2014-02-23

My Last Days In the Cult: My Exit Story

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by Neil Godfrey

caf43cedf899d2c59372b595867434d414f4141About 15 years ago I placed online a short account of how I came to find a new life, a new way of thinking and of self-acceptance after too many years as a dedicated member of the Worldwide Church of God Armstrong cult. I was one of many ex-members of that cult to add their little bios to that site. We felt it worthwhile to share our experiences to encourage others who were grappling with the various stresses and challenges of unraveling the thought-habits of years and finding a much healthier way of life as we had done. Above all we wanted to assure them that there really was a better life beyond and it was never too late to change one’s life’s direction. Recently I realized that there was one aspect of my final years in that cult, the years immediately preceding my leaving that cult, that I have very rarely spoken about in public forums. Given that there has recently appeared in print a charming little account of my former life that conveys a bizarre image of my former and current psychological makeup I thought it might be worthwhile for me to share for anyone half interested what my final years in that former religion were like.  (I say it was a “bizarre” account. I must refrain from using the word “dishonest” because I am sure the author would certainly have taken the trouble to have interviewed me and asked a few basic questions had he the time. It is quite understandable that busy people would need to rely upon stereotyping and armchair psychoanalysis to find the profile they need to prove their points about someone they wish to denigrate.)

First chinks in the armour

The first slight cracks in my faith in the teachings of the cult came when I decided to study in depth each book of the Bible as a discrete unit, as if it were not part of the canon. I would even try to read it as if I knew absolutely nothing at all about anything else in the Bible. That is, I would try to read each book to try to ascertain what it was saying in its own terms — without any reference in my own mind to any other canonical work. Of course most books, especially in the New Testament, do contain references to other biblical books. But I did not want to read, say, Romans, with any baggage in my head from what any other letter or gospel said. That process led to some interesting results. I began to see that some of the church’s teachings were really founded on unjustifiable interpretations. What’s more, I began to notice many passages that I had once read so often but also passed over so often without realizing their full import for the message the author was trying to convey. I took a number of questions to our ministry and earned myself a few worried looks. I was beginning to realize I was coming to understand and know more about what the Bible says than our trained ministry. I could see that they had not been taught to study the Bible as such but only to study the church’s teachings in the Bible.

Tyndale commentaries

Around the same time or soon after I came across the Tyndale Bible Commentary series of books. Today I can scarcely imagine a more conservative set of writings but back then they were just right for what I needed. At that time I would never have picked up anything too radical. I went through each one of those commentaries, both for the Old and New Testaments, verse by verse, writing notes in my wide-margin Bible, studying, learning all the time — learning something about the manuscript traditions behind the texts, a little of the range of scholarly interpretations associated with each book, something of the culture and literary methods of the day, and so forth. For the first time I saw and understood clearly why the two epistles of Peter could not possibly have been written by the same author, and why certainly the second one was definitely not written by Peter. I came to see that the letter to the Galatians was not nearly as simply interpreted and understood as the church had always said it was. And so it went.

Death and Demolition

Then the old boy died. Herbert W. Armstrong went the way of all dead parrots. We had not fled to a place of safety. The tribulation looked further off in the distance as it ever had. And then in came Joe Tkach as the new “Pastor General”. Most members had never or only scarcely heard of him till then. Almost overnight what had been inviolable doctrines of the church were being dismantled. Members had died in faith because they had refused to see a doctor. Now we were told that the doctrine of divine healing was as good as out the window. We should see doctors. Women had endured embarrassment by being the only ones at formal social occasions not wearing any makeup. Now they could wear makeup anywhere any time they liked. Members had lost jobs and given up many personal opportunities because of their observance of sabbaths and holy days. Now they could work on those days if it meant holding on to their jobs. That change was bigger than even this sounds. The church had emphatically taught that sabbath-keeping was a sign that we belonged to God. To violate it was as bad as taking on the mark of the beast. Biggest shell-shock of all for every member was that the church’s most distinctive doctrine — that God is a family, that we are destined to become part of the “god family” — was ditched. In its place — the Trinity! The Trinity, we had always declared and our leaders had thundered in their evangelistic campaigns, was a pagan doctrine! Now we were embracing it. Families had been torn apart over the church’s teaching that Christmas and Easter and Birthday observances were all pagan. Now members were told they could celebrate these with their unconverted families after all. Now changes like that started a few of us thinking. Here were teachings that we had been taught were inspired by God himself, that were tests of our faithfulness, that people had literally died for and suffered family breakups and social isolation for in their faithful obedience to God, now all just being tossed out the window. Their opposites were being introduced. Doctrines we had considered Satanic were now Godly. My reaction? What did I think? I thought things like this:

“This is not the church of God. This is not like the Kingdom of God. This is like Soviet Russia. What is politically correct depends on who is in charge. If we believed and taught what Joe Tkach is telling us to believe and practice when HWA was alive we would have been kicked out. Now we will be kicked out if we continue to teach and insist on the rightness of HWA’s old doctrines. There’s nothing in the Bible like that. That’s what happens when the Soviet Politburo changes the leader.”

