When Prophecy Fails…

Have a read of some well considered and balanced comments on confirmation bias / cognitive dissonance – from Vaughan Bell, clinical and neuro-psychologist, at Slate.com:

… For those who draw their inspiration from the Bible, there is some small print in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 which wonderfully illustrates why a failed prophecy may not shake the foundations of a believer’s faith, or cause him any uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.

You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?”

If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.

Only predictions that come true are from God, you see, while failed prophecies are just down to human slip-ups—a truly divine response to anyone who would condemn either a prophet or a whole belief system on the minor matter of a failed apocalypse…

Festinger was not so wide of the mark when he suggested that we adapt to even the most unlikely of contradictions using nothing more than our methods of everyday rationalization. The faithful could just as easily be those who stubbornly stand by disgraced politicians, failed ideologies, dishonest friends, or cheating spouses, even when reality highlights the clearest of inconsistencies…

Bell is, of course referring to Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails (1957). In Old Testament studies, see Robert Carroll’s When Prophecy Failed: Reactions and Responses to Failure in the Old Testament Prophetic Traditions (1979). For the UFO religion mentioned in the article, see Diana Tumminia, When Prophecy Never Fails: Myth and reality in a flying-saucer group (2005).

The whole development of Christianity and Christian belief may productively be viewed as an extended exercise in dissonance reduction. And to some extent, as Bell notes, so too may the mundane activities of our everyday lives, with our building and maintaining relationships, forming of political stances, guarding of moral beliefs, etc. For every rational thought we have, we immediately invent and make new myths; for every demythologization comes a new remythologization.

“When we are awake we also do what we do in our dreams: we invent and make up the person with whom we associate — and immediately forget it.”
- Fred Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Maxim no. 138

Mind you, some beliefs and activities seem to demand more myth or require less reality than others, I guess.

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Filed under Ancient Jewish texts, Conspiracy theorists

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