Why people fall for Doomsday cults

The world has not ended, as Harold Camping and his followers predicted. Why do people fall for Doomsday cults? CyberShrink comments.

The coming apocalypse 
Rather than focusing simply on the danger and precariousness of life on earth as survivalists tend to do, Doomsday cults have a more shaped belief that the world will end soon, as can be seen in the story of Johannes Coetzee and Harold Camping, who believed 21 May would be the end of the world.

They became deeply concerned with the consequences of believing the end was upon us. Some Doomsday believers are broadly fatalist, presumably accepting that they will die along with the rest of us, and are just trying to live well and virtuously until then. Most, however, have a more enjoyable belief that while the rest of us poor mugs are doomed, they themselves, with a handful of their pals, are going to survive or be rescued by extra-terrestrial or religious forces. Not quite a universal Doomsday cult, then, as they usually don't see themselves as approaching doom, only the unrepentant and wicked rest of us.

Cults have the essential problem of maintaining existing members and recruiting new ones, and continuing to raise funds, so this is a marvellous sales point. Let other groups offer nice sermons and pleasant songs, but these guys promise to save you from the cataclysm.

There have been ever so many predictions of just when the world was going to end. And, at least as I write this, we're still here. The earliest end was predicted to be around 44 AD, and selected dates became more and more common through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Just think of all those you have survived, even without digging a shelter or buying a book about it. There have been well over 200, including 23 October 1996 ; January 31, 2001 and April 17, 2008, among many others. Ahead, there's October 21, 2011, preceded by The Rapture on May 21 this year. Then there's December 21, 2012, and other dates in 2016, 2034, September 2047, and so on.

What happens when Doom doesn't arrive?
A favourite book of mine, by Leon Festinger, is : "When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World." Festinger asked the obvious but usually ignored question - what happens to these people when their prediction fails, when the world cheerfully goes on?

Festinger and his assistants studied a group led by a fervent housewife, Mrs Dorothy Martin (called Mrs Keech, in the book). This group believed fervently that the world would end on December 21, 1954. At the appointed time, they went up on a high hill waiting for the great flood that was going to drown all the unbelievers. And nothing happened. Rather than having their beliefs shattered by the world's non-ending, they decided that it was their own fierce faith and belief that had, for the time being at least, saved the world.

Other groups believe their leader when he announces that fresh calculations have produced a new date, or re-interpret the original prophecy. Mrs Martin, under other names, continued to preach and got involved in UFO groups. Fearing psychiatric commitment, she left Chicago, and lived in other states and countries, dying in Arizona in 1992.

Happiness is a warm cult
One reason people hold so firmly to beliefs that appear to others of us to be daft, is that once you have bought into the belief system, not only are there internal rewards and supports, but you have the choice basically between continuing to accept the beliefs and finding reasons to maintain them. Or giving them up and admitting that you were an idiot for having accepted them.

It's what economists call a "sunk cost". Persevering means never having to say you were wrong, only that you were slightly inaccurate.

Dangers of Doom-sayers
Such beliefs can be dangerous for believers and non-believers. Some adopt a nihilist approach, leading to mass suicides, seeing no point in waiting for the great destruction.

Others, for various reasons, choose to harm others. Such as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, in Uganda, a breakaway Catholic group founded by a brewer of banana beer. Numerous followers of the sect died in 2000 in an explosive fire in their church which killed 530 people. Then hundreds of bodies were discovered in various church properties, apparently murdered long before the fire. The final death toll was 778. The police ruled out a mass cult suicide, and decided this was a mass murder planned by leaders of the sect when their predictions of an apocalypse didn't happen. Some followers had demanded a refund.

In 1995, members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released the deadly nerve gas sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and seriously injuring 50, while nearly 1,000 more were harmed. Another major example was the 1978 mass suicide of members of the People's Temple movement. These Americans had travelled to Guyana, led by the cult leader Jim Jones, and over 900 of them died.

Other well-known examples were the Order of the Solar Temple which perpetrated dozens of mass murders and suicides in 1994; and the dotty Heaven's Gate group in California in 1997, where 39 members committed suicide together, believing they were to be rescued by a UFO.

And now the big question remains: who will pay the hotel bill of  Johannes Coetzee and his 80 followers in Braamfontein?

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, Health24, updated May 2011)

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