Tom Bartlett has an interesting post on religiondispatches.org (18 May 2012). It concerns the followers of Harold Camping, the octogenarian whose nightly Bible call-in show caused a minor doomsday mania. He predicted or prophecied that the world would end on 21 May When the world didn’t end, Bartlett wanted to understand what affect this had on true believers.
In order to find out, I got to know a dozen or so believers prior to the scheduled apocalypse. . . Then, after Jesus was a no-show, I stayed in contact with them–the ones who would talk to me, anyway–over the following days and months, checking back in to see how or if their thinking had changed.
I learned a lot about the seductive power of radical belief, the inscrutable vagaries of biblical interpretation, and how our minds can shape reality to fit a narrative. I also learned that you don’t have to be nuts to believe something crazy.
Social psycholoist Leon Festinger wrote the following in his 1956 classic, When Prophecy Fails:
Although there is a limit beyond which belief will not withstand discomfirmation, it is clear that the introduction of contrary evidence can serve to increase the conviction and enthusiasm of a believer.
What emerged from Festinger’s research was the concept of cognitive dissonance–the stress created when a person believes in contradictory ideas simultaneously.
What I found most disturbing about Bartlett’s article is the idea that doomsday movements can appeal to those with analytical minds:
It’s been noted by scholars who study apocalyptic groups that believers tend to have analytical mindsets. They’re often good at math. I met several engineers, along with a mathematics major and two financial planners. These are people adept at identifying patterns in sets of data, and the methods they used to identify patterns in the Bible were frequently impressive, even brilliant. Finding unexpected connections between verses, what believers call comparing scripture with scripture, was a way to become known in the group. The essays they wrote explaining these links could be stunningly intricate.
Being an engineer of sorts, this paragraph threw me off guard. But, to a certain extent, I can see it. Engineers are detail people, and they frequently have difficulties seeing the big picture. So obsessing over the minutiae of scripture might well suit their disposition.
I have two brothers, one a biologist and the other a theoritical macro-economist. I can’t image either getting very excited by an apocalyptic prophecy. The three of us were raised in a Mormon home. Our parents were active, but not zealots by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve often wondered why the three of us are such doubters. It must be some combination of genetics, education (over-education some might say), and environment.