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.