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. Joe

    This dooms day pedection seems to have taken more of a hold over the general population then past peditions. Their is a sizable amount of people who beleive in this. Not religious fanatics or cult type people, jut plain old every day Americans who truly believe this will happen. Is this just a sign of the times or is there an underlining meaning to all this. Could there really be that many people who really think life in the 21st century sucks so bad that they are ready to die because they think the pasture is greener on the other side?

    May 20, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Frogist

      @Joe: I hate to throw around conjecture but I'll give you this as my ongoing mad theory. Everyone's got one, why not me? The impending turn of the century and its actual arrival made people nervous. 9/11 happened and really rocked the foundation of this country. Couple that with economic difficulties and a historic moment of having a black president make people even more uncomfortable. Some in a good way because they consider it progress towards racial equality, others in a bad way because what's scarier than a black man in power? The weirdo conspiracy theorists were bound to show up, but then the fear and distrust was played up in the media and by politicians to make everything questionable (truthers, birthers, deathers etc). Now that anything pretty much goes, people are more malleable, susceptible open to suggestion. Why not now to accept its the end of the world as we know it?
      Change always brings fear. And fear always brings those who would exploit it for their purposes. No wonder the movement grew so fast. Bottom line: people are just ready to hear the most outrageous things and give them validity just because it's become acceptable to do so.
      I don't think people are so dissatisfied that they want to die. I think these Camping folks don't think about actual death being part of the equation. They just accept the fantasy without any thought about how it fits into reality.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • SMH

      Actually its because this is the internet is around now.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Iphantom

      BOOM -SMH nailed it. Much easier to spread the crazy now. Back in yesteryear it was extremely difficult to broadcast your psychotic delusions to a national audience. Not so tough today. Easy to spread a wide net and scoop those in our society gullible/vulnerable/stupid/mentally disturbed enough get on board the crazy train.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  2. Damien

    "...not so different from the rest of us?" Really? So its bold to give your money to Camping and believe in some ficticious end of the world scheme? That's more idiocy to me. The reason why religion doesn't work as well nowadays is because people aren't as easily fooled by propaganda...seems less reasonable to give your money to someone and proclaim the end of days based on a random mathematical calculation.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  3. Irony

    I thought he might take this as a "Much like the people who jumped on the Y2K bandwagon"... article. Many people seem to forget the worries the masses had and how they stocked up on 'necessities', JUST IN CASE. Who made all the money in that one? None of the hoarders dare admit now that they stocked up on can food and bottled water. Even now most people who were in the smallest bit concerned will admit that now. You can't admit to something like that when you're pointing fingers and laughing at the 'religious nuts' for doing the same thing. The only difference here is who is 'peddling the kool aide'.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Irony

      *won't admit that now....

      May 20, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  4. jimtanker

    "Doomsdayers not so different from the rest of us"

    I'm nothing like these religious nut jobs. I live in the real world. You can have your magic sky daddy and all of those fairy tales.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Jimi

      Right on, dude.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Relictus

      Right on, exactly!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  5. swampman61

    Yes you are crazy but it ok so is everybody else.....

    May 20, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  6. Observer

    Give the ignorant end-of-the-worlders a lot of credit. Look at all the people they have made to look and feel smarter.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  7. Matt

    Whoa speak for yourself buddy. Not all of us have these crazy illusions, some of us prefer, you know, science.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Rick

      They are doomsayers, so ah yea, they are weird. See ya Monday!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • swampman61

      well said

      May 20, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  8. Stephen

    speak for yourself man. anyone that believes this nonsense should be committed.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • jimtanker

      Right on!! Anyone who makes a statement like that is spreading some serious slander.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  9. beelzebubba

    If someone says "This is what the LORD Almighty says..." ask them if they get their information first-hand. (for you evangelicals that means: Did god tell them?) If there is a god who knows all and can do all, he can meet and greet all personally. If someone gives you the argument that seeing god is not possible because we would die of fright or some other excuse, ask them how he managed it when he 'appeared' in person to 'inspire' the ten commandments. People believe fairy tales because they sound good, not because they are true.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  10. Victoria

    Sorry to sadden you all but this guy is a joke. He said the world was going to end in 1998 and look what year it is now. And he also is the same guy who tells people that if they didn't donate money to his church, the world was going to end. All it is, is to get people to give him money. So with that being said, this guys is full of himself and so is anyone else who believes in this. Thank you! Have a WONDERFUL weekend everyone, because it will NOT be ending any time soon.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • M. Conroy

      Don't tell us, tell CNN (his PR agency).

