Thursday 30 June 2011

Prophecy Fails, Atheists Laugh, But Faith Wins Again.

By Francis O'Regan

I was in the office just after the failure of Harold Camping’s latest end of the world prediction and I was having a good laugh with one of my spiritual opposites; one of the office's committed Christians. We were laughing about Harold Camping, the former civil engineer who controls the US based Family Network of Christian Radio stations who had been telling his millions of loyal listeners that the world would end on May 21st 2011. These followers put up at least 2,000 billboards around the United States warning of the Judgement Day.

So me, as the office Atheist, and him, as a child of Christ, were on the same side for once. Now we do love a good discussion anyway, but he was laughing at

Camping because according to scripture no man can know the date and time of the rapture and when it does arrive it will be like “a thief in the night”. The Christian media haven’t all taken it so light-heartedly.  Some have been very upset with Camping for, at the very least, making Christians look silly. The more literal regarding him as a false prophet as predicted in Revelations. One of the big worries is that people will loose their faith, worries like this quoted below:-

“But now that Camping has been wrong twice, the Open Forum caller has struggled to keep faith in God. "I've been studying the Bible with you all those years," said the caller Monday. "I thought nothing would shake my faith that I would go through all the tribulations and all that. But now that I see that it didn't happen once again, all I look at is disappointment from our Father."

"In my case, I don't know what it means to be faithful any more because I am really disappointed," the caller said in a saddened voice”

But the faithful should not worry, some people will leave, a few might even become evil Atheists but on the whole people don’t work in a rational way. It's at these times I dust of my copy of Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails. He and his colleagues were interested in how people cope once their cherished ideas are shown to be false by events. The book records what happens when members of a UFO religion called The Seekers had to face the fact that their Prophetess keeps getting it wrong .

An article appeared in a Minneapolis newspaper in 1955. It told of a group who believed they were getting messages from aliens from the planet Clarion. These came from their prophetess a Mrs Keech who received these prophesies via automatic writing and predicted that the Earth was going to be destroyed by a cataclysmic flood on December 21 1955. They believed that they would be saved by benign aliens who were going to rescue them from the cataclysms by flying saucer. Festinger and his colleagues realised this was the perfect chance to test in the real world their new theory of Cognitive Dissonance.

The idea of Cognitive Dissonance was based around the observation that humans do not like inconsistency, the greater the inconsistency the more disturbed we become and the more motivated we are to reduce it. If we have a deeply committed set of ideas about ourselves and the world around us and opposing evidence confronts us, then there is a clash between our ideas and reality. People it seems do not just favour consistency over inconsistency people are driven to resolve the inconsistency, the dissonance must be dealt with.

Commitment is the Key

The more you are committed to the idea, the more dissonance you will feel if evidence appears to contradict it. So if you donate your life savings to the cause, change your name, adopt a special diet, follow a holy dress code, give up your job, abandon your non-believing family and friends or worse kill or commit crimes against the non-believers or your pets, then it gets very difficult, if not impossible, for the religious/political zealot to face up to the contrary evidence in front of their eyes, after all, the believer regards themselves as holders of special divine knowledge and understanding.  Accepting our mistakes is difficult if not impossible. Some of those more committed to Harold have done the following:-

“A caller on his Open Forum called in one night asking if she should put her pets to sleep on May 20th to spare them living through the terrible day of judgement on May 21st. Harold, I think accurately, told her God does everything perfectly. Don’t worry about your pets because God is perfect” “retired transportation agency worker Robert Fitzpatrick was inspired by Camping's message to spend over $140,000 of his savings on subway posters and outdoor advertisements warning of the May 21st Judgement Day.”

“Adrienne Martinez, 27 and pregnant, gave up plans for medical school and her family’s life savings to spread the message of May 21st. "We budgeted everything so that, on May 21st, we won't have anything left".

Brown is married with several young children, and none of them shares his beliefs. It's caused a rift with his wife — but he says that, too, was predicted in the Bible. "God says, 'Do you love husband or wife over me? Do you love son or daughter over me?' There is a test. There is a trial here that the believers are going through. It's a fiery trial."

These are committed Christians and I suspect most of them will still be after October comes and goes without any change, but why?

God's Day Off, Rapture Cancelled.

The researchers who joined the Seekers were able to record what happened before during and after the prophecies were made. Importantly they were able to record what happened after each prediction failed and record how the believers reacted. Their prophetess predicted a number of events that didn’t come to pass. Mrs Keech predicted the landing of a flying saucer; it didn’t appear. At one point she predicted the death and resurrection of her husband, again Mr Keech didn’t die.

