Below is the text of my speech at the Ajijic Freethinkers group on August 21, 2013
How did I ever end up joining a group of freethinkers here in Ajijic? Why am I here? I appreciate this opportunity to share with you what I call my long, spiritual journey. After my presentation I am open to any questions any of you may have.
I was born in 1951. I start with the year of my birth because I think the time we grow up in has a significant impact on the rest of our lives. I was a teenager in the turbulent decade of the 1960s. One of the themes of that decade was the rejection by youth of the values of their parents and the resulting generation gap. As a teenager I bought into the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” attitude. Don’t trust parents, don’t trust teachers and don’t trust the “pigs” as police were called in those days.
My family was part of the great wave of immigrants who came to Canada from Europe after World War II. I was born in the Netherlands and came to Canada at age two. My parents were church goers and joined the Christian Reformed Church which was started in North America by Dutch immigrants.
That church was a mainstream Protestant denomination of the Calvinistic variety. As a child I attended church with my parents because that is what small children do. But nothing about church resonated with me and it was mostly a boring experience. As a young teenager I was required to attend catechism classes and begin learning the doctrines of the church.
At the age of fifteen everything started to change. I heard a voice on the radio, actually two voices, that immediately struck a chord with me. The voices were those of Garner Ted Armstrong and his father Herbert W. Armstrong. I became a regular listener of their daily broadcasts called “The World Tommorrow” and I soon subscribed to their magazine, The Plain Truth. I ordered many of the free booklets they offered on a wide variety of topics which ranged from Biblical topics to analysis of world events in light of Biblical prophecies.
The Worldwide Church of God was the name of the organization behind the public face of the Armstrongs. In contrast to the church of my parents, their organization was alive, dynamic and purposeful. My interest in it soon began to cause a rift between me and my parents.
Over the course of the next year or so, a thought emerged in my awakening mind. I thought I was being called by God into His truth! He was reaching out to me.
The Armstrongs were extremely critical of mainstream religion, both Protestant and Catholic. They preached that the whole world, both secular and religious, was deceived by Satan the Devil. This explained the mess the world was in and in the rebellious decade of the 60s it made a lot of sense to a teenage farm boy growing up in Nova Scotia.
The Worldwide Church of God had no local congregation in our area. But I knew I had to act on what I was learning. I had to respond to God’s calling. At the tender age of sixteen I declared to my parents that I would no longer attend church with them and I refused to go to any more catechism classes. Well, did this ever provoke a reaction from my parents who were very embarrassed by their young son. Their church pastor became involved and I was counselled and given literature explaining that the Worldwide Church of God was a cult. But the more the pastor talked, the more I became convinced that he was wrong, he was deceived, and the Armstrongs were right.
After graduating from high school at the young age of seventeen, I was finally free from the authority of my parents and left home. By this time I had developed a powerful desire to join the Worldwide Church of God but there was no local congregation in our area. At the age of eighteen I put all my few belongings in the backseat of my Volkswagen beetle and headed for Box 44, Vancouver, BC. That was all I had to go on and I drove across Canada from east coast to west coast in seven days.
In Vancouver I found the church I was looking for in the Yellow Pages. I phoned the office and was visited by two young ministers. To my great joy, I was deemed worthy of being invited to attend church services. Circumstances soon took me to Edmonton, Alberta and ten years later to Calgary. In Edmonton I immediately counselled with the local pastor and soon I was declared ready for baptism and officially became a member. I stayed for twenty five years.
Why? Why did I stay? What were the reasons and what was my experience?
First and foremost, there was no doubt in my mind that I was one of the few directly chosen by God to understand His truth and that the Worldwide Church of God was His one and only true church on earth today. I was a true believer and convinced that I had something rare that was of great value. I clearly saw that the world around me was deceived and falling apart.
We were taught that we alone truly understood the Bible and that it took a miracle by God to open our minds. The Armstrongs and the local pastors regularly said, “Don’t believe me, look it up in the Bible and prove it to yourself from the word of God.” And sure enough, we did. We saw it clearly with our own eyes in the Bible and the fact that others could not see what we saw only reinforced our belief that Satan had indeed deceived the world. Its churches were his, not God’s. In hindsight, our approach was merely to seek confirmation of what we being taught. Learning some critical thinking skills would come much later in my life.
Prophecy was a big part of the the Church. Prophecy came alive because it was directly connected to current world events. Anyone could see that society everywhere was deteriorating and would crumble. We alone understood the Book of Revelation and other prophecies and their implications. We were in the end times and Christ would soon return to earth to save mankind from itself. Herbert Armstrong was fond of saying “In a few short years…” There was a strong sense of urgency.
And there was a “Work” to do. This task was quite different from the traditional message of mainstream churches, that Christ died for our sins so that we could be saved, which we labelled a false gospel. We had the true gospel. We were given the responsibility to warn the world that the end was near and Christ would soon return to earth to set up His kingdom. That so few heeded that warning was seen as further proof that the world was blind. But it was conveniently not our responsibility to save the world or to help it, only to warn the world.
