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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. William

    This is really stupid... These people are not Christians..They are just radical people trying to start their own branch of religion and gain attention. The world will NOT end on May 21 and atheists have no reason to celebrate considering no one else believes in this crap, other than these so called Christians. Any real, Bible believing Christian will know that this is not true. Just read the book of Revelations and you will know its not true!

    May 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  2. Bruce

    You know, it may not be true that the world will end tomorrow, but what IS certainly true is that (5 x 10 x 17 x 5 x 10 x 17) is equal to 722,500.

    So, we can give Camping at least that much credit. He was a child that was not left behind. He probably scored well on those standardized tests!

    May 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  3. Apple

    Don't you love people and unions created unemployment that help to create real life 2012 and doomsday event. This stuff is great.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Is English your second language?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  4. miranda

    i think this is a buch of butt crap. ppl cant tell went the worlds going 2 end only gods knows.even the angels in earth dont know when the worlds going 2 ends only god knows . so i think it not going 2 happen . but if it does i ready 2 meet my lord

    May 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  5. Tom

    Here's a very simple explanation on God and religion. If it was that easy to accept God and to understand and appreciate his power, we wouldnt need religion. We would basically all live in a peaceful, happy world whereveryone would get along. The fact that we have religion, many of which are at war with another, tells me no one has a frickin clue about God. All religion does is create egomaniacs who think their religion is better than the nexy guy's and that they are the chosen ones, or they have some deluded revelation, ala Doomsday.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  6. Sidewalk Driver

    I wrote a song about the end of the world... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNusWBs6EsU

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

      Ha! Very nice song:)

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  7. CC

    Thank you for a very thoughtful essay, Mr. Prothero, and for a spirit of inclusion rather than divisiveness. It is too easy to ignore our own foibles while laughing at others.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • God

      All you religious nutcases are just that, nutcases. Oh, there HAS to be a DOG,, really, if you say not I will cast you to hell. lol

      May 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  8. glp

    I wonder as this guy proclaims the end of the world, is he also asking for donations of money? Makes you think.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  9. Jim

    I don't know if Saturday is the day as it has always been my understanding that none know the hour or the day. But I do believe he's coming and it could be tomorrw...

    May 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • God

      Admit your ignorance! Whoop!

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

      You're probably just a regular guy, and you mean well, but this stuff is so childish. Surrounded by this kind of thinking, you're not embarrassed by it, which shows how adaptable people are. From the outside it looks so silly.

      We have to do better than this in the 21st Century!

      "He's coming"?!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  10. Cat MacLeod

    The author misses a key point. For many of us our philosophy dictates that we fervently question our beliefs others are required not to. Take a guess which camp the doomsday people are in.

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

      It's a question of which dogma and experts you choose to blindly accept.

      Global warming was a doom prophecy. It was generally accepted.

      We swapped out priests for scientists, but the end result was the same.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  11. Jessica

    CNN – Please get off of this topic and stop giving these Doomsdayers the media coverage they want....Let's get back to actual news.

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

      Lighten up. It's not CNN's fault Sheen has been quiet lately.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  12. LDizzle

    6:00pm? In which time zone?? There are 25 nautical time zones......guess the nut-jobs didn't think it through..........

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

      LDizzle, actually the nut-jobs did think it through. It's 6:00 p.m. in every time zone, starting in New Zealand and following the sun westward as fast as the earth turns.

      Please pay attention...

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

      It is suppose to occur in your time zone, like a wave effect from what I have read.............nut jobs!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Jim

      It was supposed to have started at the International Date line. All is quite in those parts of the word though at this hour. Nothing ever happened... no surprise here. He should keep his paranoia to him self next time.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Bruce

      No, Jim. It won't start until 2:00 a.m. east coast time, starting in New Zealand. You can wait until then to pronounce the falsifiable theory falsified...

      May 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Raymondo

      It will be like the coverage of New Years Eve. Australia is burning! Tune in to see London burning in later on! We have Ryan Seacrest live in Times Square! People in the central time zone will have to watch the rapture on tape delay.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Palustris

      Man created the time zones, not God. That disproves the whole theory right there.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Shamrock6

      At least God is adhering to the concept of the International Date Line which – if you think about it – helps to bring about the end with a bit of coordination and logic. So we have that going for us.....which is nice. The thought of an untidy ending is really bothersome.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Bruce

      Palustris: Yeah, that time-zone invention took God totally by surprise and he didn't see that one coming beforehand...

