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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. Johnny

    Common sense is the only thing coming to an end for these followers. Flat earthers....

    May 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  2. sim

    5.8 earthquakwe hit TURKEY. Dooms day followers right so far..lol

    May 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • DUH

      That is a well known fault line – do your homework before spewing nonsense.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • nice

      duh i think he was joking. the lol kind of hinted at that. learn to laugh before you start spewing

      May 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  3. Chuvasa

    We give you the thumbs up because out of respect we dont give you the other finger....So you rather drive around scare everyone with this stupidity, instead of enjoy your last days on earth how caring are you!

    May 20, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  4. Paulie Pettengill

    Plan A: The rapture Occurs, these idiots instead look 'smart'.
    Plan B: Bring out the Kool-Aid!

    May 20, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  5. vel

    not so weird compared to what? The other Christians who believe in the same fairy stories? No, not so different from them. But what is normal about thinking that some magical being will take you to a good afterlife? God or Jesus? No, silly, any of the many many gods who take humans to magical places after they are dead.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  6. dave

    it's ALL lies, and fairytales, TOTAL BS if it cam from the bible it's a lie

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

      Did the Atheists tell you it's a lie? How do you know it's not true? Did Science say it's not true? I don't think it did. Faith and hope tells us it's true and the life of Jesus and what was foretold about Him in the Old Testament tells us it's true. If you honestly believe and seek God out, you will find him. He speaks through his word which is the most corroborated book in history.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Huh?

      "Faith and hope tells us it's true and the life of Jesus and what was foretold about Him in the Old Testament tells us it's true."

      Oh, so if I have faith and hope about the stories of Santa then it will be true! It's based on a real person historically speaking! Santa – I've been good and nice! I want a yellow Labrador puppy!!

      May 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  7. Brotherman

    Actually, Stephen Prothero, the "religion scholar" has some misleading information in his article. Seventh-day Adventists have never taught that Jesus has come a second time whether literally or spiritually. Please check your facts "Prof." We teach that when Jesus comes back every eye will see Him and that no one knows the day nor the hour-hence, be ready.
    As far as the Bible goes and Campingites, well, they will be let down Sat at 6pm. So sad they won't learn from history or the plain "Thus saith the Lord." (Matthew 24:36)

    May 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  8. Erin

    I find it odd that there are so many Christians saying that not only do they disagree with Harold Camping that tomorrow is judgement day, but that he is crazy to believe this. Some posters have said that he is a religious fanatic and that he is leading a cult like organization. Yet it seems like the only objection Christians have is that he says it's going to happen tomorrow. Most Christians seem to accept that at some point god will magically lift all of the righteous into heaven. This seems crazy and delusional to me. Anyone who holds the same beliefs about judgement day and the rapture or god ending the world, as Harold Camping does is just as crazy and fanatical as he is. I honestly don't see any difference between Harold Camping's beliefs and the beliefs of the average christian. He just thinks it's happening sooner than most people do.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  9. jj

    We really don't know when. The growing earth changes may have something to them. It gives me pause for thought to the extent that recently I am living my life in a more aware manner day to day, and hope to be able to do so for the rest of my life. Yesterday, my friend and I went to two movies and our usual place for lunch. Today we are eating at the same place and then going to an art exhibit opening. It is just what we would normally do, and for me that is happiness, and I am just more aware of how precious that is. Any of our worlds could end with illness or an accident at any time, or the whole world could end. We just have no idea when.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  10. omg!!

    HEY GUYS LOOK AT HOW MUCH MONEY HAROLD CAMPING HAS
    http://losangeles.ibtimes.com/articles/148239/20110519/may-21st-doomsday-does-harold-camping-s-ministry-have-money.htm

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

      How's that saying go...? There's a sucker born every minute.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • L. Ron Hubbard

      "You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion."
      L. Ron Hubbard – yup, that's me.

      May 21, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  11. Iphantom

    I love how the "reasonable" christians on here are embarrassed by the fact that these people are making them look bad because they think they know the exact day of the rapture. Like that is really the sticking point that makes them crazy and not the fact that they believe in the rapture at all. Let's review the similarities between regular christians and these folks:

    1) Both believe in the literal word of the bible
    2) Both believe that the rapture will occur and that a jesus will magic all the believers to heaven

    Literally the only difference between the two groups is one of them thinks they know when this will happen. Admittedly, that puts their insane delusions on center stage, but when you really get down to it, isn't it the fact that they believe in the rapture at all that makes them insane, not that they think they know the date?

