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. SK

    I'm flabbergasted at the anger on both sides of the race. I would like to believe that we could all be "civil" to one another about this. Religion is a sensitive subject, and personally, I think maybe everyone would be less stressed out if we all kept our opinions to ourselves and not try to push our personal beliefs onto others. Although that is an impossibility, it would be nice. I do agree with the author, however, that even if "dooms day" does not happen tomorrow, it'll just be "reevaluated" by this man's followers... and in a couple dozen years or so we may have another religion on our hands. Seems to be a trend.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Chuy

      Would be nice, but most religions strongly encourage spreading the word and converting other people.. at least testifying. Anyway, meh. I wish I knew some of these people so I could get their money etc lol.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Pink Monkey

      ....she said, as she proceeded to give us her opinion.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  2. sprucey

    harold camping vs. nostradamus: LIVE May 21st 2011 at 6pm (who the hell knows what time zone) GET YOUR BETS IN WHILE YOU STILL CAN

    May 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  3. omg!!


    May 20, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  4. Litmus Boogliner

    You humans....

    May 20, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  5. AtheistSteve

    So Harold Campings particular flavor of crazy is only offensive to non-Family Radio christians because he dares to set a date. Mostly all are still convinced that the gist of the crazy doomsday tale is still true. Sounds a lot to me like the pot calling the kettle black. I don't believe that a god exists. Thus this non-existent thing cannot be the impetus behind the bible which is itself the only source of information concerning their god. Circular nonsense. And forget the countless other gods that man has created....everyone knows those where just fabrications...right?
    So Sunday morning when I'm giggling my ass off at Campings idiocy I'll be reserving some laughs for all the "true" christians who will be puffing out their chests for identifying his error of claiming to "know" the time of the end while clinging to the equally idiotic idea that the end is still looming...sometime soon. Yeah right...lol

    May 20, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  6. citizenUSA

    Those who believe in the bible know it says the rapture date is unknown. To believe anything else makes you a heretic unless you've talked with god or Jesus. Then your just a nut.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  7. Gina

    I for one will be one of many Atheists partying if this so called apocalypse happens. I'll see every Christian customer suddenly disappear. Yet they talked about the world ending so many times before, it's not funny. So all you Christians better hold onto your bibles if you believe that your so called God will be taking you to a better place. Not buying it.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  8. JayinSF

    And media outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle and CNN just keep giving Camping free P.R. – tsk, tsk.

    The media is always ready to report news that may scare, or make people fear, but are really slow to report any uplifting stories about some good kids, volunteers, or a town that comes together, etc...

    May 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  9. Simon

    Mmm... I see something really sinister in this article. As usual, when somebody wants to justify his own craziness, cries:"We are all the same! We are all the same!" Well, sir, we are not. It does not make a single bit of sense to put on the same ground people that believe in the rapture to happen on May 21st and people that believe their spouses or federal budget deficit or politician, to just paraphrase what you say. That's very misleading and intellectually insulting. I am an educated man, with my flaws, and live my own life. You believe what you want, but don't try to make me look like I *could* be part of your movement, just because you think everybody has a little bit of craziness. That's insane, as it is insane that there are parents that neglect their own children (read today's NYT front page article) on the basis of some sort of nut-case fable, parents that think that their children may be "left behind" because they don't believe in this insanity, and they are even ok with it, because "it's god's will". That's insane. They are insane. End of story. I am ashamed all this attention was given to such a story.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  10. rj

    rapture already happened, no one was worthy to be taken.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  11. gooooow

    fourth paragraph... "...based on a prophesy in the Bibel's Daniel 8:14..." "Bibel"? really? lmao spell check is a useful tool

    May 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • God (the REAL one)

      Aw, come now, it's just a comic book...without pictures.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  12. God (the REAL one)

    Funny how a religious delusionist tries to make other delusionists seem to be "not so delusional".

