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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. kristen

    its just this whole thing is crazy! Its only to scare people, n come on how many times did people say the world will end.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  2. BenKa

    I'll be tailgating a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game at 6:00pm tomorrow, can't wait to see if the world ends!

    To be more serious, everyone is allowed to believe what they will, it is only when that belief harms others that we should interfere. I happen to be skeptical of religion and dislike when it is shoved in my face by so called "believers." It doesn't mean either of us is right or wrong, just a difference of opinion. I have read most of the Bible (I was raised Lutheran, church every Sunday, I went to a Lutheran affiliated undergrad and a Catholic graduate school) and have educated myself enough to be skeptical. I just wish people on both sides of the argument had the same educational opportunities that I had growing up so that they could choose to believe instead of blindly believing.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  3. Roger Yargah

    The average human lifespan is seventy-something years. Anyone reading this has probably spent 20+ of those years already. While worrying about the end of THE world is good drama, our own personal worlds will end soon enough. I'm more interested in spending those years well than focusing on some magical date. To paraphrase the bible, "keep oil in your lamp because you will never know the hour when the bridegroom will return."

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

      Perhaps the Bible was using Revelation as a metophor for the ends of our own personal worlds.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  4. nancy calamita

    this is what turns people off to christ and the church people like this. they give christians a black eye, Im a christian and I know for a fact the Rapture will not happen. Prophecy in the bible has not yet come to pass. so these crack pots want to drink the kool aide go fo rit. I will still be here praiseing my lord & when he comes it will be right on his time not ours. but most people need to know that the Rapture will happen one day when millions of people vanish right before your eyes. it can happen at anytime but like I said prophecy in the bible has to come to pass before anything will happen. so read your bible and let God do what he is going to do.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Sean

      Kettle says what?

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

      Nancy,

      What you are saying turns people off just as much!! You need to realize that adults talking about all this magical nonsense is an embarrassment to the human race. I assume you grew up in a culture where this silliness is taken seriously, but you need to understand how infantile it is to those of us who avoided the infection, and those who were cured of it.

      Please think about it, and break out of the spell!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  5. Leanne

    Did anyone else hear that Harold Camping took in 18 MILLION in donations!? Or that he has filed a tax extension ?

    May 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Relictus

      I bust my a$$ at a regular job when I could be shearing the flock!

      Hmmm ... "Praise the Lord!" ... and pass me the collection plate 😀

      May 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  6. SaraTonin

    and John, I'm not the only one who doesn't believe. Look around you! Some may not be as honest and open about it as I am but people who have enough sense to know that religion fills a need that the human animal has for answers, are everywhere.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  7. Runchickenrun

    I should start packing today, and should prepare for tomorrow. Packing include clothes, food, especially laptop

    May 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  8. Rick's Real

    The Bible is a very old roadmap. Get your eyes off the f*#($ing roadmap and watch the f*#($ing road.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  9. jusford

    So the 6pm, what time zone? I need to know if we'll get my daughters soccer game in.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Relictus

      LOL!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Seriously?

      that might be considered a rainout. just sayin...

      May 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  10. Colin in Florida

    You said "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."

    Speak for yourself-not me. I quit being irrational and believing in fairy tales like magic beanstalks, benevolent whales, and boats holding two of every species a long time ago. We will still be here Sunday, despite this lunatics 'calculations'. He (Camping) should be thrown in jail on Sunday for fraud-hundreds of people have wasted hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars on his lunacy. And if he is really right, he will only stay there six months, and if he is wrong, he should rot there until he dies.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  11. Ummm...

    1 Thessalonians 5:2 says: "for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night."

    Come on Christians, that means, we don't know when he's coming. We should all know that thieves don't call ahead... How come fellow Christians don't see this? lol

    May 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • nancy calamita

      every born again holyghost filled christian knows that christ will come when God says so. guess christians are afraid of people makeing fun & mocking them. scripture says " God is not mocked" so why should we get up set if people mock christians?? they have been mocking us christians for years, I still get mocked and I don't care about what people say or do against me. I pray for them. that is all we can do is pray.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Bruce

      I just called Mr. Camping and shared this verse with him. He told me it's the first time anyone has shared it with him, and immediately recanted his predictions and went on his radio station and apologized for all the inconvenience.

