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. Brad

    King James Version

    1And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple. 2And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
    3And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

    4And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. 5For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. 6And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. 8All these are the beginning of sorrows.

    9Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. 10And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. 11And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.

    Harold Camping does not represent biblical truth, what he need is to have personal relationship with the Jesus I know and then he will stop operate in self and walk in the Spirit and he will not fulfill the lust of the flesh!

    May 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  2. The buck stops here

    And in other "news" Lays Potato chips, Mcdonalds, and Kentucky Fried Chicken are teaming up to solidify a movement to legalize marijuana in the US. More to follow....

    May 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • bdog

      It's about dam time!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  3. Joe Jacobs

    Nice article! A religious man who in the last sentence of this article describes the basis for his faith....harboring illusions

    May 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  4. C

    This is where I say....use your left hand and grab your right ear, use your right hand and grab your left ear, then give a big tug and pull your head out

    May 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  5. Todd

    One small correction to this story: the Seventh-day Adventist Church is NOT based on a belief in Jesus' spirtual return in 1844. They believe that on or around that date, in Heaven, Jesus began a specific part of the Judgement (similar to the High-Priests' cleansing of the Sanctuary in the Old Testement.) They still believe in the soon and physical return of Jesus, however they officially do not attempt to predict the specific time of his return, believing instead that people should live their lives so as to be prepared for judgement at any time, with faith in the salvation that Jesus provides.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • .

      Whew... Thank you.
      That other thing was just crazy talk.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  6. Luis Lopez

    Whether religious or not everyone esentially has the same belief. One day everything just was. Big bang theory one day life just started. Creationism god created the universe, but who created god? What caused the cause? Apparetnly one day he just was...

    May 20, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  7. Just Because

    @Jim5k, In my opinion, faith didn't bring down WTC. It is the personal interpretation of "a" faith without knowledge, which causes people to adopt these behaviors. You say, "Sorry, but I need proof (that God exists)". Do you have proof that God doesn't exist? Again, in my opinion, there are more evidences to support God's existence than not. Personally, I can't imagine that this universe and beyond with billions of massive galaxies forming a flawless ecosystem can run without any management. We live in the tiniest part of this whole universe and we have all sorts of law governed by governing bodies. It's just hard for me to believe that the entire universe has no governance at all. Pure perfection to its minute details of everything around us is enough proof that it has been planned by the most sophisticated mind.

    I sometimes like to put myself in relation to this entire universe and I find out that I live on a planet which is surrounded by unimaginable amount of massive stars and galaxies. If this whole universe is turned into a desert than earth is like a tiny grain in it. Being part of such a small fraction of this universe, I alive among oceans, beasts, humans, mountains and what not. I am so powerless that I can't even make oxygen on my own to breathe. If my small and weightless kidneys fail, I need to have expensive machinery do what these small organs do. And, a lot more...

    I just believe that there is a lot more evidence that our God exists than the speculation that He doesn't exist.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  8. Rob

    Sorry Stephen, but if you believe they are just like the rest of us you're an idiot. I suggest you think twice before making such an idiotic and childish statement with nothing to back it up. Others of us are not weak-minded followers.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • a Christian

      thank you

      May 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • LinCA

      They are very much like every other christian with the exception that they picked a date.

      Just because they added 2 and 2 together and came up with "Wednesday" doesn't mean that they are less deluded than those that come up with "Banana". Same delusion, different math.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  9. The Jackdaw

    It’s sad that masses of people will follow any individual who can construct a half baked theory and propose it with even the most limited amounts of charisma like lemmings.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  10. Danny

    So now I know why my republican christian neighbors do not recycle or car about the future of this God made earth, it all will be gone tomorrow anyway.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |

    Can anyone turn on the HAARP MACHINE?!?! So we can upload more videos on YOUTUBE!!

    May 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  12. Rickie

    You can all laugh if you want but I am ready. It is not just the information I got from the bible but Jesus has put the knowledge in my heart. I do not think the world will end I know it. My neighbors think I am crazy because I gave my car to the nice neighbor boy. ( He sadly will be left behind) I would have left my house but it is totally underwater.
    If you are truly a Christian you will be praying and singing tonight knowing you will be with the lord soon.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • sam99999

      OK rickie, see you on Sunday.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • The buck stops here

      So here is my question to you Rickie:
      If the world is going to end, what good does it do to give all your posessions to someone else if the world is going to end anyway? They are not going to be on this earth either.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Colin

      On Sunday morning, I am going to surf CNN until I find this comment (and all the others of a similar ilk). I don't know what I will say yet, but it will be witty, clever, intelligent and poignant – in other words, plagairized.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • bapfau

      I'll be laughing on Monday when I'm driving into work and your taking the bus because you gave away your car!! LOL

      May 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • cb25

      Really? You're joking, right?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Observer

      Please return to this blog on Sunday and tell us what went wrong and how you convinced your neighbor to give back the car.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • CJ