      May 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • wed110197

      Heaven Standart Time

      May 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  13. Blaine

    I always think it's humerous when authors, such as Stephen Prothero, project their own limitations on everyone else.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      I'm not like them. I'm your friend. I'm not like the others. Mwa ha ha.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  14. sprucey

    if there is a god and such thing as a rapture im sure he wouldn't let a bunch of ppl ridiing around in vans, giving out flyers, and putting up posters, know the exact day and time judgement day will take place. i mean c'mon son

    May 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  15. Sir Craig

    Doomsdayers are not much different from us? Are you kidding? This is not an argument based on strength of views, but rather what those views are. I know of creationists who believe the world (indeed, the entire universe) is only 6000-10000 years old based on nothing more than the "strength" of their views. This isn't "strength," this is ignorance, only one degree of separation from flat-earthers.

    Doomsdayers are a special breed of ignorance, not only in that they are basing these predictions on an old book of fables full of self-contradictions, but that they have some kind of inside knowledge hundreds of millions (if not billions) of others don't. The worst part: They live for this apocalyptic conclusion, chock full of sinners suffering "unimaginable" torments for all eternity while they sit smugly observing this suffering from their perch in Heaven. (I quoted "unimaginable" only because it sounds a LOT like serious imagination regarding torments.) What kind of person thinks about stuff like that? Answer: Not a lot of people, and certainly not people who are "no different" from myself or anyone else around me.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • markishere

      Well said. No different than the mentality of another psychotic cult who believes in torturing women and murdering civilians in god's name.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      two words for you

      global and warming

      May 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Bill

      You completely missed the point. He's saying that when our predictions turn out to be wrong, whether it's religion, politics, economics, baseball, or whatever, we are all prone to say "nevermind" and will not acknowledge that the basic principle our prediction was based on was wrong.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • sprucey

      @ NorCalMojo
      two words for you
      c'mon and son

      May 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  16. Don

    Why We'll Still Be Here on May 22, 2011
    www . aftermay21 . com

    May 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  17. Kate

    Shall be interesting to see what tomorrow brings... right, wrong or indifferent, something will happen tomorrow... May not be the end of the world, quite possibly it will be the end of the day and Sunday will begin. I'm a Christian and believe whole heartedly that if the Almighty has it in his plan to end the world tomorrow and the rapture begin, he wouldn't be telling Ole Harold Camping about it! What makes him so special!?

    May 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • skier31

      I totally agree. Doesn't the Bible say that No man knows the appointed date" Camping needs to study his Bible a bit more.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • God

      Yer all nuts.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Dennis

      Kate!

      Wake up! It's the 21st Century; aren't you the least bit embarrassed (assuming you're grown up) to still have an imaginary friend?

      Look around you. Notice that most of the people in your community believe in "the Almighty" (especially if you live in the southern US)? Now ask yourself if you believe this stuff because you thought long and hard, and sought information from a variety of sources, or if you simply did what most folks do, which is to go along with those around you.

      You're on your way to wisdom the day you're embarrassed at the words "the Almighty"!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  18. Rebekah W.

    Most of this column is about the history of failed doomsday predictions. However, the author makes a blanket statement about the general public not being any different than these fanatics within the last two paragraphs? For a column on CNN written by a Boston University religion scholar and author, this was incredibly weak. Two paragraphs? Need more proof and facts to back up your opinion about the general public.

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

      I think it's a fair statement. The global warming scare is just another doom prophecy wrapped in updated and modernized rhetoric.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • God

      global warming is based on scientific data you morons.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      science is repeatable by definition.

      If you don't record your data and methodologies, it's not science.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  19. MT

    I don't know why CNN, overall a reputable source of information, allows blogs from fluffs like Stephen Prothero.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  20. Apple

    PLEASE LOOK UP TURKEY EARTHQUAKE....

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

      PLEASE LOOK UP ROAST BEEF VOLCANO

      May 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • sprucey

      earthquakes happen everyday. it was a 5.9 that only killed 2 ppl and probably bc it was in a region where houses are made out of sticks and mud. c'mon son

      May 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • AD

      @ Chris: you made my day. 🙂

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Jason

      PLEASE LOOK UP THE OTHER 1,000+ MAG 5.0+ EARTHQUAKES THAT WILL OCCUR THIS YEAR.....

      May 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Earthquakes are caused by active tectonic plates. They don't happen in places where there are no active plates. I know, science makes your gourdhead hurt . . . .

      May 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Duh

      Why don't you actually read about it before spewing nonsense. This region contains the Simav fault line. This fault line has produced earthquakes in the past and will continue to in the future...past May 21st! DUH!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:46 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.