Explaining Away the Problem

The non-appearance of the flood meant that their fundamental belief had failed. Given the force of this failure you would expect that those involved would make the rational decision that, as the prophetess had failed to predict the future, the ideas she propagated were false. The followers should logically decide that as Mrs Keech couldn't predict the future and wasn’t in contact with aliens and leave the group. Sadly human beings are not rational evaluators of evidence but rationalisers of failure. So instead of the group disintegrating under its own logical contradiction, group theology was revised as more messages from the alien prophet Santander, later identified as Jesus, were received and these explained that the believers had saved the world from destruction by the power of their belief. The message delivered after the deadline for destruction had passed said:-

”This little group, sitting all night long, has spread so much goodness and light that the God of the Universe spared the Earth from destruction”

So this was the reason why the world was saved, Mrs Keech whose hand was automatically writing the message wasn’t wrong after all and God actually had been planning to destroy the world. All their faithful devotion had not been in vain; it was through their noble efforts that the world was saved.  The New Testament has another classic example of such a resolution of dissonance aroused by the disappointment of failed expectations. (Luke 24.13-35) Two disciples meet with Jesus on the road to Emmanus on resurrection day. Their weekend in Jerusalem had been rather disappointing and they are discussing the failure. They had believed Jesus to have been the redeemer of Israel but he had been executed by the Romans, so that hope was over. They told this sad story of dissatisfaction to the resurrected Jesus and he said (un)to them:-

“Oh foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

The problem was solved by a nice reinterpretation. Firstly, Jesus wasn’t really dead and then by an interpretation of the previous prophetic tradition this made sense of both their expectations and disconfirming evidence. The execution of Jesus was now proof the prophecy had been fulfilled and not evidence against it.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Theology

Some of the followers of my favourite apocalyptic prophetess Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) were comforted by similar doctrinal reinterpretation.  Joanna was a West Country prophetess who built a national movement with thousands of follower throughout the country. She not only predicted the end of the world but also claimed towards the end of her life to be pregnant with the second incarnation of Christ even though she was 64 at the time, had no husband and didn’t have a stud disciple on call. She was to give birth to a boy child called Shiloh the Second Coming. She was looked after by various doctors but as she refused any close examination, some began to suspect the “pregnancy” was a disease of the uterus or just a plain deception.

By the time of her death from a brain disease in 1814 there was still no miracle baby and the doctor in attendance a Dr Reece announced the baby was “gone”. Some of her more devoted and committed followers still believed a baby would be born and that the fact there was a missing baby was due to the Church of England Bishops lack of belief in Joanna’s prophetic statements. Others decided that a “spiritual birth” had taken place and the baby had been snatched away to heaven only to return as a conquering prince. One of the more sceptical doctors who attended the autopsy after death had a more sober judgement he suggested that her large abdomen was due to fat and the supposed movements of the new foetal messiah “must have arisen from flatus escaping from one intestine to another”

Joanna had given instructions that if the baby hadn’t been born before her death then her disciples were to wait four days before allowing the doctors to carry out an autopsy she and her believers believed a live child would be found in her womb and her body would be resurrected. She also instructed her devoted followers to keep her warm after death, which they did. So for four days they kept her black and stinking corpse warm with hot water bottles waiting for the miracle, needless to say the autopsy found no baby or sign she had even been pregnant.

Over in the New World similar millenarian ideas were bubbling away. William Miller from Massachusetts, a Baptist minister, began predicting the end of days. The Millerites quickly built a mass movement of tens of thousands of loyal followers and began predicting the end of the word in the year 1843 later revised to 22nd October 1844. God was going to shatter the earth and create a New Jerusalem, mankind would be judged and the faithful who were still alive would rise in to the air to meet Jesus. All across the New World they waited, staring at the sky, for Jesus to appear from behind the clouds. As always he was busy elsewhere and couldn’t make it. This came to be know as The Great Disappointment or perhaps we should call it the Great Dissonance.

And as for Camping, well he claims:-

"God again brought judgement on the world. We didn't see any difference but God brought Judgement Day to bear upon the whole world. The whole world is under Judgement Day and it will continue right up until Oct. 21st 2011 and by that time the whole world will be destroyed."

Mrs Keech, Joanna and Miller would be proud of him, although I must admit I am looking forward to his next theological invention in October.

