I left the cult and met the enemy

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by Neil Godfrey

My past cult experience taught me that no matter how clever and diligent one was in researching and “proving” a set of beliefs, the results of such studies were all an illusion if the whole enterprise had been built on faulty assumptions.

The teachings of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite logical, quite rational, to anyone who accepts their starting assumptions.

Belief that one has been abducted and experimented upon by aliens is quite reasonable if one begins by accepting as true the requisite propositions.

(What also worries me a bit are those split-brain experiments that show just how clever we are at fabricating rational tales that are in fact all bollocks.)

It was during my process of leaving the cult that I fully appreciated just how easily we can embrace faulty assumptions under certain conditions, and how of utmost importance it is to guard one’s thinking and examine every layer of one’s beliefs and every facet of new propositions before embracing any of them.

I had been so cocooned in the cult world that when I was leaving it I naïvely expected to meet a world full of people smarter than I had been. I thought, well, they didn’t fall for what I fell into, so how refreshing it will be to rub shoulders with the rest of the world who can think critically about what they hear, and examine the foundational assumptions to test the validity of any logical edifice. 

Uh oh, no need for me to tell you how quickly I woke up to realize that is not how most people are!

And among the first disappointments I had to deal with were discussions with members, clergy and other officials within mainstream Christianity. I did not do a 180-degree turnabout in my beliefs overnight. I continued to believe in God and the Bible for some time after leaving the cult. I did not leave Christianity, but enjoyed fellowshipping with Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Church of Christ and others. But the embarrassment of my cult experience kept me on guard with what went into my mind. My questioning of my beliefs, and new ideas I was encountering, continued to delve deeper, layer after layer. In those discussions with my newly-found fellow Christians I was sadly forced to conclude that they, too, were just as resistant to questioning the fundamentals of their beliefs as all of us in the cult had been.

The only difference between them and my erstwhile cult associates was that these mainstream Christians stopped questioning after lifting for examination a different number of layers. One might almost say it came down to mathematics. Cultists stopped questioning after N number of layers of assumptions; mainstream Christians stopped questioning after N+X layers of assumptions.

It took me a little while to reach that layer that questioned the arguments for the inspiration of the Bible as the word of God. But when I did I had to ask others why they, too, did not question those arguments. Why simply accept and repeat those arguments (fulfilled prophecy, etc) as if they are true without critically examining them from all perspectives — including those of nonbelievers? I met with a brick wall.

Not with all. There were other Christians more “advanced intellectually” than I at the time who did not believe the Bible was the inerrant word of God. So I gravitated to their company. Ah, others who can also question without feeling threatened!

But then a voice came to me while driving in the car one lunch hour (via a radio — an interview with Marlene Winnell by ABC’s Spirit of Things presenter, Rachael Kohn — Marlene was living in Australia at the time) that led me to question even God! I don’t recall now if I met with more brick walls on this one, or if I was by that time savvy enough not even to bring up the question with certain people.

And the rest is history, as they say.

What I learned was that everyone (okay, most of us) places limits on their questioning. There comes time for a comfort stop. And the journey is not resumed.

People seem willing to question only as far as their comfort zone allows, and after that it is really rationalization. The seriously honest two-sided scrutiny is fine but only up to a point. That point is where we usually meet our religious, political or other personal space and preferred identity.

Maybe for many people with other sorts of backgrounds this sort of questioning is easy. Going all the way was not easy for me. Questioning God really was a traumatic step in my life and I had to first seriously think through whether or not I was prepared to face the consequences should I come out the other side an unbeliever. For a number of days I really did feel disoriented as if I were in a scene from Revelation where the sky was falling all about me and there was no longer any ground beneath my feet. So I know it is not a light decision to make for everyone.

But it was my cult experience that got me through it, or rather the memory and humiliation of my cult experience. Out of it I had determined never again knowingly to rest on an unquestioned assumption. It was about intellectual honesty. For me, it took a sacrifice of my own ego and some degree of trauma to follow the way of intellectual honesty, not knowing at the time what sort of life I would find on the other side.

Another benefit of the cult experience in hindsight may have been that, having once made the life-changing sacrifices needed to enter the cult world, I had had some experience with leaping into the deep. Maybe that made it a little easier to make the decision not to compromise intellectually at a sure comfort zone.

So that’s the story of why I, personally, believe in the importance of challenging erroneous thinking whether it is in biblical studies or what we hear through the mass media regarding social and political issues. It’s also a reason why I have little patience for public intellectuals (particularly those in the field of religion) who fail in their responsibility to advance intellectual honesty and civil discourse.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “I left the cult and met the enemy”

  1. Have you mentioned the cult you were a part of in a previous post? (I’ve only been reading your blog for a few months)

    Being an ex-JW I always tell people that the danger of these cults is that their teachings seem extremely consistent within themselves (well, JW’s were until their recent Matt 24:34 ‘generation’ interpretation change, now it’s just laughable). The danger is that they’re built on a false (but not easily seen – read, covered up by the Watchtower) foundation. In other words, I concur with your post. 😀


    1. I’ve talked about it before — links are in my profile page. After leaving it I started something of a “cult veterans support group” where others who had experienced JW and Mormon etc life got together and compared notes, etc. It was interesting and served a useful purpose at the time.

  2. In recent years I have done a bit of reading on scientific naturalism and the related contention that free will is merely an illusion. As a result, I have pondered the things that were critical in the evolution of my current philosophy, and I concluded that if I had not, nearly 50 years ago, been caused to take interest in an area of biology which, in turn, induced me to read Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is entirely possible that I would never have caste off my religious beliefs. Soon after reading Darwin, however, I read Julian Huxley’s Religion without Revelation, and the one thing I remember most clearly from it is his contention that, instead of going to church, one is better off spending part of one’s Sundays reading a good book. I don’t spend any time assuring myself that if I hadn’t been caused to read Darwin and Huxley I would ultimately have become a nonbeliever anyway. I cannot know that would be the case, and, if I had been caused to become part of a group that inclined me to be more religious, I suppose it entirely possible that I would be one of those disinclined to respect the views of atheists.

