What Happened to Camping’s Followers?


Tom Bartlett has a fascinating article at Religion Dispatches about the followers of Harold Camping who were absolutely convinced that the world was going to end one year ago. He had gotten to know many of those people before the magic date and then looked up the ones he could still find almost a year later to find out how they were coping, what they were thinking, and so forth. The result tells us a lot about human nature, I think.

It’s easy to think of these people as stupid or crazy, but he points that many of them were very intelligent, especially good at fields like math and engineering:

It’s been noted by scholars who study apocalyptic groups that believers tend to have analytical mindsets. They’re often good at math. I met several engineers, along with a mathematics major and two financial planners. These are people adept at identifying patterns in sets of data, and the methods they used to identify patterns in the Bible were frequently impressive, even brilliant. Finding unexpected connections between verses, what believers call comparing scripture with scripture, was a way to become known in the group. The essays they wrote explaining these links could be stunningly intricate.

That intricacy was part of the appeal. The arguments were so complex that they were impossible to summarize and therefore very challenging to refute. As one longtime believer, an accountant, told me: “Based on everything we know, and when you look at the timelines, you look at the evidence — these aren’t the kind of things that just happen. They correlate too strongly for it not to be important.” The puzzle was too perfect. It couldn’t be wrong.

And here’s how some of them reacted:

A father of three boys who works in the financial industry told me he was fairly sure this would be the end. Not a hundred percent, but close. After May 21, his faith was so shaken that he apologized on Facebook to the friends he had tried to convert. But as October 21 drew closer, he found himself wanting to believe again. “I’ve been convinced for 10 years that this would be it,” he said. “I think it will be the end of everything.”

Another engineer I came to know had spent most of his retirement savings, well over a half-million dollars, taking out full-page newspaper ads and buying an RV that he had custom-painted with doomsday warnings. Even when I pressed, he wasn’t willing to admit any doubts about whether October 21 would really, finally, be it. “How can you say that when you see that all this beautiful information is in the Bible?” he asked me, his voice rising. “How can everything we’ve learned be a lie?”

What happened after May 21 matches up fairly closely with what scholars of apocalyptic groups would expect. The so-called disconfirmation was not enough to undermine the faith of many believers. From what I can tell, those who had less invested in the prophecy were more likely to simply give up and return to normal life. Meanwhile, those who had risked almost everything seemed determined to reframe the prophecy, to search the scriptures, to hang on to the hope that the end might be nigh.

I was struck by how some believers edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken. The engineer in his mid-twenties, the one who told me this was a prophecy rather than a prediction, maintained that he had never claimed to be certain about May 21. When I read him the transcript of our previous interview, he seemed genuinely surprised that those words had come out of his mouth. It was as if we were discussing a dream he couldn’t quite remember.

Other believers had no trouble recalling what they now viewed as an enormous embarrassment. Once October came and went without incident, the father of three was finished. “After October 22, I said ‘You know what? I think I was part of a cult,’” he told me. His main concern was how his sons, who were old enough to understand what was going on, would deal with everything: “My wife and I joke that when my kids get older they’re going to say that we’re the crazy parents who believed the world was going to end.”

In the beginning, I was curious how believers would react, as if they were mice in a maze. But as time went on I grew to like and sympathize with many of them. This failed prophecy caused real harm, financially and emotionally. What was a curiosity for the rest of us was, for them, traumatic. And it’s important to remember that mainstream Christians also believe that God’s son will play a return engagement, beam up his bona fide followers, and leave the wretched remainder to suffer unspeakable torment. They’re just not sure when.

Among those I came to know and like was a gifted young musician. Because he was convinced the world was ending, he had abandoned music, quit his job, and essentially put his life on hold for four years. It had cost him friends and created a rift between some members of his family. He couldn’t have been more committed.

In a recent email, he wrote that he had “definitely lost an incredible amount of faith” and hadn’t touched his Bible in months. These days he’s not sure what or whether to believe. “It makes me wonder just how malleable our minds can be. It all seemed so real, like it made so much sense, but it wasn’t right,” he wrote. “It leaves a lot to think about.”

It’s easy to make fun of these people, and I certainly did my share of it. But the rationalizations that they invented to protect their beliefs from being disproven are not so unlike the way all of our minds work to eliminate cognitive dissonance fairly routinely, though obviously on a much stronger scale and with more serious consequences. Once again, I strongly recommend Carol Tavris’ book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) to understand those processes more fully. Understanding them is the only way to limit them and become more consistently rational.

