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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. rdizzzy

    Yeah at least "Bigfoot" popped up a few times over the years.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  2. Lauren Kaplan

    Isn't it the end in Australia already? 😉

    May 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Nonimus

      6 pm. It's still am in that area.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Cute animals though.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      For me, 6pm australia time is around 2am tonight. I guess I'm going to get raptured in my sleep. Good luck with tomorrow you sinful losers! enjoy an eternity of hell!

      ..hmm, i wonder if heaven has video games?

      May 20, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  3. rdizzzy

    I notice they didn't leave out the website address on the sign. They wanted P.R. and they got it.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  4. jaywingfuller

    The end of the world has been recalculated. It was yesterday and, thanks to the magic of wireless internet connections, I am speaking to you from heaven this very instant. So party hearty, my dear friends and fear not. Those of us who were chosen have already left the building. Oh, and by the way, it is damn boring up here. I'm hoping for a reclass to elsewhere.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  5. The Jackdaw

    False Prophet?????

    May 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Is there another kind?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Good point. No, there is not.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  6. purplehaze

    Did this Clown also see "Bigfoot"?

    May 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      I give more credit to the possibility of big foot.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  7. Eternal Infidel

    For the most part, Christians have been pretty mute on these forums over the past week. And when a few actually write something, their responses tended to be pretty sheepish. Most posts are Jesus bashers taking delight in all this looney madness and taking a free shot at the helplessly brainwashed. I think Christians are embarrassed by Camping's flock, saying "I know we're crazy, but we're not THAT crazy!"

    May 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  8. Kevin

    Seventh-day Adventists do not believe Jesus came in A spiritual sense in 1844. The small group of Millerites who formed the nucleus of the Seventh-day Adventist Church believed they were correct in the date (Oct 22 1844), but incorrect about the EVENT. This fact is easily verified by reading the primary sources.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  9. JayinSF

    I would like to see the IRS investigate how a "simple pastor" can pay to have several thousand billboards placed in the U.S. and around the world.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  10. Jeffrey

    6 o'clock EST or GMT?
    Listen, the Jehovah's Witnesses (offshoots of the Adventists) did the same thing like 2 or 3 times, and each they had to reinterpret. Rutherford had them gathered on top of a mountain twice, the last time in 1914. What happened was the beginning of WWI. Then they claimed that marked the beginning of the end. Then they predicted October 1975 in their Awake magazine. I left the church in 1973 and my mother cried for a week. Then when nothing happened, they all denied a hard date had ever been predicted. Now it is 2011, and soon they will have to recalculate, because their last reinterpretation is near exhausting its parameters. Sure the world is falling apart, but I do not see many people trying to fix it. Easier just to throw the hands up in the air and say "The end is near". Everyone else is waiting is waiting for 2012, so who are they to criticize anyway? This could turn into a self-fulfilling prohecy, if we are not careful. Imagine an Evangelist President ready to unleash nuclear hell just because it coincides with their personal beliefs.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Bruce

      6pm local in every time zone, starting in New Zealand and following the sun westward until it goes around the world, at the speed of the earth's rotation.

      Kinda like the path Santa Claus takes delivering presents, except he starts just after midnight instead of at 6:00p.m.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • srush

      The Jehovah's Witnesses do NOT predict a time when the world will end. They specifically teach that no ones knows the hour at which it will happen.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Brian

      Many times in the New Testament, Jesus says that no one knows the end date. No matter who predicts the end date, it's going to be wrong. Jesus will come like a thief in the night. No one will expect it.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • MJ

      This is absolutely a self fulfilling prophecy. Excellent note. At some point, someone will be right about this and their belief will be confirmed. Whether it is the end of the world or the end of human kind...an end will happen at some point. There will be no I told you so – we will just be gone.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      lmao, I'm sure god know the date and time of the end of the world.

      I love how people quote the same book that predicts the end of the world and exactly how it happens and also says no one will know when it will happen. It's just going to involve a six headed beast with crowns, but any sense of time frame is a bit of a reach.

      Better hurry though, fairly soon mankind will be able to leave the planet, then the prediction of end times will mean nothing.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  11. steve

    idk im not much a follower but i feel they may be onto something i am going to spend the nite prepairing my self just incase something should happen because yes i have lots to ask for forgiveness for from our lord god but even so the bible clearly states no man shall know when the end is only god does

    May 20, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      would god accept you into his embrace if you were only going there out of self preservation or out of fear?

      You might want to question your motivation, and even perhaps the motivation of a religion that would use such scare tactics to manipulate the masses. Think about it, would you follow jesus because what he said made sense and was worth following, or would you follow jesus simply because he could do a neat magic trick or two?

      that being said, any personal reflection is probably a good thing, so cheers

      May 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • r schier

      What a good boy. Mommy always knew you could do it.....

      May 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  12. abduul

    i will respond to this non sense on Sunday may 22 until then keep the non sense going. those nickle headed believers will come up with another excuse or something on Sunday.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  13. LindaMae

    No one should bash these people. They believe in something with all their hearts. The world will come to an end- but when? We don't know...we won't know.. One thing these people have taught me is to be prepared today .. everyday... and not just on 21st of May. God Bless!!

    May 20, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • LinCA

      It really is a plea to their loved ones to get them some help. The easter bunny, santa, the tooth fairy, all gods and unicorns are figments of someone's imagination. Any adult who believes in them should get help.