Crazily, my mind still tried to rationalize this from time to time. Let God be true but every man a liar, etc. Then someone pulled me up short when they confronted me with their personal shock that one man could control the thinking of so many people! “No, no, it’s not like that, I protested . . .  ” But I knew it really was despite my feeble attempt to salvage some personal dignity in the spotlight of those who could see from the outside what was happening.

Flashback

I must return to my experiences before the death of HWA. In his final years there were growing divisions within the church. Some ministers were more liberal than others. Some were very ‘reactionary’ in the sense that they took a far more “righteous” stand on HWA’s original interpretations of the Bible. It was a horrible time when careless words within earshot of the wrong person could mean being reported to the authorities and facing something like an inquisition. I was, I’m ashamed to say, caught up in some of this. I came to see how ugly the powers in the church could be when they went into action against someone they suspected of slight deviance in doctrinal thoughts. One particularly close friend of mine committed suicide. I really felt it could have been avoided if there had been just a little more compassion and understanding from the ministry. I took memories of those experiences — the secret reporting, the inquisitions, the suicides (there were others, too) — with me after the death of HWA. I saw how human, how ungodly and destructive of people’s lives, the ministry really could be and often was.

The Critic

So by the time Tkach was leader I had come to believe I knew and understood much more about the Bible than even most of our ministry. I had come to lose a good deal of the awe I once had for the ministry. I found it difficult to “highly esteem” some of them at all. I was gaining a reputation for being a “radical” thinker among a few who knew me well, and among the ministry I sometimes privately challenged on matters. I did not attempt to sow my doubts among all and sundry, however. I believed at that time that that would have been wrong. I would have been sowing discord. It was better for everyone to come to their own understanding in their own way. Besides, this was the only social life I had really known for so many years. Here was where all my friends were. And here was where my children’s friends were. One does not just up and walk out from something like that. Well, at least I didn’t. There were other personal traumas involving the ministry. To cut this long-winded story short, I eventually sought out and found information circulating from certain ex-members who had been close to HWA and the governing elites. This information had credibility. It explained so much of the ugly side of what I had seen in some grubby dealings with our ministry and it explained some of the power-struggles that had led to the doctrinal changes. I contacted some of the authors. I met with some ex-members. I tested some of the information I was learning. It was devastating stuff. Our highly esteemed leader of so many years was not at all as his image had been. I was sickened. It all made sense now. Now I could understand the whole point and what was behind the authoritarian control wielded by the ministry, why so many lives had been ruined, how we were all being fleeced and kept in poverty to allow them to live the high-life. I did not walk out. I stayed. I had a job to do before I could walk out. A few jobs, actually. It would take me time seek out and build up a new social network where my kids could feel at home. I also had to find out the best way to alert as many members as possible to the reality of what they were mixed up in. Once I was out I would be cut off with no chance of contacting anyone again. Meanwhile I collected as many names and addresses of members as I could. Church newspapers were always left at the front door with name labels on them so it wasn’t too difficult to surreptitiously collect these from various churches that I visited over many months. It was only after I collected around 300 that the problem of postage dawned on me. That was going to be an expensive operation. But I did it. I typed up a letter that merely presented a long list of phone numbers and addresses that readers could contact if they wanted to learn more about “the other side” of what the real modus operandi of the church was. I posted them all. The responses encouraged me. Some phoned me anonymously to get more information. Some met me later and personally thanked me. The ministry was not happy, of course. They announced throughout Australian pulpits that anyone receiving a letter from me was to hand it in unopened to the ministry or burn it unopened. I was declared “in the bond of Satan”. Afterwards I started to slip little flyers into the church magazine stands in shopping centres and such. The flyers were warning readers the literature was produced by a cult and they could find out more at such and such a place. I received a letter threatening legal action against me for my efforts.

A New Life

That’s the short version of a long story. I was actually disfellowshipped three times before I left for good. My last years were critical of the church leadership and the way they treated members. They were also critical of an outfit that could ruin people’s lives by insisting on teaching certain doctrines yet turn around and say those doctrines were wrong and we’re sorry, etc . . . and expect us all to continue to be loyal members! From there I returned to the more uplifting and open form of worship I had grown up with. I attended Anglican and liberal Baptist churches for a time, and a few others, including a Roman Catholic one, until I found the most comfortable one for me and my kids. I was certainly no atheist. Perish the thought. I remained a devout Christian, but one that did not look to any organization or church as an authority. Salvation and conversion was a personal matter between the believer and God. It was a happy, fulfilling time. I still look back with respect on my years in those liberal churches. The move towards atheism was another story that came later. Before then I read widely on cults and other fundamentalist churches and was surprised to learn how common my own experiences had been. I formed a little “cult veterans support group” or support group for ex-cultists. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, other weirdo ones I can’t recall now — we were all astonished at how alike our experiences had been. While immersed in the cult we had been conditioned to think of ourselves as unique. All of that fell away and it was great for all of us to compare notes and discuss positive ways forward. So if anyone reading this comes across some ignorant assertion that as a “fundamentalist” my thinking was, well, “fundamentalist”, just direct them to this piece. If my thinking were fundamentalist in the way they mean then I would either still be there or would have joined one of the many break-away sects from that cult. I exited fundamentalism long before I left the fundamentalist cult. Perhaps this post should be coupled with my recent What R. Joseph Hoffmann Does Not Want (Anyone) To Believe About Me in which I describe the impact of my religious years in between the cult and atheism. Oh, and of course link it with my even more recent post, Once a Fundamentalist . . . Never Again.

