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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
 
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.