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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.