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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. Peter

    True enough. Look at the Birthers. Obama shows his full birth certificate, and they call it a fake. Holocaust deniers are absolutely convinced that the films and pictures of death camps are fake and the people with personal recollections are lying. The Flat Earth Society has many members who believe the world is flat and there is no such thing as gravity. Just today, I saw someone refer to Obama as "the Kenyan". Some people just believe what they want to believe and there is no amount of anything that will ever change their mind.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • NO ONE

      HELLO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WHAT HAPPEN TO 12-21-12!!!!!!!!!!!! NOW IT ALL COMES TOO MAY 21,2011!!! YA NEED TO GET I LIFE!! I REALLY LIFE!!!!! GOD WAS NEVER THERE WHEN I ASKED HIM TO HELP MY SISTER BEFOR SHE PASSED!! WAS HE THERE WHEN EVER ONE PRAYED FOR HIM...!! NOW HE'S COMING TO EARTH!!! TELL ME SOMETHING! WAHTS GONNA HAPPEN IF IT DOSENT HAPPEN AT ALL!!! YALL JUST GONNA MOVE THE DATE UP AGAIN.. AND CHAGE THE HLY BOOK!!!

      May 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  2. mrwii

    "Others decided that Jesus actually had returned, just not as they had expected." This is correct! Jesus had returned at that time in the form of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, India. Mr. Ahmad was born in 1835 and later claimed to be the Messiah all religions were waiting for. He created Ahmadiy Muslim Community that has spread to over 190 countries worldwide. You can find more information about second coming of Jesus at http://www.alislam.org

    May 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  3. Shelby

    When the Religious become this obsessed with the bible they make it look bad for other religious people who are comfortable in their faith but respect others beliefs. You can believe in this bible mythology but please don't throw your beliefs down everyone else's throats.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  4. RedTeam

    Really they are the same as us? How many normal people have given away everything they own, quit their jobs despite having a family to protect and raise?

    May 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  5. Renee

    To Bruce (and everyone else): The scripture I quoted is also found in Matthew 24: 4-31. The key to understanding what Jesus means is understanding the context; that is, understanding the verses that are surrounding verse 34, but especially the verses prior to verse 34. In Matthew 24:4-31, Jesus is speaking of events that have not yet happened. The generation of people living when those events occur is the generation that Jesus speaks of "not passing" until He returns. Jesus had already told those living during His first time on earth that the kingdom had been taken from them (Matthew 21:43). Therefore, it is imperative that Matthew 24-25 be seen as speaking of a future time and that the word generation is referring to the people alive when the events of Matthew 24-25 are occurring.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • richunix

      and your entire belief on a what was wriiten over 2000 years ago.... You've got to be kidding..

      “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      May 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Bruce

      No, Renee, it is not imperative at all to understand "this generation" to be referring to some future generation. We can do all the mental backflips we want, but Jesus was (allegedly) predicting something that would happen in the next 40 years or so from the day he said it, and the people who wrote these gospels wrote them more than 40 years after he (allegedly) predicted them, knowing full well that–if they wanted Jesus' prophecy to look like it came from an actual prophet–the predictions needed to match what they understood as history, not as the future.

      Something certainly did happen in that 40 year span following when he (allegedly) predicted those events, something that is (arguably) described by Jesus' predictions. The Romans sacked Jerusalem. Jesus rose from the dead and came back. Why we need to pretend that Jesus was predicting something else, something that hasn't yet happened almost two thousand years after he predicted it, is beyond me.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • richunix

      @Bruce the biggest hotspot with Christians (and most refuse to believe period) when the the Gospel were wriiten. Most (not all) contend that the gospel were written 50-90 years after the Jesus death. Given they were written long after the facts, the authors were able to tailor the wrtting to reflect the condidtion they wanted the people to believe.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  6. Hold To Truth

    No date known, thus saturday will pass with SNL hosted by Justin Timberlake. But the question is still about what will happen whenever it does. To deny any consequences of a conclusion of this world some day means you have derived your own absolutes. That is a tremendous responsibility.

