zeal in the efforts to spread the group’s message. This was a landmark study and is now regarded as a classic, with its explanations of how group responses to failed prophecies can actually be counter-intuitive, with the failed prophecy actually spurring increased devotion to the group and redoubled proselytizing rather than the reverse. Festinger interpreted this as a way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance brought on by the discontinuity between the prophecy and reality, resulting in increased proselytism because “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.”
Festinger posited that five elements must be in place for the believer to become more fervent as a result of failed prophecy (summary from Wikipedia):
- A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.
- The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.
- The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
- Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
- The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to [proselytize] or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.
Festinger’s work has been significant for explaining the rise of earliest Christianity as well, as some have pointed to the Seekers to explain how the earliest followers of Jesus might have responded with increased missionary zeal even if he wasn’t raised from the dead (ignoring that the Seekers’ leader was still around to provide a new explanation). As it turns out, however, other examples of failed doomsday prophecies have not followed the same pattern—as shown in Jon R. Stone’s Expecting Armageddon, which examines a number of other groups with similarly failed prophecies, concluding that increased proselytism is far from the norm (not occurring in any other case). Instead, these groups have typically found other ways to rationalize the failed prophecy, whether interpreting it as “God’s mercy” or seeing a spiritual fulfillment or interpreting storms on the east coast as roughly equivalent to tsunamis.
What I think Festinger may have overlooked in his particular case is how publicity-shy the Seekers initially were—they didn’t just increase in zeal, they went from a fairly closed group to a strongly missionary group. I hope we don’t entirely lose track of some of these folks who have jumped into Camping’s prophecy with both feet—it’s worth studying their responses after this whole thing fails to see how a group with a much stronger missionary emphasis (and much more public humiliation) responds to the prophecy fail. They also do not have the fallback that they did with Camping’s first prediction (1994), because with that one he’d said it was either that date or May 21, 2011. He (and the group) have left no such obvious outs for this one—they’ve committed everything to it, making it far more devastating when it doesn’t happen. But we really need to have some sociologists stay in contact with some of these folks (like this family—including the kids, who were already embarrassed enough) after the fact to see how they respond. It’s a great opportunity for some good research.
My guess: Camping will do a mea culpa and explain that somehow his math was off somewhere (likely forgot to carry a “1”), but the day is still close. But I expect this example to be quite different from what Festinger observed with the Seekers (which I think was a more situation-dependent result rather than the rule): I expect that most of Camping’s followers will lose faith and drift away (given his negative stance towards Christian churches and his insistence that this is all from the Bible itself, it’ll be interesting to see whether those who leave the group retreat to other church groups or move towards agnosticism). Certainly some of them will rally together, lick their wounds, and try as best as they can to go back to “life as usual,” expecting the end to come soon but certainly more subdued in their expectation. I don’t expect them to redouble their proselytism, however, mainly because they’ve already fired that round. A few group members will find ways to rationalize this, but I don’t expect them to try to make more converts to Camping-ism as a result. In the end, I expect Camping’s group to wind up more like the Millerites, with the majority of devoted followers winding up devastated and leaving the group/faith as the group shrinks over the years. Don’t take that as a prophecy, though. I’m really just guessing.