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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. omg!!

    DONT FORGET THE MAYAN DOOMSDAY PREDICTION FOR 2012
    http://losangeles.ibtimes.com/articles/149323/20110520/harold-camping-may-21-doomsday-mayan-calendar-2012.htm

    May 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Christians have the Four Horsemen

      The Mayans have the Three Amigos!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Shamrock6

      Funny how the Mayans have never said anything about doomsday. Their calendar doesn't end. There's no end of the world. Their long count calendar rolls over meaning it's the end of an era or age. The next day a new one begins. It just so happens that this date coincides with an EXTREMELY rare galactic alignment which only occurs once every 26,000 years. Pretty amazing that they would actually be able to figure that out. Each age is said to end with major changes and the new age begins anew like from winter to spring. The media gets ahold of it and the next thing you know their calendar is ending and it's the end of the world etc. etc. etc. I guess that sells papers and movies better than the truth.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  2. Joe

    One of the main problems of society is peoples inability to accept when they are wrong. I think it is disingenuous to just whitewash it as "no big deal everyone does it".

    May 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  3. Ramon Roque

    Each of us has a doomsday, that is when we die. Faith and belief in God make us strong to face that doomsday that they say. But for believers it is not doomsday but a day of rejoicing for it's the time to meet the Creator.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  4. jeff

    WAKE UP PEOPLE THERE IS NO GOD. Humans are so embarrasing.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Amarius

      So If You Feel As If Theres No GOD, Do You Also Think That You Fell From The Sky On Earth As A Child.. Lol God Bless Your Heart!! Have Mercy On JEFF Father God!! He Dosen't Know Any Better!!! SAVE HIM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Soliloquy

      Since you don't believe in God, then humans are embarrassing to what exactly?

      May 20, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • 4r3rdff

      "The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."
      Psalm 53:1

      May 20, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Devin

      Well said, Jeff. What's funny is the amazing stupity in the replies to your post. "Fell From The Sky On Earth As A Child"? Seriously? It's as if these people no nothing of actual science. What do they say about evolution, the amazing discoveries by astrophysicists regarding newfound life on a meteor, or the overall unplausability of biblical events. So...amazingly...stupid.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Amarius

      Well devin since u seem to know so much about science , WHERE DID IT COME FROM? Because you of course didn't discover science! Smh there will be gnashing of teeth as people burn in the lake of fire & sulphur. GOD FORGIVE DEVIN. Have Mercy On His Soul!!!!!!!!!!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Devin

      Amarius...thank you so much. I really needed that. Very funny. Oh, and it's called evolution. I won't bore you with the details of molecular collision...just keep your beliefs that "God" dropped two teenagers in a garden, where one ate a delicious apple she wasn't supposed to touch...and now that's why we have bad things that happen. You might as well start believing in the story of 'Jack and the Beanstalk'. Seriously...it is no less a mythical tale than what you believe. Amarius, you are a child.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Amarius

      Our Father in heaven,
      hallowed be your name.
      Your Kingdom come,
      your will be done,
      on earth as in heaven
      Give us today our daily bread.
      Forgive us our sins,
      as we forgive those who sin against us.
      Lead us not into temptation,
      but deliver us from evil.
      For the kingdom,
      the power and the glory are yours.
      Now and for ever.
      Amen.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Devin

      It's getting hot all of a sudden.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
    • Amarius

      Its gonna be hot alright!! Lol god bless you devin, I will really keep you in my prayers sir!! You and your family... If you have one you seem like a loner... Jesus is always here for you! Call on him!!

      May 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Reemo

      That's right, God doesn't exist! And things like fate, love, hope, faith, and purpose are nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain that people have glorified into things much greater than they really are for the futile purpose of pretending that our lives have meaning. Life is meaningless!!!............hmmm....well that's depressing...suddenly I feel the urge to make others feel as miserable as me...Hey, you, Christian...you're stupid! HAHA!!! And you, Muslim, you suck!! Haw-Haw!!!.....ahh, that's better...now I know why so many atheists are so condescending.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  5. MassiveMarbles

    Judgment day is wrapped in individual pieces just to make things special for each of us.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  6. Amarius

    THE BIBLE IS NOT A COMIC BOOK , AND U WERE NOT CREATED FROM LEGGO BLOCKS! OPEN YOUR EYES!!! THERE IS A GOD AND BLESS YOUR SOUL FOR NOT BELIEVING IN HIM. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Sticky caps lock, or righteous indignation!

