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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. Chuck

    The sad part is that these people have no proof whatsoever that anything even close to the end is coming. There is none. Period. The only thing these and others who are followers of these spiritual hucksters have is the lack of reasoning, and I mean in the definitive term of the word reasoning. These people have stopped using their own pro and con good sense and are relying on someone who when looked at closely has nothing at all to loose by these dire predictions. It is a fact that when these preachers and clergy predict doomsday scenarios, that they receive major financial gains either by their influence over their weak minded followers, or by all the media and publicity they get. They invoke a visceral reaction from people by claiming doomsday or the end of the world the same as all right wing christian preachers and clergy whom otherwise might have to find a real means of support like a job!!!! I thank God every day I am an athiest.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Truth

      Is Camping correct – NO. However, is there proof that the ned times are indeed near, Yes. Read the book of Matthew chapters 21 and forward. Jesus speaks directly of the signs of the times and the second coming. He also says no one knows the day or hour.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Truth

      Sorry – "end times"

      May 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • r schier

      @truth – you had it right the first time: NED times are certainly coming, likely by end of next week or so.....end times have already came and went for me – my vacation ended last week......

      May 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      @truth, the end times are not in the Bible. Some child's story is what you're using as proof of the end of the world? Because some character in a book said so?

      How about because the dinosaurs already know that there are world / life ending events that can occur. How about because the sun our earth rotates around will eventually grow and die, eating our world in the process.

      Nothing to do with imaginary demons, ghosts and grumpkins.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  2. A

    I hope nobody dies because of this craziness

    May 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      Don't drink the cool aid! First thing I'd do tomorrow if I was with this bus group going around the country, is pack my own water and don't let anyone near it.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  3. Simon

    So...we should be understanding of these people because, despite their obvious delusional nature, others are just as delusional?

    May 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  4. 1nd3p3nd3nt

    Please don't lump us all in with these people. The problem with society is that too many of us are prone to delusional flights of fancy when what we need is practical realism.

    Instead of trying to make these people sound reasonable because 'we're all flawed,' I would like to see us socially condemning these people for leading hundreds if not thousands to disrupt their lives and ruin their futures.

    You think this is a game? People gave up their life savings for this. It's all fun and games with doomsday cults until everyone drinks the coolaid. If anything, this should show us the insanity of religion and how FAITH can lead us astray.

    The end of the world has been predicted, time and again, much earlier than the 1800's. And religions, many religions, have come and gone as well. They do not adapt to survive, they cling desperately to the masses until the people finally give them up. Or did you think that Zeus was still in charge? Maybe RA or Osiris? Study the creation stories of the world, before you go saying that religion adapts.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  5. Reality

    Tick Tock There Go The Major Religions ( and Prothero's job) Onto the Myth Pile In A Burst of Rational Thinking:

    1. There was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no basis.

    2. There was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    3. There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    4. There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    5. There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    6. Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    7. Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • john

      you are blindly making things up and expect us to believe you arent as bad as religious people making things up?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • r schier

      "john" = yet another religous fool.....

      May 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Truth

      Truth – You are trying to expound what you believe to be true and therfore in your terms of logic would say you are right. However, sources outside of Christianity speak of both Moses and Abraham.
      If you are going to speak as though you know something at least do the research to back it up.
      When one speaks on a subject only to be found wrong they are then labeled a fraud.
      Joesphus – Not a believerr, yet speaks about the truth of the resureected Christ.

      Points 5 – 7 I'm not concerned with and there is really no reason to comment.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  6. Ted

    Well this period does not make sense. I got this material and read it. It is far fetch but it make sense. So let us see.

    Ted

    May 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  7. Leftover Crack

    Jesus tapdancing christ! Hahahahahaaaa! Stupid religious freaks and their backward-a$$ thinking. Good lord.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • john

      is it summer break or something?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  8. Truth

    The Truth – Camping doesn't apparently know the Bible. Jesus said "It is not for man to know the day or the hour, not the angels or the son, only the Father." Last time I checked Camping is not God and therefore couldn't possibly know the day or hour. Camping should keep these notions to himself.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Truth

      Camping does not speak for the true Christian body.

      Truth – One day every knee will bow and every mouth confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

      To say your an Atheist is fine, but also irrelevant.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      ..you realize that an all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent deity doesn't live in a book, right?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  9. Apple

    IF NO EARTHQUAKES APPEAR TOMORROW AND ATHEIST WON......
    THEY HAVE RIGHT TO REMOVE "IN GOD WE TRUST" ON US CURRENCY.... THEY WOULD DECLARE SEPARATION CHURCH AND THE STATE.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Kim

      There's no need to shout, you know.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • john

      these guys have nothing to do with God. If i get a raise tomorrow can i call for an end to apple pie? how about we open a new school and call for an end to seat belt laws.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • SJ

      But there will be earthquakes tomorrow. On average there are over 1.4 million earthquakes of magnitude 2 or higher in the world every year. That's about 4000 per day, or one every 20-25 seconds.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  10. NewsRaider

    Oh, they're a bunch of goofballs. That's for sure.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  11. Katie Lu

    I hope it is real so all of the crazy Evangelists go away and leave all of the free-thinking atheists, agnostics and spiritualists to peace and to create a more progressive world both in science, technology and politics. 😀

    May 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • MikeofLA

      The sad truth, is that if this really happened, half of the so called "Christians" that claim to be holy will be left behind for us to deal with. They will come up with some sort of stupid explaination and go about their destructive, misleading and ignorant ways.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  12. Apple

    JESUS CHRIST in May 21, 2011 Wooooooaaahhhhhhhhh......

