What we can learn from Harold Camping

“People will often go to extraordinary lengths to maintain prior beliefs in the face of evidence to

Much fun has been had over the past week at the expense of Harold Camping, the elderly American evangelist whose prediction of the "Rapture" – the taking up to heaven of the saved amid earthquakes and other manifestations of doom – turned out to be somewhat premature.

It may have been the first apocalypse of the Twitter era, but in other respects Camping's prophecy and its aftermath conformed to type. The pattern was laid down on 21 March 1844, when thousands of followers of William Miller gathered on hillsides – many wearing special "ascension robes" supplied by an enterprising local textile manufacturer – waiting for Christ to come in glory. When nothing happened, Miller set a new date of 22 October that same year.

The second failure became known as the Great Disappointment.

While many drew the obvious conclusion that Miller had been wrong, others believed that the prophecy had been fulfilled "spiritually", or that it would happen on some other date. From the Millerites sprang the Adventist movement, one of whose lineal descendents was the Branch Dravidian Church of Waco, Texas.

Many others have played the game, too. Pat Robertson announced in 1980 that the End would come within two years. He recovered quickly enough from the embarrassment.

Each new prophet can explain why his prediction is going to come true where all previous predictions (sometimes including his own) have not. Camping – who already has one failed prophecy behind him in 1994 – is no exception. After the briefest of recalculations, he has now announced that the great event has occurred unseen – and that the End will happen (for real, this time) on 22 October this year.

It's Miller again, almost to the day.

Crack code

So Camping fits into a recognisable religious mould, albeit not an orthodox one. We shouldn't be too surprised. Date-setting emerges naturally from three widespread themes in fundamentalist Christianity: the "young earth" view, which sees history as short and dominated by an interventionist God; belief that the Bible contains an answer to every question; and attraction to the dramatic Apocalypse narratives of Revelation and the Book of Daniel. Together they give a sense of living inside an unfinished story whose end has already been written.

If the Bible is both true and complete, it follows that it ought to be possible to decode it and so work out when the End will come. Books such as Revelation are full of symbols and numbers that invite just such decoding. And if you already believe the world is going to come to an end, it's obviously tempting to figure out the date.

What makes a physical Second Coming different – psychologically – from a purely spiritual afterlife is not that it will happen on earth but that it will happen soon. Hence the urgency. It's natural to view the present moment as uniquely important, as the culmination of history or a moment of supreme peril, largely because we happen to be living through it.

Apocalypse Now is a much more interesting prospect than Apocalypse Some Time in the Distant Future.

Psychogymnastics

You don't have to be a far-out evangelist to think this way. In a modified form, we can see it in the claim that we have only a few short years to "save the planet", or in the Millennium Bug panic (remember that?) of 1999. Democratic politics, especially at election times, feeds off a similar rhetoric of urgency, rival leaders promising salvation and warning of the doom that will ensue if the other side wins.

Something else that isn't confined to the Harold Campings of this world is his response to the failure of his prediction. Faced with an obvious mismatch between the theory to which he had publicly committed himself and the facts on the ground, Camping found it easier to cling to his theory – modifying it only slightly – rather than admit that he was wrong.

This sort of mental gymnastics is all too common. In all areas of life, people will often go to extraordinary lengths to maintain prior beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary.

To take a relatively uncontroversial example, it's now generally accepted that Dr Andrew Wakefield's linkage of the MMR vaccine to autism was wrong. Whatever merit his original study may have had (and it attracted criticism right from the start) later findings have largely discredited it. Yet this has not altered the views of many of Wakefield's supporters.

I don't want to single out Wakefield; it happens everywhere. Politicians stick to failed policies, academics cling to unsustainable hypotheses, business leaders throw good money after bad. It's the triumph of hope over experience.

Harold Camping may be a fringe figure whose version of Christianity is seriously warped, and good comedy material to boot. But in his overconfidence, his endless ability to clutch at straws rather than changing his mind, and his capacity for attracting followers happy to share his delusions, he is a more typical specimen of humanity than many people would like to admit.

Nelson Jones runs the Heresy Corner blog. He was shortlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.