      Yay!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • SaraTonin

      Ummm .. you a big Bible man? In John, the bible says that when you pray to God you should pray like this ... lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil ... I thought that Satan was supposed to be the one who leads us into temptation. Why are we supposed to ask God not to do that? You see, the Bible is a joke. It is filled with stories that can be interpreted any way that you want, and man has done that. If I were to be caught porking a camel, there would be some verse or group of verses that could be interpreted to mean that I was the Messiah. It always finds a way to answer a problem but as any thinking human knows, the world is not going to end on Saturday at 6 PM. Well .. maybe for some!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Chizzle

      hey, im going to rob your house tonight about 7:15... just giving you a heads up... haha this whole thing is a joke! i agreee with everyone here!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  12. jon from gun barrel city, texas

    In the Bible it says nobody will know when the time is and in will be as a thief in the night. It suggests that anybody that says they know the date is a false prophet. Nothing will happen on Saturday.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Ummm...

      Actually... something will happen on Saturday... the sun will set and Sunday will magically appear like it has for millions of years lol.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Bruce

      Your prophecy of "nothing will happen on Saturday" contains a specific date, therefore you are a false prophet!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Rick's Real

      Funny how the false prophets always seem to have money. Maybe they should be called "false profits" because they can't earn money except by taking it from the most naive among us. Talk about taxation without representation...

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

      of course, anyone who quotes from the bible about how nobody will know when the rapture occurs should also get a grip on reality.

      rapture = made up by people who need an answer to feel special

      bible = written by same people from above

      religion = organized en masse delusion

      May 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  13. Eternal Infidel

    It's so sad that the Christians are praying for the world to end and the Muslims are making it happen by trying to blow everything up that they can.

    With 90% of the human race being religious, things aren't looking better any time soon

    May 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  14. penn

    is already 21st may in new zealand n noffin is happening....

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

      Shaddup you ... Heretic! Ha ha ...

      May 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  15. unowhoitsme

    Don't they read their own bibles? Here, let me help: Matt. 24:36 "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." New Living Translation. So that means they are claiming to be God? Blasphemy! No wonder people are driven away from Christianity. Too much hypocrisy.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Relictus

      Exactly. No, they do NOT know their bibles. Atheists know Christianity better than most Christians – that's why I am an Atheist. Nietzsche got it right. The average Christian is a tame house animal, willing to be led by the nose to where ever his master shall lead them – even to atrocities, if so desired.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • Bruce

      I just called Mr. Camping and shared this verse with him. He told me it's the first time anyone has shared it with him, and immediately recanted his predictions and went on his radio station and apologized for all the inconvenience.

      Yay!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  16. Kim

    Well, I have really good beer in the fridge, got some really good steaks from the butcher, fresh corn on the cob, and home-made ice cream. Me and my pagan friends will have a post-rapture party.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Sean

      May I come?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  17. A Matter of FAITH

    The only way to ever make sure you will be "included" in the rapture is to do the following. This is Bible salvation...You don't have to sell your home or any of your posessions, you don't have to sign your checkbook over to the church. You dont have to stop spending money on what you like to do. You don't have to stop living. It's a very simple command that we are given and it is very simple to do. The Bible says "Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." It's that simple. Once you have done this there will be no more worry about when this world will end.

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

      so u do believe the world will end?????

      May 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      So the path to salvation is to feel guilty enough to engage in ritual drowning and thus enter into a symbiotic realtionship with an aetheric enti.ty.
      Sounds perfectly rational.
      When do I get to participate in the cannibalistic rites?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Bruce

      Does the assurance come from this gift? What does it mean if you repent and are baptized but receive no gift? Did you do it wrong?

