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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. jdub

    haven't u ever heard "no one knows wen the world will end" if it is suppose to end than i wold find $100000 in my pocket in one minute. and if it really is suppose to happen than they will say sorry this was just a miss understanding and it wont happen.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  2. Craig

    I’m glad Christ did not tell us when He was going to return. The disciples that Jesus took with Him to pray on the Mountain of Olives went to sleep each time He told them to stay awake and pray. As you know the story well in Matthew 26:37-44, Mark 14:33-41 and Luke 22:39-46, we probably would have done the same thing. Based on the disciples past actions, if Jesus had told them that He was not going to return for nearly 2,000 years, they would have procrastinated and not got the word of His life out as quickly as they did. If you think about it, the best way to get our kids to clean their room quickly is to tell them nothing of our return time. Unbelievably, this same technique works on adults. Who better to teach us this lesson than Christ (John 10:30 and John 14:8-10)? Give due diligence. Go to familyradio.com and research it. The 9 easy proofs can’t all be coincidence.

    Historically, May 21 is the eve of Pentecost when churches began. The Jewish calendar and our calendar rarely align. They align this year. They last aligned in 1994. I was a doubter until I did my homework. People say familyradio missed the prediction in 1994?, the book, but it is stated on pages 494 and 495 that the more likely date of the return would be 2011. Reporters miss this fact. I researched their website at familyradio.com and reviewed the following 9 proofs. These combined point to May 21, 2011. They can’t all be a coincidence.
    1. The discovery of the exact year of Noah’s flood in 4990BC by subtracting backwards from King Solomon’s death in 931BC using information from the Bible (see Timeline).
    2. The discovery of the month and day of Noah’s flood (Genesis 7:11) – When translated, May 21 is the 2nd month and 17 day of that year (Iyar 17).
    3. Apostle Peter warns the true believers regarding Judgment Day, “a day to the Lord is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day (2 Peter 3:8).”
    4. God gave Noah a 7-day warning before He caused it to rain (Genesis 7:4).
    5. Combining Peter’s warning in proof #3 and God’s warning in proof #4, we have a total of 7,000 years. May 21, 2011 is exactly 7,000 years after proof #1, Noah’s flood. Use biblical rules – compare scripture with scripture (1Cor 2:13).
    6. The verbal description of a single event in two different ways is a style of speech described by Joseph, Jacob's son, as "doubling." Apostle Peter used this style unknowingly when describing Christ's return. Joseph defined the usage as he interpreted the Pharaoh's dream. The discovery of this comparison and its meaning reinforces that “God will shortly bring it to pass (Gen 41:32).”
    7. Finding God’s Jubilee year in view to find the tribulation period – Sept 7, 1994.
    8. How to find the beginning of the tribulation period, as described in Daniel’s first vision consisting of 2,300 days.
    9. From May 21, 1988 going forward 23 years, we land exactly on May21, 2011. The significance of the number 23.
    Craig

    May 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • mike90210

      ...and if you put a tooth under your pillow at night, a fairy will replace it with a quarter.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  3. Phill

    The author may want to check his facts on what Seventh Day Adventists believe...

    May 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  4. ab

    Does anyone know what time zone this is?

    May 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • mike90210

      I'm not sure. Where are you?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • CS

      hahahahaa! Good question !!!! Love it!

      May 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • San Onofre Surfer

      Or what calendar he used ? The Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar, the Aztec calendar ? Did he adjust for leap years ? Bla, bla, bla.....

      May 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  5. Skeptic

    "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."

    Was that the basis? I thought that it had something to do with Ellen White getting smacked in the head with a rock as a little girl and subsequently seeing "visions".

    May 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  6. unknown

    lol he does not know. It's a shame $4 million was spent warning people about the end of the world when no man knows the day or hour when the Son of Man returns (Mark 13:32 GOd bless him though

    May 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  7. stevarreno

    I am a Christian and have no embarrassment at all about the beliefs of these people. They are free to be deceived by whoever they want. I will do what I want and spend time with family. Nothing to be embarrassed about.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  8. bush limbush

    Please please please let me be the person who gets to look all of these people in the face on Sunday and say

    HA! Idiots! Now what?!? How are you going to rationalize this one?