    He's protecting his own.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  13. machoman

    I really have a taste for a chillidog right now.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • drumaboy

      me to man.....me to

      May 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  14. Just For Jesus

    I am all for Jesus returning...Heaven knows that we NEED him. However, you people who think he is coming tomorrow really need to read the Bible. Because Jesus clearly states that NO ONE will know when he is coming. He explained that no one knows the hour or the day, except for God the Father (Matthew 24:36). READ YOUR BIBLE! It's right there. Jesus clearly explains it. There is no reading between the lines. The end will come "like a thief in the night" which means NO ONE knows, except God!

    May 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bruce

      There's no reading between the lines for you, but apparently you can forget to read v34 and see that he predicted that it would happen before "this generation" was gone, which meant within 40 years of him saying it...

      May 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • God (the REAL one)

      Does your dog tell you to kill people?

      May 20, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • LaceyRae4

      I am with you!! I am soo ready for Jesus to come back but Jesus had also said that even He the Messiah knows not of the hour!! If he doesn't even know how would these people even attempt to predict the Day God chooses to send his Son! All we can do is show love as Christ has shown to us and spread the gospel and prepare as Heaven is being prepared for us! God Bless!!

      May 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Thomas

      Dont listen to the trolls. The fallen are loudest when the truth is present. You are correct in your assessment and no one but the Father knows. I had a witty reply for the poor fools trying to drive a wedge into your true statement, but I have things to do. They have a fire to attend.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • sprucey

      quit telling ppl to read a bible man. that book is wrong from the beginning. "god created the earth" yea ok. turn on the history channel and it will tell you different. harold camping is an idiot, but you criticizing ppl for believing him and his may 21st doomsday BS when you believe in god is contradicting. they're taking someone's word for it just like you do when you read a book of all these ppl you've never met. only difference is they actually know this man and you hope that someone is in the clouds waiting to take you to some place that no one can ever say they've been to. for all you know we were put here by aliens. in fact, given recent science thats a much more logical explanation for human existence than some dude no one has ever met placing us here.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  15. Marty in MA

    I read they got 80 million on their 1994 "prediction in error. "
    Pays to be a nutjob. Some people will believe anything they are told if it has God in the sentence 🙁


    May 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  16. JayinSF

    One word: CULT!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  17. Marc

    See you all on December 22, 2012... 🙂

    May 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  18. Rockfish

    Hey, you guys should add "Strange Days" and "Solent Green" DVD's to your Rapture party movie collection, interesting stuff.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  19. Prince Ray

    Jesus was asked the same question: "When will the world end?" His response, there are those who will tell you there he is, or there he is. Or come this way, but, he will not be there. When you hear of Wars and Rumors of Wars, they you will know, the times are near. But, on that day, Which only the Father knows, the earth will tremble as a mother's birth pains. And the whole world will see him at once.
    So, for a group like this that proclaims they know the date, only embarrasses themselves, our faith, and Jesus.
    And, only brings mockery on Christianity.

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

      PERFECTLY STATED! Thank you!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Bruce

      Yeah, he also said it would happen before "this generation" was gone, which means within 40 years or so of when he said it.

      What's crazy is that if you look at what he predicted, and what actually happened in that area of the world in that 40-year span of time after he said it, a lot of things line up pretty well...

      May 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • God (the REAL one)

      Delusion is a wonderful; place where facts need hold no sway. There is no real proof that any of these mythical characters ever really existed.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • grumpy

      "Jesus was asked the same question: "When will the world end?" His response, there are those who will tell you there he is, or there he is. Or come this way, but, he will not be there. When you hear of Wars and Rumors of Wars, they you will know, the times are near..."

      He said that, huh? It's clear jesus was retarded.

      May 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • civiloutside

      When we hear Wars and Rumors of Wars? He'd have been equally clear to say "when it's a day ending in 'y.'"

      May 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  20. Doubtful

    I just checked out this groups site and they are still acceping online donations. Maybe just in case they're wrong?

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

      Are you sure it's still enabled? Why don't you try to donate and see if it's accepted and get back to us...

      May 20, 2011 at 2:44 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.