We were very much a closed society and psychologically isolated. We were careful to avoid the “wisdom” of the world which was only another tool of the Devil. Philosophy and psychology, which I now love, were subjects we we particularly advised to avoid. We were encouraged to read only Church literature which alone had God’s truth. We were discouraged from forming close relationships with unbelievers.
From time to time some people did in fact leave. We were taught that they “fell away” and that we had best avoid them. Some people rebelled and these people were “marked” and publically disfellowshipped, to be forever avoided. There was a great stigma attached to falling away or being disfellowshipped. This was the ultimate disgrace but fortunately the rest of us remained confident that we would remain faithful to the end.
We were kept very busy. Besides weekly Sabbath Services there were weekly Bible Study nights. We were told to pray and study every day in order to remain strong. Family activities were encouraged. There was precious little free time but that didn’t matter because activities outside of the Church were of little value.
Attendance at Church social activities was encouraged and seen as evidence of our commitment. Fellowship with brethren was encouraged and this was the positive side of the experience. To this day I look back on those times with fondness. There is a very special bond formed by having strong shared values and purpose. To this day several of my best friendships began in the early years of my church experience. My wife and I loved travel and we enjoyed the bond of like mindedness with people in many different parts of the world.
All things considered, I would describe my church experience as a net plus in my life. Not all former members would say the same thing today. But as far as cults go, the Worldwide Church of God is better labelled a benign cult, not a destructive cult of which there still are far too many. For me personally, the benefits outweighed the costs.
Let me explain.
There was a very high financial cost. We were taught the truth of tithing and I faithfully gave the Church ten percent of my gross earnings. Tithing was commanded but our free will offerings revealed our real attitude and we were encouraged to give generously. No one had a gun to my head when I signed those cheques. I and most members considered it a privilege to contribute to the end time Work of God. We were also proud to support the Armstrongs’ educational institute, Ambassador College, which at the zenith of the organization had three impressive campuses in California, Texas and England. As a youth, I unsuccessfully applied three times to become a student at AC. Although greatly disappointed at the time, today I am very grateful that I was never accepted as a student and that my life took a different path.
There were other positive aspects of my cult experience. Looking back, I value the stability that the church experience gave me as a young man. As a teenager I suffered from occasional bouts of depression and I had low self-esteem, which is a common characteristic of individuals who end up in highly controlling organizations. I lacked social skills and benefited from being part of a large group. I also needed some help in learning to drink alcohol responsibly.
The Church had a men’s club called Spokesman’s Club which revolved around public speaking. The training was excellent, not just in building speaking skills but also in building confidence and forming bonds of friendships. There is no question that this training at a young age helped me in my life and in my career.
There is a principle that is taught to counselors that certainly applies to me: “It is better to walk with a crutch than fall flat on your face.” My life has been one of modest achievement but I think the probability is high that I had a greater chance of a worse life, not a better life, had I not been in a cult for twenty-five years. I have a stable marriage with my wife, a lady that I met at church and we had some necessary encouragement from our local pastor to marry. I built a reasonable career, also with the encouragement of the local pastor. I formed friendships which I still enjoy today. The shared experience in a cult is a powerful bonding experience. I had a purpose in my life. I think some secularists too quickly discount the benefits of religion. The matter of benefits is quite independent from the truth of a religious experience.
Let me digress a little bit.
Most of you here are probably probably familiar with the Four Horsemen, as they are called – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins in particular is hostile to religion and considers it a great evil. But as bright as he is, I think he under values the benefits of religion. It is quite easy to criticize the negative aspects of religion which the Four Horsemen do very well indeed.
All cultures have religions. There are two main schools of thought that hold that either religion evolved due to natural selection and has selective advantage, or that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other mental adaptations. I tend to think there is a survival advantage to religion.
I once read a warning to counsellors: “Be very careful in taking away someone’s dysfunctional coping mechanism and leaving them with nothing.” The Worldwide Church of God was my dysfunctional coping mechanism. Many people need religion to cope with what life throws at them and the fact that it is a falsehood does not change this. Yes, of course, many people can cope just fine with life without supernatural beliefs. But because many can does not prove that all can.
It is better to walk with a crutch than to fall flat on your face. For twenty-five years the WCG was my crutch. But when you can walk without a crutch, it is better to let it go, not to keep dragging it along.
In the mental health field, another area of great interest to me, it is recognized that unfounded optimism is better for mental health than realistic pessimism. There is some value in being mildly delusional. How many of us know individuals who are clearly kidding themselves about something?
There were more benefits.
Every fall the Worldwide Church of God held religious assemblies called by the Old Testament name The Feast of Tabernacles. We were required to save an additional second tithe and spend it on ourselves attending “The Feast” at various sites, mainly in North America but also elsewhere around the world. My wife and I took full advantage of this opportunity to travel and these were some of the most enjoyable times of our lives. We went to Australia, the South Pacific, Europe and Asia. We immediately had a bond with like minded people wherever we went.
