About the same time, in early December 2012, that the media went into high gear discussing the putatively catastrophic consequences of a “fiscal cliff” on January 1, 2013, they also reported quite extensively about another looming date, that one a little earlier, on December 21, 2012, when according to some calculations the so-called Long Count calendar of the ancient Mayas predicted the end of the world. The possible fiscal apocalypse was of course taken with utmost seriousness by the media (with the great majority of economists, and public figures from the secretary of the treasury on down), the Mayan doomsday prophecy was reported on in a tone of amusement, perhaps to provide comic relief from the mounting economic anxiety.
The golden age of Mayan civilization was centered in what is now southern Mexico (especially Yucatan) and Guatemala, a region still inhabited by people descendent from that civilization. Along with other Mesoamerican cultures, Mayan religion was an odd combination of a fascination with astronomy and the belief that the gods had to be fed with a steady supply of human blood. Both obsessions led to the construction of the gigantic pyramids which continue to be great tourist destinations. Their platforms served observation of the stars and also were the sites for the grisly ceremonies of human sacrifice. Mayan theology managed to link stargazing with vivisection (trust theologians to perform such intellectual feats). The former activity, which produced astonishingly accurate data on celestial motions, produced detailed calendars, some for short-term time measurements, others (like the Long Count calendar) measuring past and future time by millennia. According to some readings, this calendar predicts the end of a cosmic cycle or baktun on December 21, 2012 CE. This date has also been differently defined—as the quite non-catastrophic end of one of many eras—or as the time of a huge disaster. The latter interpretation, not surprisingly, has caught media and popular attention.
I don’t know how much of the popular attention was serious (that of the media was not). I would think that many of the gatherings celebrating the date were in the spirit of fun, similar to Halloween parties not implying belief in spirits or hobgoblins. In any case, there were large gatherings of people at Mayan locations, notably in Chichen Itza in Yucatan, apparently a mix of irreverent tourists out for fun and an ecumenical assembly of miscellaneous “spiritual” cults (many of whom expect redemptive wisdom from this or that indigenous religion). Some in the latter crowd believed that their exercises could avert the threatening doom, others did not expect any real doom but went for some sort of mystical experience. The Mexican tourist industry benefited. The Merida airport (closest to Chichen Itza) had a countdown clock installed.
But the excitement was not limited to the Mayan territories. There were sporadic get-togethers of doomsday fans in Russia and in China (particularly alarming the Chinese authorities, ever on the lookout for “evil cults”). There was a gathering at Stonehenge, linking Celtic with Mesoamerican “spirituality”. One baktun-associated fear was that a giant meteor was about the hit the earth. To allay such fears NASA and other official centers of modern (as against Mayan) stargazing were moved to issue bulletins stating that there was no evidence of any dangers to our planet from outer space. Some people evidently believed that time zones did not matter, so that the big event could occur anywhere where the clock said December 21, not just in southern Mexico (which is many hours ahead of the International Date Line): When the ominous day ended just west of that line, this message appeared on a social medium: “The world has not ended today. Sincerely, New Zealand”.
There have been many occasions in the past where, either because of certain dates or because of phenomena in the heavens, there were expectations of an imminent great disaster without any salvific benefits being associated with it. As the year 1000 CE approached, there was such a panic in Christian Europe. As 2000 CE came near, there was a secular reiteration of this: Computers would be unable to adjust to the millennial change—the financial system might collapse, there would be wide power failures, planes would fall out of the sky. The periodic returns to visibility of Halley’s Comet also caused similar anxieties. I am not sure about the psychology of this. Perhaps it goes back to early experiences, as when a child is frightened by an adult approaching in a threatening manner, but already anticipates the relief when the adult removes the threat and makes clear that it was only a joke. Or perhaps an all-embracing planetary fear makes the many more individual anxieties more bearable. Be this as it may, I find more interesting the prophecies of doomsday where the latter is the forerunner of a great salvific event.
Such events can be found in different parts of the world, but they are most common where the three Abrahamic faiths have dominated. The terrible events to come are to be followed by the final events, the eschata, in which the redemption of the world will culminate—respectively the coming of the Messiah, the Second Coming of Jesus, and the establishment of the universal rule of Islam by the Mahdi. In each case believers have looked for signs and omens suggesting that these things were about to happen. And in each case (at least an empirical historian must so conclude) the eschatological expectation was disappointed. The New Testament suggests that the earliest disciples of Jesus expected his return in glory during their own lifetime. It did not happen. Biblical scholars have coined a ponderous term for this disappointment— Parousieverzoegerung—roughly translatable as “a slight delay in the Second Coming” (the parousia). In a way, the entire history of Christianity can be described as a centuries-long attempt to come to terms with this fact. Jesus himself is reported to have warned his disciples not to look for “signs and wonders” but always to stay alert, because he will come “like a thief in the night” when they least expect it (Matthew 24). They did not listen to him.
In American church history an important case in point was the birth of modern Adventism during the Second Great Awakening. In 1833 a Baptist preacher by the name of William Miller predicted, on the basis of obscure calculations derived from the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, that the Second Coming would take place sometime around 1843 and 1844. Miller’s ministry took place in northern New York State, in the so-called Burnt-Over District, the locale of one charismatic explosion after another (Joseph Smith started Mormonism in the same region). Miller’s prediction was rather reckless: In about a decade it would be open to falsification. Still, there was enough time left for his word to spread across the country and even to Europe. Some of Miller’s followers were even more reckless: They specified the ETA (“estimated time of arrival”, in aviation parlance) to be October 22, 1844. There was an air of breathless expectation wherever Millerites gathered. Some of them thought that Jesus would land more or less where the prophecy was first pronounced. A group of them, dressed all in white, sat all night on a hill somewhere near Rochester, NY, waiting for Jesus to appear. His failure to do so was soon called the Great Disappointment.
