Well, it’s over. The election was certified, the lawsuits contesting the election were thrown out, some for pretty embarrassing reasons (the court documents make entertaining reading). Biden was sworn in on schedule, Trump did not call out the military, there were no arrests of major Democratic party pedophile insiders and/or Satan-worshipping child blood-drinkers. Nothing. Zip. Nada.
QAnon fizzled out, leaving its believers with nothing but disappointment and betrayal. So much so that some of those arrested in the Capitol takeover appear now to be ready to testify against their former hero, blaming him for egging them on. So it goes.
Viewed as an isolated movement, QAnon is tragic. But when viewed in the light of several hundred years of history, it’s farce. There is something in our nature that predisposes us to believe we are part of a great, heroic cause, fighting for the ultimate good, culminating in some great, historic event. Then, amazingly, nothing happens, and we wonder what went wrong.
There are literally hundreds of examples throughout history, I’ll just mention a few. These views had anywhere from dozens to thousands of followers:
• London astrologers predicted the end of the world in 1524. When it didn’t happen, they updated it to 1624.
• Sabbatai Zevi predicted the coming of the Messiah in 1648. Eighteen years later, he claimed to be the Messiah.
• Cotton Mather predicted the end of the world in 1697.
• The mathematician John Napier calculated the end of the world in 1688, then again in 1700. Cotton Mather again predicted the end of the world in 1716. Then a third and last time in 1736.
• William Miller predicted the second coming of Jesus between March 1843 and March 1844, then revised his prediction to April of that year, then again to October. When nothing happened, numerous rationalizations were offered, including the “fact” that Jesus had returned invisibly. By that time, many of Miller’s followers had sold their possessions in anticipation of entering the world to come. Some Millerites churches burned down in fires of suspicious origin.
• Herbert Armstrong predicted the Rapture in 1936, and told his followers only they would be saved. He later revised the date to 1943, 1972 and 1975.
• In 1997, Marshall Applewhite told his followers a spaceship was hiding in the tail of an approaching comet and that suicide was the only way to move to the next plane of existence. His followers killed themselves.
• Jerry Falwell predicted God’s judgement would be visited on the world on Jan. 1, 2000.
• Harold Camping stated the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011, with the world ending on Oct. 21.
• Pat Robertson predicted the Earth would be destroyed on April 29, 2007.
You get the idea. I’d like to suggest that, just like with QAnon, most of the people in these movements were neither stupid, nor ignorant, nor evil. They were ordinary people wanting to live extraordinary lives.
Think about it. Who among us doesn’t want to bear witness to historic events? Who among us doesn’t want to fight evil? Who among us would not want to witness the final triumph of good? Who among us would not find such things adding meaning to their life?
Now imagine further that your life isn’t going the way you’d hoped. Perhaps you believed you were made for greater things. Perhaps the ordinary satisfactions most people get out of their profession, community, family and friends are not part of your life. Perhaps you worry they might never be, or perhaps they are simply not enough. Perhaps reason, skepticism and critical thinking are not important to you. Perhaps you were never taught them.
Looking at things this way, is it really so hard to understand the success of movements like QAnon? The impulse to think magically and to search for meaning in improbable places goes back thousands of years. It’s in our DNA. The Enlightenment, scientific methods and critical thinking are only a few hundred years old. We have a long way to go before the balance tips.
In the meantime, we should meet the failed apocalypticists of QAnon with sympathy, kindness and understanding, welcoming them back to society with open arms. If history is any guide, we have not seen the last of them.
Barry Fagin is a contributing writer for the Committee on Skeptical Inquiry, and is a regular lecturer and speaker on skepticism and critical thinking throughout the Front Range. His views are his alone. Readers may contact Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.