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When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Harry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter

When Prophecy Fails by Leon FlestingerI’m only a little behind the times, I suppose, but I wasn’t this annoyed before today.

So, as you all know, the world did not end on Saturday, and Harold Camping and his followers were not raptured, and everyone’s been having a grand old time laughing at him for it. I just haven’t been able to, and this book is pretty much the reason why.

I was an anthropology major in college; I studied the way people think, particularly in groups, and the way they organize their lives. My focus was on religion, because religion is one of the most important things in many peoples’ lives, and it fascinates me. My adviser did her research in Papua New Guinea, studying the cargo cults there, and it was that research that led her into her research on UFO cults, Christian sects, and other new religious movements in the United States. It was great fun, I have to say; people are always stranger than you think they might be, but they’re always people.

We read this book in one of her classes. It’s a classic in the field for a number of reasons, but the relevant one right now is that it’s the study that coined the term cognitive dissonance. That’s that thing that happens when all of a sudden the world is not what you believe it to be, and there are very few options left to you once it’s happened. You can admit you were wrong, but people don’t like to do that. It’s hard, and the more strongly you believed before you were proven wrong, the harder it is. Or you can carry on believing, and deny the world. That happens a lot. It’s what happened to most of the people in this study.

Festinger and his colleagues were studying a group of apocalypse-believers. The details of their beliefs aren’t important, they’re as common as dirt, they thought the world was coming to an end. They set a date. They prepared themselves, their friends and relations, and waited for the end to come. And has always happened so far, the end did not come. And they were left with two options: forsake the belief system that had been their sole support for years (because you lose a lot of friends when you go around telling them that UFOs are going to destroy the world, until you don’t have any friends left except the ones that agree with you), or carry on. And unsurprisingly, they carried on.

So the world didn’t end on Saturday, and Harold Camping has set a new date, and his followers are, for the most part, still following. I can’t be surprised at this; it’s what happens every time. I can’t laugh at it either, though. Harold Camping may be a delusional idiot and probably is, but his followers are also his victims. They started following him because what he was offering was the only thing they needed, and he led them down a path that could only end in failure. Saturday was the worst day of their lives, and whatever they do now, whether they continue following because they have nowhere else to go, or whether they give up their greatest source of support, they’re stuck with it.

That’s the problem with anthropology. You get into it and next thing you know, everyone’s a human being, and you can’t laugh at their misfortune any more. When Prophecy Fails is the first book I read that really gave me an insight into what people are going through when they’re a member of one of these fringe groups, and it sure doesn’t look like fun. I’m trying not to sound like I’m scolding people who did make fun of them, because it is pretty hilarious, and I know I’m a little over-sensitive to mocking people’s strongly-held beliefs.  But if you found you have any more interest than mere amusement in fringe apocalyptic groups after this, I’d recommend this book as a good place to start.

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