Can QAnon survive another ‘Big Disappointment’ on March 4? History suggests that it could
The big question hanging over QAnon: What happens after March 4? Rick Loomis / Getty Images Thursday could be a great day. On March 4, Donald Trump will triumphantly return to power to help save the world from a dark syndicate of Satan-worshiping pedophiles – or at least that’s what a small fraction of American citizens believe. But before we mark the date and dust off the MAGA hats, a note of caution – we’ve been here before. Supporters of the same conspiracy theory, QAnon, had previously marked January 20, the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, as the big day. As Biden climbed the steps of the Capitol to take the presidential oath, tens of thousands of QAnon supporters eagerly awaited the imminent arrest and execution of Democratic politicians in a “storm” that would change the social and political order. It did not happen. In the wake of this disappointment, some disillusioned QAnon followers left the fold. But as evidenced by the new date of March 4, chosen because it was the day of the presidential inaugurations until the 20th Amendment was adopted in 1933, some hardliners claimed they had simply got the date wrong. When, or if, that date also passes without incident, a new date may emerge. You would think that enough flawed predictions would eventually discredit a prophet. But as a philosopher of religion, I know that history suggests a more complicated set of possibilities. Apocalyptic movements rarely dissolve simply when prophecies are considered to fail. In fact, these crises in the past have presented believers with fertile opportunities to reinterpret prophecies. They have even strengthened movements, giving rise to new theories that try to explain the shortcomings of the previous ones. The Millerites This dynamic developed nearly 180 years ago with the Millerites, members of a 19th century evangelical Christian movement who were part of an earlier “Great Awakening” in American religious history. A Baptist preacher, William Miller relied on biblical texts and numerology to predict the imminent second coming of Christ. Although Miller did not initially claim to know the exact date, he and his followers offered several predictions. As each one passed without incident, the Millerites reworked biblical mathematics to propose new dates, until the movement was finally established on October 22, 1844. As the long-awaited second advent drew near, many Millerites gave away their possessions in anticipation of the return of Christ. A cartoon of a Millerite waiting for the end of the world. Library of Congress When October 22 came and went without incident, the Millerites stayed to rebuild a worldview that recognized what came to be called the “Great Disappointment.” Miller’s followers concluded not that the scriptures and numerology on which they had based their predictions were false, but simply that they had misunderstood their meaning. From one point of view, what the predictions predicted were not earthly events, but heavenly ones. Millerism did not collapse; rather, its elements were central to the establishment of Seventh-day Adventism, a rapidly growing Protestant denomination that continues to await the return of Christ. Crisis point Observing how Millerites dealt with their Great Disappointment gives insight into how believers navigate what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “epistemological crises.” These are times when the way someone understands the world is challenged by events that don’t live up to expectations. Epistemological crises are not exclusive to religion. Anyone who has experienced heartbreak in a relationship, or felt the rug pulled away when an employer unexpectedly fired them, knows they are a fact of life. Such a crisis undermines a person’s ability to tell the kind of story about himself that gives life order and meaning. If not resolved, it threatens the understanding of oneself and others. However, these crises are not always insurmountable. MacIntyre writes: “When an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is through the construction of a new narrative, which allows the agent to understand both how he could have supported his original beliefs in an intelligible way and how it could have been so. drastically deceived by them. “Sometimes the new understanding repudiates the old. Often, however, the new narrative is not a radical departure from the old, but an improvised and more sophisticated version of it, one that incorporates what was previously seemed like peripheral data points. The Millerites, for example, survived their Great Disappointment by reaffirming their belief that God is working in ways that humans cannot always fully anticipate. Writing in the mid-20th century, philosopher Antony Flew suggested that over time, religious beliefs “die by the death of a thousand qualifications.” That is, they are modified beyond recognition, to the point of losing meaning. But religious scholars have documented a pattern in which, in Instead of dying, fringe beliefs evolve, becoming more socially acceptable. As they gradually withdraw from politics, they are considered more truly “religious.” D Making sense of disappointment Whether movements such as Millerism can overcome great disappointments depends in part on the interpretive tools available within the group and the ingenuity of the fans to explain their own unfulfilled expectations. It is anyone’s guess if QAnon will survive his current epistemological crisis. And if you do, there is no guarantee you will be punished. Some commentators have predicted that it will become even more dangerous than before, evolving into increasingly virulent strains. It may well be subsumed within a broader conspiracy theory that seeks to explain the current deception in the context of an even more elaborate narrative. Perhaps someday QAnon will take his place within the domesticated pantheon of American civil religion as another benign and depoliticized “faith.” On the other hand, you can just spit, dying the death of a thousand qualifications. But if history is any guide, whether QAnon survives his Great Disappointment will depend on his followers’ ability to successfully explain how they could have been so drastically deceived. [Over 100,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]This article is republished on The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Richard Amesbury, Arizona State University. Read more: QAnon and the US Capitol Storm: The Offline Effect of Online Conspiracy Theories Nearly two centuries ago, a QAnon-like conspiracy theory spurred Congressional candidates Richard Amesbury He does not work for, consults, owns stock, or receives funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.