    Conversation with an Atheist Part 2 on
    holdtotruth.com

    May 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Perhaps everyone is already responsible for their own morals, ethics, and absolutes; it's just the religious minded who want to abdicate such responsibility to a "higher authority," regardless of whether one exists.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  7. Free

    Usually, something gets posted here about some aspect of Christian belief, atheists criticize it, and the faithful complain that we're not being 'respectful' of their beliefs.

    I'm hearing a lot of criticism of this from other Christians today. So, where are all the cries to 'respect' these people's religious beliefs then?

    May 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  8. Jeff Lebowski

    So probably nothing is going to happen on the 21st. In the back of mind mind I am secretly hoping that it does happen and millions of people are killed off. Please start with the cesspool of california dear lord. Cleanse the filth from this place (one can only wish).

    May 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Relictus

      Hi from California! Yes, start with us! Please wipe us off the map ... women, children, kittens ...

      May 20, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  9. William Demuth

    This is absurd.

    The author tries to minimize the lunacy of this by finding parallels in normal behavior.

    This is not normal, these people are desperately ill, and we as a collective group have a moral obligation to protect this cults children from this drivel that has mutated into full blown mental illness.

    While these children have already been harmed, the risk they face is still greater.

    Let us not pretend (as the author hopes) that this is an idiosyncrasy in an otherwise normal group. IT IS NOT. These psychotics are a risk to themselves and their children, as well as the greater society as a whole.

    If we choose to ignore the other cults, and the thousands of lives lost to this type of lunacy, then the inevitable blood that will be shed cannot be accepted as unexpected.

    Many who are infected will move on, but there is always at the core of any cult, an individual who needs the elevated stature the group provides.

    Whomever it is in this lunacy is a REAL sick cookie.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  10. RightturnClyde

    More and more I tend to either agree with Stephen Prothero or at least see the point being made as valid. [am I changing or is he writing more clearly?). In any case more often than not iI get it and the point being made. I will not say any of us are tuned in tot he truth and this "doomsday" obsession is a good example. It fills a need. Apparently the need is rather widespread and millions WANT to believe in a final day when all of the chaotic present is forced to make sense. Disneyland fills a similar need and makes a profit by giving "Frontier land" and "Fantasy Land" to millions. Well so do novel (fiction) delve into illusion and fantasy .. Moby D**ck, space movies like Star W*rs, Ben Hur, Michner .. the most "objective" of people like to to the movies and delve into fantasies. There is a need and its worth money. Shr*nks can write theories about it and publishers can sell to it .. producers can make movies .. Disney - theme parks t .. and PREACHERS fill churches. Did Jesus talk about it? YES, He did. So did Daniel, and Noah and John of Patmos. Has the end of the world every happened? YES .. in certain places.. Stalingrad, Hiroshima, Nagasaki .. may be going on now .. Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, tornado (recently Alabama), parts of London - the Blitz. . their world ended entire families gone in a minute). Painful? Ask them. The Holocaust - mind numbing. Normandy ..thousands ..the last minutes of life .. Do you wonder what your last month – day – minutes will be like? What happens after? Who will miss you? What it all meant? It is a human need for most of us.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  11. AshannaK

    Some people forget that even Jesus said he didn't know when the end of the world would come. He said, 'Only the Father knows'. SO who died and made Mr. Miller God? How come Mr. Miller knows when the end will come and not Jesus? Is Mr. Miller claiming divinity? I don't think so. I hope not!

    May 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Jesus is a fairy tale, and this guy is a mental case

      May 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  12. Chris

    I totally agree with this article. It's convenient for us educated and enlightened folk to laugh or be horrified by this whole thing, but really we've all got a doomsday story somewhere in our head, as Stephen alluded to. A lot of people honestly fear the ascent of China, peak oil theory, the deficit and global warming in a kind of "day of reckoning" way. I don't doubt that these are problems to take seriously. Neither do I doubt that human sinfulness is a problem to take seriously. My point is that when it comes down to it, i have noticed that most people subscribe to some craziness concerning a so called 'doomsday.'

