When Prophecy Fails, is a work of sociology written for a general audience, about the kind of kooky, magical thinkers that form into groups around religious and esoteric apocalypticism. More specifically, it’s about how such groups react when the dates of predicted events pass without anything happening. The book was written in the middle of the last century, but re-released in 2011, in the time leading up to the end of the “long count” Mayan calender. It is not a rigorously scientific work, nor especially brilliant or well-written; its moderate renown is due to the detailed undercover observation of a small UFO-doomsday cult, whose doomsday comes and goes uneventfully.
The book’s most frustrating shortcoming is the ease with which its theses can be contained, confined to its ridiculous subjects. Everything about the studied group is idiotic, uncharismatic, and for all their weirdness they seem a rather dull group of Midwestern provincials; it’s easy to picture the men in hats, the women in aprons and perms, all the action taking place in black and white on the set of My Three Sons. Instead of banging on about golf, lawn care, or church groups, this lot has chosen the hobby of channeling cosmic beings. The received wisdom is an unimaginative, incoherent pastiche of flying saucers, Sunday-school theology, The Rapture, Scientology, E.S.P., and… well, it doesn’t matter. It’s just stupid.
And here is the central thesis of the book: When a group builds a collective ego-identity on a belief, irrefutable evidence that the belief is factually incorrect may reinforce the disproved belief. The individuals in the book’s doomsday group expect vindication… an apocalypse on a specific date. When material vindication fails to arrive, the need for social reinforcement of their individual ego-identities leads to strong group cohesion and an evangelical impulse to persuade others.
Because of the social and ideological separateness of the group–the isolating weirdness of their beliefs–they make a good test subject, a laboratory for a study of something universal and human. But the otherness of the cultists allows the authors maintain an ironic distance. The book does not really surprise or challenge the readers, but instead comforts and flatters them: “Look at these weirdos!” the authors say. “They’re so blinded by group-think and credulity!” In this picture, the UFO fans manifest a pathology of schizotypal personalities, perhaps latent in people generally, but active only in culty collectives. As long as we don’t join any religious splinter groups, we can feel safe and superior. Now we better understand what’s wrong with them.
The authors avoid any indication that this clinging to discredited faith might apply to any reader’s own cherished beliefs. A reader may see examples of cultiness in religion… but not when it his or her own religion, of course. A secularist may realize more generally, that stupid beliefs are better group-building tools than sensible ones, exactly because no one would believe patently dumb things (the world is 5000 years old, Obama is from Kenya, etc) except out of visceral need for a collective identity.
But what passes without even a veiled hint is how universal this cult-think tendency is, not as an un-triggered potential, but as a ubiquitous daily reality throughout human society. Today, it’s easy to see how much of 1950s culture was every bit as baseless, and much more dangerous, than expecting the arrival of extraterrestrials: Racism, McCarthyism, homophobia, DDT, the nuclear arms race, circumcision to prevent masturbation, smoking in every seat of an airplane… what people accepted as normal and evidence-based behavior was clearly foolish, unethical, and socially corrosive. Readers of the 1955 edition of When Prophecy Fails were chortling at the nutjobs and their séances, while truly believing that interracial marriage was a danger to civilization that had to be forbidden and punished.
It only takes a little imagination and humility to realize how little has changed. We can identify some kinds of past collective madness, which we have at least partly overcome, but so much remains. Modern life for normal people is still motivated largely by metaphysical beliefs, and promises of fulfillment–prophesies–for which there is only counter-evidence.
How much of American foreign policy is an insane doubling down of the Manichean militarism, which has only made things worse for generations? How many peoples’ lives are sacrificed to the prophecy that happiness will arrive with professional achievement, with material security, with the right relationship, with enough sex, with power over others, with a new car, a new spouse? During every political campaign, we manage to persuade ourselves and one another that this election will really change things, really, finally, this time.
The mythology of Happily Ever After―of the suburban nuclear family as the natural way to raise happy, well-adjusted children―is so strong exactly because so many people know first hand that it is a global disaster; challenges to this narrative, if made in earnest, are taboo, because such challenges touch a deep and secret wound. Sure, you can make fun of the suburbs… but suggest that people stop living in couples and families and you will encounter real shock and resistance.
Do the biggest bridezilla weddings arise from families with a history of marital fulfillment? Or from cultures with admirable equality and partnership in marriage? Do the most syrupy 10th anniversary Facebook status-updates come from couples whose shared lives we admire or envy? Do the most ostentatious displays of wealth, social status, or power come from people who seem happy in any meaningful way? Does anyone really think nightmarish prisons turn criminals into citizens? What promises has the War on Drugs, or the War on Terror, or any other war, made good on? Public education is being de-funded in the United States, so that the country can use the money to “invest in its future.” Will the future benefit? Can this reasoning stand up to even a moment of reflection?
Also on the smallest, most personal and intimate scale of gesture and emotion, we engage with the world through patterns of behavior that we began picking up as toddlers. The prediction that sulking and complaining will make one popular and socially appreciated is widely held. It universally fails. And yet for those who practice it, it can persist for a lifetime.
I could go on, of course. The point is that our lives are mostly built on a trust in prophesies that we have never seen fulfilled, for ourselves or for anyone around us.
As a scholarly text, When Prophecy Fails may be an effective bulwark against the dangers of dopey UFO cults from suburban Illinois. But whitebread flying-saucer clubs are not really such a global problem. The revolutionary and subversive potential of this book remain unexplored, even by the authors. If individual human beings were able to ask themselves, “On what prophesies am I basing my life?” and admit to themselves and to others the extent of their disappointments and unfulfilled longings, the world would be transformed.
It would be nice if evangelical cultists stopped dragging one another down into dogma with their mutual, synergistic need for tribal security. But cultists are just not important to public life, and there’s no reason to think they’re worse off than the rest of us. Imagine instead if normal people stopped pretending that they found happiness and meaning in their suburban commuter careerism… if friends, colleagues and neighbors stopped reinforcing conformity in one another, and could themselves stop conforming to belief in promises that have been broken from the start. What would happen if everyone admitted, to themselves and to one another, “No, these foretellings of peace and happiness have never been fulfilled for me either.”?
Something at least as important as a UFO landing, the second coming, or the Mayan apocalypse would happen. I don’t know if I think that it will happen, but I’m sure it would be a good thing. Indeed, it would be a miracle… a miracle I try, sometimes, to believe in.