    May 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • leelanau

      bush, No one would expect any different from your ilk.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  9. Godless

    There is an enormous difference between "arboring illusions about the federal budget deficit, or our spouses, or our politicians that are disproved by the facts" and the abject insanity of a delusional disorder in which followers have left their jobs, homes, possessions and families behind based upon a so-called prophesy. Harboring illusions about the deficit harms no one. The full extent of the harm caused to others by the delusional disorder displayed by these "doomsayers" has yet to be seen. This level of mental illness does not warrant ridicule, but rather evokes pity.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  10. Aquahealer

    If you landed on Mars in the year 500 let's say, and there was a race of Martians, and they told you about a guy named Marcus, and he rode a white stallion and died in battle for the sins of Mars. And they workshipped him every Marsday and built statues and Marsthedrals to pay him homage. What do you think you would say? Would you think they were crazy? Or you might say 'oh JC was here too?' I guess it depends on your current religious beliefs and the fact that you came from Earth. Then again if you believe in Buddha and are from India this would not be a topic of discussion. Religion may well be the downfall of man. I hope not. It helped us learn what good and bad are, and to treat each other with respect in order to flourish on the planet Earth. I just wish we learned to behave like adults and not children when it comes to religious beliefs. Religion causes too much war. Remove religion and it will remove war? I wonder. I truly wonder.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • john

      man causes war in the name of religion. religion was man made. Jesus hated religion. it has nothing to do with God. Pretty much ALL people acknowlege Jesus existed and was who they say he was. You can be critical bont dont be blindly skeptical. it makes you sound religious. which can lead to wars

      May 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • leelanau

      Arrogance will be the downfall of man. Just sayin.....

      May 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  11. barbies are us

    WERE GONNA DIE!!!!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  12. sweetdude

    All will hail the coming of Limecat

    May 20, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  13. nick

    I am not sure what I would do, but I know for certain that, sure or unsure, I would not be making fun of others beliefs. Tomorrow will certainly be the end of the world for some, just as everyday is the end for a number of us mortals. Listening to you ridicule these people for their honest beliefs causes me to hope that it will be the end for you who trifle with others honest sincere beliefs. GROW UP!

    May 20, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • JohnR

      Got that, everyone? Ridicule is bad. Wishing death on people is just plain swell and what CARING people do! Just ask old Nick here!

      May 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • john

      people who ridicule others to make their point is a classic sign of a defense mechanism. I dont know what these people are so angry about. its quite interesting.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • JohnR

      And what is wishing death on others? An OFFENSE mechanism?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • john

      hey john r. did you wish death on osama bin laden? how bout hitler? you cannot pick and choose bro. dont be hypocritical. you are sounding religious

      May 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Shamrock6

      When someone's "sincere beliefs" are this un-intelligent and just plainly idiotic they need to prepare to be ridiculed harshly, and deservedly so. You need to grow up and realize that you can say and believe what you want but you also have to be big enough to wear big boy diapers and take the abuse that comes with those beliefs.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • leelanau

      Agreed, Nick.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • leelanau

      @Shamrock6.......Mean people still suck.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • IMA Pirate

      This is a very intelligent and good hearted post. I agree with you. Who is ANYone to judge?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • JohnR

      So wishing death on specific mass murderers is the same as wishing death on people who ridicule someone else's belief, even when that belief has done demonstrable harm?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • JohnR

      @ IMA Pirate It's goodhearted to wish death on people? You are one sick puppy.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • LinCA

      If you choose to lampo.on your ignorance on a web page, you cannot expect others to just accept it and let it slide. By pointing out the obvious inconsistencies in any religion (I'm not picking on christians), we have a chance to get those that aren't sure yet to start thinking.

      To get people to think is the only way to rid the world of these fairy tales.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  14. Chris

    What really frightens me is not the concept of the end of the world, but rather, that there is a significant portion of our population that actively and fervently HOPES for the end of the world. Any way you slice it, that's messed up. And it's terrifying when those people get into positions of power where they actually CAN cause the end of the world. For our sake, and our children's sake, PLEASE stop voting evangelical whack-jobs into office, America.

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

      People who honestly believe in the rapture do not hope for it, they wait for it. The same way Jesus doesnt come to save you from the world, but to help you walk through it. Im just trying to help you get your facts straight.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  15. Apple

    Did you people know EARTHQUAKE strikes May 20, 2011 and killed 2 people?

    May 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • JohnR

      That's more than 6 billion short of everyone.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Chris

      So were those 2 people in Turkey, like, the ONLY two people on the planet to get Rapturized? Damn. They must have been saints.
      Seriously, guy, there are hundreds of earthquakes everywhere, every day. Some are just stronger than others. If anything, be frightened when earthquakes STOP. They're the physical manifestation of the tectonic process driven by the molten mantle, convection, and dynamo action of our planetary core, which plays a fundamental role in creating the magnetic field which protects our planet from solar radiation and cosmic rays. Without tectonic activity, we'd be a cold, radioactive wasteland like Mars.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • debroq

      Earthquakes are almost always happening somewhere in the world.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Dick

      No but if you hum a few bars I'm sure we'll all join in.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bruce

      Two people killed, but how many are now MISSING? They were raptured, of course...