      I guess Jesus Himself was a liar when He stated in the Bible that NO ONE knows the date or the hour but only the Father.
      What a bunch of fools! What are you all going to say when it doesn't happen? Will you then see that you are in the wrong denomination? The church that Jesus Christ founded Himself and which all other denominations have broken off of is the one and only Catholic Church when He proclaimed Peter as the first Pope with an unbroken succession even to this day. Those who claim otherwise are heretics

      May 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Mitchel

      haha... you need to be admitted to the loony bin... what happens when 6:01 comes around tomorrow and you need to go to work... Woops, you gave your car away... What a NUT

      May 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • jude

      yes you are right the world will end but thats not for another 5 billion years when sun will eventually engulf this planet as it turns into a red giant

      May 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • mark

      Are there really people that believe the world is ending in around 24 hours and they're here posting on CNN???? When this is all over, after this weekend, you should reassess and get a life.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  13. The buck stops here

    I am curious about these folks. What is going to be their response on May 22, 2011 when this apocalypse turns out to not be true. Now THAT will be a news story.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • sam99999

      I'm sure it will be pure denial along with some sort of divine justification.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • bapfau

      It will be another "miscalculation"

      May 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • ScottK

      And the winner of the Rapture Beauty Pagent is....Miss Calculation!!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Dennis

      One thing we can be sure of is that all the nonsense-believers who've been claiming the bible says "no one will know the hour" will claim some kind of victory.

      Think about it; they'll actually feel reaffirmed in their version of a fairy tale.


      May 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  14. Rob

    If these people are claiming to be Christian, maybe they should read the Bible: Jesus said “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,[a] but only the Father." Matt 24:36

    May 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • percy chow

      @Rob, agreed – I think they just choose to FORGET that little tid bit. [ rolls eys ]

      May 20, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • The Unknown

      Wouldn't it suck if he came on the 22nd lol

      May 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • ScottK

      They don't read that scripture much in Christian churches since it implies that the Father and the Son might not be the same ent ity, unless said ent ity has split personalities so that one side of the brain can hide information from the other side.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  15. omg!!

    HAROLD CAMPING A CRAZY FRAUD??? http://losangeles.ibtimes.com/articles/149277/20110520/may-21-2011-doomsday-prediction-by-harold-camping-true-end-of-the-world-prophet-or-crazy-fraud.htm

    May 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Bruce

      Wait, is he crazy or is he a fraud?

      If he's a fraud then he knows the truth about May 21, 2011 and he's telling everyone a lie to enrich himself. If he believes a lie about Saturday, then he's crazy, but not a fraud.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  16. Ben from Illinois

    Camping knows this won't happen, but look at what he has done...what is everybody talking about? This guy is a clown but he has everyone talking about it which is ridiculous but its the world we live in. Once this is over and its Sunday everyone will start to talk about 2012 and once that passes they will move on to the next end of the world topic.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  17. John B

    My favorite part of this particular charlatans prophecy is his prediction that a gigantic earthquake will strike on Saturday. Not at the same time all over the earth, but in an orderly progression occurring at 6:00PM in each and every one of the worlds time zones! I'm planning on camping out in the U.S. central time zone just across from the U.S. eastern time zone so I'll actually have one hour to observe all of the chaos before it strikes me personally.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  18. joe

    i think that these ppl who believe the end of the world is tomorrow should be on suicide watch. they might get so depressed and feel so misguided that they might take there own life.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Ben from Illinois

      Joe, this has happened many times before and you are so right in your comment. It's sad this guy has built a cult to this level.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • David in Corpus

      We can only hope (not pray).

      May 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Emmanuel

      If that is the case I say let them die, they are of no use to society anyway.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  19. LG

    If God ends the world would that be considered murder and would God then be condemmed to hell?

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

      God has killed more than man ever will. He likes it and likes to watch.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Eternal Infidel

      He also likes to see innocent, helpless babies and children suffer and die. That's why He created childhood cancer.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Bruce

      It's not murder if people die in an earthquake, silly.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  20. John

    First, I disagree with this end of the world is tomorrow theory. Second, I'm sorry so many of you think that everyone who believes in religion is "misguided" "a freak" or "an idiot." We aren't any of those things except possibly misguided. However, we are (for Christianity atleast) commanded to not judge others. Anyone who claims to be a Christian and still does that is in the wrong. Please do not label an entire faith based off of one person's own sins. Third (and this is where I am guilty of judging) it really annoys me how many people state so emphatically that their view is right (generally, but not always, an atheist view) Atheists cannot know with any more certainity than Christians which view is correct and factual.

    I just hope that people who read this article will think twice before posting and try to not to make their statements so brazen and harsh against people they do not know.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Artist

      We don't see mass demonstrations against this guy. The silence from your brother and sisters in christ speaks volumes. It is obvious you quietly support this guy.
      You know what is strange...this sounds so familiar...I can't put my finger on it. ....anyway back to what we were talking about. Your kind are being judged this churches actions. While sad, this is the way of the world. Come Sunday, christians will look a little more foolish and then there will be another that makes christians look more foolish and righfully so.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Colin

      John, the only difference between these nut jobs and "mainstream" Christians is they set a date. All the other nonsense – life after death, mind reading sky-gods, Jesus rising from the dead, a second coming etc. – is exactly what Christians believe.

