So, the date of May 21, 2011 came and went rather uneventfully, as was to be expected.

The 21st of May had been heralded for some time as “the Day of Judgement” by a tiny, but well financed Christian doomsday cult in California. The figure at the centre of the doomsday prediction was an eccentric civil engineer called Harold Camping. He had confidently predicted that the world would come to an end on May 21, allowing “no possibility” for failure. It was numerology bullshit at its finest and it should have been given no credence nor attention. Such trashy predictions have happened many times before, after all.

Instead, the opposite happened. It became a media and Internet sensation – very possibly the biggest reported doomsday story the world has ever witnessed. I couldn’t watch the news, nor look at my favourite blogs, nor read my timeline on Twitter without someone, somewhere talking about it.

The vast, vast majority of people exposed to this story laughed it off, right from the outset. From what I can see, It was never taken that seriously even by the most fervent of evangelical Christians. But, for whatever reason, it captured the world’s imagination.

Perhaps the certainty of the supporters was the problem, as attested in the accompanying video below. Perhaps it was that they had spent so much money and effort getting their message out there. In any case, they became the laughing stock of the world. Many of them must now be deeply ashamed of themselves. Some of them must be in great trouble if they made financial commitments on the back of this ridiculous story.

Some of them may be able to laugh it off or rationalise it away. There have been many studies into how true believers get through failed predictions such as these. Many of them come up with excuses such as God letting them off the hook, or there being a problem with the calculations etc. Soon, we are bound to see a rash of articles and documentaries on how the followers of Harold Camping adjust to life, now that they find themselves still here.

But inevitably there will be some people who cannot cope with the news. I think this story has the potential to do great damage to many of these people whose only real fault was to set aside their critical thinking abilities and follow an impossible dream.  The results are withdrawal, depression, mental breakdown, and possibly suicide in some cases. These are the private tragedies that we will never hear about, the legacy of which will be felt by families and friends many years after the world’s cameras have turned away from this particular story.

We all can laugh, but it really is a case study in how unfettered belief can be enormously destructive. I feel no schadenfreude this morning.