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32 Comments

  • Geoff
    2014-02-24 14:52:17 UTC - 14:52 | Permalink

    Neil, have you posted on how you became involved in this cult? If the Hoffman Three can do no better than engage in ad hominem attacks on you, then that says more about the weakness of their own positions than it does about you and your’s.

    • 2014-02-24 22:55:02 UTC - 22:55 | Permalink

      I agree. People can see what I’ve written here on Vridar and elsewhere over the years and compare with the what the likes of our esteemed public intellectuals and not a few rabid lay Christians and toenails choose to write and the quotations of mine they distort. Anyone who has an honest interest in the facts can do that. The others are not worth worrying about.

      Whenever I have written about religion or fundamentalism in particular I have done so with an interest to inform others from the perspective of one who has been through it and can clarify a few things. I would like to think this may be helpful to the odd person who knows somebody close who is mixed up in such a thing or even encourage and support someone else who is in the process of leaving or has recently left.

      In other words, I’m simply sharing my experience publicly where I think it may be of some wider interest.

      It occurred to me that I have never posted in detail about my final years (and what I posted here was really just a very brief overview — as I said I was actually disfellowshipped three times before my final break) and it can’t hurt to fill in this gap for anyone interested.

      Hopefully it shows that a person is always a person before he or she is a member of something. We can’t jump to conclusions about a person until we know a little bit about them as a person first.

      My experiences in the cult taught me lots about human nature and manipulations and propaganda that I feel have made me more aware of such things when I see them in action anywhere today. I often see the same sorts of manipulations at work in the wider society and of course people are unaware of what is happening to them. So I think in ways like that the experience has left some positives in my life. I also wrote a series of about ten other positives people can take from their fundamentalist experience — people can often make the most of bad pasts, turn lemons into the proverbial and all that.

    • 2014-02-24 22:59:05 UTC - 22:59 | Permalink

      You asked if I had ever posted on how I became involved. No, not here. But I did discuss that often enough with others after I left it so I guess all of that was worked through and gone over — not just my experiences, but those of many others, too, in both our church and others — that I guess I’ve just left all of that behind now.

      But it might be a good idea. Though I think there are lots of good books out there already explaining how it happens. I mean those by ex-members themselves. Not those by religious representatives who have never experienced it and are mainly speaking from the perspective of pop psychology and the Bible’s teachings. They are rubbish and have no idea. I’ll think about it.

  • 2014-02-24 19:56:19 UTC - 19:56 | Permalink

    Great story! I actually was a “fellow worker” (a non-member who tithed money… thousands of US$s wasted!) with the cult. I even got in contact with some local ministers on a couple of occasions but was put off by their strange demeanor. But one fine day after seven years of contributing I decided to compare what what Herbert W Armstrong said about Galatians versus what the book itself said. Well that did it for my involvement with and support for that system of organised schizophrenia!

    • 2014-02-24 23:05:57 UTC - 23:05 | Permalink

      Strange demeanor? Wow. Do explain. When was that?

      I do know that the first visits of ministers used to be to size you up. They normally would not let anyone attend a church service until they felt pretty sure they were seriously and deeply committed and willing to go along with the whole show. I’m sure they visited many more than they ever ended up inviting.

      In hindsight I have always thought the key criterion for getting an invite is evidence that you have finally been robbed of all your self-confidence and look entirely to the authority of God (through his ministry of course) to rule your life.

      • 2014-02-25 23:30:29 UTC - 23:30 | Permalink

        Well the first time I managed to look up the local minister in the church advertisement in the Miami herald of all places and he paid me a visit at my apartment and we talked some things and fiinally he broke it off saying “You haven’t come to repentance then.” But I noticed he dressed in an unusual manner (a striped tie that clashed with both his pastel colored suit jacket and his plaid dress trousers — ugh!), his skin was kind of oily, and come to think of it, he was kind of creepy.

        The second time was a good while later. I happened to be in the area where I knew they were having Sabbath services. So I thought, I’d like to know if they can get by tithing 10, 20 percent to the church, so I mosied through the parking lot, noting the sorts of cars they drove. Well! A very paranoid middle-aged male stormed out, demanding if I was intending to steal something! I replied that I wasn’t, I was only curious about the WWCoG and how the congregants lived. And this man turned on a dime and turned very friendly, and asked if I would like to sit in on their church services! I was very struck back by this sudden change of demeanour and in an automatic sort of way, politely declined the invitation. And so we went our separate ways that day.

        • 2014-02-26 00:18:07 UTC - 00:18 | Permalink

          Ah, I remember that period. It wasn’t always like that. There was a time you would never have been given an invitation to sit in on a church service. And the idea of ministers placing ads in the paper — that, too, was one of the “new liberal” changes when Herbert’s son, Garner Ted, was wielding the most influence.

          I wonder if the minister you got for your first visit was one who had not been trained at Ambassador College but had been anointed from within the local ranks. AC trained folk were usually much more careful about appearance and demeanor.

          But telling you you were not repentant yet — yep, that sounds on par.

