Thursday, May 24, 2012

COG-PKG’s Ron Weinland has made more absurd claims this week as his Pentecost of Doom approaches, like non-functioning cars upon Christ’s return and his prediction that 63,000 COG members are about to reunited under a single banner. At this point, we’re leaning toward Weinland being completely delusional. He’s not backtracking or falling silent about his impending prophetic failure, but is instead upping the ante.

It’s alternatively very likely the legally-beleaguered Weinland just doesn’t care anymore. The IRS has his number, it doesn’t appear that he’s going to opt for a plea bargain and his cult is committing financial suicide as May 27 approaches. He’s painted himself into a corner, and the blaze of glory might be the most appealing option at this point.

Ironically, while his own prophecies will fail, his actual future seems pretty certain, and it’s more than a little gloomy.

But once the dust settles after Weinland’s personal apocalypse, where will COG-PKG be a year from now?

Religion Dispatches has a great article today analyzing the remnants of Harold Camping’s cult a year after his May 21, 2011 rapture didn’t come to pass. It asks this salient question:

But I wanted to know what happens next. If you’re absolutely sure the world is going to end on a specific day, and it doesn’t, what do you do? How do you explain it to yourself? What happens to your faith in God? Can you just scrape the bumper stickers off your car, throw away the t-shirts, and move on?

The author, Tom Bartlett, went on a journey to understand some of Camping’s followers and what makes them tick, painting a picture of a cult in post-traumatic distress and denial.

I learned a lot about the seductive power of radical belief, the inscrutable vagaries of biblical interpretation, and how our minds can shape reality to fit a narrative. I also learned that you don’t have to be nuts to believe something crazy.

Bartlett invokes the story of William Miller, the Great Disappointment and the Millerites, the spiritual and organizational ancestors of the COG. In the 1950s, long after Miller’s failed prophecies, psychologist Leon Festinger wrote When Prophecy Fails. In the midst of his research of similar groups, he came to some fascinating conclusions.

When the world failed to end, they clung more tightly to their belief. Rather than folding, they doubled down.

One of those followers explained it this way: “I turned my back on the world. I can’t afford to doubt.”

Similar sentiments were found among Camping’s followers. They’re trapped in a cycle of rationalization, so tangled in their own conspiratorial and prophetic webs they couldn’t possibly turn away from it, no matter how many times their leader’s words failed to manifest.

Some believers compared it to a puzzle. At first the pieces are spread out on a table, just shards of color, fragments of meaning. Then you assemble, piece by piece, finding a corner here, a connection there, until you begin to make out a portion of the picture, a glimpse of the scene. Finally, you only have a few pieces left and it’s obvious where they go.

It’s been noted by scholars who study apocalyptic groups that believers tend to have analytical mindsets. They’re often good at math. I met several engineers, along with a mathematics major and two financial planners. These are people adept at identifying patterns in sets of data, and the methods they used to identify patterns in the Bible were frequently impressive, even brilliant. Finding unexpected connections between verses, what believers call comparing scripture with scripture, was a way to become known in the group. The essays they wrote explaining these links could be stunningly intricate.

And that’s part of the hold prophecy has some people: the idea they’ve come to some intricate, complex and profound understanding beyond most other people makes them feel special. It’s what Armstrongism was always about: being the “first fruits” or “the elect.” Somehow, the “chosen” by God are simply better than the 7 billion other people on Earth. It’s a toxic mixture of misdirected hubris and the need to belong to something greater that keeps so many cult adherents clinging to their leader’s coattails even after his fraudulent nature has been exposed to everyone else.

COG-PKG seems replete with these “independent scholars” who think they’re deeper thinkers than the rest of the COG. They’re among the most arrogant within a sea of arrogance. So it really doesn’t matter what happens on May 27. They’ll just admit they were wrong about a couple minor details, depending upon what Weinland tells them, and adjustments will be made for another attempt down the line.

And then there’s the money. On May 28, Weinland’s followers could end up falling into two camps: those who gave the cult everything, and those who gave less.

The so-called disconfirmation was not enough to undermine the faith of many believers. From what I can tell, those who had less invested in the prophecy were more likely to simply give up and return to normal life. Meanwhile, those who had risked almost everything seemed determined to reframe the prophecy, to search the scriptures, to hang on to the hope that the end might be nigh.

For some, they’ll simply rationalize and rewrite the past:

I was struck by how some believers edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken. The engineer in his mid-twenties, the one who told me this was a prophecy rather than a prediction, maintained that he had never claimed to be certain about May 21. When I read him the transcript of our previous interview, he seemed genuinely surprised that those words had come out of his mouth. It was as if we were discussing a dream he couldn’t quite remember.

So where will COG-PKG be a year from now? Probably still scouring scriptures for where Weinland went wrong, trying desperately to make sense of the future, wishing for an end to a world they abandoned. These are investors who believe in the company no matter how far its stock plummets. Provided Weinland survives his legal turmoil, we can expect another apocalyptic prophecy sometime in the future. If he’s fitted for an orange jumpsuit, his followers will likely rally around his organizational or spiritual predecessor (like David Pack?) and play the game all over again.

While family finances and lives are certain to be destroyed and the relatives of cult members are likely to suffer, with each passing prophetic lie, it gets more difficult to pity these people.

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