Category Archives: Fundamentalism


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.

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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 »


Once a Fundamentalist . . . Never Again

by Neil Godfrey

3295218This post is dedicated to all those who were once fundamentalists and are fundamentalists no more. I post here extracts from testimonies of a number of people who have described the changes in their lives since they left fundamentalism behind.

I initially thought I’d dedicate it to those informed lay and erudite scholars who contemptuously snort at anyone who had, let’s say, an ultra-conservative, somewhat extreme religious past and who currently has come to entertain questions about the historicity of Jesus. But are such persons really worth a dedication?

Once a fundie, always a fundie.

That’s their claim. They mean by it that a person who once was mixed up with a religious fundamentalist type of past will, on leaving that past, inevitably switch to some other cause with all the fundamentalist pig-headedness and fervour that characterized their former religious commitment.

It’s a vacuous slogan, of course. It’s nothing but a cheap way to dismiss someone holding a view or asking questions they have no time for.

The truth is that people do indeed change. The number of books that have been published about leaving a sect, cult or fundamentalist religion of one kind or another surely number into the hundreds. Right now I’m sure most people browsing through any sizable general bookstore in the English speaking world will scarcely be able to avoid seeing at least one work about someone having left behind the confines of a rigid Muslim past. Anyone who has recently left or is in the process of leaving a Christian-influenced cult or religion will soon become aware of dozens of helpful titles. Bibliographies on the web abound. Some of my favourite and most helpful authors were Steven Hassan, Edmund Cohen, Marlene Winell.

These names alone belie the trite slogan. They are all fundies who have done much to help others leave behind and rebuild lives after the fundamentalist experience.

Many readers here know of Dr Robert M. Price’s fundamentalist background, current very liberal “Christianity” and of his books such as The Reason Driven Life.

In a future post I should explain what experience and research shows about why people join these religious outfits. There are gross misconceptions about that, and about the sorts of people who do join and endure in them for any length of time.

Both Tim and I have written about our own changes in outlook since we each left our respective religious coffins. Links to them can be found in the Vridar authors’ profiles. I have since written an update to try to dispel some ignorant nonsense being written about me on Hoffmann’s blog.

Hoffmann point-blank refused to let it be posted there as a correction to what he and others were saying. Perhaps such people think anything coming from me cannot be trusted. So here for the sake of the record I want to bring to everyone’s attention the testimonies of thirteen others who have also left fundamentalism behind never to return . . . .

The extracts come from a book available online (or at least via Kindle), Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, edited by G. Elijah Dann. Read them and know just how far ex-fundamentalists do indeed leave behind their former mind-sets. (Bolded emphasis is mine.) I know, I can’t resist my own comments throughout, either, sorry.

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Ten Reasons To Lose Your Religion

by Neil Godfrey

00A minister once told me he wished he knew who or what burned me so badly I left Christianity. I didn’t answer. I wasn’t burned. I evolved. — John

Marleine Winell in Leaving the Fold (See earlier Journey Free post) outlines several reasons leave fundamentalist religious systems in particular, but I think some of the points probably work for why people leave behind any religious faith. Her list is not complete or the result of a controlled study, as she herself explains. The purpose of her book is to support readers who have already stepped outside their old religious worlds and to share with them a range of experiences of others who have been through the same journey.

Marlene writes:

In general, people make changes of all kinds based on integrating information from new experiences. Human beings are “wired” to survive and thrive. Thus when we are disappointed with the methods we are using to meet needs, we are likely after a while to seek new methods. Also, change is more likely to occur if we are frustrated and we have access to information about alternatives. In effect, there are forces that push and forces that pull. Formally religious people find other ways to live, without the intellectual, emotional, and ethical discomforts that had become bothersome. New satisfactions add to the impact of the dissatisfactions, and the combination becomes enough to force the break. Thee multiple influences can be subtle and accumulate without clear awareness. (p. 88)

1. Developmental Change

People are growing, changing, maturing beings. Our development into more complex creatures is most noticeable in infancy, through childhood and youth.

This change is not random, but progressive with increased physical skill, emotional maturity, moral and cognitive development.

Personal development continues through adulthood. We integrate experiences as we change and grow, learn to appreciate paradoxes and shades of grey in our lives, learn how better to deal with situations.

That normal development can, however, be arrested. And that’s what happens when someone is diverted into a fundamentalist, black-and-white, dogmatic belief system.

In cases where a believer puts their trust strongly in a religious leader they make themselves vulnerable to disillusionment, even trauma, when that leader seriously fails.

Leaving such a religion can thus be seen positively as simply resuming one’s personal maturing and evolution.

Sometimes such resumptions of personal development come with a major life transition. Winell cites one woman for whom the birth of a child was such a turning point:

I believed the Bible’s promises and prophecies. I declined my parent’s offer to pay for a college education and devoted my time to studying the Bible and volunteering full-time in the ministry. At the age of 28, as I was expecting my first child, my whole concept of life and of the future collapsed. It was as if I had awoken from a dream state and saw reality for the first time. In the midst of the ensuing confusion I was left with the task normally reserved for adolescents: the search for who I am and what I am to do with my life. The nagging doubts that I had been able to hold at bay for years were finally slipping through. (p. 89)

2. The Bible and Fundamentalist Doctrine read more »


Christianity’s Impotence Before Real Guilt. (Reflections upon the novel “Sufficient Grace” by Amy Espeseth)

by Neil Godfrey

sufficientgracemindbbIt’s been a long time since I read a novel and in the last two days I remembered why it has been so long. Good novels devour me. I’ve read hundreds (no doubt many, many hundreds if you add novels for children and adolescents that I devoured as a teacher-librarian) and when I’m hooked on one everything else — work, household, sleep — takes a backseat till I finish it. In recent years I’ve chosen to focus on nonfiction — sciences, history, current affairs and media, psychology, anthropology and biblical studies mostly. Reading novels at the same time will put a halt to all that and more, especially since I am a way too terribly slow reader for my liking.

Over the last two days I have read a novel by an American who is now living in Australia, Amy Espeseth, Sufficient Grace. I blogged on this novel a month ago after hearing a radio interview with the author — The Beauty and Pain of Fundamentalist Religion. Since then (partly in response to Amy herself who tweeted me to say she’d be interested to know what I myself thought of the novel) I found a second hand copy on eBay (if I paid full price for every book I own I’d be enslaved to multiple mortgages) and read it as soon as it arrived. I could scarcely resist making it a reading project of mine since I also, after leaving a conservative or fundamentalist type of religion, had often toyed with the idea of writing a novel about my experience, too. Several plot-lines ran through my head.

In some ways the first part of the novel was not quite what I had expected from what I heard on the radio interview. The interviewer, as I recalled, spoke of the church folk living a life of something akin to happy innocence, at least on the surface. The author was said to clearly feel a real sympathy for these people. Yes, I could feel the sympathy. How can we not feel sympathy for many loved ones we have left behind? But Amy Espeseth’s novel is, at least according to the way I read it, many metaphors within metaphors. The families thrive on hunting, and the animals and nature are, to my mind at least, clearly foils setting the stage for the theme that is to soon erupt in lava flows. I felt the hard and cruel signs that something was not quite right beneath the surface of the lives of these God-fearing and self-contained people. Perhaps that’s where my own experiences took over and prepared me well for the horrific tragedy to come. read more »


Is the Christ Myth a Threat to the Christian Faith? (If not, what is?)

by Neil Godfrey

Updated with an added final paragraph 40 minutes after posting

You’ve got to be kidding!

Of course not. Not even the fact/theory of evolution and advances in biological science can undermine any of the “religions of the book”. John Loftus of Debunking Christianity made it clear that one of the worst things he could take up in his efforts to debunk Christianity was to argue Jesus did not exist.