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

      @LindaMae,
      "No one should bash these people. They believe in something with all their hearts."
      So you are okay with them convincing others to give away all their possessions... and do what on Sunday, eat manna?

      "The world will come to an end- but when?"
      I think the current estimate is ~7.6 billion years before the Earth is destroyed by the Sun (not son). Of course, life, as we know it currently, won't be possible after only about 1 billion years because the sun will have expanded enough to boil off the water and therefore the life on Earth.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      ...the terrorist suicide bombers and just doing what's in their hearts. They simply believe with all their soul that god is calling them to blow up innocents so that they can get 72 virgins in heaven.

      This isn't a game. This isn't some childhood story. There are real world ramifications, consequences, for what we choose to believe in.

      Nazi's thought they were the superior race, WW2 is the consequence of that belief. When does simply believing in something cease being cute and start being scary for you?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Rachel

      Amen! I agree... I feel for these believers so much..The only one that really I am angered by is Harold Camping.He does Christian believers the world over a HUGE disservice.He has falsely prophesized this before .1994 is only ONE of the years he did this.He also did this back in the 1980's, only he wasn't so vocal about it then.I hope when this passes, he learns to THINK before opening his mouth and that he slinks away just like Ronald Weinland ( another False prophet that predicted this back in 2008 or so and had his people believing him and his wife were the 2 witnesses).

      May 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • r schier

      You'e right there MaryLou......they should just be bombarded with 1000s of rotten, leftover Easter eggs......

      May 20, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  14. generalizationsarebad

    I hope they drink a beer instead of the Kool-aid on Sunday. Their calculations ignore the rest of the Bible which is written to highlight long-term personal responsibility and knowledge of God and his purposes and the opportunity to live everlastingly. This freak out and repent by may 21 st madness is an insult to the same God who had the foresight to create a rotating expanding universe.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      how can you call it personal responsibility when it comes from a commandment from god? You make it sound like responsibility is simply doing what you're told, when in reality it's figuring out what should be done.

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

      HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

      yur phukn HILARIOUS!!! Nice try though, thank you for playing, have a nice life.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • generalizationsarebad

      Humans are on the self destructive path. We're clearly out of sync with the rest of the creatures on Earth. Make no mistake the Earth is a marvel of creative genius. We can not create anything. We can only manipulate whats already here. Short-sighted to forge ahead figuring it out as we go being as pragmatic as possible although obviously going in a bad direction. Man's doing has us on a pretty tight lease enslaved to an unsustainable consumption. There is a choice. You can choose to follow the commands of the creator or you can choose follow man wherever that leads. God's promise is that his commands are not burdensome and they lead to life. Its at least worth a thorough examination. which most people will choose not to do.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  15. Tony

    The commandments of God and the traditions of men are not the same thing and must always be clearly distinguished. Any attempt to place them on the same level will always result in making the Word of God of none effect. You have to either "lay aside" the commandment of God to keep the traditions of men or you have to "lay aside" the traditions of men to keep the commandments of God (Ex. 20:3). Church liturgy is tradition, as well as many of the "do's and don'ts" taught by churches today. We can neutralize the positive power of God's Word toward us, and nothing will do that quicker than elevating man's traditions above God's Word. God's Word is still true (Rom. 3:3-4) and will not return to Him void (Isa. 55:11).

    May 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      The commandments of God are all around us.
      The traditions of man are in a book called the Bible.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  16. Esu Seye

    I wonder what it would look like from space... People on the Space station would have one heck of a view...

    May 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  17. dem_pokemans

    this is obviously shopped.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  18. NO ONE

    YALL YOU NEED TO GET A LIVE!!! AGAIN!!!! THE ONLY GOD WE HAVE ARE ufo!! HAHAAHAHHAHA

    May 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  19. Nikki

    No one knows the day nor the hour when Jesus will return for His people. Be sure it will happen ! Alot of these comments make God seem cruel and unjust. The truth is that He has given all opportunity to be right with him but all is up to us. Its amazing that people refuse to thank God for the good He has done but are so easy to blame Him for the bad that happens in our lives.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Chris

      Yeah, Nikki, he really gave that 28-day-old baby whose mom microwaved her to death an "opportunity" to be right with Him. What a sweet guy.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Most are not blaming Him, especially atheists, since they don't believe. They are blaming the religion, the belief, or the lack of rational thinking, that people are involved in.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      have you ever read the Bible? God kicked us out of Eden because we were tricked into eating some fruit by a snake he created, how is that nice?

      How about killing off the population of the world in the flood, was that very nice?

      You religious nuts are talking about the END OF THE WORLD and how most of humanity will be suffering in HELL for eternity, and you have the balls to say that we're not giving god a fair shake? That we're being a little unfair?

      I feel so sorry for you and others like you. It's your world and we just live in it, right? I suppose the Muslim suicide bombers are fine with you, since they're doing it because of their faith, and they are true believers, and that they will be rewarded in heaven, eh? Just doing what god tells us, not questioning a thing, which oddly enough, ironically, would have helped us in Eden with the snake.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Powell

      The famous quote from Epicurus is quite pertinant to the topic of "God" and his "Mercy":

      “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
      Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able, but not willing?
      Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing?
      Then whence cometh evil?
      Is he neither able nor willing?
      Then why call him God?”

      God doesn't exist, and if he did, he'd be a heartless jerk unworthy of even scorn, let alone reverence.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  20. omg!!

    CAMPING IS M E G A R I C H 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 2:23 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.