May 20th, 2011
09:01 AM ET

My Take: Doomsdayers not so different from the rest of us

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I know a lot of people are eagerly awaiting 6 p.m. this Saturday, either to greet the rapturous return of Jesus with open arms or to snicker at the idiocy of the followers of radio host Harold Camping, the evangelist behind all this holy hoo-hah.

I’m looking forward to 6:01 p.m., and the recalculations and reinterpretations that invariably ensue whenever Bible believers are proud enough to imagine that they know the day and the hour of Jesus' return, and bold enough to announce their imaginations to humanity.

People have been predicting the end of the world ever since they started thinking about the world as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Thus far everyone has been wrong. So we have a lot of experience as a species with what the Millerites of the 19th century called the Great Disappointment.

Initially, the Baptist doomsday preacher William Miller predicted the return of Jesus between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When the latter date passed his followers did some recalculations (based on a different Jewish calendar) and settled some other dates. When those dates passed they found another date—October 22, 1844—based on a prophesy in the Bible's Daniel 8:14 (“And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed”).

After this Great Disappointment, some Millerites slinked away. Others decided that Jesus actually had returned, just not as they had expected. The notion that October 22, 1844 marked a spiritual rather than a physical return of Jesus became the basis for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

As for Harold Camping, he has been here before, too, predicting the arrival of Judgment Day in September 1994 only to go back to the Bible and his calculator and settle on this coming Saturday.

Predictions–and disappointments–such as these have inspired a cottage industry of social scientists trying to figure out how doomsday believers deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes “when prophecy fails.”

But the bottom line is that religion persists because it is adaptable. And one of its adaptations is that it almost never goes the route of Emily Litella, the hard-of-hearing "Saturday Night Live" news commentator who would come on "Weekend Update" (in the body of Gilda Radner) and complain, for example, about the effort to turn Puerto Rico into a steak, only to be corrected by Jane Curtin. At which point she would say, “I’m sorry.  Nevermind.”

I know my atheist friends are getting ready to party on May 21, and many Christians are already embarrassed by Camping and his followers. But I’m not convinced the rest of us are all that much different.

When confronted with facts that disprove their pet theories, for instance, our politicians almost never say, “Nevermind.” They recalculate and equivocate and go about their business. The rest of us do much the same, often preferring in our relationships, our jobs and our worldviews (religious or otherwise) the comfort of the stories we carry around in our heads to the reality of the facts on the ground.

Religious fanatics aren’t always so different from the rest of us. They are bolder, perhaps–more willing to air their craziness to the world. But the rest of us are crazy in our own way, harboring illusions about the federal budget deficit, or our spouses, or our politicians that are disproved by the facts, and dealing with cognitive dissonance with more of the same.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • End times • Fundamentalism • Obama • United States

soundoff (1,432 Responses)
  1. Artnold Schwartzenegger

    It's actually only the end of the world for ME. The rest of you, relax.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  2. hashjax

    The world ain't running on one religion... other religions says other things... who is right who is wrong... or is Doomsday only for Christians?

    I personally feel all of this a business that helps create different societies and give people a reason to belong to some society. Divide and rule !! when this planet was created there wasn't multiple religions, people made them up... anyways, one mans opinion!

    May 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  3. really

    He may be a nut, but, before you dismiss him so quickly. do you really know that tomorrow will come. some nut job somewhere might just decide to end everything with a nuke or biological weapon (north korea and iran) so live life to the fullest before it ends

    May 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Bible Clown


      May 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • tommas

      "end everything" ... life on this planet will persist even if, after humans wipe themselves out. This planet and the life thereon have been through far worse than anything humans can do.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • really

      we are pretty good at destroying things, so don't count us out on taking everything with us

      May 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  4. Tha_Dude

    I'm just curious about the whole 6pm thing... did they take into account that we are currently observing daylight savings time? So wouldn't that actually mean 5pm instead? Just a thought... also... WHY 6pm? Does anyone know WHEN we started referencing time in increments of 24 hours per day? I'd love to hear some thoughts on this.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • William

      not to mention daylight savings wasnt invented until 1000's of years after the bible was written. landing his calculations like 3months off!

      May 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  5. Vic

    The only thing that I agree with is that we all have opinions and beliefs; the difference is in how you convey them. Personally I don't threaten any one with my beliefs; I never say that if you don’t agree with me that you will die a terrible death. Which is what these religious extremists are in fact saying? Why can’t they just be happy that in their minds they are moving forward? Why can’t they believe that if God chooses to speak to me as they did to them that I am smart enough to hear the message? I know, they say because the bible told them too, I guess because they are much more special in God’s eyes than me. In any other context, it would be, at the very least rude, to the greatest extent morally reprehensible, to say to someone that if you don’t agree with us, that you will be left behind for what one group views as sins or if you just plain don’t adopt their ideology and then be subjected to all kind of horrors and pain before you meet oblivion. In this case, as in most cases, based on usually one persons interpretation, why is it that there are all these individual people who claim they know the mind of the divine better than anyone else? I am in no way a religious person, but if I go back to what I learned, these men are the false prophets that I was warned about, and I view them as wanting to get in the way of my own personal journey and exploration of the divine because they always have the answers. Faith turns into don’t think, don’t read, don’t ask questions, because a some simple mortal man knows the mind of God has figured out the ultimate riddle of life and will tell what to do. To easy

    This kind of talk is not just a threat to atheists, but anyone with an alternative religion or belief system.

