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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. Steven A.

    I'm a long-time listener to Harold Camping. His whole church is built around the daily 2-hour phone in Bible study. Camping is a wonderful preacher but he is just one man who makes a bad marketing decision. What is really scary is the huge following who actually believe the world might end.

    Are they different from us? Someone who takes the word of a preacher that the world will end on a certain day is simply not playing with a full deck. Not only is such a belief unscientific but it is also unbiblical.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Artist

      And are you still a listener????????????????? lol

      May 20, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Steven A.

      Kinda stopped listening after he did this in 1994. He does a lot of good work but like I said this end of the world stuff is incredible.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Steven A.

      By the way, like most Christians, I am ready for Jesus to come TODAY if he wants. It's not like I'm clearing my calendar for the 26th. Like any good Christian, I don't NEED to know the day or the hour. Jesus can march down here any time he pleases.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  2. Tripp

    Everyone here is reciting scripture as they see fit. Which validate my case that everyone interpretes the fairytale you all call the bible differently. To say its gods word is like saying your dog told you to kill. If you hear voices, you need mental help.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  3. painurse

    An important point here for everyone is that this man and his followers DO NOT

    May 20, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  4. FairAndBalanced

    We are having a get-together at our place, Saturday. Do I need to postpone it...please tell me folks?

    May 20, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  5. GynoAmerican

    What is it about the human mind that lends itself to fairy tales? It must give simple people a sense of peace concerning the harsher realities of life, death and tragedy. It's all part of the plan... move along.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Jasper

      I'm glad to hear you acknowledge that there's a plan. I wholeheartedly agree.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  6. j. j. hinojosa

    god,jehovah,the divine name is written 7,000 times in the hebrew portion of the bible,a god of loving kindness(loyal love). he alone knows when the end comes,not even his Angels know,god jehovah is the Alpha and the Omega. In Revelations 22.20,yes I am coming soon,Amen come,lord jesus christ.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • MARIA

      SO TIRED OF people eespeically Christians trying to predict the end of time aka rapture when NO MAN knows the hour or day...Who is this Camping starting up all this mess ppl need to research their info they receive before they just feed into it. We are in the end of times as predicted in the BilbeI but I don't belive ANY HUMAN knows a date. The earth may be in bad shape w/ pollution but the DOOMSDAY prediction don't believe. Why does the Media feed into this a bosst it up even more..uugghh

      May 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Steve

      Jehovah is god's name? Well that is really just an interpretation of the hebrew consonants YHWH so you are not entirely accurate. Maybe it is "Yooo hoo wah?" In terms of only the father knowing the time of the end does he know it exactly..is it predetermined and not dependent on certain things occuring first?..oh wait that is predetermined too. Hmm. So everything is predetermined? The Holocaust..Black Death..this whacky cults prediction? He obviously knows the future..heck he must of known Adam and Eve would fail too..and Judas. Wow..what a guy. He must have known he was going to exterminate virtually everyone on the planet twice (flood and judgement day too), commit genocide (babies included!) and have people executed for the most flimsy violations (picking up sticks on the sabbath, catching a falling Arc of the Covenant). Man what you have to believe to believe...lol.

      May 20, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  7. b

    read the article before you comment. the point is valid. you might not believe in the coming apocolypse, but you probably do believe strongly in something else that is pretty crazy. Don't judge. Have a laugh if you will, but don't act like you're really any better. I know I'm not.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  8. FairAndBalanced

    I urge Harold Camping and his followers to take care of their affairs before they take off tomorrow.

    As they will not be needing any of their wealth and money, I would urge them to send it all to me. Heck, I will even spend some of that money is a prayer for their souls.