      I am sorry, but that does make you look pretty damn foolish. If you don't want to be called stupid, perhaps you should not believe in stupid, childish things.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm |

      If all "Christians" who say other "Christians aren't really Christians" there would be no Christians left....

      May 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm |

      If all "Christians" who say other "Christians aren't really Christians" were to disappear there would be no Christians left....

      May 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • David in Corpus

      Atheists don't have to prove anything. I don't pretend to know the answers. When and while I live, I will adapt to my environment the best I can and if that includes accepting a religion (or two or three) to get along with the rest of society I would surely do that. Fortunately for me (as an atheists) I do not have to accept any religion in this day and age and place to stay alive and prosper. I will die just as you will and I seriously doubt there will be anything (consciously speaking) after that. I don't mind being proven wrong or right. It matters not.
      If you want unalterable laws to live by (man and gods' laws are alterable) then follow the teachings of nature. Very simple laws to live by in nature. Eat, sleep, drink, nut – repeat then rinse, then die. So simple!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Kevin

      "Third (and this is where I am guilty of judging) it really annoys me how many people state so emphatically that their view is right (generally, but not always, an atheist view)"

      You say that you are guilty of it and then point your finger at another group in the exact same manner that you started off your post by saying was not right. I am not saying there are not athiests who talk to others about how they think that is the only correct answer but I certainly don't ever recall being preached to by an athiest. Why does it bother you when people state their opinion emphatically?? Does this not also remind you of the church and preaching? I am not sure how you can seperate the two and if you can it seems like a matter of convienence...I am not sure why you are so worried about what other people think.

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

      @artist: I can't say why others don't host demonstrations against him. For me, it's because he's completely wrong and not worth the time. I choose not to I don't think he's misleading that many people (Although I'm reconsidering that after seeing how much money he raised) and I firmly believe that he'll be proven wrong tomorrow.

      @Colin: You are an example of what I was talking about. Yes I believe in heaven, I believe in God, Jesus raising from the dead, and His return. Prove to me it's false. You cannot prove it 100% false, just as I cannot prove it 100% true. It's called faith for a reason.

      @Notbart: I never said anything about people not being Christians. I just said they would be wrong or sinning. Big difference.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • John

      @Kevin: I said guilty of judging. Judging others as being foolish. I did not ever state my opinion as fact, I actually pointed out the potential for it being wrong. It bothers me when they do so in public. I completely agree, when the church goes out and preaches something similar to "everyone is sinful if you aren't doing what the church says you will burn in hell." that is wrong. With all my friends of different backgrounds and religion, I'm fairly certain they will never say I preached to them or condemned them unless they asked me to. When I say asked it means they asked my opinion of something and I gave it as my opinion based off what I believe.

      I do not think that I am trying to separate the two based on convenience. I have several problems with the established church.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • .

      Perhaps you mean, if every accusation of Christians not being real Christians were true, then there would be no real Christians.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Tony

      I'm not too concerned that the world thinks I am a freak or misguided because of what I believe. In Fact I fully expect that since Christians are in direct conflict with what the world believes. So, I really just don't care what the world thinks because I as most Christians who've read their Bibles do, know the truth. As for the Dooms Day prophecy, it's a false prophecy, a false teacher and a false prophet preaching these things(2 Timothy 4:3,4). No one will know the day or the hour, only God himself, (Matt 24:36). These people have obviously not read their bibles. The reality is, most of you will wake up May 22nd and go about your business. As for those of you who don't believe, how can you be so certain? Most Christians are that because of deep personal experiences that are usually common between all of us, and bind us together to Christ, but until you've been there, you can't possibly understand. All I can do is tell you what I know, but you have to cross that same bridge we all did before you'll truly understand. "Whoever has ears, let them hear." .. Matt: 11:15

      John 3:16
      Romans 10:9

      May 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Chuck

      Quit trying to justify christian lunacy. This is in every American's face every day. You cannot go one day in this country without hearing about all the miracles performed on a daily basis. Miracles for sports teams, miracles that "my house was spared" while their neighbors perished. Where are the miracles for starving millions in impoverished nations? When miracles that Joe Smoe "christian" won the lottery, while no miracles for people and millions of animals lost in flooding. Where I have the problem with all religions is their inability to criticize and correct these people when they start these ridiculous rants. Then you have the group that prostests military funerals. That want to deny other Americans their same rights because of religious beliefs? America has truly overdosed on Religion and those that seem to know what "GOD" is thinking or who speak to him on a regular basis. I find religions of all kind very sad, disturbing, controlling and at times evil. How many wars were started because of religions, and still persist today? You better come up with some really relevant ideals and philosophies that justify the actions above before I will even give the thought of "god" and religions the time of day.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
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About this blog

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.