Doomsdays throughout time
May 19th, 2011
03:00 PM ET

My Take: Doomsdayers show what’s wrong with all religion

Editor's Note: David Silverman, an atheist since age 6, is president of American Atheists.

By David Silverman, Special to CNN

Let nobody doubt that religion hurts people. Good, intelligent, caring people suffer every day and everywhere at the hands of religion, the happy lie.

Religion is used by dishonest people who claim to know the way to the one thing humans want most: immortality. To combat fear of death, religious people ignore their intellect, believe the lie, and follow the preacher, usually blindly and sometimes to the point of insanity.

We are witnessing one very good example of this right now, as a group led by Christian ministry leader Harold Camping prepares for the end of the world this Saturday, May 21.

Of course, the weekend will pass without incident and thousands of Camping's followers, having spent or donated huge amounts of money on his behalf, will be gravely disappointed. Victims will be broken. Families will be damaged. Lives will be ruined. All because someone made a good pitch, and followers believed.

Opinion: May 21 Doomsday movement harms Christianity

I am not sure if Camping is a liar, but I think so. He realized that religion is a great way to make tax-free money off the backs of well-meaning people, through donations to his ministry, all without fearing eternal damnation. You see, I suspect that he, like many others of his ilk, doesn’t believe in God at all.

It may seem odd that I would accuse this man of being an atheist like me, but rest assured that he is nothing like me.

Like most atheists, I’m a pretty nice person and would never scam someone out of his or her life savings or convince someone to quit a job just to line my pockets. The truth is that religion and ethics are completely independent of one another.

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Consider how Newt Gingrich could campaign against President Bill Clinton's adultery as the darling of the Religious Right while actually being an adulterer himself. Consider how evangelical superstar Ted Haggard could preach against homosexuality, in God’s name, while hiding a gay lover. And consider Camping, who can get donors to cough up what appears to be a lot of money in God’s name while ruining his followers’ real lives on Earth.

These are not people who fear God or hell. In my opinion, they know very well that gods are myths. They are just bad people. Atheists have bad people, too, the worst of whom feign religion for their own personal gain.

Next week, Camping’s victims will ask our forgiveness for being so foolish, and we will forgive them, because we’ve all done stupid things. They will ask for money and we will help them, because most people are charitable.

And then Camping victims will ask us to forget all about this whole ugly scam. That is something we must never do.

We must remember that Camping, atheist or not, is no different from any other preacher. Religion thrives on fear–the constant threat of any-time-now Judgment Day coupled with eternal punishment in hell for those who don’t believe strongly enough.

Since rational minds question irrational things, believers constantly have doubts, and therefore fear that they don't have enough faith to pass muster during the eventual Rapture, when the righteous will be saved and the unrighteous will be damned. Fear of hell makes believers desperate to ease those doubts so they can be sure to get into heaven. It’s a recipe for fear-based obedience, which is exactly what religion craves.

It’s the method used by Camping, and by the rest of Christianity, too.

If we forget about Camping, this apocalyptic madness will happen again. Next year is 2012 and, just as was supposed to happen in 2011, 2004, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1997, 1994 and other years that the world is supposed to end, according to one religion or another.

What will we do in 2012? Will we sit still while preachers take advantage of the gullible again? Will we refrain from confronting the fools and continue to revere religion? Or will we, as a society, demand that people use their intellect and pay attention to their preachers, priests, rabbis or mullahs and see them as the scammers they really are?

This weekend, preachers from coast to coast will talk about why they are right and Camping is wrong, and I ask you all to listen closely. They will try to justify why one interpretation of the Bible (theirs) is right while the others are wrong. In the end, they are all interpreting the “perfect word of God” in their own imperfect way so that God agrees with their own agenda. It’s obvious if you look for it; no preacher ever says "God disagrees with me."

Yes, this weekend we will giggle at the fools who follow the preachers that earn their living spreading happy lies. Religion will have been proven wrong yet again.

But we all must remember that people have been hurt this weekend. We hope the victims of this year’s end-of-the-world will lift themselves back up, dust themselves off, and come out of this as better, less gullible people. Hopefully, they will use their experience to help others avoid future scams by shouting loudly at tomorrow’s victims, without fear of being irreverent about something which deserves no reverence at all.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Silverman.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Atheism • Christianity • End times

soundoff (1,927 Responses)
  1. BD70

    The bible is not religion. People created religion around it. On a side note let those who followed Camping get their money back from him.