      May 20, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  11. svann

    Assuming the prediction is 6pm in the first time zone affected (new zealand), that works out to 15 hours from now – 11pm pacific time.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  12. God

    Okay, enough already. There IS such a thing as taking a joke too far. Even I'M not laughing anymore.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  13. Marco

    The people who say the world is going to end tomorrow are just a little bit special. They're the one's who rode the short yellow bus.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • M. Conroy

      ...wearing helmets...and seat belts.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  14. Kiersten

    The bible says only God knows when Judgement day will be. So! My conclusion. It'll be when we all least expect it. The one day we don't have a crazy with a sandwich board telling us the world will end.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • McJesus

      No body will expect it. Just as "NOOOOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!"

      May 20, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • John Dale

      Do tell. What exactly makes the guy with the sandwich board crazy, but you taking the word of some ridiculous old book of fairy stories sane?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • God

      The comfy chairs, noooooooooo

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

    What time zone is being used to calculate the end of the world? Gee, I want to be awake for THIS one!

    May 20, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • lumpy

      The 'end of the world' is conveniently sticking to the international treaty which established the global time zones and the international dateline. So, the end of the world will begin at the International Dateline (a political construct rather than a geographical feature with a tendency to cause earthquakes) and continue with subsequent earthquakes occurring once in each time zone, every hour on the hour. The earthquakes will cease at the last time zone before the international dateline since there will be no more time zones.

      I'm still looking for the best post-rapture looting party in the SF bay area...haven't found it yet...

      May 20, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  16. Joe

    The Truth is what people believe it is. It is very hard to preach the truth about something, when the truth can be based on so many different factors, including fact, prejidice, imagination.... Don't believe that the truth is what the individual mind believes it is? There are 4 major religions on this planet, and they all believe in the same god. Islam, Judiaism, Protestant Christians, and Catholic Christians. Break it down even further, there are over 1400 registered denominations of Protestant Christians... And yet in the name of God, someone will wage war, despite the fact that the people they are fighting often worship the same god, just under different truths.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Jake

      This is nonsense. The truth is the truth. Many people believe certain things are true. However, merely because people believe things are true doesn't mean they are. Whether a statement is true depends not on the believer, but on how well that statement matches up with the world.

      The freezing point of water at sea level (this is a simplification) is 32 degrees Farenheit. This is true even if someone believes the freezing point is 20 degrees Farenheit. Indeed, this is true even if EVERYONE believes the freezing point is 20 degrees Farenheit.

      You can state that many people think they know the truth and that such beliefs – especially if they are religious – often lead to conflict. But that does not imply that truth itself is in the eye of the beholder. It just means that people disagree and that not all of them - indeed, perhaps none of them - are correct.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  17. K

    Dear Credit Card holders
    Final Warning, Please pay all your bils by end of the day today.
    Tomorrow we will accept with late fees until 5.59 pm. If you fail to do so our call center will hell will contact you.
    Protect your credit history.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  18. woodgrain

    If people use religeon as a safety net, what happens to that net when things like this dooms day don't come true?
    Through the years the bible sounds more like a tabloid newspaper from all the times it's been rewritten and interpreted in so many different ways.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  19. ThomasPaine

    Interesting that he should use the Seventh day Adventist example to site as a prophesy failure....bravo although why stop there. There are alot of prophesy failures to site that you would think people would get a clue. OH well!!! Party ON!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  20. westmetals

    I want to know if, now that they have gone to all this extraordinary effort to get the message out to people who were NOT listening to this guy's radio program or attending churches which agree with his interpretation....

    Can we sue for emotional distress when we find out they were wrong?

    Oh, and as for actual prophecies... the ONLY prophecy I have ever heard that actually came true was written by a French duke (the Duke of Choiseul) in 1763. He wrote that France (which had just been forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty at the end of the Seven Years' War, among other things giving up all its colonies in North America).... would win the next war against Britain by allying itself with rebelling British colonies.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:55 am |
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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.