Comment by Andrew Brown
Dr Erin Prophet knows from the inside what happens when prophecy fails and the day after doomsday dawns like every other. Her mother, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, was the leader of one of the great American survivalist cults, the Church Universal and Triumphant, a small group that brought a large tract of land in Paradise Valley, Montana, and built a huge shelter there with supplies for seven years in which they proposed to wait out the nuclear apocalypse expected to start in April 1990.
Most of the church’s 750 members and 2,000 followers spent the appointed night in their shelters; when they emerged, a court had ordered construction to stop after a leak of some of the diesel fuel they had stockpiled.
Dr Prophet, now a sociologist in Florida, retains an affection and admiration for her mother. But, she says, the example of her followers shows things are not as simple as the press makes out. When prophecy fails, some people will be entirely disillusioned and leave. Others will double down on the original belief, adopting a strategy of cognitive dissonance, as a famous study of flying saucer cultists in Chicago in the 1950s argued. But the great majority, she said, would channel their spiritual impulses into worldly altruism.
They will claim that that what they believed in really happened on a spiritual plane, and they must now work to make it manifest in the world around us. This was the strategy adapted by many American apocalyptic sects after the world failed to end in the 1840s. Their descendants, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are still thriving today.
As the world watched President Biden’s inauguration, another spotlight fell on QAnon followers, who had for months, in some cases for years, predicted that the Trump presidency would culminate in the large-scale exposure and execution of Democrats, plutocrats, paedophiles, and all the rest of the “Deep State”. The date for this was successively put back, but 20 January looked like a very hard deadline.
When it didn’t happen, there was a flurry of stories based on screenshots of anguish and disillusionment from Q messaging channels. Some people warned that the organised far right would be fishing in these pools of disappointment. But, though that will certainly happen, it’s not the only possible outcome.
“You can divide them,” Dr Prophet said, “into the folks that are willing to spiritualise and reaffirm, the folks that are just disillusioned, and the folks who are still clinging to some kind of possibility that — even today I was getting information from people who say that Biden can be arrested, he’s compromised by China, and they still think there is some kind of fifth column.”
Professor Gordon Melton, the doyen of American New Religious Movement studies, has identified 45 predictions of Donald Trump’s victory so far, Dr Prophet says, but “he has said that even before the election they were setting the stage that this might happen spiritually. You know: God is in his heaven; this has all happened in the temple’ — or ‘the transformation is happening in small bubbles, so that it is happening, just not where we can see it yet’. And of course all of that would come under spiritualistion and reaffirmation.”
As a student of religious movements herself, she points out that American prophetic movements have always had a distinctly worldly orientation towards health in this life, as well as success in the afterlife:
“There’s a whole lot in there of self-help and healthy diet — even Alex Jones [the US radio show host and conspiracy theorist] sells vitamins. That’s what so funny about these people. They all have these products and they’ve got these supplements. I am on [one of their mailing lists], and I am constantly getting emails about how improve your intestinal health and things like that.
“It reminds me a little of Thomsonianism, which was this movement in 19th-century America which involved herbal medicine, and distrust for elite medicine. Again, many of these people can’t afford doctors, and they are obviously suffering from multiple types of alienation, so I think we have to also accept that some of these people will persist in believing it, because of the benefits they get, even if the promises turn out not to be true.”