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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. Nat

    The author might have added one more: the evolving story of evolution. "Six billion years, no wait . . .sixteen billion years, no wait . . . sixty billion years and that's final!" Talk about "Never mind!"

    May 24, 2011 at 7:26 am |
  2. theincognito

    The rapture did happen, but nobody on Earth was worthy for the rapture. Honestly, there can't be one person in the world who has lived a life free of sin. These are the endtimes and we are all damned. Sorry Camping and your followers, you are stuck with the 'nonbelievers' too. Welcome to hell.

    May 23, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  3. Kevin W. Clark

    ALL religion is false religion. You Christians slay me...you have the audacity to think that, out of the hundreds of religions out there, only YOU and YOUR CHURCH have it right. Look around your church, do those people strike you as the only chosen ones out of 6-7 billion people? The gall, the audacity, the hubris, and the hidden insecurities you feel about your "goodness", humanity (writ large), and doubts in your ability to face your eventual demise without wetting yourselves in fear... all of these betray the true aim of religion; to provide a panacea for the masses. You have a sickness, just like an alcoholic who cannot face the day without drink. You cannot deal with reality on it's own terms, so you tell yourselves these fables so that they might lull you to sleep on those nights you might lie awake wondering, feeling guilty, or lost. I equate you to the sorry lot of freaks who think that they are vampires, for your beliefs are every bit as ridiculous and pathetic. Grow a pair, cast out the opiate that enslaves you, and attempt to cope without your crutch...if only for a day, it might change your outlook. The human race can only hope that, one day, reason and science will render all religions as the useless anachronistic mental illnesses they are.

    May 23, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  4. Muneef

    [10:93] We have endowed the Children of Israel with a position of honor, and blessed them with good provisions. Yet, they disputed when this knowledge came to them. Your Lord will judge them on the Day of Resurrection regarding everything they disputed.

    The Messenger's Doubt

    [10:94] If you have any doubt regarding what is revealed to you from your Lord, then ask those who read the previous scripture. Indeed, the truth has come to you from your Lord. Do not be with the doubters.

    [10:95] Nor shall you join those who rejected GOD's revelations, lest you be with the losers.

    [10:96] Surely, those condemned by a decree from your Lord cannot believe.

    [10:97] No matter what kind of proof you show them, (they cannot believe), until they see the painful retribution.

    Believing Nations Prosper
    [10:98] Any community that believes will surely be rewarded for believing. For example, the people of Jonah: when they believed, we relieved the humiliating retribution they had been suffering in this world, and we made them prosperous.

    [10:99] Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. Do you want to force the people to become believers?

    The Disbelievers Blocked Out*

    [10:100] No soul can believe except in accordance with GOD's will. For He places a curse upon those who refuse to understand.

    [10:101] Say, "Look at all the signs in the heavens and the earth." All the proofs and all the warnings can never help people who decided to disbelieve.

    [10:102] Can they expect other than the fate of their counterparts in the past? Say, "Just wait, and, along with you, I am also waiting."

    Guaranteed Victory

    [10:103] We ultimately save our messengers and those who believe. It is our immutable law that we save the believers.

    [10:104] Say, "O people, if you have any doubt regarding my religion, I do not worship what you worship beside GOD. I worship GOD alone; the One who will terminate your lives. I am commanded to be a believer."

    [10:105] I was commanded: "Keep yourself devoted to the religion of monotheism; you shall not practice idol worship.

    [10:106] "You shall not worship beside GOD what possesses no power to benefit you or harm you. If you do, you will be a transgressor."

    All Power Belongs To God
    [10:107] If GOD touches you with a hardship, none can relieve it except He. And when He blesses you, no force can prevent His grace. He bestows it upon whomever He chooses from among His servants. He is the Forgiver, Most Merciful.

    [10:108] Proclaim: "O people, the truth has come to you herein from your Lord. Whoever is guided is guided for his own good. And whoever goes astray, goes astray to his own detriment. I am not a guardian over you."

    [10:109] Follow what is revealed to you, and be patient until GOD issues His judgment; He is the best judge.

    May 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • God

      too long, did not read.

      May 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  5. Muneef

    [10:24] The analogy of this worldly life is like this: we send down water from the sky to produce with it all kinds of plants from the earth, and to provide food for the people and the animals. Then, just as the earth is perfectly adorned, and its people think that they are in control thereof, our judgment comes by night or by day, leaving it completely barren, as if nothing existed the previous day. We thus explain the revelations for people who reflect.

