Category Archives: Fundamentalism


Tragedies of the Bible Believing Mind

by Neil Godfrey

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-6-27-40-amTerrible déjà vu hit me as I recently watched the BBC doco Return to the Most Hated Family, also known as The Most Hated Family In Crisis (sequel to The Most Hated Family in America) with interviewer Louis Theroux. Australians at least can catch the documentary over the next few days at iview. My own cult was never as offensive as the subject of this film: we certainly never publicly demonstrated at funerals gloating over dead soldiers in the belief we were righteously rejoicing in God’s judgments. But I could understand how these devout believers could bring themselves to do just that.

But that’s not the point of this post. What really pained me was the way Theroux was able to expose the deep human tragedy inflicting these people trapped in their conviction that they were doing God’s will.

Parents had thrown their children out of the church for “choosing the way of the world/Satan”. Mothers, fathers, they were clearly straining with all their power to put on a stoical front, to not buckle emotionally, to show the world that they were truly so God-fearing and God-loving that even when their own children were “the lost” they still “rejoiced in the judgments of God”.

Of course they had to give their suffering meaning and that’s the only way they could do it. But Theroux’s questions were so compassionate and direct that the camera could not deny viewers the signs — gestures, facial tensions, slight voice quavering — of deep pain denied.

Among Theroux’s concluding remarks was a line that went something like this: “People who deny their own feelings believe they have a right to trample on the feelings of others.” And I was reminded of the pain I had caused my own parents when I joined a cult.


A few days earlier while driving I was listening to a local radio interview of a woman compassionately talking about her late Bible-believing mother. They had been a military family so always on the move, never having the opportunity to build long-lasting relationships with others. The mother’s strong devotion to God, the daughter suggested, had become a substitute. It was her one constant and close friendship. To me that came across as a moving attempt to understand her mother, to avoid judgment that could have come so easily. And that’s how I remembered dark years of my own past (don’t misunderstand — my entire life was certainly not spent in the cult and I experienced other far more benign forms of Christianity as well before becoming an atheist): we loved others, were bonded to others, as they themselves were bonded to our God. Ties could be severed as quick as an axe blow once they lost hold of the centre that was their God. But that was not this woman’s experience as far as I know. It was enough to suggest that her life lost in God was in fact a sad symptom of an inability to establish a comparable relationship with her own kind.


6 Tips for Deprogramming Trump followers (and Clinton’s? and Others….)

by Neil Godfrey

Cult deprogramming might sound extreme so first a wise word I wish I had taken on board some time ago:

Bear in mind the difference between an actual cult and a cult following.

There’s a big difference between Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Jim Jones, and Charlie Manson, and David Koresh, Shoko Asahara.

It was not a wise choice of words when I described many of Acharya S’s followers as “cult-like” in their thinking. My words were construed to mean that I was saying they themselves constituted a cult despite my efforts to explain otherwise. But in reality that was only one of my many sins in their view and I am not sure following the points below would have made any difference at all to the animosity they continue to have towards me. Still, not following the points below is an absolute guarantee that one’s efforts to “deprogram” a person with “cultish” type thinking will fail.

The points and the quotations are all taken from David Feguson‘s article, Cult Deprogrammer: Here’s How to Stage an Intervention for Your Trump-Supporting Friend on Alternet. The article addresses Trump followers but I’ve added a tilt towards HRC in my own title. That was my attempt to make the following points more general. They apply the best of times to any communication attempting to persuade someone to think differently.

How does one approach someone who comes across as “stubbornly resistant to facts” and blind to an “idol’s” hypocrisy?

  • Approach the person with respect

It is important to frame your intervention as an act of caring and support. Otherwise, the person will feel that they have been ambushed, and they will go on the defensive.

read more »


Holy Hell: What life in a cult was like

by Neil Godfrey

What life in a cult was like: “We gave away our critical thinking and moral code and surrendered it to him” — Gary Kramer writes about his interviews with former disciples of Buddhafield, including disciple filmmaker of Holy Hell.

Buddhafield espoused starkly different teachings and practices from the Christian cult I belonged to — and both Buddhafield and Christian cults are very different from Islamist political/terrorist “cults” I have spoken about before. The similarities, however, are also very real. I quote from Kramer’s interview those points that also point to my experience and what I have read in the research about terrorist cells.

