Even with the Day of Judgment drawing nigh, my neighbor laughed as she unloaded twenty pounds of dog food from her car. “Shoot,” she said. “I’m always looking for a reason to put off doing laundry or going to the grocery store. The end of the world seems as good a reason as any.”
Poor Harold Camping. When he predicted Jesus’ arrival back on earth in 1994, all he got for his trouble was a messianic no-show. The reason, he explained, was a slight mathematical miscalculation. After tweaking his figures, he decided to give it another go and announced this time it was for real, this snatching-up of the saved and destruction of the damned. The day would be May 21, the time, 6 p.m. local. Be there or be square, as the saying goes.
At that point, it was open season on the man and his beliefs. Like my neighbor, everyone (other than the good Reverend’s followers) was ready to have a little fun at Camping’s expense, especially after the deadline had passed. The Huffington Post published Nine Ways to Tell the World is Over, a typically-Huffpo-like but still funny list that included Sean Hannity going through with waterboarding, Donald Trump shaving his head and the Cubs winning the World Series. Time magazine tried to get in on the fun with their list of the nine best Apocalypse Not Yet tweets. Given the nature of Time and tweets, most weren’t really funny, but I did laugh at the message from Jesus, who defended his right to run the Apocalypse by tweeting, “It’s not over until I say it’s over”.
By the end of the day, it clearly was over – not the world, but Harold Camping’s ability to hijack the news cycle. Here and there, people posted reports that everything seemed fine in their neighborhood. When I saw my own neighbor this morning, she’d already started her laundry. With the dog walkers out on the streets and the finches back at their feeder it’s become just another day, another blown prophecy. But for fans of Leon Festinger’s work, the story’s just beginning.
Harold Camping and his Family Radio network is only the latest in a long line of more-or-less well-intentioned preachers, cult leaders, self-styled messianic figures and just plain scam artists who’ve populated the world for centuries. Most of them have been embedded in traditional religious traditions, although more recently time travelers, UFO-sighters and black hole enthusiasts have joined their ranks.
I became interested in these folks – the followers as much as the leaders – after reading When Prophecy Fails, a study of a UFO cult that didn’t quite make it to the planet Clarion. Written by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter and published in 1956, it’s a classic example of participant-observation and absolutely relevant to our latest example of public prophecy.
When Prophecy Fails examines the beliefs and actions of the “Seekers,” a group of people who gathered around Chicago housewife Dorothy Martin, a woman who claimed to be in contact with residents of the planet Clarion. According to her contacts, Martin said, the world would be destroyed by flood and the faithful rescued by a flying saucer at midnight on Dec 21, 1954. Followers gave away possessions and quit jobs to wait in Martin’s house that night for the arrival of the saucer.
Eventually, as their chariot seemed to have been delayed and the group was growing restive, Martin “received” another message from the aliens saying the group “had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Responses from the Seekers ranged from anger to shock and numbed disbelief. Some disassociated themselves from the group and began the process of reintegrating into the larger society. Others re-doubled their commitment to the cause, becoming even more fervent in spreading their beliefs. Both those who left the group and those who committed more strongly were attempting to cope with “cognitive dissonance“, the term coined by Festinger to describe the behavior of people who’ve seen their most cherished beliefs contradicted by life.
Now that Judgement Day 2011 has come and gone, Camping and his followers will have to confront the same issues. The 89-year-old evangelist himself seemed to have gone silent on Saturday. Family Radio was playing recorded church music, devotionals and life advice unrelated to the apocalypse. The Oakland, California network headquarters was shuttered, with a sign on the door saying, “This Office is Closed. Sorry we missed you!”
While it’s tempting to label this Rapture talk “old news” and move on, a recent experience suggests there may be less distance between “normal folk” and the “loonies” of the world than we imagine.
As many of you know, Texas has been suffering from increasingly serious drought for months, and a longing for rain permeates the atmosphere. When rain was forecast for our area last week, the excitement was palpable.
We hadn’t been given the standard 20% chance of rain that television weather-readers use to save themselves embarassment. We’d been told by the High Priests of Meteorology themselves we were going to have significant, measurable rainfall, with thunderstorms thrown in for good measure. Convinced that salvation was at hand, gardeners and homeowners hung on the words of the forecasters as though they were prophets. National Weather Service discussions weren’t read, they were exegeted. They might as well have been holy writ or communiques from another world.
Obsessing over the radars, we watched the echoes of the building clouds, the formation of the storms. Rolling toward Houston, the line picked up speed. Mesocyclones developed, and hail. Winds began to swirl, wrapping and unwrapping around invisible vortices, scudding along clouds filled with life-giving water. And then, almost literally above our heads, the rain dissipated. Clouds filled with water produced nothing more than a scouring wind that sucked even more moisture from gardens and lawns. As we watched, the storms scooted off to the north and east, only to re-form over East Texas and Louisiana and drop lush, beneficent rain.
Staring out windows or at their computer screens, more than a few people were irritated and despondent. Some felt betrayed, saying, “But they promised we’d get rain!” Others just wandered away, muttering to themselves about the foolishness of trusting anyone’s weather predictions. Explanations abounded. “The moisture ran into dry air.” “The seabreeze set up a barrier.” “The waters of the Lake and Bay cooled the clouds.” “The heat from the land evaporated the water.” Some explanations were bad science, but they were familiar human psychology. The rain-deprived denizens of far southeast Texas were acting precisely like devotees of some strange apocalyptic cult, trying to explain why their promised deliverance hadn’t arrived. If Leon Festinger had been around, he would have grinned.
Obviously, the analogy isn’t perfect. Waiting for rain isn’t the same as waiting for a messiah or a mothership, and even if you feel like that afternoon spent spreading fertilizer on the lawn was a danged big investment of time and energy, it’s not quite the same as pulling a few thousand out of savings to help post billboards around town or giving up your job and moving to the top of a mountain.
Still, in the past week rain and rapture have made an interesting pair, with a blown forecast providing a brief glimpse into the world of failed prophecy. What happens with Camping’s followers now is anyone’s guess. If Festinger is right, a new date may be announced once the calculations have been redone, and an even more firmly convinced group of people may be ready to follow their leader into the great unknown.
As for the weather-watchers, there’s little question they’ll soon forget their vows to stop worrying about rain and start scanning the skies for signs of its arrival. One thing is sure. The chances for rain far exceed the chances of a messianic visitation or an afternoon drive in a flying saucer. When the rain finally falls, the rapture will be undisputed.