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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. david

    where can one of those sweet end of the world t-shirts half price after it doesn't happen?

    May 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  2. Lex Luthor

    Rednecks and Retarts. Look at these people. Weirdos

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

      Yeah and let this be someone from another country or another religion making these claims and the CIA would have had them locked up......but CNN is actually making this crap newsworthy?? C'mon we as American's live in fear and we thrive on fear.......sickening!!!!!!!! WAKE UP!!! PLease print something newswor

      May 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  3. believer in christ

    I am not sure what Bible they are getting their information from. I read from the King James Version and in Mark 13:32 it says.
    Mark 13:32 32But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.

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

      People get information from a bible?!

      I can't believe in this day and age there are people so gullible!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Russell Duggan

    Fortunately, this should open up the job market quite a bit. If you are making over $200k a year and are planning on being one of the chosen, send me an e-mail letting me know the salary, benefits, skills required and Human Resources contact information. I definitely will not be chosen and am willing to locate. Prefer someplace warm, so I can get acclimated.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  5. Me

    I prefer Garlic and Herb Hurricanes, look that up.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  6. someone!

    the bible doesnt say when the world is going to end. it says no one when the hour is coming. only God does. and really sit down and think about this. in other countries 6 hits before we do. so what one said is going to blow up and then the other side.. this whole thing is Very Stupid.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  7. Logic

    This is the worst prediction ever. If they are right, nobody will be here to acknowledge it. Also, if they were convinced of this, they would not be travelling around and looking for media attention. They would be out enjoying life. This is nonsense.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Jocelyn

      Yeah and let this be someone from another country or another religion making these claims and the CIA would have had them locked up......but CNN is actually making this crap newsworthy?? C'mon we as American's live in fear and we thrive on fear.......sickening!!!!!!!! WAKE UP!!! PLease print something newsworthy

      May 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  8. Eric

    I thought I had read somewhere that many of these particular doomsdayers had sold their houses and taken to the roads so they could preach salvation to others. Sure, everyone has mechanisms for convincing themselves they're not complete idiots when they do something stupid. This, however, is hardly your garden variety stupid.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  9. CommonSense

    These people are idotic. They are nothing like me. I live in the rational world.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  10. AAAA

    I think it's way too conceited that human beings can predict the return of another human being, when the Earth has existed with other life forms for million times longer. I am sure the lions and rats & snails & birds & rocks & trees have their own gods who probably are better at "predicting" such things.
    Sheesh! We all *wished* the world would end so we didn't have to face human stupidity.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Juggling Squirrel-Jesus

      Well of course animals all have their own gods, but the hierarchy in heaven isn't what it is down on earth. We small rodents rule the mammal roost, as it were, by the amphibians have dominion over all.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  11. TruthQMARK

    Is Mr. Camping going to be on a Suicide Watch after the rapture fails to happen

    May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  12. Rick's Real

    I hope my words will be read 500 years from now. I hope there will be some human beings still around at that time to say "hey, look... it appears as if not everyone was so stupid back then. This guy got it right". The world isn't going to end tomorrow, and you "believers" are the latest crop of idiot suckers that give humanity a bad name. When the world doesn't end tomorrow, the ammunition you'll be giving to those of us who want religion to just dry up and blow away will be quite a cache. Go forward into that dark stupidity. We welcome it.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  13. Carol

    I don't think religious people gone radical are like anyone but themselves.

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

    Atheist vs. God on Earth.... At 6 pm.... Will See what happens. If there's earthquake. you guys will be like OMG..... Atheist would leave speechless.

    If Bible prophecy doesn't work... People will most like break tenth commandment laws and doing things they weren't suppose to do.

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

      Nope. I'm going to go grocery shopping on Saturday...like I do every Saturday. I'll sleep in on Sunday...like I do every Sunday...and then do my laundry so that I have clean clothes to go to work on Monday...like I do every Monday.

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

      I'm going to be out breaking laws! I've waited long enough for a sign from heaven, so I'm gonna git busy and plunder.

      After all; this weekend is the turning point. No Rapture means no god, so ah can do what ah want!

      Speechless indeed!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  15. JEB

    "That would be doubting the Bible" [for them to answer someone who doesn't believe in their message ?] Obviously, they're not going to answer the reporter, come on!! They're no fools! I wouldn't answer the reporter either.

    The reporter needs to stop assuming and just report the facts! Sheesh!

    May 20, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  16. mj

    what time zone does this professor say it will affect first at 6:00pm? this is just hype again from another brainstorming professor, remember "Y2k" in the year 2000 and all the destruction that caused, get real!

    May 20, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Tim

      Y2K didn't cause mass outages because tens of thousands of us reworked millions of lines of code and made sure nothing happened.

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

      @Tim: I doubt there would've been mass outages regardless of how much code was rewritten. The problem simply wasn't that big. I had to skip my New Year's Eve party that year because my boss was concerned that the servers would go down at midnight...

      ...I went to bed at 1:00am, sober and pis.sed off. 🙂

      May 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  17. Richard Cheese

    What must it be like to waste all that money, effort and time on a logical fallacy. I laugh at people who get degrees in "religion".

    May 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  18. Kathryn

    Wonder what the astronauts on the space shuttle will do.

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

      They'll have a great view of all those bodies ascending to Heaven.

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

      Probably be like the rest of us and laughing at Camping and his dumb followers=)

      May 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • CommonSense

      Revelation 3:3 "Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.".......I am not a very religious person but even I remember this scripture because it scared the hell out of me when I was kid. If Camping is a christian he is not reading the same bible as most christians read.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  19. Mike Leblanc

    If you have jesus in your heart and you beleive in him, you will be safe from any rapture, i beleive this and so all you atheist are telling me we came from monkeys hmmm then we should be thinking like a monkey shouldn't we????