In one of his more recent statements to this effect he wrote:

Christians will be more likely to listen to me than someone who claims Jesus probably didn’t exist at all. (The Christian Reaction to Jesus Mythicism)

John Loftus

John Loftus

He follows with this (my bolding and formatting):

I am a focused, passionate man, who is single mindedly intent on debunking Christianity. This issue [mythicism] will not do the job for the simple fact of what evangelicals like David Marshall think of such a claim. It’s too far removed from what they will consider a possibility.

I’d like to hear of the vast numbers of Christians who abandoned their faith because they were convinced Jesus didn’t exist. I just don’t see that happening at all.

Christians will not see their faith is a delusion until they first see that the Bible is unreliable and untrustworthy, and that the doctrines they believe are indefensible, which is my focus.

Now it might be that Christians could come to the conclusion the Bible is unreliable upon reading arguments that Jesus never existed, but they will be much less likely to read those very arguments because that thesis is too far removed from what they can consider a possibility.

Exactly. I agree 100% with what John Loftus writes here about the value of the Christ Myth idea for debunking Christianity.

The logic of Loftus’s understanding is that espousing the Christ Myth must inevitably be counter-productive for any attempt to “debunk” Christianity.

If the Jews can get along without a literal Abraham . . .

I once asked a member of the Jesus Seminar (long time readers move on, you’ve heard this story before) if he thought Christianity could survive or what the effect might be on Christianity if Jesus turned out not to have been historical. After a moments reflection he began, “I suppose Judaism can get along with out an historical Abraham, so . . . . .”

With mythicists like these . . . . read more »


The beauty and the pain of fundamentalist religion

by Neil Godfrey

sufficientGraceI happened to catch a fascinating interview with an American writer now living in Australia, Amy Espeseth, talking about her first novel, Sufficient Grace.

It captured my attention for two reasons:

One, I can’t help but take notice when I hear anyone speaking of experiences similar to mine;

Two, the recent suggestion that I and anyone who questions the existence of Jesus and the arguments of “Jesus historicists” is necessarily driven by a need compensate for some past bad experiences with religion and is thus on a vendetta to attack and undermine religion by any means possible.

I have not read the book but I was captivated by, and definitely related to, Amy’s sympathetic approach to the people who are bound to their cult. There is a beauty in their lives. The first half of the novel, I understand, explores this rewarding and charming existence. Then half way through a darkness appears. The child everyone in the community believes to be so wonderful and destined to be their new leader is seen by his cousin as he really is, and it is not pretty.

On the outside the lives of the members appear to be so beautiful. At the same time, however, they are cut off, cocooned from the rest of the world, and in that isolation every family seems to have a dark secret that must be hidden at all costs.

I was surprised by Amy Espeseth’s response when asked if she had any regrets about writing the book. She said Yes, she did. She unavoidably caused pain to some people she loved. read more »


How I Escaped Fundamentalism — 5 Myths about Ex-Fundies

by Tim Widowfield

Neil keeps telling me I need to add something to the blog to tell people a little bit about my background. That sounds pretty dull to me, but here goes. Oddly enough, one of the posts on Vridar that gets the most hits, day in and day out, is the one on the 10 Characteristics of Fundamentalism. So for this post, I would like to piggyback on that list with my own list of 5 Myths about Ex-Fundies.


HOLY SPIRIT – FOIX (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I grew up in a very strict fundamentalist Protestant denomination called The Church of the Nazarene. We shunned “worldly” things like going to the movies, playing cards, dancing, smoking, etc. We were, literally, “holy-rollers” — believing in a distinct, second work of grace after conversion. First you’re converted; then you’re sanctified by the Holy Spirit. We took the Bible very literally and accepted it as the living Word of God.