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    It’s easy to think of these people as stupid or crazy, but he points that many of them were very intelligent, especially good at fields like math and engineering:

    Salem conjecture, anyone?

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    The mention of William Miller, who predicted the end of the world in 1844, is interesting. After “The Great Disappointment,” there was discussion of setting another date, and the Millerites as a distinct group disbanded. However, remnants went on to form the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists. Some people just can’t get enough of failure.

  3. says

    It all seemed so real, like it made so much sense, but it wasn’t right

    I definitely empathize with this statement. I had that epiphany where I realized that no matter how much I believed something, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

    It was a pivotal moment in my deconversion.

  4. Alverant says

    Why do I have the feeling that the guy who said “How can everything we’ve learned be a lie?” would have no problems telling someone else that everything THEY have learned is a lie no matter how beautiful their information is?

  5. grumpyoldfart says

    It’s easy to think of these people as stupid or crazy, but he points that many of them were very intelligent, especially good at fields like math and engineering:

    They also believe in talking snakes, original sin, devils, demons, angels, virginal birth, guys who walk on water, and people getting raised from the dead – so not overly intelligent. More stupid and crazy I think.

  6. Doug Little says

    These are people adept at identifying patterns in sets of data, and the methods they used to identify patterns in the Bible were frequently impressive, even brilliant.

    Well there’s your problem. /Adam Savage

  7. d cwilson says

    I wonder if its the affinity for mathematics that leads them to trying to find the biblical “code” that will unlock the secrets of the universe.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    A father of three boys who works in the financial industry …

    And still remains employed there?!?

    Either he told his clients what he thought they should expect, in which case he would almost certainly be fired for (whether they believed him or not) driving away investors; or he didn’t tell them, and so violated the essential ethical imperatives which … oh …

  9. says

    Finding unexpected connections between verses, what believers call comparing scripture with scripture, was a way to become known in the group. The essays they wrote explaining these links could be stunningly intricate.

    That intricacy was part of the appeal. The arguments were so complex that they were impossible to summarize and therefore very challenging to refute.

    I’d be willing to bet that their arguments aren’t actually that difficult to refute, it’s just that they’ve immunized themselves against the possibility that their arguments can be refuted. The purpose of any complexity is not to provide a step-by-step proof of their thesis, but to make it possible to bend the argument in whichever way necessary to allow themselves to reject the perfectly reasonable objections of others.

    In this way, Camping’s followers are no different from any other pseudointellectual grouping who spend years building up a superficially self-consistent set of beliefs that most independent observers can refute with little difficulty, like the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, Mars Face advocates, New World Order types, Biblical inerrancy types, KJV-only types, etc.

    And the attraction isn’t the complexity of the reasoning, it’s the belief that you have managed to uncover something that has been hidden or overlooked by all the “so-called experts” in whatever field you are studying. It’s the thrill of being right when everyone else is wrong, or of knowing something that the elites also know but who wanted to be kept hidden from public view.

    In an age where discovery and invention are now mostly the purview of corporations and large public institutions and typically take years of study and toil to achieve, I can certainly see the attraction of believing they you come up with your own world-shattering theory with little more than a few weeks of Googling and reading between the lines. It’s just a shame that the world just doesn’t work that way.

  10. baal says

    From my wet bench biology days, there were creationist biologists oddly enough. They were always in genetics. Turns out the day to day work of genetics is mathy and tricksy clever set ups and much less on how biology works. I even had one guy try to throw (metaphorically) the “irreducibly complex” vertebrate eye at me.

  11. says

    With the Mayan 2012 end of world timeline and,Harold Camping’s *rapture reloaded* in the news the apocalyptic themes of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is getting attention.
    Watchtower Jehovahs Witnesses have lost credibility with their own *Millerite Math* doctrine of Jesus *invisible* second coming October 1914.
    Watchtower society false prophets declare Armageddon end of world in 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1975, and 1984….
    —Danny Haszard FMI dannyhaszard(dot)com
    Armageddon-aint-a-coming-so-im-a-getting-outta-here…

  12. says

    With the Mayan 2012 end of world timeline

    A friend of mine noted the other day that google calendar ends at 2050. Expect panic among the turkeys beginning around 2048.

  13. dorfl says

    Once again, I strongly recommend Carol Tavris’ book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) to understand those processes more fully.

    You might want to try Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails too. It deals with pretty much exactly this kind of situation.

