How do cults and conspiracy theories cope with being obviously wrong?

There is a long history of research into how religious cults react to the promised day of God’s appearance or predicted the end of the world coming and going without disturbing the news headlines.

Such research has renewed relevance thanks to the spread of the politically themed conspiracy theories, which often involve a repeated set of promises about how a major event or revelation is about to occur. We saw this with the US Presidential election and the repeated promises how a conclusive dossier proving election fraud was just about to appear. The moment of factual revelation never came.

As with prophets who have a special hotline to a deity in religious cults, so too in political conspiracies there are often those who claim to be in the know and spin secretive, cryptic stories about how only they are entrusted with special information. But some big reveal is coming any day now, promise.

Most notably, such has been the story of the QAnon cult, with its conspiracy theories building to a culmination around Biden’s inauguration. It was never meant to happen, so when it did, how did QAnon’s followers react?

With frustration and bitterness but not with a complete immediate collapse of the QAnon movement. For it’s common for cults to survive such moments. While the outside world laughs at all the egg on their faces, those on the inside often find ways to adapt.

As Religion Dispatches reports:

Rationalization is now seen by researchers as the most important factor in whether a group survives prophetic failure. Groups can do this in at least four ways:

  • Spiritualization: the group states that what was initially thought of as a visible, real-world occurrence did happen, but it was something that took place in the spiritual realm.
  • Test of Faith: the group states that the prophecy was never going to happen, but is in fact a test of faith: a way for the “divine” to weed out true believers from those unworthy.
  • Human Error: the group argues that it’s not the case that the prophecy was wrong, but that followers had read the signs incorrectly.
  • Blame others: the group argues that they themselves never stated that the prophecy was going to happen, but that this was how outsiders interpreted their statements.

The other two factors, alongside rationalisations, are proselytization (disaster was averted due to the virtues of the cult, so the response is to spread the cult further) and reaffirmation (doubling-down on beliefs even in the fact of a failure – e.g. Biden’s inauguration just shows how powerful the deep state really is).

As the piece, written before Trump’s defeat, speculates about how QAnon adherents might response to his defeat:

Many of these followers may instead be rejuvenated in their quest, arguing that, as their ally in the White House has been defeated, they need to come together and fight harder than ever before; that the movement is older and bigger than Trump himself, and it’s now up to them to carry the torch.

Reality may win out, but cults continue.


Hat-tip: Tom Phillips’s most excellent newsletter. An excellent analysis of QAnon is A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon.

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2 responses to “How do cults and conspiracy theories cope with being obviously wrong?”

  1. Cults. This implies we should NEVER laugh at them and then ignore them BUT constantly keep them monitored.Be aware that they have not gone away but are just ‘sleeping’.

  2. Strongly recommend BBC podcast “Two minutes to nine” which looks at how QAnon and more significantly extreme right militia groups will respond to Biden’s inauguration.

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