What led to involvement? Will Allen (WA):

I was on a quest for happiness. I was pretty burned out from college. I liked the teachings I heard, and the people I met, and that was the beginning of the end. I was young and looking for some kind of secret to life—how to live my life and give it purpose.

Another member (David Christopher – DC) replied:

We were looking for something deeper. Our families are a cult. I have a new definition for cult: a group or organization that inhibits your thinking through guilt, shame, or coercion. That can be your family, it can be your church. . . . Most everyone in our community wanted something more—they saw something under the veil and wanted more than just the superficial, and that’s how they entered into this.

You can’t just join the Buddhafield. It’s hard to get in. It’s selective, and secretive. I realized quickly that there was something going on. I wasn’t invited in. There was a process you needed to go through… Eventually you get invited. . . . It was “this is more your family,” and I felt that way—it was way more intimate than my own family.

Why stay?

It’s like any relationship. You find the good and hold on to that as long as you can and overlook all the negatives. . . . (WA)

The craziness wasn’t really apparent for most of us. I’d like to say 80 percent of it is so fricking amazing that you can live in this state of bliss. And 20 percent was a little weird but you say, “I’m not going to look at that part.” (DC)

Comment on the culture, the rules:  read more »


The “Only Way” to Free Someone from Cults: Islamic or Christian

by Neil Godfrey

Another illustration of the only way a devoted member of a “tribe” — whether religious cult or ISIS — can begin to loosen their attachment and head towards the Exit door appeared in AP’s The Big Story: Islamic State’s lasting grip is a new hurdle for Europe, US written by Lori Hinnant. Its message is consistent with my own experience or exiting a religious cult and with the scholarly research I have since read on both religious cults and terrorist groups, both Islamist and secular.

Lori Hinnant is discussing the experiences of a French program to “de-radicalise” former ISIS members. Its key sentence:

Only once doubts are seeded can young would­be jihadis themselves reason their way back to their former selves.

Attempting to argue them out with reason is futile. In the case of fundamentalist cults we can easily enough see why: their thinking is entirely circular. There is no escaping. All “contrary thoughts” are from Satan and to be cast down, writes Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5. It is no different with Islamic extremists, as previous posts have illustrated. Membership of the group is the foundation of the identity of each member; the group is their family and the bond stimulates the dopamine. Life only has meaning as an active member of the group.

Try talking anyone out of leaving their family and walking away from the cause that gives their life meaning.

There is no reasoning with someone in the thrall of a jihadi group, those who run the program say, so the recruits have to experience tangible doubts about the jihadi promises they once believed. Bouzar said that can mean countering a message of antimaterialism by showing them the videos of fighters lounging in fancy villas or sporting watches with an Islamic State logo. Or finding someone who has returned from Syria to explain that instead of offering humanitarian aid, the extremists are taking over entire villages, sometimes lacing them with explosives. Only once doubts are seeded can young would­be jihadis themselves reason their way back to their former selves, she said.

That’s how it’s done. It won’t happen immediately. At first the response to “proofs” of hypocrisy among the group’s leaders and deception in what they promise will be met with incredulity, a suspicion that the stories are all lies. But show enough with the clear evidence that the stories are not fabrications and slivers of doubts have a chance of seeping in. Some will react with even more committed idealism, convincing themselves that they will fight the corruption within. But their powerlessness will eventually become apparent even to themselves.

Only then will the member begin to “reason their [own] way back to their former selves”.




Atheism, Fundamentalism and the Liberal Christian (conclusion)

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from the previous post. A dialogue with Samantha Field’s post.

It’s perpetually frustrating to me, though, that there’s a certain movement of atheists that brand me as an idiot because I’m religious, or that I’m incapable of being reasonable or logical because I have faith. To this type of atheist, if I don’t accept fundamentalist Christianity as the Only True Way of being a Christian, I’m being inconsistent. Over the course of many conversations, I’ve usually found out that they were at one point Christian fundamentalists.