    May 20, 2011 at 6:29 am |
  2. Another Larry

    One of the most irrational aspects of religion is the following inconsistency: On one hand it's really, really important that you believe in God, and on the other hand God thinks it's really, really important that there we have no reason to believe he exists (no evidence).

    May 20, 2011 at 6:10 am |
    • Gary

      There is evidence everywhere of his existence. If you look at molecular biology, at the complexity of the life, you will see that there life was designed.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • jimtanker

      Gary, please cite just one credible source of a study supporting your claim. And by credible I mean one that isnt done by come ID nutjobs.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:26 am |
    • Another Larry

      @Gary: "There is evidence everywhere of his existence. If you look at molecular biology, at the complexity of the life, you will see that there life was designed."

      No, Gary, you don't *see* this, you *choose to believe* this. What you see as a "design" is nothing more than than the result of an evolutionary process in which natural variations in earlier, simpler designs that improved the chance for survival were incorporated into future generations.

      Your argument is a common one, and essentially it boils down to this: "There are many things in the universe no one can explain so they must be the work of a sentient being no one can explain." Sorry, but unless and until such time as you can explain what created God and how he came to know everything — such as how to design biological life forms having never seen one himself — and acquired the power to create the entire universe you really have no argument at all.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  3. Josh

    II'm just a 14 year old kid and I can tell you without a hint of doubt that there is a God. Just studying biology I already realize that there is a God. Atheists must have the most faith of all to believe that all this just came from nothing or somehow "evolved" into what it is now. To get to heaven you don't have to do good things, have enough faith, or be religious enough; you just have to believe, no fine print. The church gives a bad name to Christianity, we're not fear-mongering people who want immorality and heaven, we just want a relationship with God like he want's a relationship with us. But I also don't believe in this whole 2012 saga, it's just another hoax that will be ended sometime soon. We're all free to out own opinion and that was mine.

    May 20, 2011 at 6:05 am |
    • Gary

      Very well put Josh. Thank you.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:11 am |
    • Another Larry

      The problem with your argument is that you're just kicking the can down the road. You don't understand how life came into existence so you choose to believe a sentient being you call God created it. But that begs the question, what created God? How did he acquire infinite knowledge and power? Where did he learn to create biological life forms and why would he even think to create them? Did he just need a hobby? You can no more answer these questions than an atheist can explain how the first life forms came into existence.

      You're not the first person to study biology and there are atheists who have studied it far more than you have. Nor are you the first person to believe something without a hint of doubt that isn't actually true.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:20 am |
    • Joel

      guess what? I'm a 14-year old kid also and I think that what you said couldn't have been more properly said! Thank you so much. God bless.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:20 am |
    • Ultra Atheist

      So you don't have to do anything good in life you just have to believe in Jesus? What a stupid justice system.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:23 am |
    • Jack Rivera

      Hey Josh, try believing in yourself for once. You may then realize the pain all religions have foisted on their 'believers'

      May 20, 2011 at 6:23 am |
    • Joe

      'somehow "evolved"'?...hopefully after going through high school science, you will realize how stupid that sounds

      May 20, 2011 at 6:24 am |
    • mark


      May 20, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • Bill

      With all due respect to one ninth grader's take on biology, there is a reason that accomplished scientists such as Hawking are convinced there is no supernatural being as alleged in the Bible or elsewhere. I would recommend the book "The God Delusion," as the author does a great job of detailing and then undermining the many arguments that have been made for a supernatural being over the centuries.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • jimtanker

      If that is how your religion works then it is the most ridiculous religion in the world. You don’t have to be good, you just have to believe. Is that it? So a person could kiII 100 people and still believe in your god and he gets in to heaven? So then HitIer is up in heaven? You did know that HitIer was a christian didn’t you? He was even backed by the pope at the time. So if your god is what you claim he is then he is the most asinine made up thing in all the universe.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:36 am |
    • Aaron

      First, let me just say that I'm an atheist. I won't get into specifics, but besides lack of plausible evidence, if a God were to exist he seems cruel and unjust. Getting to your point, Josh, I believe the content of your character and the good you do in life is more important than mere belief. If a God doesn't want to count your actions and simply believing is what gets you into heaven, then that is some kind of messed up priority. Tell me, which person deserves heaven more: an atheist who tries to better everyone's life around him, or a devout believer who only judges everyone?

