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. gary

    Oh, these whacks are weird, nuts, insane, delusional, dangerous. What they are teaching and doing to their kids is abuse. I think they should all make sure they go to their god by jumping off a cliff... or into a volcano.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • John

      No doubt, we need more "sane" people like yourself to encourage mass suicide, then this world would be a lovely place.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • burns

      If you jump.... take your bible with you.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • John

      I don't believe in this crap. As a matter of fact, I'm going to game 5 of the Mavericks game in a few days. My only point is that you all are just as insane as the bible thumpers. One side is excited about the end of the world....the other side wants billions of people to die. You're all insane...simple as that

      May 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • The Legal Eagle and the Talking Beagle

      Right, and the ones who teach their kids that they're eating JC's body and blood are not just as bad.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  2. Dawn

    Matthew 24:36 (King James Version)

    36But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Bruce

      Hey Dawn, after reading your comment I 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! Thanks for your help!

      May 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  3. Thomas

    WHEN Christ made a comment about a generation passing. . . . So many are quick to jump on that. Talking about 40 years so confidently. Perhaps it was INTERPRETED WRONG. For all of His truth, I don't think its HIM askew with this misunderstanding people. Perhaps Generation was meant in a different way. To generate. Maybe a BLOODLINE. Who knows, and honestly, to base your lack of faith on not understanding ONE facet of something actually still existing 2k years later, is not good. Yes, through translation and Vatican chicanery, the TRUE word was jumbled in the mix, but its Truth stands defiant in the face of 2000 years and its adversity.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Bruce

      And perhaps "nobody knows the day or the hour" was interpreted wrong, or means something other than what it seems to obviously mean, or maybe it means they don't know the day or the hour but they do know the minute and the second, or maybe it means that puppies are cute but they p00p a lot...

      May 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  4. Weep4America

    People who belittle, ridicule and mock the folks who believe the rapture will happen this Saturday are hypocrites. I don't believe the rapture will happen this Saturday but I don't mock those who do. It's their right to believe what they want. Isn't that part of the greatness of the United States? It's hypocritical because, today, people DEMAND tolerance and acceptance when it comes to THEIR beliefs but reserve THEIR "right" to mock and belittle others. Disgraceful.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Howard

      Sorry, but when you predict the end of the World, chances are preety good that you are wrong, and you are going to be laughed at. If you find that distasteful, turn off the news, pull the covers over your head, and just close you eyes to reality.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Bruce

      We also have the right to mock and belittle the beliefs of others, fyi. The flipside of freedom is the freedom to act like an @55 and not get thrown in jail for it.

      Nobody is harmed when they are mocked. Seriously, now. The only people harmed by mocking are the mockers themselves, which is just and fair.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • r schier

      I'm not out there in people's faces with "my beliefs" like these idiots are. They should be glad it's just mockery – if it were me, they'd be showered with rotten eggs if they were carrying on like this in my neighborhood....keep your demented BS to yourselves....I can't give a r't's *ss what they believe – just get it out of my face, and off my news page....

      May 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Ravi K

      To ridicule and mock the ridiculous is part of being American.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)


      While not mocking, I am and many others are pointing out that this wrong and against scripture. We are not to set dates! People have quit their jobs over this. What will happen to them and their families come Sunday morning? They are NOT reading their Bibles. Camping did the same thing in 1994. That would make him a false prophet! Yet people still follow him. I am not mocking because this is truly sad. Alot of trusting people are going to get hurt by this. Camping is accountable before God, and that is not funny! Christians should be praying and not mocking!

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

      "What will happen to them and their families come Sunday morning?"
      Hopefully they wake up.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Weep4America

      @r shier – Then you're a horrible person. Even the atheist Penn (from Penn and Teller) said he respects these people (and Christians in general) who proselytize. Why? Because if they believe that deeply that the world is ending on Saturday (or that people who don't accept Jesus are going to hell) then they SHOULD be out trying to help rescue people from that outcome. If they DIDN'T, how selfish and hateful would that be? They're doing it BECAUSE THEY CARE ABOUT OTHERS. (Which seems to be the opposite of you.)

      May 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)


      "What will happen to them and their families come Sunday morning?"
      .Hopefully they wake up.
      I hope so as well. Wait a minute Artist...you gettin' soft?
      My point is I hope this is not another Jim Jones, Hale Bopp, Heaven's Gate type scenario. That is what was trying to say.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • Weep4America

      I can understand the concern that people have about these folks acting like people from cults after their event doesn't happen. That's a valid point. However, I don't see that to be the case because these folks aren't at all like people from cults. They're just mislead about a valid, biblical event that WILL happen... just that it's not possible to narrow down the day or the hour. The season, yes, but not the day or hour. When the rapture doesn't happen tomorrow, they'll feel embarrassed and just want to move on from it. Hopefully it will make them a little wiser and more careful in their study of the scriptures. But suicides? Not so that they can "catch the rapture" or any reason like that. If there happen to be suicides, it will be out of embarrassment and feeling like they can't face their friends and family. I pray that doesn't happen.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  5. burns

    The Rage Virus will be released on May 21, 2011. Get a golf club, a mask, and cover all open wounds.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  6. Jeremy