          As for the guy coming out to check on you — we always had people on duty to keep an eye on the parked cars. Many of the oldies were still in persecution mode, too, and fearful of any undesirables coming in.

          And yes, the sudden switch from suspicious hostility to nice host is indicative of people who learn to “put on” their persona. They are acting roles. They have lost touch with being wholesomely natural. In fact they fear to be so — human nature is said to be evil.

          • 2014-02-26 21:44:11 UTC - 21:44 | Permalink

            Actually these incidents were in 1982 long after Garner Ted was kicked out of the WWCoG; I remember reading articles with a byline Garner Ted in some older (1970s) back issues that someone I knew collected. My current issues (early 1980s) had the exact same articles, word-for-word, except no by-line! Kind of like the Gospels, huh? So I suppose the minister who put the ad in the newspaper and paid me a call rose through the ranks or he interpreted things in his own way, then.

            • 2014-02-26 22:09:04 UTC - 22:09 | Permalink

              After GTA — after a reactionary period we were settling down again, if I recall. Time has blurred so much. I will need to return to my old storage boxes and use my sermon notes to reconstruct the time lines accurately. It’s most unlikely any minister would have acted on his own in the way you are wondering about.

              I didn’t know (or don’t recall) about GTA’s articles being recycled without his name. What a farce. Much of what GTA tried to introduce was actually reintroduced some time after his ouster anyway. I wonder if there were different editions between the U.S. and Australian Plain Truth pubs. I do remember at one time the Australian PT did introduce articles with an Australian focus; presumably they replaced an old GTA article. That might have been some form of “damage control” or reflecting some sort of little power-struggle going on. Maybe some of the other ex members would know about that.

  • Tanya Gregg
    2014-02-25 01:03:32 UTC - 01:03 | Permalink

    Hello Mr. Godfrey,
    Do you still love Jesus?

    • 2014-02-25 03:01:37 UTC - 03:01 | Permalink

      I’m sorry to disappoint you; the answer is “no”. I have since left all religious belief behind. I love studies of human nature and history. I am constantly exploring a wide range of interests — for example, I’m currently reading a book on English manners and another on Anzac diaries and letters; I’ve recently read a biography of John Lennon and a history of the Middle Ages. Vridar represents only one side of my interests. So what you see here is, for most part, an expression of my explorations into the origins of Christianity and the Bible. I am fascinated in this topic simply as another interest of mine. It’s worthwhile, I think, understanding the origins of ideas that have influenced so many of us since.

      • Tanya Gregg
        2014-02-25 05:50:53 UTC - 05:50 | Permalink

        Thanks for responding. You didn’t disappoint me one bit. I am confused, though. May I ask a few follow up questions?
        When you said you have given up all religious belief in response to the question, “do you still love Him”, do you mean to say that you no longer appreciate him, or enjoy him, feel close to him? Or was he more of an abstract concept or an idea than a real person/god? Do you know what I am trying to ask?

        • 2014-02-25 06:26:13 UTC - 06:26 | Permalink

          How could I ever have been a Christian if he was only an “abstract concept or an idea rather than a real Person/God”? I certainly believed in Jesus and God as very real — enough to give up my own life and even to give up my most loved ones. He was my life. I prayed daily, long and often. I walked the walk. Through faith he changed my life. Through faith he gave me peace and love for others and joy. I “put on” the new man through Him. He died for me and stood with and in me to save and comfort me and change me daily more and more into his image. I loved him and gave my life for him. That’s how it was.

          He was a very real person to me once. I eventually came to a point where I believed that faith is a mind-game. The same conversion experiences are known to people of other religions, not just within Christianity. I came to realize that what was changing my life, making me a “new person”, was not him, but the fact that I believed in him. The critical factor was my belief. In another culture I might have had the same life-transforming experiences and sense of strong godly confidence from another god — if I believed the same sorts of things about that god.

          That’s how I came to see it — as a psychological thing. It was not the god that was doing anything. A totem pole would have done the same for me if I had believed of that totem pole the very same things I believed about Christ.

          • Tanya Gregg
            2014-02-25 07:38:43 UTC - 07:38 | Permalink

            Thank you.

            “He was a very real person to me once.”
            He was a real person to you only because you believed he was? You “imagined” he was real and then somehow convinced yourself that he was real, but he, himself, was never a truly distinct person you loved and knew and cared for, a true friend? During that time, in reality, he was merely a figment of a vivid imagination?

            “I eventually came to a point where I believed that faith is a mind-game.”

            Was “he” a mind game? Is that accurate?

            I’m just trying to understand. I hope you don’t mind.

            • Tanya Gregg
              2014-02-25 07:46:37 UTC - 07:46 | Permalink

              How could I ever have been a Christian if he was only an “abstract concept or an idea rather than a real Person/God”?

              But, you never really were a christian because “he” never actually existed, is that right?

            • Neil Godfrey
              2014-02-25 09:21:19 UTC - 09:21 | Permalink

              To any believer such as yourself you are compelled by the teaching of the Bible to believe I was never “one of you”. That is what the Bible teaches. So in every case of anyone who appeared to have been part of the body of Christ and yet who left, the Bible explains that they were not really “of us”, of the Church of God or whatever name you call it. If they were, then there is no hope for them and they could never repent.

              This is the reason I believe you are dissecting my words with intent to find out some clue, some evidence, that I never really was converted or that I never really knew Christ as you do.

              I think that sums up your approach, yes? Because I can see we will just go around and around in circles with questions — no matter what I say you will find a loophole somewhere to assure yourself that I could not possibly have been a true Christian as per the Bible teaching.

              To answer your questions: No, Jesus really did exist for me. No, he was never a mind game to me at all while I was a Christian. He was real. If you can’t understand that after what I said then you are not listening. You are only looking for ways to prove your belief about the Bible’s teaching is true.

              The Bible’s teaching traps you in a circular logic. You know it is true and nothing will shake you from that, nothing can. Someone like me is defined by the Bible in a certain way and that’s that. You cannot understand because the Bible will not let you openly really understand someone that deep down the Bible says is of this world. You are trapped in Bible definitions of words and reality.

              • Tanya Gregg
                2014-02-25 12:22:55 UTC - 12:22 | Permalink

                I just wondered what happened. I meant no harm.

                I don’t want to label you or trap you or justify anything in my mind based on your experiences. Makes me sad.

                Kids are smarter than grown ups. They know something about love that I am all too prone to forget as a “mature adult.” It isn’t weak or sinful or a vulnerability of some kind to love. The language of what’s really important is something they all know; it hasn’t been destroyed yet by the harshness of “real life.” Images of President Kennedy patting his kids when they run to greet him and John Jr.’s salute, are expressions of love that remind me of what I’m trying to get to. That’s all.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2014-02-25 19:44:36 UTC - 19:44 | Permalink

                I’ve told you what happened. But we sit on different sides of the fence. I have been where you are and understand the life of a believer, but you have not been where I am now.

                As for love, there is love, real love, outside religion. Re-capturing the inner child, with its innocent love and its sense of awe in the face of new mysteries in the world, all that is part of a fulfilling life. I came to the point where I found it easier to experience that without a religious perspective.

                I copy here more of what happened from what I wrote up in the ex-member site some years ago:

                I was a baptized member of the WCG for 22 years. Before that I grew up in a Methodist family. My evolution from ‘son of God’ to born-again atheist was both gradual and traumatic, but has left me feeling a far more ‘spiritually’ mature, loving, compassionate, open and relaxed man.

                The first chink in my religious-thinking came in the 1980′s when, just for the sake of some variety, I decided on a new approach to Bible study. I had always swallowed the teaching that the Bible is like a jig-saw puzzle, that the only way we could ‘understand’ the writings of Paul, for example, was to refer, say, to what James said in a letter addressed to someone else while discussing a different theme! What I wanted to do for a change was to study thoroughly each of the Bible books in isolation from one another to explore the mind of the writer of each book and understand its meaning to its original audience. That sounded a more intellectually honest approach so I expected it to verify afresh ‘the truths of God’ that I had been taught. What happened, however, was that when I let Romans alone interpret Romans my confidence in all I had been taught by the WCG began to be shaken. Peter warned of those who twisted the writings of Paul, but surely the ones twisting Paul were those who forced isolated texts to fit with books written in different cultures and times to different audiences for different purposes and with different theologies!

                But I was very much a believer and I had my personal Martin Luther transforming experience when I believed I had been unconditionally accepted by God. It was a real ‘born again’ experience — I felt more at peace, joyful, accepting of others and incredibly blessed. I even discovered that I could speak in tongues once someone showed me how — and if I wanted to.

                There was just one niggling question, however. Was not the source of this new ‘spiritual’ power in my life my own personal faith? I was believing all these things about God and Jesus and these beliefs really did change my life. But could I not substitute Dagon, a totem pole, or any mythical god, and if I believed exactly the same things about them as I did about Jesus, then surely would I not be just a empowered, transformed and ‘born again’? When honest with my darkest recesses of faith I had to admit that it was no divine power from heaven that was in me, but that I was simply playing a very clever mind-game. It was my own faith in a particular God-concept that changed me, not God himself. It was the same psychological power that every animal feels when it fully trusts that it is totally and unconditionally accepted by a significant other. One main difference was the addition of all the doctrinal details to keep this faith fresh and active in one’s mind and linked with a particular group of others.

                This thought was too scary for me to face up to immediately. I questioned many ministers in various churches about it, and read widely. Most disturbing was Edmund Cohen’s The Mind of the Bible-Believer. I desperately tore at his arguments the first time I read it, but finally had to concede that I was reacting to it with fear, not honesty. I could not escape the conclusion that the Bible was a ‘mind-control’ book that required the reader to abandon all honest, consistent and rational scrutiny of its very own text to avoid any risk of hell-fire.

                So I seriously studied the origins and nature of the Bible for the first time in my life. Strange (or just lazy or cowardly or both?) that I had spent my whole life studying its content (as passed on through a particular set of translations and manuscripts with dubious histories) but all that time I never before thought to study in any real depth, and with true open-minded honesty, the origins of that content.

                The history of the NT canonization turned out to be a history of a power struggle in the Catholic Church; the gospels were not eyewitness accounts of an historical event but were midrashic expressions of various faiths about a Jesus concept; and there was not a shred of independent first-century evidence that Jesus had even literally existed. The only reliable thing that could be said about the gospels and Acts was that they were a re-working of motifs not only from Old Testament and Jewish apocryphal writings but also from pagan religious festivals and literature — that they were statements of faith and not historical records was easily demonstrated. Even Jesus’ so-called revolutionary new teachings were found in much earlier Jewish and gentile literature. Finally, all I had been taught about how accurately the Bible itself had been preserved through the centuries proved to be nothing but a lot of wishful thinking and fairy tales.

                The theological scholars who brought such things to my attention (e.g. Austin Farrer, John Spong, Steve Crossan and others) would often simply jettison all their arguments and evidence temporarily to assert a personal mystical faith in a real Jesus and God behind it all despite the evidence they uncovered. (Significantly however, the theological scholar who became the bridge between Farrer and Spong, Michael Goulder, did become an atheist himself.) Most Christian scholars really write apologetics for their faith: very few seem to have the mind-set or the ability to consistently apply the methods of true historical research. Earl Doherty’s web page, The Jesus Puzzle, sums up the historical evidence, or lack of it, for a single historical figure behind the origin of the Christian religion. The Journal of Higher Criticism also raises serious questions that arise out of the application of true and consistent historical research.

                If God were really behind the Bible, then he did not leave an honest inquirer with any way of proving its message to be historically true. On the contrary, he left honest inquirers with all the evidence stacked against its divine inspiration. To believe in the Bible on these terms is like believing that God let the Devil plant dinosaur bones in rocks to test our faith in Creationism. How could I take such a God seriously?

                It was a small step to think through the whole idea of God from that point. His attributes were supposed to be self-evident, but different cultures saw these attributes differently. So much of what I had believed had really been determined by the language of the questions I had been taught to ask. (e.g. “Creation” demands a “Creator”. Of course by speaking of “creation” I was predetermining my conclusion. Why not simply use “universe” instead?) God had really been an adult version of my childhood Santa Claus, a Jungian archetype. Joseph Campbell in his writings and talks on mythology helped me understand where Christianity sat in the world of religion and psychology. I also found that the theories of evolution were dishonestly or just sloppily misrepresented by fundamentalists. Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative opened my mind for the first time to the plausibility that our ethical sense really could be biologically based, and did not necessarily have to be some spirit entity in us. Even near-death experiences, I discovered, had long had very plausible biological explanations that were obviously far less exciting to circulate widely.

                As a fundamentalist WCG believer I believed I had all the big answers to the big questions of life. I simply shut my mind to any idea that questioned those answers. Today I feel much more comfortable with questions without final answers. Living with questions rather than answers has made me more open to all that life has to offer. The only authority I accept as my guide to life comes from within me, and I have been surprised at how ‘moral’, ‘compassionate’, and ‘complete’ we can be when we finally learn to listen to ourselves and be truly free.

                I had recently a chance to thank Bishop Spong for helping me (albeit unintentionally) on my path to atheism. I told him that since becoming an atheist I felt much more loving and relaxed and mature than I ever felt while a believer. He replied that he had found that many atheists do feel this way, while sadly most religious people he knew do seem to have an ‘uptightness’ about them.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-02-25 09:39:12 UTC - 09:39 | Permalink

      This is from Marlene Winell in Leaving the Fold, p. 83:

      Fundamentalist Christianity rests on circular reasoning and pat answers. The belief system is brilliantly constructed to provide its own support — if you don’t look too closely at the logic. It is a closed system, satisfied with its own internal evidence of truth. It is closed in that any information or argument from outside is rejected a priori because . . . it is a “lie,” not of the “truth.”

      All questions are answered within the belief system itself, usually with circular reasoning, for example:

      Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:6)

      The tautology of this passage is absurd when you think about it, but deceptive and powerful for the person fearing for salvation. In essence, it says “We’re right and the world is wrong because we say so, and the proof of being of God is whether someone listens to us, while the proof of being wrong is listening to them.”

      There is no question for which there is not some kind of answer, and the answers are nondisprovable, using internal terminology and assumptions of the system and therefore appearing convincing to the person wanting very much to believe. This seeming defeat of all criticism constitutes a masterful manipulation. . . .

      In other words, there is absolutely nothing I can say that will convince you that I ever truly knew or loved the real Jesus. The Bible says that the simple fact that I “left” is proof I was never “of you”. And in your mind that settles it, yes?

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  • Tanya Gregg
    2014-02-25 12:44:31 UTC - 12:44 | Permalink

    I can see how I came across as you describe when i reread what i wrote to you. My apologies. I am not very skillful when I attempt to put my thoughts in written form.

    Sometimes I wonder about him. Why do I care? Did I imagine the indescribable, exquisite joy and love that fell over my life in one instant of time, when I was bound as a monster, dying of and spewing hate and murderous rage?

    No desire to judge you or to reduce you to a series of cold, calculating questions or anything like that at all.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-02-25 19:55:02 UTC - 19:55 | Permalink

      I appreciate your response. It is easy for us to talk past each other. Many of us have transforming moments similar to the one you describe. If you want to know my perspective on such experiences, I do believe the way we interpret them is conditioned by the culture we grow up in.

      I used to experience sleep paralysis fairly often when young. Given my religious environment, and at one time some stories I had heard about demons coming to people in the night and seemingly attempting to harm them, for a while I thought I was experiencing demons attacking me. I knew nothing of the physical condition of sleep paralysis.

      My father in his last days experienced a vision of leaving his body and being taken up to a place where there were angels singing the most beautiful melodies. It was a most reassuring and comforting experience. I afterwards learned that studies have shown such experiences vary according to the cultural background of those who experience them, and that there are neurological explanations for the experience.

      Christianity has helped many people change their lives for the better. Few Christians seem to realize that so have other religions, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism.

      I no longer believe in an afterlife. I used to think that not believing in an afterlife would make life intolerably pointless. Now I am here I find the opposite is true. I find life, and love, and caring for others is all the more precious and important than it ever was when I was a believer. And as a believer I was sure there could be no greater love than that found in the lives of believers. I found out I was wrong.

  • JC
    2014-02-25 17:23:04 UTC - 17:23 | Permalink

    I grew up in WCG and was there in the last year of AU, I also saw a lot of ‘behind door’ shenanigans and jockeying as the “camps” began to split apart. The entire experience has also led me on a personal journey to find answers and I am in the same position as you… I believe there is a creator (and quite possibly varying lower levels of them, which is why there are a ‘pantheon’ of them written about down through history and why the Elohim is a plural word even though most Christians would fight that interpretation tooth-and-nail, I digress…). As for religions as a whole, I believe they are just mind-games for human crowd control. I stumbled across something recently that really intrigued me by an Italian man named Mauro Biglino, who translated 23 books of the original texts from the bible for the Vatican. He had to translate the Leningrad Codex (the version of the Bible which all three major monotheistic religions – Cristian, Jewish and Muslim – recognize as the official Bible) from the Hebrew, word by word, literally and with no interpretation whatsoever. Since you are a fellow seeker and researcher, I would love to get your opinion of what he has to say.

    His translated YouTube video starts here: Mauro Biglino: Unexpected Bible – Translating it literally – http://youtu.be/j4MXLB6SwPg

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-02-25 20:23:39 UTC - 20:23 | Permalink

      The video concludes with the image of “hovering over water without fluttering its wings”. I can see where that is going — to lead us to some sort of aircraft/ufo. I live on a beachfront and often see birds hovering over the water. They generally do so without fluttering their wings. They are gliding or floating with the wind currents, like fixed-winged aircraft. So that’s one point. Not fluttering wings while hovering over water is common for birds. It does not have to refer to our image of a UFO.

      It is actually impossible to translate without interpreting words. When he uses the word “astronaut” he is choosing a word that injects an interpretation into the translation process. It would have been a more accurate translation, I think, or a more valid interpretation, had he coined a word (or combination of words) that referred to a concept that made sense to the original authors.

      There is more I could say, but maybe I can get back to this on the weekend and pick it up then.

  • 2014-02-25 23:19:54 UTC - 23:19 | Permalink
  • Tanya Gregg
    2014-02-25 23:58:20 UTC - 23:58 | Permalink

    Thanks again. What a pleasure its been reading about your life and faith and times of growth and new insights. Very interesting and real.

    My folks were intellectuals, summa cum laude graduates of the best Ivy League universities. To them, hatred for religion generally and the catholic church particularly, created a sacred bond that inspired their 50 years of marriage.

    When I had lost hope, a reason to live, and filled with furious, raging hatred, I prayed– knowing no one was listening. I prayed. I pleaded. I begged. I entreated, over and over and over and over and over with every ounce of what was inside me for god to help me. And even though I KNEW no one was listening, I kept pleading, “Help me, please. Help me, please. Please help me. Please. God help me. God please help me…” I couldn’t help myself. Not in the way I needed help. There was nothing left of me besides hatred. (I wasn’t aware of this. All I knew was misery.)

    Jesus, like a refreshing, gentle, quiet, cool breeze and out of nowhere, unexpectedly, without the slightest hint something was coming, became real. No one was as stunned by this as I was. If something else was or could have been there, I don’t know. Jesus, I think, heard me. I think he was in that pit with me when I begged God for help. I am still grateful. Not all the time. Not without hatred-for him and others and myself. Not without desperation.

    I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to forget him. I think he was as lonely and heart-broken as I was.

    • 2014-02-26 00:29:47 UTC - 00:29 | Permalink

      I think he was as lonely and heart-broken as I was.

      A beautiful insight that I think says far more than at first it seems to say.

      And I never argue with people’s religious experiences. You know I believe they are culturally and psychologically determined. But we are all where we are at as a result of our own personal journeys. I could not have been anything other than what I was thirty years ago. I could not now be anything other than what I am.

      That doesn’t make life mechanical. It makes us humble and awed at the wonder and horror of it all.

  • 2014-02-27 23:56:45 UTC - 23:56 | Permalink

    Hi Neil, thanks for sharing this.

    It amazes me as well, how similar spiritual abuse stories are. The control tactics used by those who perpetrate the abuses, are also strikingly similar. My former spiritual home, IWWB (iswasandwillbe) is a well-documented WWCoG splinter group, albeit a very small one.

