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. debroq

    I'm preparing for the post rapture looting by making my plan of action. My first stop will be either the Audi or Mercedes dealer. Then Best Buy and lastly the liquor store.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Mike

      That won't work, the car salesmen will all still be there. The devil's own won't be taken 😉

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  2. bananaspy

    Yes, the rest of us are crazy in our own way, but we aren't using it to profit from gullible people or ruin their lives. Not to mention they believe what they believe with absolutely zero evidence. That's pretty crazy.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  3. Tom

    I just hope that all those who got duped by this one guy who doesn't walk on water, loose their faith or question their salvaton because they are still here and therefore must not have been really saved because only the "really saved" will be sweep up in this er' two phase, er' first of the second coming.....

    May 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  4. Mike

    I for one hope it happens and the angels take all the creationists and other religious nut jobs off to where ever. The rest of us can share out what's left. Just think what a peaceful world this would be if all religious people were gone!

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

      Amen brother!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  5. Alert Citizen

    If everyone stays okay, 9 pm my house.....lets have another reason to party!

    May 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  6. miss-say

    lol 6pm across the world 6 pm central time 6 pm mountain time does the fool even know wat 6 pm maybe 6 pm in his imaginary world only god knows when hes coming back lol silly guy

    May 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  7. Logic

    Speak for yourself if you think these nut bags are not that much different than the rest of us.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      They're WAY different from me.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  8. me

    I believe in god and yes I believe the world would end someday. but I do not believe it will end tomorrow. There have been many situations like this all the way back to 1 A.D. where they predicted the end of the world. So I will wait till I myself see a sign by god.

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

      You will be waiting a long time since god is a fake diety brought up in the mind of Rabbi's a very long time ago to brainwash you to be kind and obey! Good luck!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  9. Doomsday

    I hope the end comes today, so I don't have to hear anymore of this end of the world BS.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  10. RCS0469

    I couldn't have said it better myself because this narsacistic society we live in will make themselves believe anything if it's going to benefit or satisfy the voice that keeps screaming "me, me, me" in their heads. I'm a Christian who believes God's will shall be done regardless of how us humans attempt to interpret the past, present or future. I'm not expecting the rapture to happen on Saturday evening but if something catastrophic were to happen somewhere in the world I wouldn't be shocked. It is possible to have spiritual insight about some event but still not hit the nail on the head. That's the problem, making a definitive statement based upon our human emotions and what drives them.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  11. Bruce

    A little note on the difference between "faith" and "belief without any doubts whatsoever":

    I can have faith that the airplane I'm boarding will make it to its destination safely, and at the same time harbor some small doubts that it might or might not crash, and because of those small doubts I do something like buy life insurance right before I board the plane.

    My doubts, and my purchase of life insurance, are not evidence in a lack of faith in the safety of the ensuing flight. A real lack of faith would result in me refusing to board the plane because I think it's likely that it will crash and kill me if I do.

    Camping, and people like him, need to learn this lesson and stop conflating hope and faith with certainty. His book, "1994?" at least had the humility to admit that he might be wrong about something, like his calculations. He seems to have lost all sense of humility now, and the strength of his convictions is now based on pride–pure and simple.

    So listen here, religious people–if you have no doubts, and you think that doubt is a sign of bad faith, then you, too, are suffering from pride. Embrace your doubts as a sign that you can still humbly accept your limitations as a human being. Your eternal soul is not riding on your capability to overcome your incredulity by sheer force of will. Some of what you are asked to believe (if you are a Christian) is, to say the least, a stretch on anyone's credulity, including your own. Stop patting yourself on the back for your beliefs and admit that you might be wrong about the whole Jesus thing.

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

      Just because this nutjob is profiting off of his lies does not mean there is no higher power. Nor does he represent a vast majority of Christians. So to have us admit that we are wrong because of him is nonsense

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  12. Apple

    Dear super duper Atheist who don't believe God doesn't exist on earth...

    There's got to be very good explanation about turkey earthquake. Please explain how did that happen?