    [10:25] GOD invites to the abode of peace, and guides whoever wills (to be guided) in a straight path.

    May 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  6. Tisktask

    Well, I’ve decided to side with the side who is going to deride the announcement of the impending rapture on the 21st of May. Jesus is probably not going to come again, because first of all, he is not real, and second…well…I guess there is no need for seconds. Poor, silly, desperate fools!

    http://ravingatheists.com/forum/showthread.php?p=635829#post635829

    May 21, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  7. Chris

    Volcano in Iceland: "God said "lol", and it was good."
    lol.

    May 21, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  8. stefan

    The entire doomsday discussion is stupid, but no more stupid than most of the other things that the church tries to make us believe.

    May 21, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  9. Kenneth J

    The fact is the knowledge of Judgement is only with God. So any time a human claims they know be weary.

    May 21, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • stefan

      2nd half of sentence is true, 1st half is silly.

      May 21, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • I_get _it

      "So any time a human claims they know be weary."

      Yes, I am both 'weary' = tired, and 'wary' = cautious.

      May 21, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • God

      Stop putting words in my mouth.

      May 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  10. Ahab

    We have to acknowledge that religion occurs only in the brain of the believer. It is just an inherited preference. We choose our religions like we choose what to eat. Those who were raised in the South prefer lots of bacon fat in their collards, a cold glass of buttermilk, and traditional southern dishes. People raised on the Mexican border like Mexican food, hot peppers, and flan for dessert.

    If you believe that God will punish harlots, then don't be a harlot. Don't criticize me because I don't believe in harlots or God, just like you don't criticize me for liking buttermilk. It's all in your head.

    May 21, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Buttermilk? Heathen! 🙂

      May 21, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  11. Wayne

    Next time !!!!

    May 21, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  12. Josh

    Hilter was not an atheist. He was a practicing Catholic.

    May 21, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Ahab

      He also loved kids and was faithful to his mistress Eva Braun.

      May 21, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  13. LinCA

    It's after 6PM on May 21st on Christmas Island. No earthquake yet. Could it all be untrue?

    May 21, 2011 at 12:29 am |
  14. Mac

    I'll lagh at 6:01.

    May 20, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  15. omg!!

    HAROLD CAMPING WROTE A GOOD BYE LETTER. READ IT HERE http://losangeles.ibtimes.com/articles/149487/20110520/harold-camping-may-21-2011-doomsday-goodbye-farewell-letter.htm

    May 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
    • Lillian

      If everyone was going to die and dead bodies were to be all over the place, why would he need to write a letter? To who?
      The lack of accurate knowledge saddens me. If people would only read their bible. Matthew 24:36"Concerning that day and the hour nobody knows, neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son, but only the Father. Mark 13:32 reads the same. See for yourself in your bible.

      May 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  16. Jamie

    Had to repost this....too funny!

    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 | Report abuse | Reply

    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 | Report abuse |

    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 | Report abuse |

    Shamrock6

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

    May 20, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |

    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 | Report abuse |

    Jamie

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

    May 20, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |

    May 20, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
    • JohnR

      No one likes to be criticized, but some people eminently deserve it. And that very much includes a sect that has convinced many people to give up all they have for something that won't happen, period. You are the sort of enabler of insanity that makes the dark a couple of shades darker. Shame on you.

      May 21, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  17. TheTRUTH

    The end is comming but not Saturday the 21st.it will be on a Friday, but no man knows what Friday. God created the world on Friday and it will end on a Friday.

    May 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Uh huh. Based on who's calendar? Our calendar is an artifact of man. So unless you can catch a peek at god's desk calendar, how do you know our Friday doesn't fall on his Tuesday? And what time does Friday start? Its a big planet?

      Anyway, you just made that up.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
    • LinCA

      Ah, I see. 2 + 2 = Friday

      May 21, 2011 at 12:51 am |
    • Lillian

      Sorry but from my bible reading,you could be no further from the truth. Psalms 37:9 For the evil doer themselves will be cut off. But those hoping in God are the ones that will possess the earth. I guess it take an objective thinking mind and Gods holy spirit to help us little ones gasp these writings.