Religious people are not being idiotic, unreasonable or illogical. Their belief systems are very logical given their …. beliefs. We have fairly good understandings now why people are prone to believe in supernatural beings or dimensions. I’d like to see atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris educate themselves about our progress in this area. They need not fear that making an effort to learn more about the nature of religious practices and beliefs from anthropological and psychological perspectives will somehow “make excuses” for the harm done in the name of religion. Would criminologists be making excuses for crime by understanding the range of sociological, psychological and genetic factors that contribute towards criminal behaviour? Of course not, but the more we understand the more tools we have to minimize criminality. Ill-informed and emotive responses towards criminals may make us feel good but at the same time only increase the problem.

. . .  To many, Modernism is the only “correct” way to reason, and Truth and demonstrable, provable, physical fact are inseparable.

I was fortunate in the way my faith evolved. . . . All of that prompted me to do the same, and the end result is that I didn’t use the same framework I’d always used to evaluate evidence and questions. I didn’t rely purely on Modernist reasoning in order to deconstruct my faith system and start building it back up.

I’m drawn to dichotomies, to absolutes, to if then statements, and either or views of reality. . . . I have to force myself to live in the tension, to think of arguments as a matter of degree and nuance rather than totally right or totally wrong.

These are the words of someone who is drawn to belief even if belief is in a mystery, in irreconcilable oppositions. As an atheist (I’m sure I’m not alone) I feel no need to “believe” in anything. I don’t “believe” in the scientific [Samantha’s “Modernist”?] explanation for life, the universe and everything. I simply accept it knowing that it is always subject to change or even revision. Believers generally seem to have a hard time “believing” that anyone else is not also a “believer”. Atheism is not a faith. It is not a belief system. Even the word “atheist” scarcely has any truly coherent meaning.

On the other hand, it’s almost as equally frustrating when people don’t understand fundamentalism, and what it does to people. They don’t know that fundamentalists are ruled by logical consistency before any other consideration. What may seem like utter nonsense to you or me makes perfect sense if you understand the premise they’re working with and follow it to its conclusion.

This is too simplistic. Whatever we believe we are all in our own lights “ruled by logical consistency”. Even Samantha’s own decision to believe in “nuance” and contradictions in tension is a logically consistent conclusion when you understand her premise. It’s a paradox but not logically inconsistent. Fundamentalism is far more than being logically consistent. See 10 Characteristics of Fundamentalism. Logical consistency does not mean valid arguments as we know from games with various syllogisms. What counts is the premise. Religious fundamentalists are trapped in circular arguments and that’s why their logic is fallacious.

Take the fact that fundamentalists can be gigantic assholes to their friends and family. To an outsider, it may seem like we did nothing but endlessly bully and criticize each other– how in the world could we possibly be friends, let alone like each other? If they were to ask me when I was a fundamentalist why I behaved like this, I would’ve said “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” along with a quip about how being harsh and exacting is the only way to be loving. That sounds absurd to the rest of us — being an asshole is not loving– but to them, it’s the only possible outcome. You must “edify” your friends toward righteousness. Anything less is the opposite of loving.

The situation described here demonstrates the way fundamentalists are trapped in double binds and contradictions they cannot escape. They need to redefine words like love and adopt a new persona. Yes there is logical consistency at work there is far more at work that underlies that mental rationalisation. Generally everyone justifies their behaviour by logical reasoning. As Ben Franklin said,

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do”

Moreover, Samantha’s example is not a question of logic so much as firm conviction in some anti-social precepts.

Sciences have publicists promoting their research. I’d love to see more publicists promoting the research into human behaviour, including religious behaviours. Both believers and atheists are being shortchanged.

To fight a thing, you have to know a thing.




Atheism and Fundamentalism: Why atheists don’t understand religion and why believers don’t like atheist criticisms

by Neil Godfrey

I recently lamented in a comment that some atheists appear incapable of understanding any argument about religion that is neither attacking nor defending it. Atheism, fundamentalism, liberal Christianity, religion generally — they do not all seem to be equally well understood as many heated arguments testify. Are ex-fundamentalist atheists still very often fundamentalists at heart as some believers claim? Are liberal Christians (and by extension many Muslims) hypocrites or at least just kidding themselves for not following the harshest precepts of their Scriptures as some atheists declare? Is the only good atheist necessarily a militant anti-theist?

fieldIn the context of the above questions I was alerted to a post by Samantha Field, THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON FUNDAMENTALISM, and because I felt it was being misinterpreted by one liberal Christian who sometimes comes across as a little frightened of certain atheists, and partly because I agreed with much of what Samantha wrote but had a different perspective on other aspects, I began to write up my own response. It turned into something of a dialogue and I had to cut it short for sanity’s sake.