Feeling Stupid? Then Spread the Word!

Festinger and colleagues predicted that after the failure of prophecy the Seekers would seek reassurance by proselytizing. The idea being that if they can persuade others to believe what they believe then the existing believers feel better about their own beliefs and the bigger the believing group becomes the more support and reassurance the faithful receive. When people are absolutely committed to a belief central to their conception of self and their place in the world then clear disconfirming evidence may simply result in deepened conviction and increased proselytizing.

Before the failure of Prophecy the Seekers they had little interest in talking to the press but after the “failure” they were keen to convince the world of their righteous truth. After the failure of prophecy those Millerites still infused with faith in Miller had a problem. If Miller had been wrong then they had been stupid to fall for this nonsense, but that couldn’t be right, and as a good faithful believers they were special, chosen and wise, so how could they reduce the nagging doubt at the back of their minds? The classic way of course is to proselytize.

Those that maintained the faith in Miller banded together and formed the core of the Seventh-Day Adventist and Adventist Churches did so much proselytizing after the “failure” that there are at least 16 million members around the world and they are found in 205 countries. The Seventh-Day Adventists decided that a bit of reinterpretation was required to explain the Millerite “failure” and claimed that 1844 was the beginning of a pivotal era a point of transition in the heavenly sanctuary (the beginning of the end).

As for the Southcottians, the movement still exists to this day and is known as The Panacea Society. She also helped spawn a whole lot of other Christian sects including The Turnerites, Christian Israelites, New House of Israel, New and latter House of Israel, Followers of Alex Lindsay, Followers of Allman, Followers of Zion Ward, Followers of Mary Boon, Household of Faith etc.. Joanna also left a collection of prophecies sealed in a box to be opened at a time of national crisis. The box still exists, supposedly unopened, and is kept by the Panacea Society. They are waiting for 24 Church of England Bishops to pop over to their Bedford office and open it as per Joanna’s prophecy.

Members influenced by the Seekers went on to form Association of Sananda and Sanat Kumara and followers are still around today.

Group Support and Ideological Survival

Festinger and colleagues also emphasised the importance of social support as a key to the survival of the group. Individual members of the group separated from others began to fall away as failure after failure took place. Those that had social support kept their beliefs longest. It is interesting to speculate how Camping’s followers will survive after the next failure in October. As he has spread the word mostly by radio and his followers are spread out around the US it is likely those on the edge with little social support will drop away from him quite quickly. Those that have committed to his vision most fully are likely to be compelled to try and join with others for support.  Whether web forums, YouTube and Skype are enough to keep members of a virtual Church together and give them the support they need is unknown but I suspect a large number will join other Christian denominations. Those that remain with Camping will be even more loyal and dedicated to the cause. I suspect that his web forums and phone in shows will be increasingly dominated by dedicated believers in Camping’s predictive power.

More Believers, More Dedicated

So if you’re a Committed Christian don’t get upset, the reason you are a believer is because of failed prophecy. It has been argued that the very ideal of the apocalypse came about due to the repeated failure of the prophetic Jewish tradition. Prophecy has failed for the last two thousand years, each failure forces the most committed together, new theology is invented, new interpretations, new missionary works, and new heretical versions of Christianity appear and they appeal to new and different people. Failure is great for faith and when this is all over there will be more committed Christians. Many will have a powerful desire to convert others and dedicate their lives to the cause and the true winner, as always, is faith. You should be grateful that Harold got his calculator out.


G.R.Balleine (1956) Past Finding Out The Tragic Story of Joanna Southcott and her Successors Source for the movements inspired by Joanna.

Brown, Frances (2002) Joanna Southcott: The Woman Clothed with the Sun
The best and most up-to-date study of Joanna.

Hopkins, James K.(1982) A Woman to Deliver Her People: Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution Great for background of
the period and traces her influence in other movements, and source of the
sceptical doctors description of her pregnancy.

Court .John M (2008) Approaching the Apocalypse: A Short History of Christian Millenarianism

Carroll Robert P (1979) When Prophecy Failed (Note this is a different
text from Festingers work as it looks at the failure of prophecy in the Old

1 comment:

Andy said...

Excellent article, Francis. Very well researched and written. It does shed some light on how normally intelligent people can act so irrationally. Quite apposite to our talk from Andy McIntosh last night, who's evidently a highly intelligent and very personable man, but who looks at science with Christian blinkers on, and rationalises evidence to fit his predetermined worldview rather than the other way round.
Nice one... :-)