The Other Side of My Cult Experience

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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”.Even a few years before I was kicked out for good I had been “suspended” for over a year if I recall. Part of the reason for that (only part) was that I had come under the suspicion of some new ministers for having heretical questions.

So why did I hang around for years after I had my doubts? The reason is that that’s where my whole life for some years had been. I was married to a fellow member, and when we had children the only life they knew was membership of the Church. It’s not a simple decision to just walk out when all your supports are there and so many others very close to you will be affected in serious ways.

I said I was kicked out twice. The first time was done “quietly” when I declared my hand more openly after my marriage breakup. That’s when I posted scores of letters to other Australian members with contact details for anyone interested in learning the “facts” about the Church, its leadership and teachings. The local minister phoned me then to tell me in livid rage that he was “putting me out!”; I had to chuckle and remind him that he couldn’t put me out anymore because he had already done so weeks earlier. I was already out at the time! “Yeh, well I’m just letting you know for sure this time,” was his frustrated reply. 🙂

The point of this post is to put out a reminder for anyone who has not been through the experience of such a church not to judge, not to assume that membership means irreversible brain-damage, let alone incorrigible character and psychological deficiencies. It really doesn’t hurt to get to know the person before reading them through stereotypes of any sort.

By the way, another point worth noting is that the WCG fell apart not very long after I left anyway (I didn’t know my membership was so critical! 😉 ) — and quite rapidly changed most of his teachings. So much for the assumption that fundamentalists cannot change! Examples:

  • It rejected its teaching that the US and Britain were the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. That meant most of their prophetic teachings went out, too.
  • It abandoned its teachings on the seventh day sabbath and tithing. Local churches could decide what day they chose to worship, I understand.
  • They rejected the Jewish feasts and food laws and embraced Christmas and Easter.
  • They ditched their God-is-a-family (and that we are destined to become “God”) doctrine and adopted the Trinity belief.
  • They became much more open, inviting outsiders, nonmembers, to attend (though this practice had begun earlier).
  • And even the founding “Apostle”, Herbert Armstrong, was said to have been a “false prophet”, I believe.
  • I think all of the above is significant. Of course many members left but it does show that people really can change — even fundamentalists.

One thing they have not changed, however, is the authoritarian structure at the highest level. Some leaders find it hard to give up their perks.

I must add, too, that my experience was not unique. Many other over the years (the early years) also left, were declared to be in the “bond of Satan”, etc. It was a tough ride. One figure bandied about was that a third of all who had joined had “fallen away” — though I don’t know if that figure was based on anything more substantial than biblical prophecy.

The Otagosh blog run by Gavin Rumney is primarily about and for fellow ex members of the Worldwide Church of God.



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Neil Godfrey

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28 thoughts on “The Other Side of My Cult Experience”

  1. Yeah, so I see those criticisms of you as nothing more than ad hominem attacks. Really, they should be ashamed to associate themselves with that sort of tactic. That they don’t appear to be so speaks volumes about their own integrity. Casey’s last book unfortunately tarnished his legacy. It is clearly NOT scholarly to judge an argument based on one’s past history, especially when one is as open about the experience as you have been. We don’t discount the scholarship of ex-Scientologists or Mormons on that basis alone, do we? Undoubtedly our experiences play a role in shaping our biases, but that is true for everyone. Maybe Crossley was a member of some radical leftist group I don’t know that he was, but I do know that in the radical Catholic circles, like Catholic workers, that I have been associated with, Jesus was a leftist role model that I think most would want to preserve. Bart Ehrman was once a fundamentalist Christian, but that doesn’t say anything about his current scholarship. Your work has an impact on the field even when the old guard is resisting.

  2. I was a member of the WCG for 7 years back in the ’70s. I too was kicked out. That was a traumatic experience but fortunately, many of my closest friends also left around the same time. All in all, though, my experience in the church was relatively benign. These were not bad people, just misguided. As a shy young man, the social environment was generally beneficial to me.

  3. So … when the godbabblers trot out an “ex atheist” it is always with the presumption that an atheist who turned to Jebus is a particularly strong case for believing. But when it’s a former believer (criminy, they even have a nasty word for it, “apostate”) the former believer can’t be reliable because … why?

