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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.