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. Wes

    My curiosity will be what will the people will do that sold their possessions to await what will turn out to be the inevitable, that it's not going to happen.

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

      The saddest part of all this is the effect on their children. I have read several articles, some of which depict the young children of these misguided people parroting their parents view of "..the Sun turning blood red..." and thousands of bodies in the streets. Another article describes teenage children, their college savings gone, their familes in (soon to be)financial ruin, being dragged unwillingly to New York City to hand out fliers and bibles, and one (particularly horrible) story of a mother flat-out telling her young dauhger that "she will not be saved and is going to be left here in torment..." If religion is the "opiate of the masses", then these doomsayers are the resulting hallucination. As far as these doom-sayers being "no so different than the rest of us" I utterly disagree with that statement, and the logic behind it is at best specious and at worst blatently warped.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  2. Jimi

    The author of this article is a nut job just like the rest. From what I've read, seen, and heard, there are approximately 5 – 6.5 billion people that are members of a religion. That's almost the entirety of our species. It's embarrassing, depressing, and pathetic. I hope we evolve out of our arrogance. There are no answers, folks. Just questions. Accept that fact, try to be good to other living things (including OTHER animals), be humble, and just live your damn lives. Lets dispense with all the religious arrogance!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Sally

      Yes, I agree that we should all live our own lives and let others live theirs. Which includes letting them believe in religeon or God or nothing at all. I'm not religeous, but I wouldn't even begin to think that I know enough to call those who are crazy.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  3. Ryan Kulla

    I'm sorry, these people aren't weird or cult-like how exactly? They're *hoping* for the end of the world and for the billions of people who don't believe as they do to die horribly. That's more than weird, that's sick and how terrorists think. Not only that, the fact that not a single of of them will even entertain the idea that they could be wrong and all have the same standard answer that they got from their leader–and have since left their families to go spread their clearly delusional message–sounds pretty cult-like to me. I wouldn't be surprised if they did a mass suicide on May 21st.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Sally

      I agree that they are probably wrong in believing that the rapture is tomorrow, however calling them terrorist like is pretty far fetched. Now, if tomorrow they start setting off bombs or something to cause people to believe it is the end of the world, I'll agree with you.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  4. Tina

    We know not the day nor the hour. Personally, I don't think human beings can predict God's intent. Peace be with you!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • nokoolaidcowboy

      ...and also with you!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  5. Brett

    @ JOE in response to- " It is very hard to preach the truth about something, when the truth can be based on so many different factors, including fact, prejidice, imagination.... Don't believe that the truth is what the individual mind believes it is? There are 4 major religions on this planet, and they all believe in the same god. Islam, Judiaism, Protestant Christians, and Catholic Christians. "

    Think before you type. TRUTH AND BELIEF ARE NOT SYNONOMOUS

    First, the very fact that you say truth can be based off imagination is laughable. I believe that many people do decide whats "true" based on their imagination, however, I believe this largely to be whats wrong with our world. I believe you are the kind of person Prothero was talking about when he wrote.
    "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"

    People won't open their minds and realize what they believe to be true and the facts presented in front of them are different.

    Secondly, there are more than 4 major religions in the world (noting that you left out a major religion like Buddhism in which apx 124 million people observe)

    Thirdly, when you say christians you are already talking about catholic christians

    and FINALLY, When you say there are 4 religions dont list 5 things. Its confusing and makes you look silly.

    I award you no points and may god have mercy on your soul.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • nokoolaidcowboy

      Gee Brett. Pontificate much?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Phage0070

      To chime in, don't forget about Buddhism and Hinduism. Trying to split Christianity into Protestant and Catholic doesn't make them different religions, and Judaism hardly qualifies as a major world religion (14-18 million followers compared to 820-1000 million Hindu?).

      May 20, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • HeavenSent_LOL

      People don't have souls silly.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  6. pat

    And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? And Jesus answered, "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My Name saying, "I am the Christ," and will deceive many." Matthew 24: 3-4

    The whole of chapter 24 has more about signs of the end of the age, if you wish to read it.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • thespiritguide

      It's a book, made of paper, filled with a bunch of stories from guys with no last names. If this were a modern book, written under the same terms, would you even give it another though?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • thespiritguide


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

      You're quoting words from a fictional book silly.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Laura

      I totally agree with you Pat! God Bless You!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Steve

      Pat just a thought regarding your quoted scripture. Who exactly here in this organization proclaiming the end is stating themselves to be jesus. Nobody. So how does this quote fit anything since nobody is saying they are the christ related to this issue. Actually, since there is nobody in the news saying they are christ then if must not be the end times. Actually considering both Jesus and Paul stated that they end was nigh in their respective times of 30 AD and 55 AD and neither were right..they were just as misguided as these people.