    I cannot help believing that one’s involvement in a cult or the eventual disenchantment therewith would be caused by anything other than changes in one’s environment. In fact, the rubbing of shoulders and encountering of new ideas you mention are examples of such environmental changes. I have to wonder whether whatever caused you to become interested in books wasn’t among these environmental factors.

  3. Studies with identical twins are a strong indicator to me that we are what we are (i.e., it’s genetics!).

    As was the case with many others, I went into the cult motivated by idealism. It was the comfortable compromise position of the mainstream that disturbed me. I’m older and wiser now, but I where it matters — with people’s livelihoods and welfare, with intellectual honesty (especially among those academics paid from the public purse to keep us informed and honest) — I know I still take an uncompromising position.

    I quite accept I’m probably at one of the lower flat ends of one of those bell-curves.

  4. Studies with identical twins are a strong indicator to me that we are what we are (i.e., it’s genetics!).

    Oh sure, but identical twins subjected to completely different environments wouldn’t be nearly as much alike in their thinking as when the environments are similar or nearly identical.

    1. No, that’s the interesting thing. It’s the studies of twins who had been separated and brought up in very different environments who remain nonetheless so similar. Will try to locate some of the studies.

          1. I read two reviews of the book on Amazon, the leading 5-star review and the leading one-star review. The latter is dated Feb. 4, 2009 and titled “Superficial and diffuse polemic” and concludes that “Anyone looking for a serious and sophisticated theory of human nature will do best to look elsewhere.” Ouch!

            1. Pinker is anything but superficial, but he does have a fault in that he does write some scientific works for public readership. Diffuse polemic? Sounds like an irregular verb form for “comprehensive and thorough” treatment from a perspective one does not like.

  5. Hate to burst the bubble about the identical twin studies but, following your advice to guard one’s thinking and examine every layer of one’s beliefs and every facet of new propositions before embracing any of them, just two months ago we learned that in fact identical twins are not genetically identical. This is a good example of why we measure our conclusions in terms of probability so that new knowledge can be incorporated when it becomes available and why we can hold the certainty of faith to be unreasonable, irresponsible, and intellectually dishonest.

    1. We still have the longitudinal studies of twins brought up in different environments. I think the bigger surprise would have been that any two people are genetically identical to the last twist of a dna string or whatever is the decisive factor.

  6. Neil,

    Having never been a Christian, and not understanding what exactly the appeal of a “godman” is to humans, when you were a Christian, how did picturing Jesus getting executed (or “sacrificed”) and resurrected feel meaningful to you? I’ve never understood the almost universal appeal of this idea. I just see a guy getting executed, whether “rightly” or “wrongly,” depending on one’s point of view. In the case of Jesus, or at least other Jews who fought Roman occupation, it seems sad and nothing more.

    I understand that in the OT and post-OT Jewish literature there is an idea of being a martyr for a greater cause, and that it can somehow “atone” for iniquities or uncleanness or whatever, but I wonder what you (or other Christians) “visulaized” when you thought about Jesus, since he has an extra dimension of being a “godman.” What did he look like in your mind, how frequently did you dwell on his crucifixion, what did you picture him doing in “heaven,” and how did the story make you feel? I’m just curious. Most Christians I know don’t like talking about these kinds of things for some reason.

    1. I can’t speak for others, but for me it was not the Gospel image of Jesus on the cross that was the uppermost thought, but rather the Pauline concept of the heavenly Son of God decending to die for sinners. The power of conversion, of a new sense of being forgiven and reborn, is in the belief that one has been unconditionally accepted and loved by the greatest (heavenly) “significant other” of all. I say heavenly because one dwells on the living Jesus with us now, not the momentarily dead one of the past.

      At its best it’s a psychological game, a form of CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy. A child, anyone, is happy and good when fully conscious of being deeply loved by a significant other.

      When I woke up to this being all it was, I realized I could have had the same belief about a totem pole and it would have had the same “conversion” experience on my life.

      I’ve written about Engberg-Pedersen’s work on the philosophical constructs of Stoicism underlying Paul’s teachings. He says something similar, and includes a model to illustrate it.

      The gospel image may have come more to the fore when doing certain Bible studies or at certain seasons of the religious calendar.

    2. John-Christians have been imprinted at an early age to believe in the precepts of Christianity-and the “non-thinkers” continue to do so.
      As a med tech-I discovered that Jewish doctors are the very smartest doctors in the diverse field of Medicine. I was also into cults at one time-particularly-Radhasoami.My only advice re cults is to stay clear of them-as -like Christianity-a lot of “BS” thrown in for the gullible-J.L.(vinny152@yahoo,com)

  7. I got into something cult like a while ago too and when you find it.. it’s like the ANSWER. OMG why didn’t I know about this before. Then I realized it wasn’t really what I was looking for, and it’s taken years to deprogram my mind from all the junk that I used to believe in.

    But in a way I think that experience teaches us some incredibly valuable critical thinking about our beliefs that we may have never had, had we not had the experience. So while on one level it’s not the greatest thing to happen perhaps it’s necessary to start building a belief system of pure truth, rather than just going on as a zombie taking in idea’s without question

    1. Spot on. My thoughts exactly. It’s so easy to spot the fallacies once you’ve been bitten so savagely by them, and not only critical thinking about beliefs, but also manipulation games played by others — the tricks they use to lead you to doubt yourself and to assume control over your thinking for you.

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