I’ve written many other posts on fundamentalism going back to 2007 — they (and some of Tim’s) are all archived here — so this one will be added to that pile. I’ve learned much more about religion and cults since 2007 but my basic position may not have changed all that much.

Samantha is protesting against those atheists who appear to be recycling what in her view are fundamentalist approaches to religion. Her post begins:

I grew up in Christian fundamentalism, and now I’m a progressive Christian. Surprisingly, at least to me, that particular path is an unusual one, although probably not rare. Speaking from personal observation, it seems like the more usual route out of Christian fundamentalism isn’t liberal Christianity, but atheism.

I grew up in a liberal Christian household (that branch of Methodists that allowed card-playing and dancing and belief in evolution). After a period of teen turmoil I ended up in the Worldwide Church of God (that outfit that was led by Herbert Armstrong and published The Plain Truth magazine). My exit from that cult was gradual. I continued to attend as a regular member for quite some time before I took actions that led to my departure, as I have explained elsewhere. At first I sought for replacements in some of the denominations that were relatively close to my previous beliefs such as seventh day observance (but not the SDAs) and adult baptism. Ongoing questioning of my own beliefs opened my mind to wider horizons and I eventually found myself quite comfortable regularly attending a liberal Baptist (and later for a short spell a Roman Catholic) church. I was exploring. And questioning. Anything that smacked of the old cult-like approach to faith and practice I shunned. Then I heard a radio interview with a psychologist who herself had been a devout fundamentalist (Marlene Winell) discussing not only the fundamentalist experience but even why people believe in God. That startled and worried me. I had never stopped before to think there might be any other reason why I believed in God apart from the “irrefutable proofs of creation” with all the “wonder and awe” of the universe, “fulfilled prophecy”, “answered prayer” and “spiritual conversion” that all supposedly testified to his existence.

Why had I never questioned God before? Up until that time whenever I explored a question I found myself arriving at a new wall that I felt would never be breached. Though I had questioned the teachings and ways of my church I never thought I would question the Bible. That was bedrock. I “knew” that was the sure word of God. When I first came across critical studies of the Bible I had a very hard time accepting their perspective. That was another gradual process. But I still had God and Jesus firmly entrenched in my belief systems and would never lose them . . . . until, again, a catalyst from somewhere would daringly suggest it really was possible to question if anything lay behind that new wall. Questioning the very existence of God was the final barrier between my old life and the unknown (even frightening) world of atheism. The experience was traumatic as I have discussed elsewhere.

So my path out of fundamentalism was via progressive Christianity and only gradually on into atheism. Back to Samantha:

Unfortunately, it seems like there’s a lot of atheists out there who gave up on their religion, but didn’t give up fundamentalism. A little while ago I remarked on Twitter that it seems like atheists have more in common with Christian fundamentalists in their views on the Bible than they do with me. A few people were surprised by this. In short, it can be summed up by a saying in survivor communities: you can take the person out of a fundamentalism, but you can’t always take fundamentalism out of the person.

What I’m not saying is that this is inevitable– many of my close friends are atheists/agnostics who went through a time of being progressive Christians first. Their ultimate problem wasn’t fundamentalism, really, it was lack of belief. I think that’s true of most (if not all) atheists, even the ones who haven’t let go of a fundamentalist understanding of religion; they may not like their understanding of Christianity, but that’s not why they’re atheists.

Here’s where things get a bit messy. Some atheists are at some fault here, but so are some of the religious believers, I think. I’ll pick on the liberal Christian first. read more »

Sacred Scripture or Me? The Quran/Bible or the Believer? Who is to Blame?

by Neil Godfrey

I am posting here the main part, with minor modifications, of a comment I left at my previous post. I get the impression some readers just drop by to leave a polemic comment without bothering to return to see what anyone else might have said in reply or to follow up any broader discussion.