      May 20, 2011 at 6:36 am |
    • Josh

      Hey Bill, Issac Newton also stated this: This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being... [who] governs all things as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God... a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:42 am |
    • Josh

      Hey Bill, Issac Newton also stated this: This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being... [who] governs all things as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God... a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect. This is a matter of faith, not fact

      May 20, 2011 at 6:43 am |
    • hal9thou

      Josh, I take it you are being raised in a Christian household by devout Christian parents. I hope one day you step back and look at the world through your own eyes. Yes, the universe is amazing and nobody will ever know how it came into being. God or science, there are just some things unknowable. You are young and impressionable. I hope that if you truly do decide to believe in Christianity, you have made the decision yourself and not because you were taught to do so from birth.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:48 am |
    • Magic


      Isaac Newton was also a devotee of the occult, numerology and alchemy. He believed in the Philosopher's Stone, a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals (especially lead) into gold. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Another Larry

      @Josh: "Hey Bill, Issac Newton also stated this"

      He said, she said. Issac Newton was just another human being and we have no reason to believe he had any greater insight into whether or not there is a God than any other person and certainly not someone like Stephen Hawking.

      The bottom line is that you choose to believe there is a God because you like that narrative better than the alternative. Other people believing the same narrative is not proof it's true. That's just an obvious fact of logic. There was a time when virtually everyone in the world believed the sun revolved around the earth, but that didn't make it true.

      You have no proof or evidence. Instead, you look at something and choose to see it as proof there is a God.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  4. Gary

    Its easy, though not rational, to paint any group with a broad brush because of the actions of a few. From such things and hatred many evil things can come if we do not stand up for freedom, even when we may disagree with it.

    May 20, 2011 at 6:02 am |
    • clayfoot

      Gary, if that "evidence" is all over the place in molecular biology, why do so many respected molecular biologists disagree with you? What, precisely, IS the evidence? Merely saying it's there isn't enough; I want to know what it is.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:26 am |
  5. justathought

    it seems odd to me that the author argues that religion and ehtics are independent of one another in the very same paragraph that he refers to an athiest (or someone he believes to be an athiest) uses religion in what many would consider to be an unethical manner. The issue with this is that his explenation for Camping's ability to abuse religion is that he has no fear of repercussion in the after life. So if I am interpretting this correctly, what the author is incidentally (and actually) saying, is if camping is an athiest, he takes no issue with his unethical practice because ethics are relative to him considering there is no such consequence for his behavior. This sounds like that with athiesm there is a strong argument for moral relativism, and there for no true standard of morality at all.

    May 20, 2011 at 5:55 am |
    • Tim

      Your "moral standards" aren't morals at all. They're rules written by other men that you follow because you're afraid of the consequences for breaking them. An individual that does good by others while believing in no reward has reached a higher level of morality.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:21 am |
    • Steve

      The author makes a bit of a hash of the argument, but his point is that there are unethical people out there. It is a disservice to atheists to assume that people who abuse religion are atheists. I am sure the vast majority consider themselves devout and can go on being unethical BECAUSE they are religious and believe that they are forgiven.
      In my eyes, it is religion that suffers from from the moral relativism of "it's ok as long as you say you are sorry afterwards."

      May 20, 2011 at 6:30 am |
  6. Thanos

    Besides the doomsday prophecy, what I can't grasp is that there are people this day and age who actually think magic is real. Can someone show me where I can find this real "black magic" so I can use it for my personal gain? You can hand a fool a piece of stone, tell them its made of gold over and over, and eventually, they'll believe it. Better yet, write some crazy stories of visions and things to come, bury them in the sand for a millennium, and watch the "magic" of deception come over people believing it must be true, because it is so old.

    May 20, 2011 at 5:42 am |
  7. Phil

    I agree completely with what this author says. But I despise CNN's willingness to even cater to religion with this so-called "Belief Blog." The whole concept lends credence to religion by giving it a forum on a major media outlet.

    Another reason to go to BBC News.

    May 20, 2011 at 5:36 am |
  8. Kyle

    You may not believe in God, but it is obvious that there is a creative creator. The more I read the Bible, the more it connects the dots on a purpose in life. The more I follow it and obey it, the more I stay clear of evil and the consequences of sin and the more I see an obvious Holy Spirit in my life giving me strength to do things I couldn't do on my own.

    May 20, 2011 at 5:32 am |
    • jimtanker

      It is not obvious that there is a creator. No matter how badly you want there to be one. If there was this super powerfull creator of everything and he wanted himself known he wouldnt need to do it with 3rd hand fairy tales written in some mouldy book.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:24 am |
    • Another Larry

      As my advisor in graduate school used to say, "The obvious is difficult to prove and often wrong."