    Sad world full of sheep. I got something for you religious wackos – If we know that all humans are the same, same number of chromosones, same number of bones, same number of muscles etc – then if religion were real why would all humans not follow the same religion? If there were a god and "he" made the cosmos, the world and all of the animals, why wouldn't all humans believe the same thing? White people are just evolved versions of the original people from Africa, the same way brown people are an evolution of these same people. Same can be said for people of Asian decent. 90% of human life can be traced back to Africa, roughly 8 percent can be traced back to neanderthals. Everyone on this planet has essentially started out from the same continent. Why so may versions of religion then. Because depending on where in the world you are from (or whom is in power) these are the factors which dictate what you believe. We all all brainwashed from youth to believe this nonsense (including me – I was raised catholic) and it amazes me how many people live their lives with this sort of rational thought neglect. Religion is a perversion and should be treated as such. We should not try to justify our wacky beliefs to put down another. Religion is all nonsense and we need to, as a species, begin to look down on those who need such fanastical musings to live out their lives. The only reason any of this crap has power is due to all the sheep who follow it.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Commonsense

      ....Thank you.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Ed

      Agree completely. I don't believe in a God per se. I believe that the only "god" (lower case) that anyone should be concerned with is the good that all people are capable of. It has nothing to do with religion, church, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, or rapture.

      All you need is love. The rest is just an excuse. Peace.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  7. Realilty

    Tick Clock, time is running out on all the old supersti-tions:

    "The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "litany of disillusion" about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

    May 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  8. Bruce

    Hey everybody, I just called Mr. Camping and shared Matthew 24:36 with him. He told me it's the first time anyone has shared it with him, can you believe it? He immediately recanted his predictions and went on his radio station and apologized for all the inconvenience.

    Yay! Who thought this could be resolved so easily?

    May 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Undroned


      May 20, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  9. Josh

    If you're wrong, I am going to make fun of you guys. Just so you know 😉

    May 20, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  10. Emi in Montreal

    can we end this BS about the world ending May 21st... think for a minute, there are countries that are already on May 21st and nothing has happened.... geeez !!!!!

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

    This is not Christianity. This is not the Bible. This is a bunch of crazy people distorting the Bible. Jesus said that no one will know the day He returns. If you do not believe, then you don't believe...but do not associate these judgment day people with the Christian Bible – far from it.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  12. Arnold

    "No one knows when that day or hour will come-not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father," matthew 24:36 thats all i have to say let God speak for himself not man, what i think is ppl will go nuts and have parties and when nothing happens they r going to blame the church and even more ppl wont believe in Godm i ask you please dont listen to what man tells you but the WORD OF GOD TELLS YOU,

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

      Hey Arnold, 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.


      May 20, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • clesrock

      the word of God???? Written by WHOM?

      May 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  13. Person

    Stephen's facts about the Seventh-day Adventist Church are incorrect. They do not believe that, "October 22, 1844 marked a spiritual rather than a physical return of Jesus". They believe that Jesus will return physically someday.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      What spiritual return? He said "I will never leave nor forsake you".

      May 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  14. Wait...

    Which time zone? The Brits are saying 6:00PM too. ha

    May 20, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Bruce

      6pm in every time zone. Starts in New Zealand and works its way westward, following the sun, traveling at the speed of the earth's rotation.

      Duh... 😛

      May 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  15. Charles

    Those who believe May 21st is the judgment day and world is ending tomorrow; please be kind, show your faith and trust in what you are saying and send me the remaining balance left in your bank account as u won't need it anymore!

    May 20, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Wait...


      May 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  16. OrgReligionIsFALSE

    I cant wait for Sunday morning news.. and posts.. get ready to rail

    May 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Bruce

      Camping tomorrow: "Oh, did I say the WORLD would be destroyed today at 6p.m.? What I meant to say was my CREDIBILITY would be destroyed. And it has!"

      May 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  17. sylvan finkelstein

    if this event doesn't come to be and all you religious idiots kill yourselves give us your address's so we can take what we
    want from your houses....lol

    May 20, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Cherries

      Yea, I'm shopping for a ladder. And new TV 🙂

      May 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Bill

      They aren't going to kill themselves, but there's going to be a bunch of them sitting around trying to figure out how to get by till the next "end".

      May 20, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  18. Bill

    It would be interesting to talk to some of these people on Sunday morning as reality sets in for them that they have given away everything they own and nothing happened.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Cherries

      Let me know where! I have some questions, too. LOL

      May 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • jim

      there so brainwashed by religion they wont even notice.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  19. Devin

    Amazing...the stupidity is just ...AMAZING. Grown adults entertaining religious ridiculousness. So glad to be an atheist.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Seemstyle

      Lies, you are not glad of anything.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • gary

      I agree 100% ... mumbling on one's knees, getting ashes smeared on one's head, praying to some rabble rouser dead for 2000 yrs, praying to a ghost in the sky .. all of it is so anciently primitive. Atheism is myth understood.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • caleb

      i am also atheist and i cant wait to laugh at cults and christianity well i already am even before i heard about this haha

      May 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Devin

      So true, Gary. It's just people being afraid of the unknown...so they chose to believe in this man-made myth to make the unknown...known. Sounds silly, and it is. I'm seriously, genuinely amazed every single day as I hear this crackpot babble with such a look of seriousness on people's faces. So weak-minded. What ever happened to intelligence?

      Oh, and Caleb, I'm right there with you.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  20. aaron

    we may all have our pet theories, but I don't leave my job, stop investing in savings for my kids,m and spend money on rapture supplies for mine.

    May 20, 2011 at 2:59 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.