    1. I can’t help but be somewhat amused when I see Craig Keener included in the list of “atheists who saw the light and converted to Christianity”. He was all of 13 years of age when he did so. I have read of atheists saying they became atheists in their childhood, but I cannot imagine such “conversions” being touted as witnesses to the truth of atheism.

  4. I think your critics are so obviously wrong here that you don’t ever need to address them or speak of it; at all, ever

    To be sure there’s a general critique of all ex fundies out there. Which believes that they would have stayed believers, if they had only discovered the allegedly higher Christianity, that dealt with material failures to provide miracles, by suggesting that the old promises were really just metaphors for spiritual things.

    Here, “spiritual” Christians imply that anyone who feels that material, physical, historical evidence disproves Christianity, is still thinking in a fundamentalist way that thinks Christianity is about only material things, and can therefore be proven – or disproven – by material evidence. It is thought that both as believers, but also later as critics too, they made the same mistake: they missed the spiritual content.

    I think this “spiritual” idea is really what is behind the criticism. The response though would be that Christianity historically made lots of promises of very physical material miracles etc.. So against the spiritualist, Christianity CAN therefore be judged as true or false, according whether it is materially effective and scientifically provable. By its ability to work physical miracles- or not. Or its ability to materially prove a real physical historical Jesus. Or not.

    1. You’re right. It is pointless attempting to address those critics but one does like to make time eventually to put something on record for the benefit of third parties without any of the background many readers here have and who read their print and online remarks.

  5. You’re having to deal with ad hominem nonsense. I’ve read the late Casey, and he was a master of the art. I wonder though whether Casey or Hoffmann would have been willing to play the same game with Lester Grabbe, a heavy weight scholar with huge credibility… and also a former member of the Worldwide Church of God. Taking things down a notch, how about James Tabor? Bigotry of this sort is necessarily selective.

    1. Bigotry and bullying. My recent experience with Jerry Coyne has shown me it is not restricted to biblical scholars. Coyne was openly blunt about his bullying tactics — he is the popular doctor and author, the well-known scholar with a following of thousands, using his status, size and power to crush a lay minnow on the fringes, not allowing his easy target any means of a fair reply.

      (Casey’s dogmatic style in a curious way reminds me of Jim West’s “satire”.)

      1. Well, gradually we’re evolving some standard answers to standard biases.

        Among them, don’t overlook the standard criticism of all those involved in trying to prove OR disprove Historical Jesus: that HJ is irrelevant; to those who follow the “Christ of Faith.”

        McGrath for instance at least once has, somewhere in his bog a few years ago, copped to a similar view. McWrath admitting that he feels that Jesus might even be a myth. But asserting next that however, even myths can contain a kind of truth.

        But significantly that position note, actually made some concessions to Mythicism.

        Similarly, the “spiritual” position tacitly concedes that Christianity is not quite true in physical, material, historical reality.

        “The bible is not a history book,” these related views acknowledged. Thus significantly, conceeding: perhaps there wasn’t any real Historical Jesus after all. All there was, was the Christ of Faith – or myth. Or the imagination or spirit.

        Joe Hoffmann also hints at accepting that position. Which is at least halfway to Mythicism.

    1. In this way, liberal Christians were always closer than fundies, to the truth of Mythicism. But for all their posturing, smug superiority, liberals they were never quite close enough; never that much better than the Fundamentalists they often opposed.

      Liberal Christians were seldom quite willing to take the final, logical step, that rational and scientific people would take: to suggest that finally there were so many, many false things in religion, that we should find that even it’s spirituality probably amounts to little more than belief in ghosts, spirits. Leaving practically nothing whatsoever that was true in religion ; not even in “higher,” liberal, “spiritual” Christianity.

      In the better mythicist view, religion is myth and dreams. And they in turn, are mostly false.

    2. Not necessarily or always.

      Consider also the view of Cardinal Newman, Victor White and others that the Gospel story of the crucified and risen god was a factual real-life enactment of religious dreams, fantasies and hopes expressed by other societies.