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

      The remarkable thing that you don't see is...you ARE thinking like a monkey.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Rick's Real

      You are thinking like a monkey, Mike. It's the way all monkeys think, which is why you and your kind stopped evolving. It is the conservatives in every species which hold back the rest. The progressives move on and the conservatives keep things the same. The conservatives stay in the jungles afraid to venture out. Fear keeps them deep in the forest... which is where you and the other nuts are growing right now.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • stubbycat

      Since GOD is Life infinite and forever operating, there is no such thing as "rapture." This belief is a corruption of the metaphysical text as originally recorded and intended. Churchianity misguides the seeker in a proper translation of the Word.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Dennis

      >>Since GOD is Life infinite and forever operating, there is no such thing as "rapture."<<

      Using the irrational to refute the irrational. Nice work.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  20. Jim5k

    "Religion is adaptable". Another way to say it is "religion evolves". ...Or "everyone makes up their own religion to suit them".

    Fascinating how someone who studied the bible all his life can reach that conclusion, while many calling him a crackpot believe in the bible, yet probably never read it. Personally I think he's a crackpot (I believe in geologic time), but you gotta admire his faith. Harold – take the safe road – just preach things that can't be proven.

    An agnostic's prayer: Dear God. I believe all religions are the creation of humans. If you want me to believe something, you'll have to tell me personally. My Christian upbringing told me you were everywhere. If so, how about appearing? Or better yet, just flip the switch in my head to make me believe. Otherwise, how can you judge someone's actions if they don't believe the rules? Some tell me I will go to hell simply for not believing, but why does someone deserve infinite torture and punishment for that? Why do you hate people who don't believe in you? To me "faith" is a bad word. It's the opposite of "proof". "Faith" brought down the World Trade Center. Sorry, but I need proof.

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

      Jim5k–be careful with such a prayer. If all that Christian nonsense is true it may be answered the way Thomas' request was answered. Even if you don't pray it, however, it may be answered like Paul's non-request was answered.

      Faith is not the opposite of proof. Faith is trust in someone you already know. You can't trust God if you've never met Him. The true test of faith is, after meeting God, what do you do then?

      Until then, you are no different from Saul (who later became Paul the apostle), except perhaps you are not persecuting and even killing Christians...

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

      now that was one of the more thoughtful responses I've seen in some time. nice job Jim5k

      May 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      That's the conundrum... You will only get your proof by acting in faith which has the power to turn what does not exist into what does exist. This of course will be proven to you once you actually do it.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • areftee

      You make some great points, and I hear ya. Religion is a frustrating thing. But is that really God's fault? What if he has already told us? Maybe the bigger question for us is, why do we think we're so special that God should tell us individually? The Bible states that all of creation speaks of him.

      You already know he can't just flip the switch in your head or it wouldn't be genuine love. For you to love God, you must make the choice yourself. Otherwise it isn't love, and that's what the Bible says God is all about. Hell is just the alternative of being in love's presence... if we don't embrace God's love, we are only left with existing outside his love. In a sense, we judge ourselves by rejecting the very love that holds us together every day.

      I, too, am rather addicted to proof. But proof doesn't mix with relationships. Your spouse can never prove to you that he or she will never leave you. That takes faith. Perhaps our scientific approaches to God don't work because he's a person, not a cold, thoughtless, science book.

      I hope your search goes well.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Bruce

      @ A Matter of FAITH: "You will only get your proof by acting in faith which has the power to turn what does not exist into what does exist."

      That doesn't seem to be the case with many we find in the scriptures, such as Saul/Paul and Thomas. They got their proof without acting in faith first. James lists Abraham as the premier example of faith, but with him there was no instance where God withheld from him proof of His existence. Abraham, if we are to believe the story as-written, had ample proof of not only God's existence, but of God's nature, and whether or not God was to be trusted.

      Faith is not "belief without proof." Faith is trust. Trust is only possible with someone you know, and it comes from you personally deeming them trustworthy for some reason. Nowhere in scripture are we called to trust in a God that might not exist based solely on the testimony of others and based solely on our trust in those making said testimonials. There is a note that said that those who can believe without seeing for themselves are blessed, but not that those who cannot believe without seeing are cursed and damned to hell.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Rick's Real

      No Bruce. The "be careful with prayer" doesn't work. I believe we do manifest change, and whether you call it prayer or goal-setting, it's all the same. "We visualize the change we want to see in the world", to use an old cliche. But if everyone of us walks upon the face of the earth, and every single day we say "today I will be struck by lightning", then in most cases it won't happen. But in the few cases where it does, look out. Because those incredibly wise people will be elevated to the level of Gods because they knew it was going to happen to them. THAT is religion. And for 156,000 people or so spread across the globe, tomorrow will indeed be the end of the world. It's about equal to the number who will die today – and on Sunday, and Monday and every day. Maybe you. Maybe me. But I can tell you this: I wont' be funnelling my money through some religious organization to try to buy my way into "salvation". Stop talking about God like he's Santa Claus. God is not a being, not a judge, not a punisher, not even an equalizer. We are living equalization, as is all life through all living things. Life and the struggle for survival – that is where justice and judgment and equality live. Not in some false puppet God floating in the sky. And depending on your point of view, we're already living eternal life in Heaven, or eternal life in Hell, right here on earth. It's all about perspective.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:40 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.