      I think the problem with your reduction of salvation to a "simple" command is that it is not so simple. The whole notion of "repent," for example, is quite a loaded term. It's more than simply feeling sorry for what you've done and confessing whatever it is that you perceive to be wrong as sinful. It's an actual turning back towards God. But in order to turn towards God, you need to know that there is a God, and you need to know how to turn.

      It really is not that simple. I think you minimize the whole religion when you reduce it this way.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      At some point the world will end. We do not currently know when or will ever know. I don't concern myself with that. I am living in a state of readiness with no worries about the world to come. @Doc.. There is no drowning. There is no guilt, there is only obeying the command of God. If you love Him and want to be in relatioship with Him then just as you obeyed your own earthly father when he told you to do something, you would obey your heavenly Father. Not rocket science. No condemnation friend.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      @Bruce. Many Non-Believers feel that in order to come to God they must be "fixed" already. This is not the case and I don't think we should be complicating the actual process. God's word does not complicate it and we shouldn't either. The concept is a very simple one. Yes the feeling of repentance must be true but must be approached without fear of "not being good enough" or "doing it right" God will take care of that himself.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Relictus

      But I have made peace with my eternal damnation. Even my screen handle means "Forsaken". God has set me aside for punishment, not merely in the next life, but right now, in this one. Without Love, "salvation" is an empty promise, a threat, even. God promises continued existence, but what is that worth if you spend eternity alone? As the faithful have judged me, so are they judged. I will not be alone where I am going, but I'm not eager to get there! 🙂

      May 20, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • Bruce

      Well, I speak as someone who repented and was baptized and was a Christian for some time, but received no gift. It didn't take. I'm an atheist now. Why? Because I don't believe that a man named Jesus rose on the third day, nor do I believe that the "scriptures" of his day (known today as the Old Testament) predicted that he would rise on the third day.

      I simply don't believe it happened, nor do I believe that I will rise from the dead after I die and receive judgment. No matter what I did, I never overcame my sense of incredulity regarding this very specific story (Jesus' resurrection) and this very specific promise (my resurrection). So, what happened? Why don't I believe? Why am I not assured like you seem to be?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      @Bruce. I am sorry to say and believe me there really is no judgement in what I am saying to you. But at some point you made a concious decision to "give up". I know that is hard to hear, but it is true. I have seen people wait a year, coming faithfully, praying, doing everything they are supposed to do and still not recieve the gift. Just this past Sunday a man that has been coming faithfully to our church for at least a year finally received the gift. It took me 3 months after I was baptized to receive it. I wonder if there isn't something else God is trying to speak to you...but only yuou would really know. I pray that you "try again". Since is it a promise of God, it will happen for you!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Bruce

      When it happens, does all the doubt about the story (Jesus' resurrection) and the promise (my resurrection) go away?

      Congratulations on making the conscious decision to not give up. I'm sure you've justifiably proud of sticking to it. You're a real go-getter–good job! 😛

      May 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      @Bruce, Yes and Thank you. It was the best decision Ihave or will ever make in my life.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Baptism is ritualized, symbolic drowning just as the eucharist is a cannibalistic rite.
      Repenting entails guilt. If one didn't feel guilty, there would be nothing to repent for!
      And the words of God seem very open to interpretation – but a wrong interpretation means eternal damnation. Which of the thousands of denominations of Christianity is the correct one?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • jon from gun barrel city, texas

      If you don't belive then you believe you will dissappear when you die so I hope you get your wish.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  18. kristen

    this artical many poeple sould read instead of actually believing its gonna happen. i mean who really believes in this( the world is ending?) Hit me up plz and explain to me why u believe it.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  19. Paul Bunyon

    Hahahaha, I'm going to run credit up at the casino tonight!!!!!!!!!! Top of the world Ma!!!!!!!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Steve in St. Louis

      Hope you're prepared to pay up on Sunday.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  20. Apple

    Are you people surprise to hear turkey earthquake and Dow Jones fell to RED?

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

      More importantly, have I convinced anyone here that I'm a complete sack of doorknobs?

      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.