If the earth shakes on Saturday, we’ll know that Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping’s prediction may be right. As we’ve discussed this week, Camping and his followers expect The Rapture to occur this weekend, heralded by worldwide earthquakes. This event will usher in the End of Days foretold in the Bible.
But what can we expect if Camping’s prophecy fails? Camping had been wrong before when he predicted that the End Times would start in 1994. What if he’s wrong again?
When Prophecy Fails, a book written by social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues 50 years ago sheds light on what may happen. Festinger had a theory of “cognitive dissonance” that explains the psychological consequences of disconfirmed prophecies or expectations. Festinger and his team went undercover, pretending to be believers of a Chicago group whose leader had received messages via automatic writing from planet Clarion. Like Camping’s followers, members of the group quit their jobs, left families and friends, and gave away their assets.
Instead of massive earthquakes, the group expected a great flood. Believers would then be swept up by a flying saucer. When the predicted time of the flood passed, the believers were distraught. Hours later, the leader received another message via automatic writing, saying that the earth had been spared due to the devotion of the believers.
The disconfirmation of their prediction created extreme cognitive dissonance—a clash between their beliefs (a great flood, ascent in a saucer) and actions (like giving away their assets) versus what actually didn’t happen. One option would be to change their minds. But another option was to redouble their recruiting efforts and enthusiasm, seeking social support of their beliefs. “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct,” Festinger said, “then clearly it must after all be correct.”
So, if Camping’s predictions don’t come true, we might expect him and his followers to change their minds—or to harden their beliefs and redouble their efforts to convert non-believers. While the second option may seem illogical, it’s still illuminating. We’ve discussed several times on OurValues.org what happens when facts and values clash. Often, values are preserved and the facts are dismissed or discounted.
What do you think we’ll read on Sunday about Camping and his followers?
Why is America fertile ground for apocalyptic prophecies?
Tune in tomorrow for my answer—and tell us if you agree or disagree!
(Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.)