      May 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  16. bigsnow81

    Beliefs stop the mind from functioning. A non-functioning brain is clinically dead, believe in nothing.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Hate_to_break_it_to_you

      That in itself is a belief.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • meta-issue

      do you believe that all beliefs stymie the mind? are you clinically dead, too, then?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  17. truth

    in a couple thousand years, people will look back on our modern-day religions with the same kind of idle curiosity that we regard Greek mythology with.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Jesus

      truth

      in a couple thousand years, people will look back on our modern-day religions with the same kind of idle curiosity that we regard Greek mythology with.
      -----
      And we still believe in gods today even though we chuckle at the greeks. I supsect in 2000 years they will chuckle at us but have their true god they believe in. Man has a way of making sure we remain stupid.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • David

      Hah, right, whatever. Next you'll tell me I don't need to keep making daily sacrifices to make sure the sun comes up.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Bruce

      Jesus, we already look at the Jesus myth in the same way we look at the Greek myths. Check out a series called "Masks of God" by Joseph Campbell and also the work of Carl Jung on the Collective Unconscious.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Zeus

      @ Jesus

      you might be right, I wouldn't be surprised at all, although I've read a few studies recently that show a fairly dramatic decline in belief in organised religion, especially in western countries. in fact, atheists are the fastest growing group, in terms of religious affiliation, if you can call it that...

      of course, with no pretend gods to fight over, no religion-inspired 'morals' to brand people outsiders with and no dark-age reasoning to hinder the advance of science, the quality of life on earth might actually start improving... and we wouldn't want that!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  18. js

    HOLY CRAP!!!.....i only have few hours left i have to hurry up to max out all my credit cards.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • john

      perhaps this was just a scheme BY the credit card companies for such a thing.. THAT would be funny

      May 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Apple

      Turkey earthquake!!

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

      Bologna landslide!

      May 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Bert

      A turkey caused a earthquake? OMG

      May 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  19. DAN

    I think its ridiculous that CNN is actually giving them the time. Its should be a crime some kind of act of terrorism almost, what if someone does something drastic based on these clowns ideas and the day never comes? how would that person be compensated ?
    If this day doesnt happen throw that guy in jail...

    May 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Dan

      Hi -Dan...

      I basically agree with you, however as far as Camping and his followers stating there views, I think we are getting into 1st amendment issues here, yes...?

      As 'crazy' as they may be... they have a right to state their 'crazy' views.

      Respectfully,

      Peace...

      May 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Sally

      I agree with @Peace2All – this is far from terrorism and anyone who chooses to follow this guy is doing of their own free will. Now, if the believers start setting off bombs on Sat to make everyone believe it is the end of the world, then that would be considered terrorism.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • dew44

      I am an athiest, and I like this story. I think he's right by saying that we all have irrational beliefs, and it is very easy to point out the strange beliefs of extremists. But the fact is our brains are similarly wired, and whether we bend our minds to allow us to steadfastly stick to our prior beliefs, or manifest our magical thoughts in some other way, I agree that we are not so different. In fact some scholars even suggest that we enable extremists by legitimizing religion in more "reasonable" ways.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  20. William

    We are the first generation of people to be able to comprehend that religion may not be true. That there may have been no Jesus. That the bible may be a book of laws we were feed by the church to keep us under their control.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • john

      um.. even athiests i know believe Jesus lived. They just dont think he was son of God. Get a grip man

      May 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • me

      First generation? There have been atheists for thousands of years. Sheesh.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • actually...

      @ john

      actually, there is no historical evidence for jesus' existence at all. period. look it up.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Chris

      @john – There are theories that Jesus may not have been an actual historical figure, but rather a figurehead created by the many authors of the new testament. However, the mainstream accepted belief among most scholars and historians is that Jesus was an actual person.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Sally

      Most of the athiests I know don't believe in God or Jesus. @John – I think you are referring to the Jews who do believe in God, but(I think) believe that Jesus was an ordinary preacher.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • john

      when it comes to people who lived 2000 years ago, theres really no historical evidence for any of them other than what is written. In fact if you want proof, theres no proof you are even alive if you want to get into semantics. but have at it. most people agree Jesus was alive and lived. sorry, i dont mean to offend you. its just in the books

      May 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • leelanau

      Yup, perhaps I'm of that generation....Thanks be to God that he chose me to witness one of his miracles, and saved me from all that.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • actually...

      sorry, that's not accurate. the Romans kept great records but there is no mention of Jesus in ANY of the 'current' records. he was only written about long after he is supposed to have died.

      take Pontius Pilate for example. there is no record of him executing any one named Jesus, but not for lack of records of the people he executed. furthermore, the fact the Pilate exists in the historical record (again, the current record; people didn't wait forty or fifty years to start writing about Pilate) but there is no mention of Jesus is very telling...

      we have a great deal of historical data from the period Jesus is supposed to have lived in. if he existed as an actual person and, divinity aside, garnered half the attention he is claimed to have, there would be some mention of him in the 'current' record. there's not.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:26 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.