There were different reactions to this. Some Millerites deserted the movement. Most did not. They offered various explanations: The Second Coming was secret, or it was spiritual rather than physical. Their faith had not been strong enough. The arithmetic was wrong. Miller himself kept recalculating, never giving up his belief in an imminent Second Coming, until his death in 1849. The Adventist movement continued and spawned other groups (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) with a similar sense of millenarian urgency. But most of these were more careful than the early Millerites: They did not commit themselves to specific dates, only saying that Jesus would come “soon”. The biggest offspring, the Seventh Day Adventists, have become a major Protestant denomination in America. Perhaps the oddest support of the Millerite prophecy has come from the Baha’i faith: Baha’is have said that Miller was perfectly correct with his arithmetic. He was just wrong about the name of the arriving savior. It was not Jesus, but the Persian religious figure who called himself the Bab and who in 1844 announced that he was the bearer of a new revelation to replace the Quran for this age. (The Persian government responded by executing him, but Baha’is claim that he was only the forerunner of Baha’ullah, the true prophet of a new era. The sources suggest that the Bab himself had a less modest view of his role.)
If some of the newly fashionable atheists should be reading this post, I can visualize their smirk: Another example of the absurdity of religion! Let me suggest that they stop smirking: There are innumerable secular parallels to these attempts to fend off empirical evidence that denies faith. Most of them are in ordinary life. Let me just recall Dr. Johnson’s description of second marriages as the triumph of hope over experience. But there are also parallels in secular, even anti-religious movements (“denominations”, if you will). A telling example is the story of how Marxists have dealt with the great disappointment of the failures of their prophet. There was the major failure of Marx’s expectation that the revolution would occur in the bosom of advanced European capitalism; instead it occurred in “backward” Russia. Let me not go into the details of this particular false prediction and its tortured rationalizations. In my own lifetime each socialist utopia turned out to be disappointing, and then the utopian imagination turned elsewhere. The Soviet Union turned out to be a huge disappointment. Where then was one to look for the “true socialism”? The geography kept shifting. It shifted from Russia to China, to Vietnam, to Cuba, to Nicaragua. I was lecturing in Denmark in the 1970s, at the height of the neo-Marxist wave in western Europe. I talked with students who had been disappointed by each country that claimed to embody the socialist eschatology. They thought that they had finally located a non-disappointing, genuinely socialist country—Albania! Unlike Cuba (a favorite destination of utopian tourists) there is no sugar cane to be cut in Albania, but some students were getting ready to volunteer for work on the Albanian railway. I don’t know whether their faith survived that experience, or, if not, to which country their utopian hope might have turned.
Leon Festinger (1919-1989) was one of the more interesting social psychologists of the twentieth century. He first became known for his book When Prophecy Fails (1956), which was an important building block for what soon afterward became the theory of what he called cognitive dissonance, which is what happens when people are confronted with information that contradicts what they previously believed. The book deals with a curious episode that came to Festinger’s attention and led him to study it. Dorothy Martin, a Chicago housewife, practiced so-called automatic writing—a technique often employed in séances intended to communicate with the dead —in which a pen or pencil is held in such a way as to allow it to move freely. I don’t know whether Martin received messages from beyond the grave. But in early 1954 she received a very specific message from outer space. It came from some friendly extraterrestrials, who informed her that a huge cataclysm would destroy much of the earth on December 21, 1954 (as far as I know, without reference to the Mayan calendar), but that she and a small group of her associates would be picked up just in time by a spacecraft landing in her backyard and carried to safety on the planet Clarion. When Festinger learned about this, there were several months before the doomsday date, so that he could observe how these latter-day imitators of Noah’s Ark behaved. They behaved very logically on the assumption that they would soon embark on a journey without return. One detail that particularly impressed me when I read Festinger’s account was that they stopped changing the oil in their cars!
Well, the date came and went. No spacecraft landed and no cataclysm took place. But Festinger was still there, observing the behavior of Martin’s disciples. Some of them did decide that the whole thing was nonsense. They left the group. But some stayed on, and it was their behavior that really interested Festinger. They reacted just as the Millerites had in the face of the Great Disappointment. They huddled together more closely than before. They strongly reaffirmed their faith in Martin’s prophetic qualities. They found reasons why the predicted event had not occurred (the God of Earth relented). They tried to convince outsiders (which they had not done before—perhaps so as not to overcrowd the rescue ship). As far as I know, though, the little cult did not survive.
What can one learn from all this? One can certainly draw the lesson that Festinger did—that cognitive dissonance is unbearable, when it involves beliefs that are important to people, and that they will go to any length to defend against it. Put more cynically, one could say that the credulity of the credulous has no limits. But there is a more kindly way of looking at this: The human condition is intrinsically fearful. Alfred Schutz called this the fundamental anxiety. If some way has been found to allay the fear, one will be very reluctant to abandon it. The question then becomes which comforting messages can survive the Great Disapointments without indulging in delusional denial.