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

      Actually only fundamentalists believe that. Most main line churches don't believe the bible is literally true or in the rapture, By main line I mean Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans (except Missouri Synod) Episcipalians, Northern Babtists,Roman Catholics and Eastern Othodox. Those religions don't preach this stuff. Some Southern Babtists are into this stuff.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Tony

      As in other areas of life, the noisy ones and the whackos get all the press.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  12. This must be Heaven

    Meh, I'll take my chances as one of the eternally damned. If this does come off I'm pretty sure I'll see most of you anyways. Besides I hear the eternally damned throw better parties.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  13. toofunny

    The bible says that when the rapture does happen it will be 7 years of trial and suffering and not 7 months. Where did this guy get the idea of the end of the world? The end was supposed to happen in 1994, 1998, 2000, 2012 and now this saturday?
    If the rapture does happen no one will ever know when it will happen not if it will happen. If it does happen be ready.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Tony

      There is no mention of the Rapture in the Bible. The concept was invented here by an early 20th Century stump preacher who wanted to make some bucks selling books. Add Televangelists and the internet and you have the triumph of stupidity over reason.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  14. hernando

    what makes these people think they are the ones that are going to be taken when the rapture comes. if it does happen and i don't think it will, lot of people might be surprised.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      These people SHOULD be taken away... to an insane asylum...

      May 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  15. Robert

    No where in the bible does God ever take his people out of this world during trying or dark times. As a matter of fact the Lord jumps in in the furnace with with the three mentioned in the book of Daniel. And the word rapture is not mentioned one time in the bible. It comes from an interpretation in 1st Thessalonians. I am a Christian but I believe in serving and loving the Lord regardless of what the future may hold. And if I must be beat, spit on, and ridiculed in these dark days in which we live to let God's light shine...then so be it! I also believe in being a friend to those in the world rather than smacking them over the head with holy 2 by 4's that tells them they are going to hell. Violence begets violence even metaphorically.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Tony

      Well put. 90% of the people on this blog obviously get their impression of Christians from T.V. or stupid noisy bible thumpers.

      May 20, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  16. kronosiii

    End of the world sounds cool.

    But I ain't holding my breath

    I wonder how these people are going to feel when nothing happens.

    They are going to need therapy

    May 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  17. Sy2502

    I find it truly ironic when other Christians laugh at this specific group. Really, how is predicting the end of the world any stranger or more laughable than talking snakes, Noah's ark, the virgin birth, or turning water into wine? Oh let me guess, the standard of what's ridiculous and what isn't is... if you believe it, it's not ridiculous!
    In the meantime, us atheists look at the whole lot of you and shake our heads.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Bruce

      See, Camping's problem is that he predicted the day and the hour, and that's a no-no. If he predicted the "season," however, and said it was going to happen, say, sometime between today and the end of the summer, then that's perfectly acceptable...

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

      When you meet your maker and His wrath in the future, not one Christian will be laughing. We will be wishing someone reached out to you before the end of your life.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  18. irongoat81

    that's BS... we normal, not crazy religious fanatics).. do change our paradigms or mold or disavow our views based on evidence thrown at us.. BUT, we "normals" do not proclaim to KNOW the future like it's some kind of MGM movie! these people are out there... do not compare your average objective person to these lunatics! see y'all sunday!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  19. Reverend Ira L Lewis

    TJ, as that Pastor that you just interviewed told you, not even Jesus/The Word of God does not know; no one knows. Jesus warns us to be ready by watching and praying. Hebrews 11: 6 says... but without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that cometh to God must BELIEVE that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that DILIGENTLY SEEk Him. If one does not believe in God BY FAITH, then it does not matter to them what God says. TJ IT IS GOOD TO SEE YOU BECAUSE I WONDERED WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU, I HAVE NOT SEEN YOU ON CNN FOR A WHILE. God Bless you and your family.

    May 20, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Grammar and Spelling Cop

      Hey Rev.
      You realize you just used a double negative, and you said "not even Jesus/The Word of God does not know. That means he knows.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  20. yvobalcer

    Jesus' followers asked when will the world end. He said it it for the Father to know. So these people know more than Jesus' followers?

    May 20, 2011 at 4:24 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.