Birthers and the End of the World

As nearly everyone in the world who watches television, reads a newspaper and doesn’t live isolated in a cave knows, Harold Camping, a preacher from Oakland, California, had predicted the “Rapture” and the end of the world would happen on May 21st, 2011. Mr. Camping is not just another itinerant preacher. He created the Family Radio Network, a company that now owns 66 radio stations and has assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars and an equal number of listeners and followers. For his most recent “end of the world” prediction he paid for at least 2,000 billboards proclaiming the upcoming Judgment day.

This wasn’t the first time Rev. Camping predicted the end of the world; he made the same prediction for May 21st, 1988, and September 7th, 1999. He now asserts that Judgment Day and the end of the world will, for sure, be on October 21st, 2011.

Many people accepted the May 21st date and acted accordingly. There are stories in newspapers of people spending their life savings, their retirement funds, refusing to make mortgage or car payments, selling or simply discarding clothes or personal property, including valuable jewelry or abandoning real property all in the certainty that, after the date, it will not matter. What happens with many of these believers when the world doesn’t come to an end? Something in their most sincere belief system is confronted by an inconsistent set of facts. The answer is that the conundrum may, in fact, reaffirm the belief in the wisdom of the Harold Campings of the world. There are several psychological terms, cognitive dissonance and cognitive disequilibrium.

Essentially, these are terms that describe the situation when preconceived beliefs and opinions clash with new and wholly contradictory facts. People have a need to resolve these conflicts however they can. Dissonance is aroused when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one’s belief, it will often result in misperception or rejection or refutation of the new information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others to restore consonance. There is a fascinating study in a 1956 book, Where Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger. A cult had believed that the end of the world would come and that only their members would survive the Earth’s destruction.

According to the study, when the world did not end, the cult members had a problem. They faced acute cognitive dissonance: had they been the victim of a hoax? Had they donated their worldly possessions in vain? Most members rationalized that the world had been given a second chance by Aliens. Their group gained adherents and more certain and dedicated ones.

The identical situation applies to the “Birthers”, those people who maintain that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii, believe his “real” name is “Barack Soetoro”, that he never graduated from Harvard Law School, did not attend Occidental College in Los Angeles and then transferred and graduated from Columbia University and many, many other “facts”. They have been presented with documentary evidence which contradicts their fiercely held beliefs and they endure cognitive dissonance. Those who hate Barack Obama, and the operative word is “”hate” become more convinced that he is evil, a liar and not eligible to be president. Only a handful of politicians who doubted Mr. Obama’s credentials have recanted

By the way, Harold Camping has revised his prediction. The “Rapture” and the end of the world will really happen on October 21st, 2011. Believers will now re-create their reality.

For the record, I do not question Rev. Camping’s or his followers’ religious beliefs. Nor will I delight in their discomfort. There is a German word that describes one’s pleasure being derived from the suffering or embarrassment of others: schadenfreude. It is truly an unworthy feeling, although we all laugh at the actor slipping on a banana peel or the old “pie in the face” gag. Perhaps we laugh because we know it’s not real.

To Harold Camping’s followers and to the Birthers, it is all too real and that’s the pity.