When prophecy fails: How religious groups cope


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:

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

Last updated: July 6, 2011


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Citation: Dein, Simon. "What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch," Sociology of Religion, Autumn, 2001, Vol. 62, No. 3, 383-401.