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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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain