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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. DaveX

    Get these people the help they need. Mental illness should never be laughed at or accepted.

    Then again...they ARE pretty entertaining...

    May 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  2. Jokedog

    Do not think logically, yes. Afraid of their own deaths? Tell that to the suicide bombers.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  3. Ellen Hunt

    Steven – You write citing the coffee table conversation of buddies in your department as clear evidence. You regularly come out with the most bizarre, unsupported drivel and call it bread. So of course YOU don't think these "rapture" idiots are weird. They are just like YOU!

    No, Steven. YOU are WEIRD. You espouse and regularly write apologia for the ravings of loons. The reason is that you are, yourself, a raving loon. The difference between you and those "rapture" people (and every other bunch of nut-jobs you apologize for) is that you have learned how to disguise your lunacy with scholarly drivel.

    You and your buddies dribble your drivel on everybody else and you don't give a hoot who gets hurt. Shut up.,

    YES! THOSE PEOPLE ARE WACKED! THEY ARE NITWITS WITHOUT A CLUE! THEY, LIKE YOU, ARE CRAZY!!!

    THESE PEOPLE ARE NUTS! AND YOU, STEVEN, are an ENABLER!!!!

    May 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • midogs2

      Are we having a bad day, Ellen?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Relictus

      Well said!

      May 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  4. Brent

    Really guys? More doomsday predictions?
    *sigh*

    Cya Monday..

    May 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  5. JBD

    Christian or Atheist or whatever, the way I see it I am glad to see a guy who sticks his neck out for what he believes. Bonafide nut job? Yes, but he at least has the stones to make a hard prediction. None of this “there’ll be rumors of wars”, and “Evil people will exist”. Really? You may as well say “The sun will come up that day.”
    I disagree with you wholeheartedly there Harold but my hat’s off to you at the same time. Sunday may be a little embarrassing but people will move on to the next nut case very quickly.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Ellen Hunt

      Sincerity is no test! There is nobody more sincere than Ted Kaczyinski, the UNABOMER. Nobody is more sincere than the lunatic chasing you down the street with a knife who is trying to kill you.

      No! The test is whether you are sane! A person who shuts up and says nothing is superior to all the loons in the world and superior to this Prothero noodlehead.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • JBD

      I hear you Ellen but seriously, this guy's not hurting anyone except for some very gullible people. Hopefully they learn their lesson (the hard way) from it and come out all the better.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  6. OU812IC

    Sorry folks!! but when the end comes, we sure as Hell will all know about it and it will have nothing to do with any religion

    May 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Ellen Hunt

      Sadly, religion probably will have something to do with it. And Prothero the wack will be busily defending the right of those people to murder us all in the name of hallucination.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • rob

      I'll pray for you.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • San Onofre Surfer

      @rob,
      Sorry it's so overwhelming for you to hear these things. It's tough to hear that the easter bunny doesn't exist.
      Saying you'll pray for someone is like plugging your ears, and saying "lalalalalala". It will be OK dear.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  7. T.

    people have been saying that the world is going to end since the world began! sorry, but tomorrow is not the end......

    May 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  8. Misha

    This is funny, it's just an advertising campaign. That's all. FamilyRadio needs more clients... What a joke, people need to be more confident, just go with your instinct and you will be fine.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  9. BobH

    Mr. Prothero:

    Yes, these people are not so different from the rest of us, except that they are bats**t crazy.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  10. JohnRJ08

    The basic contents of the Holy Bible were compiled by a bunch of old bishops at the Council of Nicea in 325AD. Less than a thousand Christian clergy were invited by Emperor Constantine I to codify the beliefs that would ultimately determine the content of the Bible. They left a lot of stuff out and included a lot of stuff that was simply made up. And that is what Camping and other doomsayers have based their predictions on.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • rob

      I'll pray for you. You are so lost.
      Jesus loves you and I hope you'll see that before its too late.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Rob
      He is lost for pointing out a historical fact?
      Nobody doubts that the Nicene council was a real event.
      It is where they made Jesus' divinity Christian dogma and made the Trinity their official rationalization.