Yes, McCants is questioning your own dogmatic view about the role of scripture and religion as a cause for violence. Religion is an abstraction. Abstractions by themselves do not trigger actions. Abstractions don’t even exist except in our minds. And what I do with abstractions in my mind depends on a whole lot of other stuff in my makeup and the world around me.

Texts are dead letters. I can read a Nazi tract and it does not jump up and grab my mind and make me a Nazi. I can read anti-semitic literature without its words possessing my mind and turning me into an anti-semite. I have read the Bible and found in it justifications to wage war; I have read it at other times and found in it firm rationales for being a pacifist. I have used the Bible to tear down a family and build up a family.

So what gives here? Is the Bible some manic depressive with demonic power that sweeps me back and forth according to its own mood swings?

Would I have done certain terrible things in my past if I had never come across the Bible? Hopefully not. Yes, the Bible has played a very destructive role in my life and how I have affected others. Does that mean the Bible is to blame for my actions? No, I am to blame. I am responsible. I was responsible for my own beliefs and how I used the Bible to rationalize some very ugly behaviour in the past. There was a three-way negotiation going on there between me and others and a text. I cannot say the Bible made me do it.

Actually there was a four-way negotiation. Another group in my life were trying to talk me out of going the way of the cult. I chose to resist and argue against them. Why did I do that? Why were they also not swept up by the same ugly interpretation of the Bible that I was entering?

Now who or what was responsible for the belief system that I chose to follow? If the Bible, then how do we explain most people trying to talk me out of that view of the Bible? They also believed in and loved the Bible but they believed I was missing the spiritual intent of its dominant message. I believed they were missing the spiritual intent.

Yes, the Bible did play a key role. But other factors led me to open my mind to such a literal and fundamentalist reading of the Bible and they also need to be understood.

I’ve been posting at length about those factors for over a year now. Not everyone is interested in reading ideas that challenge their prejudices, sadly.



Evangelical Christianity’s Brand Is Used Up

by Neil Godfrey

Another very read-worthy article by Valerie Tarico:

Evangelical Christianity’s Brand Is Used Up

Back before 9/11 indelibly linked Islam with terrorism, back before the top association to “Catholic priest” was “pedophile,” most Americans—even nonreligious Americans—thought of religion as benign. I’m not religious myself, people would say, but what’s the harm if it gives someone else a little comfort or pleasure. . . . . 

Those days are over. . . .

The Evangelical “brand” has gone from being an asset to a liability, and it is helpful to understand the transition in precisely those terms.

I liked Valerie’s list of “what the Evangelical brand looks like from the outside”. Compare them with another somewhat more formal set of fundamentalist characteristics set out by Tamas Pataki that I posted on in 2007: 10 characteristics of religious fundamentalism. That was before the current shenanigans from the American fundamentalist brand.

Evangelical means obsessed with sex

Evangelical means arrogant

Evangelical means fearful and bigoted

Evangelical means indifferent to truth

Evangelical means gullible and greedy

Evangelical means ignorant

Evangelical means predatory

Evangelical means mean

Read her article for her justifications.




Who Joins Cults — and How and Why?

by Neil Godfrey
We must remember an old adage: no one joins a “dangerous cult” or a “terrorist cell.” Converts invariably see the act of joining in positive terms, as beneficial for both themselves, their society, and the cosmos (literally), and the process is far more gradual than it appears. — (Dawson 2010, p. 7)
Lorne Dawson, whose article is the basis of this post.

I am drawing heavily on a 2010 article by Lorne L. Dawson, “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue“, published in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1-21, 2010, for this post. The research findings point to other factors associated with those who do join religious cults (and Dawson suggests it might be worthwhile examining to see if they are also applicable to those who join terrorist groups.)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Christian sects like the Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to draw most of their followers from poor or underprivileged sectors of society. So it was easy to explain their attraction as offering converts a reversal of their fortunes: from being nobodies to being “the elect”. In the apocalyptic scenarios they all preached, those who were the least in this world would become the first in the next. The meek were to inherit the earth. The rich and powerful of this world would be brought down and the poor exalted.

(Similarly with Palestinian terrorist groups: the most obvious explanation appeared for many to be that they preferred a rich symbolic life, a reward of honour in the memory of their people, to continuing to be subject to extreme economic hardships and political and personal humiliation.)