  14. pacal says

    This quote is interesting:

    “I was struck by how some believers edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken. The engineer in his mid-twenties, the one who told me this was a prophecy rather than a prediction, maintained that he had never claimed to be certain about May 21. When I read him the transcript of our previous interview, he seemed genuinely surprised that those words had come out of his mouth. It was as if we were discussing a dream he couldn’t quite remember.”

    George Orwell would have great fun with stuff lke this. History gets rewritten and the unmentionable, unacceptable past goes down the memory hole.

  15. Reginald Selkirk says

    With the Mayan 2012 end of world timeline
    A friend of mine noted the other day that google calendar ends at 2050

    O Noez! My wall calendar ends on DEc 31 of this year !!11ty!!

  16. Reginald Selkirk says

    pacal #16: who told me this was a prophecy rather than a prediction

    Uh huh. Probably as important as the distinction between Christians and Catholics is to some folks I know.

  17. Artor says

    “It’s been noted by scholars who study apocalyptic groups that believers tend to have analytical mindsets. They’re often good at math. I met several engineers, along with a mathematics major and two financial planners.”

    I think this illustrates that all the analytical intelligence in the world can’t help you if you’re too dumb to evaluate what evidence is valid and what’s bullshit.

  18. wscott says

    From what I can tell, those who had less invested in the prophecy were more likely to simply give up and return to normal life. Meanwhile, those who had risked almost everything seemed determined to reframe the prophecy, to search the scriptures, to hang on to the hope that the end might be nigh.

    Tavris talks about this too. It’s sortof a psyhological equivilent of the sunk costs fallacy – the more you’ve invested in a belief, the harder it is to give up because that would force you to admit to yourself that you wasted all those resources.

  19. unemployedphilosopher says

    Another good resource (tangentially related) is Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment by one of my former advisors, Michael Bishop, and J.D. Trout.

    It’s an unusually cross-disciplinary look at how we do and ought to make decisions. I’m not convinced that Bishop and Trout are correct, but still… a good read.

  20. laurentweppe says

    So, the post contains:

    But the rationalizations that they invented to protect their beliefs from being disproven are not so unlike the way all of our minds work to eliminate cognitive dissonance fairly routinely

    And then one can read in the comments

    Religious faith is just an acceptable form of insanity.

    and

    not overly intelligent. More stupid and crazy I think.

    and

    if you’re too dumb to evaluate what evidence is valid and what’s bullshit.

    Because nothing shows one’s rationality more than not reading a blog post before commenting it.

    Also, talking snakes are real

  21. Ichthyic says

    Once again, I strongly recommend Carol Tavris’ book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) to understand those processes more fully.

    …and once again, I recommend the 40 years of sociological study behind Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians” which perfectly explains this behavior.

  22. Ichthyic says

    It’s sortof a psyhological equivilent of the sunk costs fallacy – the more you’ve invested in a belief, the harder it is to give up because that would force you to admit to yourself that you wasted all those resources.

    they taught us that with the label “The Concorde Fallacy” back when I was in elementary school, probably given the excellent example of the behavior provided by the namesake.

    I recall it as being one of the more valuable lessons I took away from 4th grade. Still remember it distinctly after 35 years.

  23. leni says

    That intricacy was part of the appeal. The arguments were so complex that they were impossible to summarize and therefore very challenging to refute. As one longtime believer, an accountant, told me: “Based on everything we know, and when you look at the timelines, you look at the evidence — these aren’t the kind of things that just happen. They correlate too strongly for it not to be important.” The puzzle was too perfect. It couldn’t be wrong.

    See, this is why, well it’s one of the reasons, I won’t read the Bible and why I won’t get into scriptural arguments.

    I’ve been criticized for that, but I really just don’t care what the Bible says and care even less about what Christians think it says. It’s like getting sucked into someone else’s delusion and, since I’m not a therapist or a biographer, why would I care what book was the catalyst?

    I’m sure some people would think that’s like a creationist dismissing evolution out of hand, but it really isn’t. I’ll listen to creationist claims as long as they aren’t Bible quotes- at least they pretend to or believe they have something approximating verifiable evidence. I will listen to historical discussions about events in the Bible, even. I’ll respond to philosophical or sociological arguments that have more substance than mere Bible quotes.

    But I’m not going to dive headlong into someone’s cryptic, labyrinthine, Bible-quoting tautological numerology bullshit. Any piece of which can and will inevitably be rescripted as needed. I just can’t even imagine a bigger waste of time.