    The control tactics I experienced were eerily similar to yours: people are socially cut-off if they persist in a line of questioning over a matter of doctrine, or take issue with an established precept. The standard “party line” is that anyone who does this does not have “the one mind of Christ” and then, these certain people are highlighted as being “handed to Satan.” From that point onwards, no more contact is to be made with that person, or those who do, also risk being likewise expelled.

    The elders and the spiritual leader (Mike Vinson) also change their positions on many things on a whim, saying that they experience “progressive revelation.” If the plebs can’t keep up, then again, the accusation is that they mustn’t have the “one mind” of Jesus anymore and again, disfellowship looms for those question the acquired revelations of the spiritual elite.

    Unlike your experiences Neil, when I joined the group, things were not as restrictive as they ended up being when I was elbowed out the door. At one point, it was no big deal to say you attended birthdays, wedding anniversaries etc. But as time marched on, Mike Vinson (one of Herbert’s former mail-room employees) began to fossick more and more from the cesspool of Armstrong-ism and draw on his former groups doctrines.

    I am told by a good friend of mine who attended Ambassador College (and who also spent time with Vinson and his IWWB cult-group) that virtually all of IWWB’s doctrines are carbon-copies of WWCoG. None of this surprises me. I have read many former WWCoG survivor stories and it seems like I am reading my own.

    Thanks again for the honesty Neil. Bless you

  • Trace
    2016-09-17 19:22:47 UTC - 19:22 | Permalink

    Mr. Godfrey, have you ever come across the name Mauro Biglino? He was hired by the Vatican to translate the texts of the bible. I just wanted to inform you of this author because I felt you might find it quite interesting. The bible was translated improperly. The Vatican fired him for his translations of the texts. None of it is what it seems. “Mauro Biglino is an Italian scholar of history of religions, he published in Italy five books, two of which are focused on the research and re-translation work of the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament of the Bible in a literal way, word by word, from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. The Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia is the first printed edition of the Masoretic text, derived from the Leningrad Codex of 1008 AD, which is the original text of reference of the Bible for the Roman Catholic Church, for the Bible of the Christian Protestant Churches – the King James Version – and for the Torah of the Jewish religion. Mr. Biglino’s books focused on the research and re-translation work of the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament of the Bible in a literal way, word by word, from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. The Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia is the first printed edition of the Masoretic text, derived from the Leningrad Codex of 1008 AD, which is the original text of reference of the Bible for the Roman Catholic Church, for the Bible of the Christian Protestant Churches – the King James Version – and for the Torah of the Jewish religion. Mr. Biglino’s books focused on the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament are entitled “Il Libro che cambierà per sempre le nostre idee sulla Bibbia” and “Il Dio Alieno della Bibbia”. Prior to writing these two books, Mauro Biglino had worked for ten years for the main publishing house of the Vatican, Edizioni San Paolo*, as a translator of ancient Hebrew from the original Masoretic text of the Bible.
    Mr. Biglino translated for the Vatican publisher 19 books of the Bible from the ancient Hebrew text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. 12 books were published by Edizioni San Paolo in the book “I Profeti Minori”, 5 books were published in the book “Cinque Meghillot”.”
    Derived here: http://www.vigli.org/Biglino/Mauro_Biglino.pdf

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-09-17 20:31:21 UTC - 20:31 | Permalink

      There are many translations of the Bible and even more translations of individual books of the Bible and I never rely upon any one of them. I sometimes compare the Catholic Bible with other translations. But when I want to know the original text I look at publications of the various Greek and Hebrew manuscripts themselves and compare these to see how consistent they are and how any variations might best be explained. Sometimes even these publications contain accidental errors so it is important to check these for subsequent errata and even compare with digitized renditions of the surviving manuscripts themselves.

  • Trace
    2016-09-17 19:28:34 UTC - 19:28 | Permalink

    Sorry for the double posting of some of that. I didn’t edit it before sending. Good day

    • JC
      2016-09-19 04:07:37 UTC - 04:07 | Permalink

      Trace, it’s nice to see you are familiar with Mauro Biglino’s work. If you had read some of the earlier comments above, I also tried to point Neil in his direction, but I’m not sure if he understands or has taken the time to recognize the significance of his work. Some of the major highlights that Mauro brings up is that the Catholic church and most Jewish Rabbi’s know that the bible was not the inspired word of god but rather copied stories from the earlier Sumerian texts, Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Enuma Elish, etc. The 10 commandments he translated are very different from what we all grew up reciting, in fact there were 12 commandments in total.
      1 You shall not make a covenant with the people of this land
      2 Break down their altars, break their images, and cut
      down their groves, and do not worship their gods
      3 You shall not take of this land daughters for your sons
      4 You shall not make for yourself any gods of cast metal
      5 You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the
      month Abib (the first month of the Hebrew year)
      6 His are all the male firstborns; all firstborns of your
      sons you shall redeem with gifts
      7 You shall observe the Sabbath after working for six days
      8 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks“ (harvest, year’s
      end ingathering…)
      9 Three times in the year shall all your males appear
      before the Elohìm
      10 You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything
      leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of
      Passover remain until the morning
      11 The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall
      bring to the house of the Lord
      12 You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk

      I have his book called “The Book that will Forever Change Our Minds about the Bible” translated in English, the PDF version and am happy to share with anyone interested in checking it out.

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