    May 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  13. MannyHM

    There are things and lives that have ended before and will also end May 21st. I believe we shouldn't really worry too much about it.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  14. UCFknightman

    Example:
    Jesus = Horus and Perseus (Born of Virgin Mothers, Fathers are deities, both considered saviors)
    Satan/Hell = Hades/Hades (Hades and his manipulations was the framework for the falling of Lucifer)

    When one spends their whole life studying history and anthropology, the evolution and manipulation of religion and belief systems becomes extremely and undeniably apparent.

    Solution? Read and learn. Never blindly follow the incantations and organized belief systems created by MAN.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      I agree. And you're not even mentioning Mathias or Gilgamesh or Osiris.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  15. Ben LaBédaine

    "But the bottom line is that religion persists because it is adaptable".

    Very true, religious people are exactly like kids playing makebelieve coboys or astronauts, arguing on plot points, who lives or dies and when the big monster comes up. However, kids have the good sense to get over all this comes supper time.
    See you next wednesday.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • john

      sort of like scientists proclaiming things like "feather evolved from dinosaur scales".. Laughing at people who say otherwise, then printing a retraction saying "..we were wrong, but we know for sure now that....".. after reading retractions of almost every possible theory in the past 40 years i dont trust science any more than religion.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • UCFknightman

      Sounds like this guy doesn't know much about archival DNA...someone didn't pay attention in their Biology class. These traits often re-manifest in lifeforms today because of various amino acids not being present to "block" these traits which still exist in bird DNA. Your ignorance precedes you.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Chris

      @john – Seriously, dude? There are fossil imprints of dinosaur skin WITH FEATHERS.
      Or did God just create that evidence to screw with paleontologists?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • john

      hey, im just telling you the latest thing i read in national geographic about feather actualy developing as tubes under the scales. Unless the religious nuts got a hold of nat geo. wow you guys sure are angry. whats got you so riled up? this is how you live your life?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • john

      i just realized something. every single one of you made your point with scathing ridicule and anger. I write that scientists report they were wrong and that feathers didnt evolve from scales. This isnt my opinion. And im met with a firestorm of name calling, ridicule, and hate. over something scientists wrote. how very bizarre

      May 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • JohnR

      John, John, John .... You have NO idea what a REAL "firestorm of name calling, ridicule and hate" is.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      @John, so u're nitpicking the words eh? Feathers didn't evolve from scales, but from under them, eh? That's the distinction you want to run with? That they came from a tube under the scale, and not 'technically' the scale itself?

      You do realize your argument is silly then, right?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  16. Seriously?

    Im sorry but is it just me or doesn't this seem like a gigantic publicity stunt for this family radio? See, I just gave them some publicity. Every piece of video coverage ive seen on this has these followers wearing shirts and hats with the web address plastered all over it! Not to mention their RV's.... Wow, this gives me a great idea for selling widgets.

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

      I am wondering at the differences between this one and the 1994? prediction he made before. That is, last time he hedged and admitted some level of doubt that his calculations might be wrong. This time he's thrown out all pretense of doubt. It will be interesting to see what he says this time. Given the bravado of his non-doubt, how will he simply spin it as "recalculation time"?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • r schier

      I tried to get it out of them a number of times, how much they're making off this. I was trying to decide whether
      I should invest in these people, or the one's selling the 12/21/12 date......idiots deluxe....at least we've had something to
      laugh about the last few days....

      May 20, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Bruce

      LOL maybe instead of apologizing on Sunday, Camping will offer an IPO...

      May 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Erik

      @Bruce : The idiot is going to be 90 years old soon so he probably won't make it to his next "carefully falsified prediction". These and all the other religious fanatics just give me more material for my humor.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  17. Hank

    It's all about greed once again. All religions churches was started because of someones wild idea of getting peoples money...which worked and still is working. i'm sure this joker is selling a book or wants everyone to give up their possesions to his cause. I believe in the bible like I believe in the easter bunny or great pumpkin. It makes me laugh when I go on Craigs list and see the ads of people wanting peoples stuff that go to heaven because they are staying here in hell.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  18. Divemaster21

    Very well written article. It points out a fundamental teaching of Jesus even in the midst of the doomdayers being easy prey for harsh criticism. As it is written:

    Matthew 7:4-6
    4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

    Yes, we are all crazy in our own way.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • r schier

      "Yes, we are all crazy in our own way"

      Speak for yourself. Anyone preaching or chirping religious BS, are certainly crazy, amongst other things....

      May 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  19. scientificpoetry

    The doomsdayers are not like there rest of "us". Unless you think we are all delusional...
    Religion... a disease that resists all science.

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

      science has its own insane branches of believers. trust me. people like hawking who are POSITIVE theres no God. When scientific theory says that conclusion is impossible. thats a sign of insanity

      May 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • JD

      Actually, the tenets of Buddhism state that every humna being suffers from delusions...

      May 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • JD

      Actually, the tenets of Buddhism state that every human being suffers from delusions...

      May 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • You're Ignorant

      You are ignorant.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  20. r schier

    If "the rest of us" is synonymous with yourself Prothero, than you are right...."rapture"? more like "ruptured" brains at play here.....you religious freaks.....

    May 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @r schier
      Actually, "the Rupture" is what the Church of the Subgenius is waiting for.
      When X-Day comes, all the true Subgenii will be Ruptured onto the Escape Vessel of The S.ex Goddesses to be whisked away to the Elder Gods, who will consume them as a narcotic.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • r schier

      @ Doc Vestibule

      LOL * 1000

      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.