At some point in my middle teens that entire worldview became unreal to me. I no longer believed there was a titanic struggle for human souls. I no longer felt “the presence of the Spirit.” I no longer believed there was an angry, jealous God who kept a book with all my sins in it. But it wasn’t a sudden change.

Myth #1: Ex-fundamentalists have a de-conversion experience that mirrors the conversion process

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Fear and Loathing in the Bible

by Tim Widowfield

Is God mad?

Cover of "I have no mouth and I must scre...

Cover of I have no mouth and I must scream

I grew up in a church that took the Bible very seriously. It was the inerrant Word of God. It was our rock, our comfort. But the funny thing about taking the Bible literally is the unspoken assumption that God is a very dangerous character. He’s interested in every little thing you do, every little thought that crosses your mind, and if he’s displeased — why, there’s practically nothing he won’t do.

For instance, a rather large number of people in my country (all the members of my former congregation, in fact) believe that God once got so angry that he flooded the earth and killed every man, woman, child, fetus, animal, insect, arachnid, etc. If you stop to consider it, this story of wild rage makes every 20th-century dictator look like a piker by comparison.

And yet this story is something children are taught at a very early age. In fact, you can buy Noah’s Ark plush toys from Amazon. Aren’t they cute? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the story of the Ark, and how the animals came two-by-two. However, I don’t much recall the details of the stinking, bloated, rotted corpses of the millions of dead creatures that God killed. What, no plush “floaters”?

Seriously, is God mad?

The idea of an insane god with unlimited power and a malevolent personality is a staple of speculative fiction. One well-known example is Billy Mumy’s portrayal of the ill-tempered god-child in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life.” (Spoiler alert!) read more »


What I don’t like about “liberal” Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

First the caveats. I do not like a lot about both of the mainstream political parties in Australia. I believe both parties have enacted some legislation that has caused  bitter damage to some peoples’ lives. But I do like a lot of people who strongly support or are even members of those political parties. The point is that one can dislike, even detest, certain viewpoints yet not be a jerk when it comes to human relationships. That includes religious viewpoints. I think I know how to distinguish between ideological (including humanitarian) argument and personal intolerance as well as one who has vehemently and publicly protested recent wars while maintaining a bond with an army-son voluntarily participating in one of those wars.

If you hate reading here is the synopsis of what is to follow: “Conservative” (US) of “fundamentalist (Aus) Christianity may believe a lot of weird stuff but so what? So does “liberal” Christianity, although those who call themselves “liberal” Christians may relabel some of their beliefs as “mysteries” or “unknowns” in place of “miracles”. But as may be distilled from the above paragraph, what really counts is the nature of a person. I have known good and bad people who are Christians, Jews or Muslims — “conservative/fundamentalist” or “liberal”. But though goodness or badness comes down to the nature of the person, it is also clear that there are certain belief systems that tempt, lead astray, deceive individuals into thinking and behaving badly towards their fellow creatures. read more »


Leaving creationism, meeting a new authority or learning to think for oneself

by Neil Godfrey

There’s an interesting response to McGrath’s recent post. It traces one person’s evolution from a belief in creationism to belief in evolution — and, I think, ironically identifies something that went “wrong” in the process. No, of course I don’t think creationism is right and evolution wrong. So let me explain. First, here is the key part of the comment:

Maybe you had this experience too; but I remember reading a book arguing for creationism, it was well-written, finessed, and aid out all this data, had charts and figures, asked thoroughly compelling questions, and well, just seemed to reveal that the whole academy of science was just wrong- demonstrably wrong. Thankfully, through reading peer-reviewed, academic scientific studies I am no longer a creationist. I realized the lines they were given me were rhetorical, the gaping holes they pointed out that seemed just so persuasive and ground breaking were, once I became more scientifically literate, a chimera of rhetorical making. The questions they strung together just did not make sense once you realized the field,-and I noticed that I would need to read several books just to reveal a error in one dot in their whole join-the-dots technique spread across a chapter.

