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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. Loki

    reminds me of the story of 2 guys talking–first one asks the othe "What would you do if you knew the world was about to end?" second one replied "Nail the first thing the moved. What would you do?" First guy "Sit perfectly still"

    See you all on Sunday–peace, love and speed

    May 20, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Relictus

      That was AWESOME. Thank you 🙂

      May 20, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  2. Bruce

    The truth is that many people, perhaps even most people, are comforted by the idea that the universe had a singular beginning (though with the theory of the big bang, even this is uncontroversial, though this was certainly not always the case as history records a time when people believed the earth was eternal and had already been around for an infinite amount of time), has a singular middle, and will have a singular ending, and the singular Story told through human history (1) has a Point and the Point involves some sort of Justice and/or Goodness, (2) is being directed by some overarching Intelligence with a Plan and is thus under control and is thus predictable–even if only the Planner can predict it and we are left in the dark, and (3) involves me in some not-insignificant way, where "me" is the person being comforted by this particular thought.

    I don't believe a word of what Camping says, but nonetheless I do recognize the comfort that his narrative represents. I recognize this comfort as, perhaps, one of the driving forces behind religious belief in general. Without this comfort we are left with the absurdity recognized by several existential philosophies, and it takes a truly strong individual to embrace the very discomforting freedom (both moral and intellectual freedom) that is entailed by this absurdity.

    It takes a stronger person than me, for example.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  3. HeavenSent_LOL

    Crazy and Kooky is what these people are! Can I have their money and motor homes tomorrow morning?

    May 20, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  4. Will Duffield

    Personally, I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). If you Google and fulfill you due diligence, you'll know that the path of righteous lies with the tough of his noodly appendage.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • MrHanson

      Seriously that is getting quite old.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • itsallgood70

      Ramen!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • FSM

      FSM getting old?....and Christianity isn't?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • Relictus

      Ramen!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  5. Doomguy

    This guy certainly is making a lot of money off this. Nothing will happen and he will be laughing all the way to the bank.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  6. JT

    What a horrible comparison! The better comparison would be with these Christians who name a date when their invisible, nonexistent Jesus will rapture them and other Christians who tout that no one knows when this will occur. They might as well differ on how tall Leprachans really are.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Ann

      Um... I don't think there's a historian out there who says that Jesus wasn't a real person. I think the only thing in question is his divinity.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • nerve9

      @ Ann – Are you kidding? There are only several HUNDRED scholars that debate the existence of Jesus. Now, I don't care what you believe, whether he existed or didn't, whether he was divine or not, but there are many who compare the story of Jesus to other great heroic tales of mythology. There are, in fact, many comparisons that are rather shocking. However, the question is, if there was a historic Jesus, are the stories that are told about him really true or have they been embellished, perhaps based on similar, older heroic tales?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  7. Crazy4 u

    Wow, the crazies are still coming....I won't be waiting around saturday to see the entire world crashing down around us... because it has been for the last few years!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • CE

      neither will I!!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • nerve9

      Really? Only the last few years, huh? What a myopic view of history you have. How about I throw a few historic examples at you for some perspective, eh Chief? The Black Death (the Plague) in Europe killed almost half of the population. World War I and II...don't even need to explain those.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  8. Renegade Mav

    Good job, letts compare thm to politicians who don't say oops we screwed up, lets just revise what we said so we don't look foolish. Like THAT will make me tink better of anyone. The Pols are just as bad as these guys,

    May 20, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  9. conoclast

    Interesting how Camping has slyly moved the End-of-the-World date up by several months - so that christians can "own" armagheddon instead of those backward pagan Mayans. That the ancient Mayan Calendar's mysterious end happens to coincide with an unprecidented galictic alignment (on the Winter solstice 2012) is certainly more compelling than some blowhard preacher's half-baked bible-theory. Ye gods, hasn't the world had enough of preachers?!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  10. Glades2

    The reporter states that "but the bottom line is that religion persists because it is adaptable" – that can be confused to say that the Christian faith and Christian church have adapted to suit the needs of the times – it is not true and will not be, because Jesus said that "God is the same, yesterday today and forever". While Christian faith and the Christian church have adapted to purely physical changes over the centuries (the advent of the Church via radio, television and Internet) , the Word of God is truth and thankfully is not subject to modification – our human nature would like it to be modified to suit our sinful needs, but again thankfully that is not the case. As Jesus said, change and repentance must come from the inside-out, not the other way around....

    May 20, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  11. rtbrno65

    I'm guessing that this prophet made a profit.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  12. ThatsMessedUp

    The most messed up part is they think it's AWESOME that 9/10ths of the world population will be laying dead in the streets come October.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  13. Will Duffield

    Personally, I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). If you Google him and perform your due diligence (www.venganza.org/), you'll know that the path of the righteous lies with the touch of his noodly appendage.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  14. T Dog

    Will these guys be disappointed if, on Sunday, the world is not destroyed? Will it be a bummer for them if billions of innocent people, including babies and puppies and kittens are horribly annihilated? And the rivers run red with blood and the land is covered in lava and Brimstone? Will it be a downer for them if they don't get to watch all the action?

    God is love!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  15. squiddy79

    this guy is getting way too much publicity....it is scarring people unnecessarily, especially innocent children who hear this on the radio, or every time the tv is turned on.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  16. randy shriner

    i don think that the world is going to end. i believe that there will be some major changes that will make us look at our lives . but i do not think that the world is going to end...

    May 20, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • nerve9

      Oh yeah? So, on Sunday morning everyone in the world will wake up and say, "I think I'll have Cornflakes today. I should really have more fiber in my diet."

      May 20, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  17. john

    they seem to have lots of money...what a scam...lol

    May 20, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • nerve9

      That's the really sad part. All of these people basically sold everything they own, quit their jobs, and used all their money to fund this ridiculous boondoggle. What will happen on Sunday when they wake up homeless, jobless, and penniless? Great. Several hundred more drains on society.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  18. Free

    Ominous voice from the sky: "People of Earth! I have come to destroy you all!"

    Christian (asking hopefully): "Are you Jesus?"

    Ominous voice from the sky: "Ah... Yeah, sure!"

    Christian: "Phew! That's a relief! For a second there I thought that the world was going to be destroyed by an alien, or something! Go ahead then."

    May 20, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  19. RichardSRussell

    Just because it's been bugging me so long in stories like this:

    PropheCy (pronounced "see") is the noun.

    PropheSy (pronounced "sigh") is the verb.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  20. faith

    I believe if we predict when Jesus is going to come he isn't he says like recently posted no one knows so we should trust him.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Free

      Maybe he'll come in a few hundred years after everyone has forgotten about him then?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:15 am |
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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.