      I bet Jesus would lose to Spiderman!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Amarius

      William You Cant Be Serious??!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • jeff

      god is for feeble minded people who dont understand science.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Ok, Jesus might give Spidey a run, but the Hulk will whoop his sandal wearing butt!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Amarius

      Can't save those who don't want to be! You'll maybe enjoy gnashing your teeth in the lake of fire & sulphur! Its not too late to give your life to god!! You people need a healing!!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Amarius

      Is that what you guys do to little boys in the rectory.

      Your God is a lie, and you are either a liar, a charlatan, or an idiot.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Devin

      Jeff, William, hold your breath. You're trying to speak logic to those who don't partake in it. The last thing these religious people want to see is that they have invested their entire lives in a lie.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Devin

      Ha! Ok, I meant SAVE your breath. 🙂

      May 20, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Ogre

      Amarius,

      What is your proof that this 'lake of fire and sulphur' exists?

      Hint: The Bible, Mother Goose or Stephen King books are not verified proof.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Amarius

      God bless you all and I will keep you demonic people in my prayers.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Devin

      Amarius...........................BOO!!!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Amarius

      May the father judge you himself. God bless.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  7. Pink Monkey

    My specie mates at this radio station are trying to demonstrate that we don't really belong at the top of the evolutionary tree. They seem to be doing a damn fine job.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  8. Jamie

    Nobody likes to be critisized....and nobody likes to be critisized even more when it comes to their beliefs and religion no matter what you believe in or do not believe in. So give these people the same respect you expect.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Shamrock6

      When your beliefs are dangerously un-intelligent, psychotic and just plain stupid then you deserve the full brunt of ridicule and derision that accompanies such beliefs. Period.

      May 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Jamie

      Thank you for proving my point there Bubble Boy...just because you view it as such does not mean that it is. Keep living in that Bubble....or try and get out and see a different perspective once in awhile.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Shamrock6

      Because I view it as such means that is exaclty how it is.....to me. Genuis.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Reemo

      Hey Shamrock, any view (religious or secular) can be dangerous when put in the mind of a hateful person. Remember, Hitler was an atheist, yet somehow he reasoned that the Aryan race is superior and that the Jews were inferior. No God told him this, he just came to this conclusion because of his personal feelings. You'll claim that most wars were started over religion, but chances are, most of the religious fanatics who start these wars were atheist who figured out an angle to manipulate the minds of others. It's no different than politics. If religion never existed, we'd still have the same wars going on, but for different reasons like resources, money, racism, or just plain ol' war mongering. Blaming religion is such a tired cop-out, dude. Get over yourself.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • Jamie

      Genius. G-E-N-I-U-S.......Genius!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      May 20, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
  9. Paul

    Oh how about the part, as well, that when the rapture occurs, the world doesn't end after that either. Just a period of time that evfil walks the earth tormenting the non believers, having to wear the mark etc. The world doesn't end, just a new reign on earth. Still trying to figure out how 'End of the World" came into play because somone says rapture...

    May 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  10. William Demuth

    Ella

    We have a MORAL obligation to speak of REALITY.

    If you care to offer proof of your God, I am prepared to consider it. But psycho talk does not offset REALITY

    May 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Soliloquy

      Probably you should let someone else try – someone qualified.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Logic is quantifiable.

      Perhaps avoiding it makes you less asahmed of being wrong? Or is your avoidance because of a broken relationship with your parents who forget to let you know during the Santa Claus speech, that the savior they were promising you was as much of a lie as the guy in the big red suit?

      May 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  11. Marla

    "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".
    I like this quote. The perfect examples of this are the creationists. They are perfectly free to believe their illusions. I just don't want them to inflict them upon me, my children or my grandchildren.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  12. Amarius

    I agree with Barney, we'll never know of the coming of christ. In 1994 this same dude made predictions of our world to end then and as we all see it continued. God almighty is the ONLY one who knows when the time is here. With that being said there will be no one in prediction or out in the world guessing, He will come at a time no one knows! Open your bibles to matthew 24 vs 3-50. God have mercy on us and bless us all. Amen.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Jeremy

      Wake up!!! There is NO GOD!!!

      May 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Please open your Avengers # 8 to page three, where it is written that "Hulk will SMASH!!!"

      Luckily I am rational enough to not base my life on an old comic book.

      Can you explain why YOU do?

      May 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Greg

      Sorry I'm not currently in a Hotel room so no Bible near by. The Bible, Greatest "Story" Ever Told. Watchout though Bazooka Joe is catching up!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Devin

      "Hulk will smash". William, I am seriously laughing myself to tears!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  13. MikeMazzla

    why is the world ending May 21 sillier than any other dopey story in the bible?

    May 20, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  14. oneSTARman

    MARCH 21st 2011, The Day the Fukushima Reactors first melted Down – OCTOBER 22nd, 2011 ..?