At the end of it I felt rather embarrassed that I listened to self-published, amateur scholarship, that I didn’t spot that despite the thousands of scientists there were in the world, it seemed to be only those with marginal nor tentative qualifications in the field though this was ground-breaking and became fawning enthusiastic devotees of pseudo-science.

That journey was a little different from mine and I am sure from many others who left creationism. read more »


Are true believers “insane” like Breivik?

by Neil Godfrey

I’m thinking of the true believer who believes in another reality as more real than the real world here and now.

The lawyer for Breivik has said his client appears to be insane because he is convinced that “only he understands the truth”. The rest of the world, he believes, will understand him 60 years from now. He has a completely different perception of reality, for instance believing torture exists in Norway’s prisons.

If that is insanity, then how do we describe those who believe the whole world lies in wickedness under the rule of the Devil while only they understand the truth? Or those who believe that Jesus will return in only a few years and demonstrate his favour to them before the whole world, to show the world that they were the ones who were right all along? Or what of those who believe in behind-the-scenes 666 world-takeover conspiracies, weird things about atheists, Catholics, Muslims, gays, the beneficence of the treatment of Bradley Manning, or weapons of mass destruction?

Breivik kills people but true believers don’t do that, do they? Breivik, we are told, used drugs and other aids to help him keep his nerve through it all. True believers don’t do that, but when acting as part of a much bigger institution upon which they can hang their personal responsibilities, like a nation or national government, they have been known to actively support mass murder, torture and other forms of systemic violence.

And on a personal level how many are prepared to “suffer persecution” for their willingness to cause heartache by forsaking and breaking up their families, removing themselves from healthy social intercourse, allowing loved ones to die from treatable illnesses, covering up sexual abuse for the “greater good”, all “for Christ”. And what of those who really are prepared to sell everything, lose or leave their jobs, all in the belief that they are soon going to be “taken away” to a better place?

I’m so thankful I got out of the true believer status myself. And so thankful I did not go the way of some of my former friends who likewise left but only turned to other brands of “true believer”. I have wondered why some other ex-fundamentalist atheists come across as so bigoted and arrogant when speaking of those who are still trapped in the same place they once were themselves. What happened to growth in self-understanding? I think the WIkipedia article on Eric Hoffer’s book might give us a clue:

With their collapse of a communal framework people can no longer defeat the feelings of insecurity and uncertainty by belonging to a compact whole. If the isolated individual lacks vast opportunities for personal advancement, development of talents, and action (such as those found on a frontier), he will seek substitutes. These substitutes would be pride instead of self-confidence, memberships in a collective whole like a mass movement, absolute certainty instead of understanding.

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The need to challenge liberal religion as well as fundamentalism

by Tim Widowfield

I’ve been catching up (thanks Mary) with other blog posts addressing atheism, in particular the New Atheists and their strident criticism of religion, in particular those appearing in response to R. Joseph Hoffmann’s views and posts by Stephanie L. Fisher. One that has particularly caught my attention, along with its related comments, is The Irrationality of Atheist Opposition to Atheism by Eric MacDonald. Part of my initial curiosity Eric’s post was learning that it was related to a lead post by Stephanie L. Fisher, and that Fisher’s post had subsequently been taken down. This is the second time this has happened recently — presumably on her own requests after others responded critically. (R. Joseph Hoffmann has since explained in a comment below that he removed Steph’s guest post as a matter of routine policy. I am sure Stephanie will like to repost it somewhere where it can have a more stable history.)

I enjoyed Eric’s post enough, and many of the related comments to it, and was incensed enough over assertions by some who like to be called humanists but object to being called atheists (even though they apparently do not believe in god/s), to join the fray with my own thoughts on the importance of atheists publicly challenging religious belief systems. My own thoughts are amateurish and inchoate compared with those expressed by Eric. But one has to start somewhere. Perhaps feedback can help me sort out with a bit more depth and rationality my own ideas. So here goes. read more »