The above explanation for why Christian cults exercised such a strong pull on the “lower classes” was overturned in the 1960s and 70s with the emergence of a plethora of New Religious Movements (NRMs) — or cults — that attracted youth from well-to-do families, highly educated, with excellent career prospects, and generally of secular upbringings. Even established Christian cults like the Mormons were also found to be becoming increasingly populated by members belonging to the higher socio-economic rungs of society.

So what was going on?

New theories of “relative deprivation” emerged in the literature. Perhaps people were attracted not because of the objective fact of their lower economic and social status, but because they perceived that they were disadvantaged in some way, whatever their real status. And maybe the perceived lack was not only economic, but also moral, social opportunities, psychological . . . .

The idea of relative deprivation seems very plausible; in many ways it conforms to our personal experience. But in the end it allows for too much interpretive flexibility. Almost any action could be explained by reference to some hypothesized sense of lack of respect, inadequate love, or ethical frustration. The theory explains everything and yet nothing because it cannot discriminate effectively between those who think this way and those who choose to act on their perception in some radical way, especially becoming violent. (Dawson 2010, p. 5)

Compare those joining new cults in the 60s and 70s with the 9/11 hijackers. The latter were also from well-adjusted middle class families. They were not oppressed or impoverished in any conventional sense. They had not been particularly religious. They had good opportunities to do well in careers in many countries.

An NYPD report Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat concluded that most individuals who had been involved in terrorist plots had had quite unremarkable backgrounds, no criminal history, ordinary jobs and lived ordinary lives. They were fluent in English, were Western educated and familiar with the Western lifestyle. They had opportunities to do well in both their countries of origin and in the USA.

There is no clear profile of a potential terrorist and they are, like those who come to join religious cults, largely indistinguishable from anyone else.

“Converts to NRMs are more likely to have fewer and weaker social ties.”

Since cults are in conflict in significant ways with society, it stands to reason that they are more likely to draw their recruits from those who have “fewer social attachments” and consequently “lower stakes in conformity”.

This datum explains why it is so often the young (and students) who are attracted. “They can afford to experiment with alternative ways of living.”

“Converts also tend to have fewer and weaker ideological alignments”

As I have noted in recent posts, research shows that people with strong attachments to their mainstream faith (whether Christianity or Islam) are not likely to join cults or terror cells. It is the “unchurched”, those with weak, non-existent or troubled religious backgrounds, or the rootless “seekers”, who are the more likely to join cults.

But there is a balance. Complete loners or those with no interest at all in spiritual and religious questions are not likely to join.

That’s the “who”. What about the “how”? read more »


How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views

by Neil Godfrey

radicalIslamRisingWhy do people join religious cults and extremist groups? What turns some people into “mindless fanatics”?

In the previous post we were introduced to Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (2005) that explores the reasons people in Britain joined the now banned extremist group, Al-Muhajiroun. As I read his work I was struck by the overlaps with the experiences of many who join religious cults, including my own experience with the Worldwide Church of God.

At the time of writing the above news came through of a swathe of terrorist attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Having visited Indonesia fairly regularly over the past seven years, including the city of Solo that is regularly associated with concentrations of jihadist extremists, I have no problem agreeing with those specialist commentators who point out that most Indonesians have no time for Islamist extremism and violence. (Keep in mind that though Indonesia contains the world’s largest Muslim population it is the world’s third largest democracy.) But that’s no defence against the tiny handful who are drawn to terrorist organisations. So why are a tiny few drawn to what most people deplore?

Here is the question Wiktorowicz asks:

So why participate in the [extremist] movement? On the surface, the choice seems irrational: the risks are high and the guarantee of spiritual salvation is intangible and nonverifiable (i.e., there is no way to know whether those who follow al-Muhajiroun’s interpretation and die actually make it to Paradise). And there are plenty of less risky alternatives that guarantee the same spiritual outcome. This includes a plethora of less risky Islamic fundamentalist groups that share many of al-Muhajiroun’s ideological precepts. Is participation in the movement, then, the choice of the irrational?