    Just make sure to send me all the money...my address and other details follow.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  9. Dan

    Acts 1: 6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

    7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  10. mike

    Christians – read your Bible.....false prophets will spew their lies. Non-Christians, I apologize for these radical nutcases!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Artist

      Don't apoligize, you are no different. You just disagree on the date.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  11. kbf

    Seventh-Day Adventists, although descendants from the Millerite movement, do not believe that October 22, 1844 marks the spiritual return of Jesus. Their understanding is that the cleansing of the sanctuary, mistakenly interpreted by the Millerites as the second coming of Jesus, refers to the beginning of the judgment which takes place before Jesus' return. They see themselves in a mission to warn people of this event and help them prepare for the second coming still in the future.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  12. The Leaky Trojan

    I love how everyone quit their jobs and sold their possesions to spread the word. Camping on the other hand still has his job, possesions, and reportedly $80 Million raised since this began.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  13. BusyPerson

    I really don't know if the world will end tomorrow. Don't think so. But, you cannot deny all of the earthquakes, floods, solar flares and weird weather we have been having. Also all the unrest in the middle east and Isreal. This guy may not be that far off.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  14. JC in Jacksonville

    As I recall, I think the Bible (written by old men), basing it on that for whatever that is worth, says that no man knows the hour nor the day. I guess they've changed their minds now. If tomorrow is the rapture then I hope he starts with zapping Sarah Palin out first. The world would be a much better place without her stupidity in it. As for the rest of the evangelicals, good ridance, too. They're all a bunch of kooks as far as I'm concerned.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  15. mightyfudge

    These people have enjoyed the spotlight for the last six months. I hope the equally enjoy the endless public ridicule that starts tomorrow at 6pm. They've earned, and deserve every ounce they'll receive. The sheer audacity and narcissism of their actions mandate it.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  16. Morpheus

    Remember Jesus is coming back as Neo to save us from the machine apocolyse the will come very soon.. this happens after the events of the machine war in the Terminator predictions.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  17. vbm

    the guy is an idiot. like are you kidding me?

    May 20, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  18. mastermind

    Holy Hoo-Hah is the best line ever thank you!

    May 20, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  19. JamesJust

    Christ spoke of many things that will happen during the end times but he emphasized one particular event, deception. He repeated over and over that deception will be the number one danger for the world. We know this Camping is a false prophet but the danger is his deception and the fact that this event will drive more people away from the faith as the press loves to ridicule Christians. This actually should have been ignored but ridiculing Christians sells.

    It is amazing how ignorant people really are with regard to scripture, Judgment Day doesn't occur until after Christ's 1000 rule. The only ones that will enjoy Christ's presence will be the dead in Christ or the Martyrs, they will rise. Isaiah said "the earth is burned up and very few men left", so they will be people left behind and they will enjoy Christ's presence as well. Revelation even declares a punishment for the nations that do not pay homage to Christ during the Feast of the Tabernacle, no rain. So there will be people here on earth. the armies, presidents, kings and national leaders involved with the beast will be destroyed..The rest will sleep until Judgement day. GOD is going to punish the earth but NOT destroy it. What would be the point of Christ's 1000 rule if everything is destroyed and everyone is dead? Think about it...

    http://www.yahwehyeshua.com

    Don't be deceived

    May 20, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Chazbo

      James, have you considered medication for your delusions about this idiot named Christ who was just another lunatic the same as the lunatics thare are around now. Why not just believe in the tooth fairy and the easter bunny.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Artist

      Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, to think logically, to have normal emotional responses, and to behave normally in social situations.
      As the illness continues, psychotic symptoms develop:
      • False beliefs or thoughts that are not based in reality (delusions)
      • Hearing, seeing, or feeling things that are not there (hallucinations)

      May 20, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Steven A.

      Hey don't blame the schizophrenics ... not our fault.

      May 20, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • JC in Jacksonville

      Chazbo and Artist! Love your responses. Keep me laughing for half hour straight.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Steven A
      You're schizophrenic too?
      Well that makes 7 of us!

      May 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  20. Roch

    Can't wait until Saturday night, will be fun watching the mice scurry as they explain the inevitable disappointment.

    May 20, 2011 at 11:43 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.