    May 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      It might be even worse if you are educated (and hopefully enlightened) because you are woefully aware that a few hours in a class room even in graduate school does not give you any pat answers. It merely illuminates "issues" as little better. And you can see that well educated "leaders" do not lead very well (The Pope, Obummer, OBL, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh - all well educated). Experience .. well you just will never get enough experience .. so the "unanswered" questions are troubling. Unanswerable questions are torment. Dirty Harry said we need to know our limitations. We are finite being s and limited. With education we know just how limited. Well so we try to fill in blanks.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  13. Yung

    If these people are so sure the word will end tomorrow that is great for me that mean I pay off my house and my credit by tomorrow he!!!!!he,,,,,,

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

      naw, I'm waiting until Monday as I signed up for the "Looting Party" on facebook

      May 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  14. omg!!

    HAROLD CAMPING IS RICH!!!!! http://losangeles.ibtimes.com/articles/148239/20110519/may-21st-doomsday-does-harold-camping-s-ministry-have-money.htm

    May 20, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  15. Shelby

    This group is weird to even think this. This is a hate group. They are probably ashamed of themselves for hating anyone who is different from them. So because they are haters they think if the world ends they will be forgiven. Also this is just this old man's way of getting exposure. The media of course will headline anything and make a person famous in this case for being a stupid bigot.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  16. Bubba

    "do you really know that tomorrow will come" Yes, I do.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • NO ONE

      hahaha... MAY 21,2011!!!

      what ahppen to 12-21-12!!!!!

      May 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  17. Jonathan Armstrong

    This author has made a factual mistake regarding Seventh-day Adventists. He wrote "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."
    His facts are not accurate. Adventist have always taught that Jesus moved from the Holy Place of the Heavenly Sanctuary to the MOST Holy Place of the Sanctuary. On October 22, 1844 Jesus began the final phase of his ministry in Heaven before his return (an unknown date and time). For more info on this please visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investigative_judgment

    May 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      That explanation is what the few people who remained Millerites clung to instead of saying "Nevermind!" Yes, by all means, remind us that you started out just like these fools, dressed in sheets on rooftops, waiting for Gabriel's trumpet to blow after giving away all your possessions.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Stupid All Day

      What exactly is the difference between the holy place and the MOST holy place. Green striped wall paper ?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Jason the Pendleton Rat

      Assuming one believes in a supreme being, Space-Time would be a creation of that being. It would exist outside those dimensions, and does not MOVE anywhere from anywhere, a spacial and temporal dependent concept.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  18. sigh

    Apparently, among silly people, there are people seen as silly by the silly people who do not (somehow) see themselves as silly. It's all so ... uh ... silly.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  19. room99

    The "Rapture" is not a christian belief. The only place you'll believers of it.. is in the wacky USA.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  20. DoubtingThomas

    So the article's point is that we are all the same because we are all crazy.

    True we all get caught up in illusions – however Atheists see them as illusions whereas faith based religions call them reality.

    Faith based religion can adapt because it has no need for facts or truth.

    People, lets start living and dealing with reality instead of fearful and self-centered delusions.

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

      Just an fyi doubting Tommy, hope is not an illusion, even if what is hoped for never manifests itself in reality. Hope is what it is.

      The problem with Camping, and people like him, is that he's somehow confused hope with certainty, and thinks that any doubt betrays a loss of hope. I wish religious people would learn to live with their doubts, and humbly accept doubt as a sign that they are not omniscient and omnipotent rather than viewing it as a shortcoming of faith.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • richunix

      Yes they can....they either rewrite the story or they make another chapter.

      “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      May 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      Atheists are human and have illusions. The illusions may vary but they have them. You cannot get on a bus without believing it will go to it's destination but not all of the do. You cannot start you car without believing you'll get where you are going (but then you are texting at 85 mph and not watching .. what illusion is that?) You think a dollar is worth a dollar; right? If you attend college .. you must believe the next four years will happen (and that the education will "pay off" over decades). Do you ever get on an airplane? Take a cruise? (Cruises - and expensive trip to no place - and it is fun?) It is all illusion. (Marshal McLuhan) It is actually the consequence of abstraction. (Plato)

      May 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • richunix

      RightturnCylde.... Your doctor called and yes your meds are ready....

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 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.