Merry Christmas (world is over)

Eschatology knocks and hysteria grows as true believers see fate in the diary. Chris Parr reports

December 20, 2012

Source: Kobal

Deep impact: fear not, if this misses, another prophecy will be along in a minute

If you are reading this over the Christmas period, congratulations: you survived the end of the world.

According to the Mayan calendar, there are no dates beyond Friday 21 December, prompting some to believe that doomsday is nigh.

And a Sumerian prophecy predicting that a hitherto undiscovered planet, Nibiru, would collide with the Earth nine years ago was rescheduled and is now imminent.

Despite the fact that history is littered with failed prophecies, doomsday predictions always seem to attract believers - particularly this year. Why?

Sarah Harvey, research officer at the London School of Economics’ Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (Inform), is co-editor of Prophecy in the New Millennium: When Prophecies Persist, a book to be published in April 2013 (assuming we still exist).

She suggested that because multiple prophecies point towards 2012, people who normally shun such ideas could be paying more attention.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, said that doomsday prophecies often stemmed from “patternicity” - a human tendency to find meaningful patterns in random sequences. The repetitive nature of the date (21/12/12) could back this up (just as there were fears that the world would end on 11 November 2011).

“It’s like when people see Jesus’ face in a tortilla,” he explained. “Cognitive studies show that people will find patterns in random numbers…even though there is nothing there.”

Examples of failed prophecy, as covered by the sociologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter in their classic book When Prophecy Fails (1956), include a US cult that believed a UFO would arrive to save believers from an apocalyptic flood on - you guessed it - 21 December 1954. Neither the aliens nor the flood arrived - but that didn’t stop the believers.

“One thing that happens is a ‘spiritualising’ of the prophecy - for example, if Christ didn’t return, it might be said that he moved to a different part of Heaven, and so it could not be seen from Earth,” explained Ms Harvey.

“Others blame themselves and believe that they haven’t worked hard enough, or believed passionately enough.”

According to Kenneth Newport, head of the department of theology, philosophy and religious studies at Liverpool Hope University, one reaction from the believers is always guaranteed.

“One thing they almost definitely won’t say is: ‘We’ve got it wrong’.”

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