What do people do when their prophets fail?
As the Doomsday day-dream of U.S. evangelical Christian broadcaster Harold Camping, 89, fizzles the question remains: why would anyone give any form of credence to the rantings of con men or delusional types?
Camping formerly predicted Christ’s return (and the Earth’s demise) in 1994. (thewest 2011) This glitch in his predictive powers seemingly making no dent in his followers’ belief. The sheer irresponsibility of making such predictions, preying on the weak-minded and vulnerable, would shame any serious con artist but – and this is the mind-boggling part – it seems to have made no difference to Camping’s follower’s devotion, nor to their gullibility.
The old view that you can’t argue with faith clearly applies here strongly underlining the deep vein of madness that religion is able to tap into in captive minds.
A truly frightening consequence of this is when cult leaders attempt to take action to cover-up their fraudulent predictions from their herd. Rather than allowing this to happen Jim Jones organised the mass murder of 900 followers in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 (Wikipedia 2011). More recently, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, Marshall H. Applewhite, expedited his followers transition to ‘the next level’ by having them drink a fatal mixture of phenobarbital and vodka (CNN 1997) rather than let them discover that his predictions were worthless. The question of whether cultists participated willingly or not is a vexed one – how far are deluded people willing to go to actualise their own delusions and how much of this is due to the leader’s influence?
Another consequence that is equally real and equally as puzzling is how failed predictions can actually strengthen believer’s faiths. The classic study of the impact on mental health of doomsday beliefs is Leon Festinger, Nery Rieken and Stanley Schacters’ When Prophecy Fails (itself based on an investigation of a 1950’s UFO cult) which explains how cultists commitment is often strengthened following a failed prophecy :
“Members often dedicate themselves with renewed vigor to the group’s cause after a failed prophesy, and rationalize with explanations such as a belief that their actions forestalled the disaster …” (Wikipedia 2011)
One element of the discussion which does not receive enough attention is the role that the media itself plays in shoring up apocalyptic-thinking. Positioning cultists as fanatics; painting them into a corner where their us-and-them belief- systems are reinforced may, not only abet their retreat into delusion, but also heighten the likelihood of violence directed at themselves or others as the divide between society’s collective beliefs and their own reaches a critical level.
CNN Interactive 1997, Autopsies completed in suicide cult as probe winds down, viewed: May 21st 2011, http://www.cnn.com/US/9703/31/suicide/index.html
Heaven’s Gate, Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate, viewed: 21st May, 2011, http://www.heavensgate.com/
Jim Jones, Wikipedia, viewed: 21st May, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Jones
Saveri, Gabrielle 2011, Predictor of May 21 doomsday to watch it on TV, viewed: 21st May, 2011, http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/offbeat/9488999/predictor-of-may- 21-doomsday-to-watch-it-on-tv/
When Prophecy Fails – wikipedia entry , viewed: 21st May 2011 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_Prophecy_Fails