      Sorry, but not only is it not obvious there is a God, there's absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe one exists. What's obvious to me is that the reason there is no evidence of God is there isn't one.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • Jack Rivera

      Dear Kyle-The more I watch Startrek, the more I believe in Klingons. The more I read the bible, the more I think sci-fi-LOL

      May 20, 2011 at 6:30 am |
  9. Dale

    I think the world will end the next time I have to listen to Sarah Palin blabber on.

    May 20, 2011 at 5:23 am |
  10. Roland

    I will just pray, worship God, on and after May 21, 2011

    May 20, 2011 at 5:18 am |
  11. abda addi

    .... find out the truth for yourself


    May 20, 2011 at 5:04 am |
  12. Harry PERRY

    Say what you want but i'll stick with JESUS ...there is a scientific explanation for everything but NO-ONE has been able to prove the bible wrong...NO-ONE!!! As i read one day on a bumber stick..."do you believe in GOD ...what if your wrong? You can stay in this greedy.materialist world which man has made a total mess of...dont blame religion for JESUS started the first and only true religion but man didn't like it so you now have over 30,000 religitions saying "follow me i am the way"No wonder everyone is fighting ,they are all confused...but JESUS will come at the proper time to set up his government and the 10 commandents to make the world as he intented.NO ONE CAN PROVE THAT WRONG!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 5:04 am |
    • Idiot_Detector

      I broke

      May 20, 2011 at 5:30 am |
    • Thanos

      The true Jesus of Nazareth, if he ever truly existed, did not create the hierarchy of control that is known as Christianity. He did not write the new testament, nor was he claiming that a book should be made about him. What we think we know is that Jesus was a radical Jew who told people to love each other and to believe in him as the son of God. That is it. The fear of hell and damnation was created as a tool to the ones who did not care about the messages of peace. Go back further and you'll see the Sumarians and the Babylonians did this religion thing first, and has all been directly taken from them. People need to wake up.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:31 am |
    • ASEE

      This logic is ridiculous. No one can prove that the earth wasn't created by Greek or Muslim gods either. No can prove that you're not actually a brain in a vat (Matrix style). There is NO reason to believe that something is true just because it can't be proved incorrect.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:38 am |
    • pconwell

      Prove wrong? maybe not. But can anyone prove it right? That is the question. (I mean actual historical proof – not 'biblical' proof.)

      May 20, 2011 at 5:48 am |
    • Cipher3113

      Actually, the first true religion was Hinduism.

      Second, the reason why people fight about religion is because they, AND YOU, can't fathom the thought that the man you know as Jesus is actually the figurehead in virtually every other religion.

      The only thing that religion HAS done is to organize armies of idiots who have no sense of personal responsibility toward anything except their own selfish want for "eternal life." We can't save the earth. Oh well. It doesn't matter anyway. Jesus will save us in the end, right? Because he's done it before...right?

      He died a martyr on a cross for something he believed in. Admirable, but I can give you a list of other people throughout history who have done the same.

      I test your faith because you test my patience in mankind. Religion has only been ruined by one thing: mankind – especially the closed-minded people who refuse to question what they read, and refuse to see the parallels between Christianity and every other religion on this planet.

      No, May 21st will come and go with no rapture. No Saviors descending from the skies on white clouds. Mankind will go on living in this BS world we've constructed for ourselves because people like you will keep on believing that Jesus will come take you away from all of this, rather than people like you finding that half a brain cell that finally figures out that even though you're just one person, you can network with others to change (and save) your planet – your home – your world – from the destruction that mankind keeps heaping upon it.

      ....time to switch it back to Fox news? That's what I thought.

      PS: It's spelled "intended."

      May 20, 2011 at 6:06 am |
  13. Roland

    Well I have'nt figured out May 21, 2011 as the day. All I know is I love God and I tried to be good all day, everyday. And if he wishes to take me on that day, I pray it will be with the good lord Jesus Christ.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:53 am |
    • Christopher

      Good is in the eye of the beholder. You really mean that you tried to kowtow to religious bullhockey, not live your life the way that you wanted to live it but as an imaginary figure wanted you to live it (or so you thought), etc.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:58 am |
    • Another Larry

      @Christopher: "Good is in the eye of the beholder. You really mean that you tried to kowtow to religious bullhockey, not live your life the way that you wanted to live it but as an imaginary figure wanted you to live it (or so you thought), etc."