    I’m going to go play Temple Run now.

  24. F says

    Expect panic among the turkeys beginning around 2048.

    Don’t worry, everything will end a decade earlier on 01/19/2038. ;)

  25. RickR says

    Reading the “Left Behind” posts at Slacktivist has really made me aware of how completely ridiculous it is to use the bible as a deck of tarot cards or fortune teller. Even more ridiculous are the claims by rapture-ready christians that these prophecies are right there on the surface, derived by a “literal, plain-reading of the text”. (The fundies go so far as to treat the bible ONLY as a “prophecy guide”, completely ignoring all that messy business about how one is supposed to live one’s life.)

    Nonsense.

    The only conclusion I can parse is that, after trying to make sense of all the rules about morality and contradictory stories about the nature of yahweh, the rapturites just gave up and thought “well the damned book’s gotta be good for SOMETHING!”

  26. jaranath says

    Laurentweppe:

    I get your point, but…well… I became rather fascinated with this whole affair back when it was happening. Spent a lot of time listening to Camping’s show. I readily agree with the observation that some of these people are what we have conventionally considered to be “intelligent”, but Artor’s point is that many intelligent people lack the critical-thinking, evaluation-of-evidence skills to understand why their phenomenal logical and analytical skills can nevertheless lead them straight off a cliff. And his average believing caller was not of the analytical engineer type, but rather were people who wanted to be told what to think and do.

    On a separate note: I share Bartlett’s sympathies for Camping’s victims. I felt the same way watching it happen. I could have felt some sympathy for Camping as well, given how clearly he is self-deluded, and how awful the delusion is: His entire theology is blatantly constructed, at multiple levels, to make whatever comes into his head be God’s word…and he doesn’t see it.

    But Camping doesn’t share our sympathy for his victims. When pressed on the question of those who’d blown life savings and retirements on his delusions, he first blew the question off, then finally testily replied “people cope”. Meanwhile he enjoys his retirement, with adequate funds and family and healthcare, much-needed after his stroke.

    Harold Camping can rot.

  27. KG says

    A father of three boys who works in the financial industry

    Who we would thus expect to be immune from the irrational belief that arcane mathematical formulae can reliably predict what is going to happen in the human world?

  28. interrobang says

    I think a lot of mathy people are easily drawn into religious belief because one interpretation of mathematics segues easily into teleology. It leads one into the same sort of conflation of reality that argues that mathematics is as real as Plato or the Transcendentalists considered the Platonic ideals to be real (that is, in a “senior” reality to our own). If you see everything as ineluctably perfect patterns, then, to a lot of people, there must have been a Pattern-Maker. In essence, it’s a more abstract version of Paley’s Watch.

    Fortunately for me, I’m dyscalculic, have no metacognitive awareness of number whatever, and consequently did a literature degree, so holy texts tend to look like texts to me. If I’m inclined to apply mathematics to them at all, it’s only if I’m looking to calculate word entropy, corpus vocabulary size, or reading grade level.

  29. laurentweppe says

    Artor’s point is that many intelligent people lack the critical-thinking, evaluation-of-evidence skills to understand why their phenomenal logical and analytical skills can nevertheless lead them straight off a cliff

    I do agree with it, the thing is, as much as I like to openly express my contempt toward people I despise and enjoy calling someone an idiot for the thrill of the cheap insult as much as the next guy, I prefer to avoid dividing the world between ontologically smart people and ontological idiots.
    Such a worldview is very tempting, but I see it as the first step toward objectivist douchebaggery, a path that I’d rather avoid.
    *
    Besides, Ed point was not that Camping’s victims were not lacking in critical thinking -they obviously were- but that everyone one is subject to cognitive dissonance and that there is no big unbreachable gap between Camping’s victims and the people who laugh at them.
    After all, the first step toward being screwed by a cult is to think “I’m too smart to be screwed by a cult”

  30. jaranath says

    But that’s my point. I don’t know about unreachable gaps, but I would argue there really are significant differences between your average Camping follower (gotta be a pun in there somewhere but I’m too tired) and nonbelieving skeptic. Not absolute differences, of course, but we’ve known for a long time now that people are prone to thinking (and believing) in certain differing, measurable ways.

    I don’t think you were suggesting freethinkers are equivalent to the Camping crowd, but I do think the distinction can be underplayed, especially when one is concerned about appearing disparaging.

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