      May 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  11. Tiffany

    I think it is possible that the doomsdayers don't fully believe that Saturday will be the actual end, but are instead hoping the attention will cause people to focus on the spiritual, or maybe consider the possibility of the end of the world/return of Christ. Like that episode of Matlock where he says that the real killer would walk into the courtroom at the end of a countdown, then tells the jury that they can't convict his client because they were looking at the door too. Athiests who are paying attention to this, even to make fun of it, are in the minds of the doomsdayers proving their point.

    I also think it's patently ridiculous that any believer in God thinks an almighty deity considers a human made calendar in any of his decision making process.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  12. baby

    Just a correction about what it's stated: Daniel 8:14 reads: “For two thousand three hundred days; then the sanctuary shall be cleansed.” Miller interpreted that the sanctuary was the planet earth and therefore he thought this passage referred to Jesus' second coming. But instead of Jesus' second coming to earth, the event that this prophecy refers to, was going to happen in heaven, in the sanctuary where God's throne is. There, on October 22, 1844, Jesus passed from the sanctuary's holy place to the most holy place to start his cleansing work as Judge. So, this is my correction: the Seventh Day Adventist church doesn't believe that Jesus returned spiritually on October 22, 1844. It believes what I have stated above. Thank you.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  13. Lee Oates

    The Ape with clothes still tries to comprehend the world. Being extremely limited in intellect, still creates Gods and Easter bunnys to explain his environment and the unknown.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • rob

      aaaaand I'll pray for you.
      I'd hate to be looking down on you when I'm in heaven and you're still on earth.
      EVERYONE will believe on that day.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  14. Pachecosita

    are they Seventh Day Adventists? because that already happened to them in 1844.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  15. Anthony Larijani

    If these people are so sure the world will end tomorrow, they should donate all of their money to charity since they can't take it heaven. If they would like to pass some my way, that would be appreciated too. I'm a broke college student who plans on attending school right up until the end of the world, i.e. October.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  16. jaywingfuller

    The end of the world has been recalculated. It was yesterday and, thanks to the magic of wireless internet connections, I am speaking to you from heaven this very instant. So party hearty, my dear friends and fear not. Those of us who were chosen have already left the building. Oh, and by the way, it is damn boring up here. I'm hoping for a reclass to elsewhere.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  17. Cheese

    Matthew 24:36 says, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

    I doubt a radio evangelist in America would be privvy to this information.

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

      LOL–maybe someone should share this verse with Camping, then he'll say, "Oh, I hadn't seen that one before!" and then he'd recant his predictions and apologize for the inconvenience...

      May 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  18. RT

    It's 20 mins to 5am in Chatham New Zealand right now (12;00 noon EST). in 12 hours 35 mins it will be 6:pm, their time, (1am Sat, EST). If it's true than an earthquake will hit there then. If not, then the party's over.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • the timekeeper

      actually, 6pm in New Zealand will be 2am on the east coast.
      and, we're currently on daylight savings, so it's 2am EDT...

      May 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  19. chris r

    the world wnt end soon just saying

    May 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  20. David

    "But the bottom line is that religion persists because it is adaptable."

    Religion persists because people are afraid of their own deaths and do not think logically about the nature of existence.

    May 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • MrHanson

      How wrong you are.

      May 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Free

      Actually he meant 'adaptable' in the same sense that the vampire myth is also adaptable to our times, which is why it has survived. Think about it, would vampires be as popular as they are today if they were stuck in the same old Bram Stoker mold of long ago? Same goes for Christianity. Honestly, how popular would it be today if people were to try practicing it according to Paul's actual model?

      May 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Bruce

      Yes, David, but even atheists are not immune to irrationality when it comes to contemplating the nature of existence. Everyone has emotions, and if you are not personally affected (and note that affect is different than effect in precisely the relevant way here) by these questions, then whatever answers you come up with regarding the nature of our existence are wholly irrelevant and meaningless.

      Wherever you go, there you are. There is no escape...

      May 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Bruce: Let me understand what you just said before I laugh at it...

      Did you just suggest that if someone doesn't have an emotional attachment to the question of existence then they have no place in the conversation?

      May 20, 2011 at 1:33 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.