      May 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  7. Kristin

    Camping must be a big REM fan...."Its the end of the world" song has some references to some of his words. 6pm, rapture, earthquakes.......odd...unless the lead singer of REM is the 2nd coming of christ.....I feel bad I didn't buy any of his cd's.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Phage0070

      Or perhaps REM wrote the lyrics to that song based on the various well known religious predictions about the end of the world. Hmm... perhaps that is more likely?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Free



      May 20, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  8. joe

    This clown makes Christians look stupid, which is too bad.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Al

      But not terribly hard to do, apparently.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • John

      No Joe, Christians do that all on their own.

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

      Yes but people like to stereotype.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  9. Carolyn

    Stephen, you have atheist friends?? Say it ain't so!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  10. Nory

    I bet Harold Camping has received a steady stream of donations to his “church”. I bet when he recalculates the coming of the rapture he will continue to receive that steady stream of cash. Regardless of what protections his "religious" organization receives under the law, his actions are fraudulent as well as diabolically dangerous. Can you imagine how many innocent children have been terrified by this whacko and his followers? Or how many unstable individuals will use this "rapture" fallacy to take their lives and the lives of their loved ones. This guy is a criminal and should, at the very least, be held accountable for the tragic chain of events his "prophesy" will incur.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Bruce

      Camping's like 90 years old. I don't think he's cynically trying to ensure a steady retirement income for the remainder of his life. It seems, actually, that he believes what he's claiming.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  11. Cowboy

    OTFLMAO!!! Really? I am nothing like these folks. Its funny that every time the end of the world doesnt come, they recalculate.....what a joke. I really like the part where the article said that jesus came October 22, 1844 and marked a spiritual rather than a physical return. Hhhhmmm......

    May 20, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Ben

      Reading comprehension is not your strong suit, is it? Did you even read the article?

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

    He probably did the predict the end of something, his life. The guys 90 years old and isn't dead yet!!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  13. soccermom

    If I believed that the end of the world was coming on Saturday, I certainly wouldn't be spending my last few hours carrying around a sign or yelling it from the rooftops. I'd LIVE OUT LOUD!!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  14. John

    That's because people who are even remotely aware of what the bible says knows it says that nobody will know when this happens.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  15. Jay

    Why don't we all just chill out, then pick up this discussion again on Sunday.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  16. Eduardo

    the rest of us are not crazy in our own way, you are wrong. these people are legitimately crazy, no comparison. if you are someone who believes that the scientific method is the best way to go about expanding our knowledge of the world, and exhibit some sort of critical thinking and skepticism in your everyday life, then you are not crazy. sorry, not buying it

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

      I hear what you're saying. But everybody really is crazy in their own way. Really. Scientists included. I have a guy I work with who believes in evolution like a religion. He won't even admit it's a theory. That's crazy in his own way

      May 20, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • JohnR

      I'm with you, Eduardo. Maybe we all have SOME irrational beliefs, but scale matters. Few reach the point these people have.

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

      By making evolution mean anything, they make it mean everything – and therefore nothing. By creating an illusion of progress, evolutionists have created the perfect conspiracy: a way to snow the public under the banner of science, using the Stuff Happens Law (SHL). Philosophers may realize that “stuff happens” amounts to a failure of scientific explanation, but by calling it something more sophisticated – evolution – evolutionists can tinker with it in countless ways. Being inherently flexible, the Stuff Happens Law lends itself to endless corollaries that can be couched in Darwinian jargon.

      Strange stuff happens (evolutionary reversal)
      Stuff happens at any speed (evolutionary stasis or radiation)
      Stuff happens by surprise (evolutionary innovation)
      Stuff re-happens (circular evolution)
      Stuff survives happenstance (living fossils)
      Stuff makes other stuff happen (humans affecting biology by “unnatural selection”)

      As long as creative minds inhabit evolutionary biology labs, the future looks bright for endless twists on Darwin’s tale. Whether this amounts to science is an entirely different question.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  17. Thoughtful


    May 20, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  18. Will Duffield

    typo "Touch" of his noodly appendage.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  19. beelzebubba

    The first armageddon cult in america were baptists is no surprise. Their 'it's them against us' cult mentality is the same today. They always use fear-mongering tactics to attract the poor and uneducated who don't have enough sense to challenge their brain-washing authorities who used to claim slavery was cool with the man upstairs, then segregation was good with god, then mixed marriage was contrary to god's plan, then women should stay in the kitchen. Now, what brings in the offerings? The evil muslim menace. These fools elected a president who wasted many lives and trillions of dollars invading Iraq. Ask yourself, how can it be that our worst leaders Carter and W were also evangelicals?

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

      I suppose you're one of those libtards that believes Israel is the actual aggresor.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  20. Mardi

    Funny thing.
    A customer of mine who studies writes extensivley on the book of revelations in the Bible, emailed his monthly newsletter to me for printing.
    He told me he will pick it up next Wed. 5/25.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:14 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.