    May 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Chris


      May 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • JT

      I learned the answer to that question in 6th grade earth science

      May 20, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • CC

      I'm not an atheist but I would imagine plate tektonic shift.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • marsmotel

      Wow, that was the easiest argument ever. We all know how earthquakes happen Apple. Did they not teach you science in Catholic school, or is that forbidden?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Google "plate tectonics." If you don't understand, you are too young. Wait ten years, then google it again. Repeat until enlightened.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Bruce

      Friggin' magnets, how do they work?

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

      Bruce wrote: "magnets, how do they work?"

      Obviously, it's on account of the angels that are coming, not out of the woodwork, but out of the metalwork, and keep everything attracted to the other angelic metals...

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Wait now, so if I don't believe God doesn't exist, does that mean I do believe God don't exist? Or maybe I do believe that God doesn't believe you exist? Whoa, my turkey sandwich just had an earthquake.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  13. Matt

    Please allow me to correct a statement in the article:

    The Millerites believed that the "sanctuary to be cleansed" was the "earth". This is what brought them to the conclusion that Christs coming would have to happen at that time, as the Bible tells about the purification with fire that will take place at the time of His coming. So they felt that it was this "fire" that would do the "cleansing". The Seventh-Day Adventist church prayed and was shown the error in what William proposed (after the disapointment). Instead of the "santuary" being a parellel for our planet earth...it is instead the literal sanctuary in Heaven (which is the "pattern" by which the sanctuary of the Jews was based off of). Once this light was brough forth one can see (after studying the practices of the Old Testament sanctuary) that the parellel was to be with the Day of Atonement feast, as that is when the "cleansing of the sanctuary happened". With Christ being the fullfillment of such, and being our mediator in the Heavenely sanctuary (Hebrews)...we see that Christ moved at this time into the Most Holy Place compartment of the Heavenly sanctuary, to begin a work of judgement.

    So thats the short of it, as I understand it from a Seventh-Day Adventist perspective. It does not have really anything to do with the physical and spiritual return of Christ.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  14. Craig

    I like that one. Thanks. Have a Great Day!

    May 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  15. jdub

    and if it was suppose to be 7000 years after the great flood, they have found bodies from over 15 million years ago or 11 thousand years ago, so it should of already should of happened by now

    May 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  16. WhyWait?

    Those who are making such predictions are missing the point. Doomsday or not, "the kingdom of heaven is within you". Stop and think about what Christ is telling you. Seek Him within and He shall be found. Why wait till after death to see him?
    What do think Christ was trying to tell us?

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

      He was saying that he was nothing but a man. Nothing more, nothing less. Magic doesn't exist but you already know that, don't you?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • marsmotel

      Christ never said a word to me, he is dead. How did you get a hold of him? Did he text you or something? I have been wanting to talk to that clown since I was able to think for myself.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Steve wrote: "Magic doesn't exist..."

      But... Harry Houdini used to do this trick where he was buried alive and managed to escape... do you mean he didn't actually get out of his tomb?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  17. Korkey

    Well written article. All of us, even the most educated, or those who claim to be the most logical thinking, carry around rationalizations and stories in our heads. Texts I've read on persuasion and marketing, call this out: people make emotional decisions, and rationalize them later. I'm not saying there is no such thing as logic or rationality. Accurate thinking should be a goal for all of us. I'm just saying as human beings, we're not as smart as we often give ourselves credit for.

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

      I've always thought that one of the key indicators of intelligence is knowing how stupid you really are.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  18. Suerte

    Religion is a way of having power and scaring people into subservient . The fear of God. Don't believe in any of it.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  19. Praetorian

    Anticipating the rapture but concerned that you might not make the cut? Fear not! Now there's the Atheist Express Fire & Brimstone Card! With the card you're guaranteed early boarding on the Handbasket to Hell, prime seating at the carrion table, seats near the fire so you won't be cold, and more! Remember, that's the Atheist Express Fire & Brimstone Card...Don't get left behind without it!

    May 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  20. Travis Patterson

    Correction: Actually the Seventh-day Adventist Church came to the realization a few years after the Great Disappointment (before there actually was an Adventist Church officially) that it was something that happened in Heaven, not on earth in 1844. It was not a "Spiritual Return" of Jesus, but something He did in Heaven in the Heavenly Sanctuary (read Ex 25:8,9). Check it out...

    May 20, 2011 at 12:52 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.