    After an ENORMOUS EARTHQUAKE on March 13

    May 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • guy from NM

      Numbers and dates means nothing in this case, they have been created by humans.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  15. Shamrock6

    The bible is a book written by people. God has nothing to do with it. Today's version doesn't even include all of the books. Just the popular ones that were included from the council on Nicea by the Roman Emperor Constatine. There's no more absolute truth to the bible than there is in a Stepehen King novel. It is a parable on how one should live their life....nothing more. It has been used by governments to sieze and wield power from it's outset. Nothing more. Stop the madness. Believe whatever you want but there is no such thing as the rapture. It will never occur at no hour....at no time from now unti the sun burns out. There probably is a god and there probably is an afterlife but both of those things have ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with the human bible and it's ambigous, over-interpreted ramblings. Enough.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Paul

      Thank god someone got it right finally! LOL

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

      Very well written! I just wanted to add that it is ridiculous how people also use the bible to force others to do as they want, simply based on information (normally taken completely out of context) from the bible. And also if you look at most religions at a overview, most religions sound more like terrorism in a book. example: Christians believe if you don't believe in what they do, you will burn in hell forever? "Do as we say or else..."?

      May 20, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  16. William Demuth

    Just like we can demand responsible Muslims denounce the lunatics within their realm, we MUST do the same of the Christians.

    How can we expect them to be civilized members of modern society when we don't have the courage to call a cult a cult?

    May 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • oneSTARman

      "Hide! Witch Hide! The Good Folks have come to Burn Thee..Their Keen Enjoyment Hid Behind a Gothic Mask of Duty" – Jefferson Starship

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

      incase you havent noticed many christians do denounce these people

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

      Yeah

      I have yet to see a single Christian support the intervention of the State into these broken families.

      When one of these lunatics kills themselves and their kids, the blood will once again be dripping from the Christian altars!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  17. Butch2u

    Craigslist-05/22/11 For sale used travel trailer with useless verbiage painted all over. Call Harold 555-ima-fool

    May 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  18. captnavenger

    A lot of people go on the defensive and say, "these people do not represent Christianity," or "this is not really what the religion teaches," and expect the rest of us not to associate the two (supposedly reasonable Christians with so-called unreasonable ones).

    I'm sorry, this is just not a valid argument. This is what religion has wrought. Whether you think your brand of it is more reasonable than that of somebody else, the simple fact is that both belong to, and are representative of the same thing. Whether or not somebody's delusion is more or less severe than yours is just not a valid argument. It might go to show who was reactionary enough to have pulled the trigger, but both are a sickness that belong to the same virus.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Ella

      Wow, you do have a strong opinion! So, you are right and anyone that believes in God is wrong? Is that what you are saying? And just exactly who told you that YOU are the authority? My beliefs aside, you are morally wrong to judge anyone that way.

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

      Hey, hey. I only hear a couple of voices in my head. I'm less schizophrenic than most people who have it, therefore I demand you recognize that I am more legitimate!

      May 20, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Huh?

      So if I find an atheist who killed people (religious or not) because he was an "atheist" does that mean your just as bad as him?

      You say all Christians have to be lumped together. But the problem is "Christian" is a word. That's it, nothing more. There is no law, committee, or secret society that decides who gets to call themselves Christians. Anyone can act completely crazy and say they are Christians, just like I could go kill someone and say its cause I'm an atheist.

      . . . or maybe go fly a plane into a tower and say its because I'm a Muslim. (See where I'm going here? Course, if you think all Muslims are murdering killers then I don't know if there's much I can do for you).

      May 20, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  19. POD

    Ah.....yeah they are.....very weird

    May 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  20. Barney

    If Christ doesn't show tomorrow, it doesn't really mean Christians have to do a reset. It does mean that the doomsdayers don't know the Bible. It's made quite clear that only God knows when the end comes. Whatever else you may be certain of, if humans select a certain day as judgment day, that is not the day of judgment. You can be sure by two reasons: 1) If you don't believe, then it's self-evident why not to fear. 2) If you do believe, God won't lie, and he already told you nobody knows.

    May 20, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Well said!

      May 20, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Paul

      BINGO!!!!

      May 20, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Barney

      Six billion, we all claim one day.

      By your logic Gods hands are tied for six billion days.

      Futhermore, by your logic, if we have Just 365 babies a year, and each one claims one day, then the world can NEVER end

      Either your wrong, our your God is NOT all powerfull!

      May 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Kristian

      If you ARE a Christian, then you know that what this "preacher" is saying is blasphemy.
      Matthew 24:36 No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but ONLY the Father

      Who is he to say the day and the hour??? I don't want to insult the people who are believing him, but he really is inciting madness!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Amarius

      Thanks Kristian! About time theres some ACCURATE feedback!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:27 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.