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 206). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Wiktorowicz’s answers are covered in chapters under the headings of

  • Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking
  • Credibility and Sacred Authority
  • Culturing and Commitment

Breaking those headings down a little . . . .

  • “Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking” addresses a range of factors that act as wedges to open people’s minds to radical alternatives to their world views. Most people say “What? Get real!” Why do a few say “Mmm… Interesting…. Let me think a moment”?
    • Most of those who go this far come to their senses and quickly realize that the message they are confronting is bizarre or “wrong” after all. Only a few of the few take the next step and embark on a journey of “religious seeking” or other form of follow-up.
  • “Credibility and Sacred Authority” digs a little deeper and explores why some alternative world views are more enticing than others.
    • What extent of knowledge is demonstrated by the radically new source? How does the “character” of the new source stack up against alternatives? How does personality tilt the scales? What of the public persona of a key channeller of the new ideas?
  • “Culturing and Commitment” looks at why certain individuals go the final step and commit to dangerous or “fanatical” groups.

Of the few persons who take an interest in what most regard as “fanatical ideas” even fewer actually take the leap from intellectual agreement to jumping in knowing the sacrifice they are making and the world they are leaving behind. That final step is of particular interest but first things first. Why do a few of us become sincerely interested in the radical fringe ideas in the first place?

I won’t address all of those in this post. Let’s focus on some of the wedges that prise “cognitive openings” for now. read more »


Islamic Radicals and Christian Cults: Cut from the Same Cloth

by Neil Godfrey

Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz works with CEOs and senior leaders to leverage high impact outreach and engagement, partnerships, and innovation to create opportunities and manage risk. He is an internationally recognized author and expert on national security engagement and counter-terrorism and served in two senior positions at the White House, where he led efforts to advance national security partnerships and innovation at home and abroad. Prior to joining the White House, Dr. Wiktorowicz developed ground breaking counter-radicalization initiatives for the Intelligence Community and the Department of State. Before his government service, he was a social movement theorist and one of America’s leading academics on the Muslim World.
Extract from The Huffington Post biography

Over my end of year break as I was catching up with Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West(2005) I was somewhat amazed at the extent to which my own personal experiences as a member of a Christian cult many years ago overlapped with what I was reading about the factors that lead people into extremist Islamic movements.

Wiktorowicz’s case study was the British based and now banned Al-Muhajiroun (= “The Emigrants”). My own experience was with the Worldwide Church of God and has since been further informed through a wide reading about other religious cults, the comparable experiences of others and some of the research into why people join them, why they remain and why they leave.

Similarity #1

On page 47 Wiktoriwicz has a section headed REQUIREMENTS FOR THE COMMITTED ACTIVIST. It begins (with my own bolding):

Al-Muhajiroun activists participate in a dizzying array of required weekly activities, and the tempo of activism is fast-paced, demanding, and relentless. Activists commit to an assortment of lessons, public outreach programs, protests, and countless movement-sponsored events, all of which consume tremendous amounts of time, energy, and resources. They center their lives around the movement and in the process frequently sacrifice work, friends, family, and leisure time. To put it simply, al-Muhajiroun participation is an intense experience.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 47). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Oh yes! That is very much a mirror of what one finds among religious cults. Mid-week evening Bible Study meetings (the family, children included, generally expected to attend); all day sabbath services and related activities; day of preparations work to be sure everything is in place for the sabbath “rest”; daily minimum of half hour prayer and half hour personal bible study — but with the constant message that the servant who does only the minimum expected is an “unprofitable servant” destined to be “cast out” in the final judgment; active participation in other social events and promoting of “the work” — e.g. letter box drops, maintaining stalls, local fund-raising; volunteering to work at youth camps; setting aside (in Australia) two tenths of one’s gross income for donations to “the work” and compulsory holy day festival attendance in addition to “voluntary offerings”, and twice in seven years setting aside a third tenth of one’s gross income ostensibly for “the poor”. Two magazines and a lengthy co-worker letter were produced monthly and were required reading. Other self-improvement activities were constantly promulgated: a regular speaking club for men; fitness and diet schedules; dress codes; correct habits of speech; the requirement to keep up to date with current news.

The Church or “Work” is one’s whole life. Birthdays, Christmas holidays, Easter, — these were all shunned as “pagan” so one necessarily withdrew from family and former friends. If sabbath and holy day festivals clashed with job requirements then so much the worse for the job.