      A myth like a story may convey general truths about the human condition. We do not have to find the date or address of Cinderella, or prove that eyewitnesses recorded the miraculous change of various objects, to grasp the desire of girls to marry “princes” and the jealousy of ugly stepsisters, any more than we need to verify the actual location of Winston Smith, Sherlock Holmes or Just William.

      1. Everyone has hopes. But when you promise the things they hope for, yet don’t deliver them, isn’t that called deceit, and lying? So finally the myth is not true.

  6. If someone sincerely believes that what they are offering is true, it is not deliberately lying. Many Christians sincerely believe in what they offer; I do not. Nevertheless, you could say that in effect they not only deceive others but also themselves. I keep open the possibility however that there might be more to the human predicament, within the cosmos which produced our minds and mythologies, than eat, drink, be merry, and that’s it.

      1. Or maybe I agree in some ways but not others. For instance, in the case of Christians promising miracles, “whatever you ask”, they are either 1) deliberately lying, 2) or if they just innocently don’t know any better, they are “under a strong delusion.” In either case, they are making false promises, and recycling lies.

        Those who continue to halfway defend Christianity as unproven but mostly useful faith, spirit, or myth, are only halfway to the truth.

        Finally whatever truths are found in Christian myths, are outweighed by the deadly un-truths and delusions.

        1. I was under that strong delusion at one time.

          I don’t have good, descriptive, colloquial language to effectively communicate what this mind problem is. That’s probably because what is actually going on is complicated and involves numerous cognitive errors and subconscious/semiconscious “pressures”. I don’t think your two choices for Christians and miracles are close to what’s going on neurologically. I’ve personally backed off of the liar language (and classifying) as it doesn’t really correlate tightly (to felt experience of the transgressors) and instead creates defensiveness and hardening of a bad meme.

          By the way, I really enjoy reading your contributions here.

          1. I think it’s a delusion in about 86% of the cases. But most ministers know better. So about 14% of all avowed believers support it, believing it is a “white” lie.

            1. “But most ministers know better.”

              I grew up as a preacher’s kid in Pentecostalism and became a Pentecostal minister myself. Through all of this, I came to know hundreds if not a thousand or more ministers. My impression is that very few of these would well fit your descriptors. For the most part, like their congregants, they are deluded and trapped in defenses against cognitive dissonance. Most Pentecostal ministers I knew only had a bible school education.

              I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard the word miracle growing up. And getting out, by way of continuing education, was a long, hard and sometimes frightful slog.

              1. Thanks for sharing your experience with Pentecostals. You might not be too surprised though to hear that the percentage of hypocrites might have been higher in other denominations, like liberal Presbys and laity and so forth. Higher than they let on to more conservative churches.

                I know I’ve heard some privately, tacitly admit promises of miracles might be false, by asking say ” What harm is done” by such promises. That phrase is a common code phrase for suggesting that miracles are false, but are a white lie. Since they lead others to eventually, the allegedly higher spiritual Christianity, that is said to be above asking for or needing material things, like physical miracles.

  7. The chief dig liberal Christians employ against especially ex fundamentalist Mythicists, is really this one: liberals hint smugly that they were way ahead if Mythicistts. Liberals hinting that they knew long ago that most of Christianity was not historically true, but was myth. But then they suggest’ that they smartly held on to their admittedly mythical Jesus “of Faith.” Because they say, after all, even myths have truth in them, even aside from their historical and factual falsity.

    Here therefore, we need to carry the critique of believers one additional step. To note the fatal flaws even in liberal, “higher” theology.

    This critique can begin here, simply by noting that even if they do contain some truths, myths also contain many fatal untruths. And so therefore, uncritically telling the people to follow these things that are largely untrue, can be shown to have had literally physically crippling and fatal effects.

    One example is the case say of Faith healers. Who neglect real medical treatment – and thereby cause the deaths of their patients. (For more examples, see Woodbridge Goodman’s book on The Harm Done).

    Liberal believers allowing the uncritical, “faith”ful acceptance of tales known to be partially false and mythical, turns out to be irresponsible in the extreme, in the end.

    1. Agreed that perhaps the greatest harm mainstream Christianity does is to make faith and trust in the unfalsifiable a virtue – giving social respectability to the agencies of so much pain and suffering.

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