      No, that's not what he means. That's what you seem to need to tell yourself so you can justify despising him. I'm an atheist myself, but I've found that an important reason people are drawn to religion is that by and large it encourages them to be the kind of people they already want to be, and often provides them with a social support system toward that end.

      May 20, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  14. billyboss

    THIS IS THE BEST POST YOU HAVE EVER HAD ON CNN. Thank you for speaking the truth about religion and how it has strung people along for thousands of years, and inevitably focuses on death heavily, inciting fears in those who are "believers" and if you aren't afraid, you're the odd ball of the group and then harassed by the members (peer pressure)... notice that death, peer pressure, fear and uninformed, sheltered ignorance are the cons of religion... sounds like a bunch of things that god would have never approved of if your religion was true. WE SHOULD ALL BE FOCUSED ON LIVING OUR LIVES TO THE FULLEST, NOT TRYING TO CLING ONTO WHAT WE HAD IN LIFE, BUT RATHER BEING OKAY WITH LETTING GO OF EVERYTHING.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:51 am |
  15. cyberczar@gmail.com

    I don't need a god or religion to damn me to hell. I'm in it right now just reading some of your comments & replies.

    I don't need a god or religion to offer me up salvation. I get it every evening I come home, welcomed by my gorgeous two dogs and my beautiful husband.

    I don't need a god or religion to tell me they are the true way. No religion is better than anyone else's. Not every religion has a "hell" or "heaven". These are nothing but artificial constructs.

    But I do believe in karma. The Universe loves an equilibrium. It wants homeostasis. Treat people badly, and the Universe has a tendency to see to it that you'll eventually get your comeuppance.

    Most of all, I believe in myself.

    I don't need a book, prophet, scripture, or parable, to convince me to be good. It's in my nature.

    What I don't believe in is the World will end on Saturday, and I have pity for anyone that does.

    -Michael Collins

    May 20, 2011 at 4:50 am |
    • SandySunset

      Cyberczar you live in my head, I do so agree

      May 20, 2011 at 5:51 am |
    • Azar

      Czar..To sum up everthing, you smug.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:39 am |
  16. Simon

    I see them as a bit wacky. Unlike author I don't believe all religious people are dishonest con men. Many truly believe in their faith and an even smaller group actually lives by it.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:50 am |
  17. anonym

    dumb sheep deserve to be scammed by religion.

    Those who refuse to study science are easily duped by religion. It's usually uneducated folks who are the most fanatic about religion.

    Believe in science. Believe in what you can see with your own eyes....... not some imaginary fairy tale about an almighty being in the sky.

    while it's ok to use religion as a way to become a good person, don't become a fanatical jesus freak, please.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:40 am |
  18. John the Baptist

    What bothers me most is not his misguided forecast but the deluge of cynicism your anxious pen waits to bestow upon those Godly peoples whom you detest.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:27 am |
  19. AleshaW

    If you call yourself a Christian does that not mean that your are part of the belief of "Christianity" which is based on the Bible? So what do you call it then when you say you're a Christian but don't believe the Bible? Half Christian? Everyonoe has their own opinion and belief and that is great, but would you like for me to call you Muslim if you follow part Zoroastrianism and part muslim? There's a name out there for you, but why would I put you the group with the other muslims if that is not truly what your belief is? Hmmm

    May 20, 2011 at 4:25 am |
  20. Matt

    The authors position is a little too hard line for me, but that's the difference between an atheist and an agnostic. He's closing himself off, and narrowing himself. Is the leader of this group either a scam artist or insane? Yes, most likely, but assuming him to be an evil person straight away without knowing him, well that's not an enlightened way of looking at the world. If you're going to accuse him of being purposefully misleading, then why not at least mention the fact that he predicted the end of the world before, and tricked people similarly? According to other CNN reporting, this is true, yet you failed to mention it. You introduce the article with the idea that religion is hurting people, but fail to acknowledge that it can also help people. I think you are right to discredit this man, but you give yourself away in the way you say it. The wise person knows what they do not know, and what we do not know is everything. We see the strands of something infinite, and we can only see so far. Personally, I think religion and the idea of god are poor ideas, often misused, that are as narrow as pure atheism. I think the truth is probably far less sentient and far grander, and maybe someday our science can begin to explain it, if it hasn't already.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:23 am |
    • Wipe0ut


      VERY WELL SAID..couldn't agree more. Thanks for putting (everyhting in my head) it into words.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:46 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.