    Religion gets away with this kind of talk all the time, and we are not even allowed to debate those ideas in public because it is deemed rude to people of faith. That’s fine, just believe in what you believe then, and stop threatening my life. Or, expect to bring the debate, snarky comments and all, if you turn out to be wrong.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  6. Idiots

    If they knew anything about the Bible then they would know that NO ONE KNOWS WHEN JUDGEMENT DAY IS!!!! This is the reason why people laugh at Christianity. Because they get loonies like these people.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Artist


      If they knew anything about the Bible then they would know that NO ONE KNOWS WHEN JUDGEMENT DAY IS!!!! This is the reason why people laugh at Christianity. Because they get loonies like these people.
      Actually these looneys are no different than the "other" christians, they just disagree on a date...all still looney.

      Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, to think logically, to have normal emotional responses, and to behave normally in social situations.
      As the illness continues, psychotic symptoms develop:
      • False beliefs or thoughts that are not based in reality (delusions)
      • Hearing, seeing, or feeling things that are not there (hallucinations)

      May 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm |

    Most religions prophecize the end of the world and then consistently work together to ensure that these prophecies come true.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  8. חֲנוֹךְ

    Last week a scientist predicted a massive earthquake was going to flatten Rome. Then Spain had an earthquake. Maybe this preachers calculations are like the guy predicting the earthquakes in Rome? ... just a little off, and G_d actually makes massive earthquakes on Mars and raptures the Rover robot at 6pm Mars time. Hey, at least these misguided people provide plenty of entertainment.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  9. Ellen Hunt

    Dear god, but I wish I could attribute Prothero's rubbish to hallucinogens.

    Now wait a minute! I just read an article on the widespread use of hallucinogens in departments of divinity! Now it makes sense! Maybe our dear boy Prothero is not a total wack job. Maybe he is just wack-enabled.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  10. Donkeypower

    Didn't JESUS say no one knows the time or day but my Father! Gosh these people that make up their own rules really drive me crazy!!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Juggling Squirrel-Jesus

      Didn't some guy who didn't even know Jesus write that quote down decades after Jesus died? Can you give exact quotes by anyone from five years ago just off memory or hearsay?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  11. Mustang95

    Sorry. They are weird...not to mention backward, delusional and mentally compromised. Which, of course, puts them in the same league as the zombies who voted the Repugnants back into state and congressional power in November 2010 after they just about caused a financial doomsday. Stoopid is as stoopid does...

    May 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • William

      HA! couldnt agree with you more. All these people are; are an organized group of right wing, conservative, bible waving nut jobs! Did you know that the man who created this whole "prophecy" has purchased over 122 million dollars in assets since 2006. This was all done with TAX FREE donations. Hmmm something seems a little fishy here. P.S im only 16

      May 20, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  12. Bible Clown

    They are different from me. I'm not stupid.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  13. Osama bin Laden

    hello USA .... It is me Osama .... the end of the world is not 5/21. I want you all to know I am alive and doing well. I am now working at a 7Eleven.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • CIA

      Tracing an I.P. address isn't very hard!
      C U SOON!

      May 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Relictus

      Yeah, I kinda figured that you got out alive, what with the whole "Um, yeah, we buried him ... at sea ... no photos". To their credit, I actually was born at night. just not last night.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  14. Jokedog

    ****** BREAKING NEWS *****

    Doomsday is now July 4th, 2011.


    May 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • really

      nooooo....not on watermellon and pinic day

      May 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  15. Largencharge

    " Matthew 24:36 says, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

    Akin to that classic ad sign outside a MX nightclub that states, ' Free drinks, come back tomorrow to redeem ".

    May 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • DramaForYourMommaObama

      Most of the signs I have seen say " Free Beer Tomorrow "

      May 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  16. eltbrown

    Doesn't the bible clearly state that no one will know the time or day when Jesus will return (Mathew 24:36-44)? You will know the season but not the exact time and day. I believe the world wide catastrophic changes is getting people's attetnion and making people aware and look to the bible

    May 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  17. Paulo

    Non believers and literaist fundamentalists should get along. They are so much alike: smug and so afraid they might be wrong, at the same time.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Free

      All a non-believer needs to admit to being wrong is evidence. What evidence would ever convince a bible literalist that they are wrong? So far, nothing!

      May 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Hard not to be smug about this, but I'm not especially smug or full of secret fears. Is it so important to you to say so that you'd actually lie about it?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • R

      I'm not afraid, because I know I'm not wrong. Seriously? Is that what you think? Why do the beliefs and thoughts of non believers concern you so much?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • tommas

      You can't be wrong if there is nothing to believe in.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  18. Matthew

    To the Christians out there that think this is crazy, well that is what most atheist think about your beliefs. I hope you can understand how we feel now.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  19. Mohareb

    Quick! I need to find someone who thinks tomorrow is the last day of their life, and try to get them to give me all their stuff! Hell, they won't need it, right?

    May 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  20. Steve

    Isn't one of these group the same one who predicted this in 1994? I do not know why this nonsense is even getting any coverage. It is a waste of media as far as I'm concerned.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Bruce

      The book, "1994?", had a question mark and contained within it the phrase "I might be wrong." This time he is making no such pretense of doubt.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Lulu

      It's amusing. There are people who truly believe it and those who fully dismiss it. And then there are some people who scoff in the open, but are privately curious/worried/interested to see how it plays out.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Artist


      It's amusing. There are people who truly believe it and those who fully dismiss it. And then there are some people who scoff in the open, but are privately curious/worried/interested to see how it plays out.

      I plan on attendings some "I didn't make the rapture" parties

      May 20, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
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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.