      May 21, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  18. Muneef

    Kahlil Gibran (1883 – 1931)
    Arab American poet artist (Non Muslim).
    http://www.inner-growth.info/khalil_gibran_prophet/main.htm
    http://www.inner-growth.info/khalil_gibran_prophet/html/kahlil_gibran_quotes.htm

    http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Kahlil_Gibran/

    JESUS THE SON OF MAN

    His words and His deeds as told and recorded by those who knew Him

    by Kahlil Gibran
    http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301451h.html

    May 20, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • frank

      Why was Jesus such a jerk to his mom?

      May 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • KranK

      Definitely, it was you (to yours) NOT Him.

      May 21, 2011 at 2:04 am |
  19. Muneef

    The Origin of Man

    [32:7] He is the One who perfected everything He created, and started the creation of the human from clay.

    [32:8] Then He continued his reproduction through a certain lowly liquid.

    [32:9] He shaped him and blew into him from His spirit. And He gave you the hearing, the eyesight, and the brains; rarely are you thankful.
    ------
    [40:15] Possessor of the highest ranks, and Ruler of the whole dominion. He sends inspiration, bearing His commands, to whomever He chooses from among His servants, to warn about the Day of Summoning.

    [40:16] That is the day when everyone will be completely exposed; none of them will hide anything from GOD. To whom belongs all sovereignty on that day? To GOD, the One, the Supreme.

    Prepare for the Big Day

    [40:17] On that day, every soul will be requited for whatever it had earned. There will be no injustice on that day. GOD is most efficient in reckoning.

    No Intercession

    [40:18] Warn them about the imminent day, when the hearts will be terrified, and many will be remorseful. The transgressors will have no friend nor an intercessor to be obeyed.

    [40:19] He is fully aware of what the eyes cannot see, and everything that the minds conceal.
    ------
    Equality of Men and Women
    [33:35] The submitting men, the submitting women, the believing men, the believing women, the obedient men, the obedient women, the truthful men, the truthful women, the steadfast men, the steadfast women, the reverent men, the reverent women, the charitable men, the charitable women, the fasting men, the fasting women, the chaste men, the chaste women, and the men who commemorate GOD frequently, and the commemorating women; GOD has prepared for them forgiveness and a great recompense.
    -----
    [79:40] As for the one who reverenced the majesty of his Lord, and enjoined the self from sinful lusts.

    [79:41] Paradise will be the abode.
    ----
    [89:27] As for you, O content soul.

    [89:28] Return to your Lord, pleased and pleasing.

    [89:29] Welcome into My servants.

    [89:30] Welcome into My Paradise.

    May 20, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Chris

      also, c0cks

      May 20, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • Muneef

      Is that the best of your knowledge about things or are you of the third kind?

      May 22, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  20. Steve

    Classic response pre-judgement day from a whack job Christian..."they laughed at Noah before the flood too". You know what your dealing with when these people claim as evidence one mythological event to address another. Oh wait they do that all the time. It is like you asking them "Why do you think the bible is true?"..well it is true because the bible says it is true right here!..lol

    May 20, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Muneef

      Steve.

      In referance to the Quran it does says it is right true and we believe that it is true message from God the creator because we do not see in it that could be wrong or against the law or unhuman or sinful, but rather full of examples of older generations and morals of the prophets and messengers of God, it teach us wisdom,it opened our minds and legalized our living and rights of all....the only few passages that were being used to discredit the Quran were verses of War at times when at birth of Islam it was being attacked by the pagans and polytheists of Mecca and then being attacked by armies of the Near East and Near West (Persia & Rome)... After the death of the Prophet through generations Islam had faced attacks by Armies from the Far East and Far West...but those attacks only made Islam expand to outer it's boarders and become stronger...(Doesn't that remind you on how the body works reinforcing it's immunity)...Quran Sura/Verse;

      [9:32] They want to put out GOD's light with their mouths, but GOD insists upon perfecting His light, in spite of the disbelievers.

      "Submission" Destined to Prevail*

      [9:33] He is the One who sent His messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, and will make it dominate all religions, in spite of the idol worshipers.
      -----
      [9:51] Say, "Nothing happens to us, except what GOD has decreed for us. He is our Lord and Master. In GOD the believers shall trust."

      May 22, 2011 at 2:35 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.