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. It's all about Money and Minds

    "The End" is very lucrative at Oakland's Family Radio – These Scam Artists raised more than $100 Million Tax Free Dollars from the suckers out in La La Land over this latest racket! – Perhaps what is sadder still is when "Dad" doesn't Vaporize the Earth these Zombies will still keep the faith – This is a common Evangelical Technique to raise Dollars and Dumb Down Minds -Way to Go!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  2. Steve in Indiana

    If it don't come from Rome it won't Happen!

    May 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Lil pp

      Yeah the vatican has never been wrong before.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  3. Bruce

    Wait, so if no man knows the day or the hour that Jesus will come, then all we need to do is get 24 people to predict that he's coming tomorrow at noon, and 1:00 p.m., at 2:00 p.m. and so on, and then when he doesn't come when that person predicts (because he can't because otherwise you would know and that's impossible) he just modifies his prophecy by +24 hours to the next day, and we keep doing this so there is never any opportunity for Jesus to come without somebody's foreknowledge.

    Viola–the world will never end! Yay!

    May 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Alicia


      May 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • REG in AZ

      Maybe it is as they say, "tomorrow never comes but tomorrow is always there".

      May 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  4. REG in AZ

    Interesting ... but then as stated we all often rely on rationalizing to justify our biases, our emotional preferences that can't be readily supported by clear and indisputable facts ... and then what are rationals but just lies we tell ourselves.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • REG in AZ

      .... any doubt? Just look at politics and how people are manipulated there!

      May 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  5. arallan

    Seventh Day Adventists don't believe that in October 1844 Jesus' return was spirtiual instead of physical...and certainly is not the basis for this religion.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  6. 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?

    May 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • john

      cnn forums were created and it got raptured

      May 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  7. Kris

    Dave re: the raptures and doors.

    Thank you for the LOL.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  8. JoeS

    Mr. Camping may be a funny and foolish Guy on Sunday after the world still exist. But there some positive about this end of things. It will remind our duty to God to repent and worship God. It would be much better for Mr. Camping to preach repentance instead of punishment that may not come. This world is wicked. God will destroyed it someday for many people never believe in God. The end of the world for may come anytime after I am dead, but I want to repent for all my shortcomings for there would be a day that I will seat in the Judgment seat of God.

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

      ...where you will be judged for judging the rest of the world as wicked. Ironic.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Greg

      "It will remind our duty to God to repent and worship God."

      So, youre saying the fact that god didnt show up, will remind people that he should be worshipped? Theres just no way to refute Christian logic. Im absolutely dumbfounded by your comment and have no clue how to begin to respond. lol.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  9. Markus

    Yes they are wierd. They are not normal. They all seem to all be from evangelical backgrounds. Baptist, Pentacostal, First this and that of Christ, etc.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  10. TechGromit

    If they truly believe what they preach, then they should give away all there possession's before the big day. After all they will not need them anymore. I have my own prediction, None of these true believers will give away any of there belongings, cause deep down inside they really don't believe in what they preach.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  11. Alverant

    They think a figure straight out of mythology is going to destroy the world. I hope that's not what passes for "not so different" in your world, Prothero.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  12. Dave

    I wish there was a Rapture that would wipe all these lunatics who follow organized religion and the scam that it is off the Earth this Saturday at 6pm.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • paul

      Someday.................will you be ready?

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

      Interesting thought. If there were, wouldn't the implications be kinda scary though?

      May 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • john

      so you actually hope its TRUE, that it happens, and leaves you behind? and you think OTHER people are idiotic? this is the weirdest post ive ever read..

      May 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  13. Alex

    "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..."

    I have to disagree. Some of us are intelligent enough to realize and correct our mistakes. I think your article points out one thing that we should all agree on: Politicians are the equivalent to religious zealots.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  14. Justthefacts

    Uhhh....remember.......some of us will be sleep.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  15. TexasGirlWhoBelieves

    Let these poor people alone. It's their belief and they aren't hurting anyone. I don't think any "man" knows the timing of the return of Jesus, but so what? We should be living our lives and if the return is 1 minute from now. Don't poke too much fun at these people, as God is watching!

    May 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Alverant

      If there's a god, she's probably laughing at them too. People are also giving money to these clowns so that's harmful.

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

      Ah yes God is watching twiddling his thumbs like he did during the Holocaust and Black Death, what a nice guy. Hmm could it be that nobody is there? In terms of these people "not doing any harm" you are wrong. Some of us have religious zealots such as these in our families which really try the fabric of them. Nice having them warn you that you are going to hell if you don't believe what they do..everlasting torment..ah what a nice guy. I have had statements towards me that "Satan is working through me" or that my my lack of belief may cost my infant son his soul. These people cause alot more pain than you realize.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Bruce

      If these people wanted to be left alone, they wouldn't travel the country and put billboards up all over the place and broadcast their message on the radio telling people to pay attention to them.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • john

      Steve. what you are talking about is religion. The same fervor that you despise it some are zealous. neither has anything to do with God or love. "it" operates on a completely different frequency. We see things like death and holocaust and wonder how God can allow it. But then we get into freewill and deeper philosophy. Jesus hated religion. he scolded the religious leaders of the time as hypocrites. Please dont let you love be corroded by other peoples opinions of God. They are wrong. Concept of hell have been embedded in our minds yet no one talks of love. Religion and your experience should be unlearned. God has always loved you. Theres nothing you can do to change that. he truly moves in mysterious ways.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • William Demuth

      So if their kids end up dead, can we burn you at the stake for being a witch?

      Of COURSE they are hurting their children, and any woman who can't see that is unfit to have children of her own.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  16. LinCA

    It's already 09:30, Saturday morning, on Christmas Island. We should know in less than 9 hours (it's only 8 1/2 hours until 18:00 / 6PM local time) that this is all nonsense.

    So if there's no mention of a massive rolling earthquake in the central Pacific Ocean on the 10 o'clock news on the West Coast, we'll know it's all bogus.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Greg

      I wont need a lack of an earthquake to know its all bogus.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  17. nitrous

    Wait… my tin-foiled pyramid cap is picking up something… Be… Be sure… Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  18. Lorette

    Just wanted to correct some information that Mr. Stephen Prothero somehow got wrong. The Seventh Day Adventist Church does not believe that Jesus came spiritually in 1844. Try to do some fact checking before you print your stories. Thanks. Also, Jesus will not be coming on Saturday, no man knows the day or the hour. No one.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Skeptical Analysis

      Nor does any man know IF jesus will come... ever.

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

      well. if one believes in the story of Jesus then he knows Jesus said he will come. just not when. if one does NOT believe in the story of Jesus, there is no Jesus. um. what are we talkin about again?

      May 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  19. Dave

    I'm not worried about raptures unless they learn how to open door handles.

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

      *drops soup ladle and hides in cabinet*

      May 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Lil pp

      You are my new favorite person on this earth

      May 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  20. Senor Ed

    When I grew up my family was quite religious. They followed every word in the bible. Too bad the one they had contained a misprint. In one verse it said "faith and hop". So, every Sunday we would faithfully hop off to church. That sure was tiring since it was 20 miles away!

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

      you shouldve paid attention in church instead of studying comedy.. now THAT was funny

      May 20, 2011 at 3:44 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.