The details of what keeps members busy and committed varies from cult to cult, but the effect is the same. Such a routine functions to immerse the member in the thought-world of the organisation. There is no time for serious, independent reflection.

Religious training lies at the core of activism: committed activists must master religious doctrine and movement ideology so that they can effectively promote al-Muhajiroun’s ideological vision of an Islamic state and society. To ensure that they are intellectually equipped with “proper” (i.e., movement) religious beliefs, formal members are required to attend a two-hour study session held by the local halaqah (circle) every week. Attendance is mandatory, unless the individual cannot make it because of travel constraints, a sick family member, or an emergency. In each country where al-Muhajiroun is active, the country leader may excuse absences for additional reasons deemed acceptable under Islamic law.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 47). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Reminds me of our mandatory two-hour weekly Bible Study sessions. Members who regularly absented themselves from weekly Sabbath services and also failed to have a good reason for skipping mid-weekly Bible Studies were noted (a few trusted members were assigned the surreptitious maintenance of attendance sheets) — and paid a visit by the ministry. read more »


How Religious Cults and Terrorist Groups Attract Members

by Neil Godfrey

frictionThere are interesting parallels between the processes that lead some people to join both religious cults and terrorist groups. If you once joined a cult you will very likely recognize some of the pathway others have walked to become members of a group responsible for violent terror attacks.

If you joined a religious cult you knew that others thought you were a bit weird. Numerous accounts of those who joined terrorist organizations show that those becoming interested in an extremist group were aware their families and wider society would try to talk them out of it so they kept their interest secret from everyone except others, if any, whom they knew shared their views.

Joining either means turning one’s back on society and immersing oneself totally in an alien way of life.

Jerrold Post appears to have been the first to recognize that cult recruiting can provide a useful model of terrorist recruiting. The analogy begins by noting that individuals who join either a cult or a terrorist group are likely to be characterized as “crazy.” Both a cult and a terrorist group require a level of commitment that most people find difficult to comprehend.

McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1709-1711). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. — (My bolding and formatting in all quotations)

McCauley and Moskalenko in Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us take up this comparison.

Here we focus on recruitment to the Unification Church (UC) of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The UC is generally regarded as a cult, and, more important, there is an unparalleled research literature for this group. A 1965 report by Lofland and Stark titled “Becoming a World Saver” chronicled the beginnings of the UC in America, and the surprise value of the report was its emphasis on the importance of social networks in religious conversion.

read more »


The Other Side of My Cult Experience

by Neil Godfrey

The decline and demolition of Ambassador College, once the prize jewell of the Worldwide Church of God (From}

A number of my critics have seized upon the fact that quite some years ago I was a member of the Armstrong cult, the Worldwide Church of God usually to indicate that I am therefore by nature some sort of unreasoning fanatic. The inference appears to be that just about anything I have written or done should be interpreted as evidence of a fundamentally immoral and psychologically damaged individual. This was certainly the message Maurice Casey sought to convey in his final book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? Others (e.g. West, Crossley, McGrath, Hoffmann) have uncritically leaped in to praise Casey for his “research” into the biographical details of people such as myself, failing to notice that in my case, at least, that he relied upon nothing more than a small section of an old web post I had composed for a very particular audience of fellow ex-cultists for the purpose of offering encouragement to other ex-members who had been through the same experiences. Had Casey’s readers turned to his source they would have seen (had they wished to see it) that I wrote much else that refuted some of Casey’s own selective reading.

But here’s the point I want to make in this post. I was expelled from the cult. More than once, actually.

I was kicked out in the end for going public with my questions about its teachings and its practices. Critical thinking, research into “the other side” of those things the Church disagreed with, led me to see that the Church and its leaders were very ignorant not only with respect to history, psychology, but even in the Bible itself. R. Joseph Hoffmann has said that I am merely trying to “rewrite” my experience with the cult but that is his own wishful thinking. I cannot rewrite the fact that I was kicked out, excommunicated, with my name read out in all the churches as members were being warned to shun me now that I was in the “bond of Satan”. read more »


My Last Days In the Cult: My Exit Story

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. read more »