On May 21, 2011 at 6 p.m., another predicted Judgment Day came and went without incident. While belief in this particular apocalypse was limited to followers of an Oakland, California, ministry called Family Radio Worldwide, for them its uneventful passing was devastating — many had sold their possessions and devoted months to the cause, only to have life as usual continue blithely on.
The ministry’s followers got a brief reprieve when its leader rescheduled the apocalypse for October 21, 2011 (that deadline passed without incident as well), but how have other religious movements survived being stood up by their prophecies? This question was at the center of a 1956 study and book by Leon Festinger et. al, When Prophecy Fails. It looked at evidence from historical religious movements to explore behavioral patterns after prophecies fail to materialize. The conclusion was that, to minimize the negative impact of the failure, believers forgo reason and proselytize even harder.
Study in this field has continued to evolve with at least three further major studies refining Festinger’s conclusions in the past 30 years:
- In 1985, the Institute for the Study of American Religion produced an article, “Spiritualization and Reaffirmation, What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails.” This article concluded that prophetic failures in the physical world may not even be viewed as spiritual failures within the groups who believed in them.
- In 1999 the Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions published a paper, “When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists: A Theoretical Overview.” The paper focused on the adaptive coping strategies of religious groups and why different groups act in different ways in the face of failed prophecy.
- In 2001 the Journal of Sociology and Religion published a case study, “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch.” The study identified a Messianic group that used reason and logic to remain steadfast in their spiritual faith in the aftermath of failed prophecy.
Overall, academics don’t agree on the processes that religious groups take to continue their beliefs. However, there is empirical evidence that true believers in apocolypses large and small are not likely to disappear entirely or immediately when disapointed, but instead redouble their faith.
Tags: California, religion