Church services in the WCG were long, typically about two hours. Besides the singing of hymns, local announcements, news of the Work worldwide and special music, the pastor preached for about an hour. Some of the pastors were outstanding, dynamic speakers. There was also an opportunity for local lay members to speak, giving short sermonettes of about fifteen minutes. When I was in my early thirties I was invited to join this group of speakers and considered it a great privilege. I put a lot of effort into these messages and they were well received. It significantly elevated my stature in the congregation and I received a lot of positive feedback which I found very encouraging.
At this time of my life I now also value having been completely wrong about something that I thought was absolutely true at the time. Today I am generally sceptical about many things and I like being this way. I try to be careful about what I believe. I do not think Richard Dawkins is open-minded about religion and as a result, as intelligent as he clearly is, I think he has his blind spots.
Today I am better described as an agnostic than as an atheist. I am unable to prove to myself that God does exist. But I am also unable to prove to myself that He does not. Of course I now understand that a belief in the existence of a God is quite independent of the existence of the Christian God. But I continue to be intrigued by the concept of God, probably the biggest idea man has ever come up with. If there is a God, what would be His characteristics? This is a question worth thinking about, at least for me.
But I am getting ahead of my story. How did I get out of that cult? Why did I leave? How did I end up as an unbeliever rather than continuing my spiritual journey by moving to another fringe organization or a mainstream church as many former members did? What happened to me intellectually and emotionally?
In January, 1986 Herbert W. Armstrong died at the age of 93. He was succeeded by a little known pastor named Joseph Tkach. Within a few years of this change I thought I noticed a shift in church teachings. I saw a drift away from certain doctrines that were foundational and towards mainstream Protestant teachings. This upset me greatly because I believed I had been called out of such a church and such teachings and into the real truth. I requested a meeting with our local pastor and asked him what was going on. He completely denied that there was any change of direction and told me I was seeing things that just weren’t there.
But I read and reread the information coming from Headquarters. I was sure in my own mind of the changes the pastor denied. Then I made a decision that was a turning point in my life. I decided I was right and the pastor was wrong. I decided I could see clearly but that the pastor was blinded by loyalty. This was a significant psychological break from the authority of the Church. I now felt free to question more and more aspects of the Church.
It was a lonely experience at first because no one else in the local church congregation seemed to have my concerns. I later learned that there were others with the same thoughts but at first we each kept to ourselves. Causing dissent was always something the Church had little tolerance for.
Over time the changes accelerated and major doctrines were modified. Discussion amongst the members became more open. Divisions began to develop. There were primarily two groups, those who defended the original teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong and those that embraced the changes. But I and many other members were in neither camp. However, these developments vindicated my earlier concerns and emboldened my questioning.
Subsequently several major offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God emerged and new churches were formed. Some members joined mainstream churches. Some stopped attending any church. The WCG continued its move towards mainstream Protestantism along with a sizeable minority of its members. As I learned many years later, in 2009 it changed its name to Grace Communion International and completed its journey toward mainstream Protestantism. The cult that I had been part of for twenty-five years no longer existed!
Let’s go back to when I was still attending Church but questioning many things. I began to see that the WCG was probably not God’s only true Church on earth today. I realized that there were other options. At this time it was my intention to continue my Christian journey somewhere else but I did not know where to do so. This was a difficult period of my life because the turmoil of all the dramatic change caused me much mental anguish. In today’s language, I was experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance and this could not continue indefinitely.
Another important decision I made during this time was to look at matters from multiple points of view. A question I wanted to reexamine was “Does God Exist”. I still believed He did but I wanted to confirm the foundation of my faith. I got the surprise of my life. I was beginning to find that the arguments that God does not exist were making more sense to me than the arguments that He does. At first I fought against this in my mind. I laid awake in my bed at night thinking and thinking about this and other questions that were racing through my mind. I remember wondering how people could possibly live with no belief in God or an afterlife or a God given purpose. This possibility frightened me at first.
I never did get past this point in my Christian journey. I was never able to convince myself that God does exist. But today I would not describe myself as an atheist because I cannot prove to myself that He does not exist so to me it remains a fascinatingly open question and I am an agnostic.
I also began looking at the Bible in a new light. I read some startling criticisms of the Book and I lost all confidence in it as the Word of God. I began to see how easy it is to selectively use scripture to support doctrine. I began to see how easy it is for some to ignore troubling passages or explain away the obvious shocking meaning of some scriptures. I began to understand the great power that being a true believer had. I began to realize how incompatible that mindset is with thinking critically.
I also looked into evolution, again in a different way. The WCG poked fun at evolution and made it look silly with articles such as “A Whale of a Tale”. But I saw that it was much more reasonable than I ever imagined.
What I also began to see was that I have never had a personal experience with God in my own life. What I thought was a divine calling as a teenager turned out to be a cult experience. When I cried out in anguish on my knees in prayer for a new path, I heard no answer. I saw nothing in my life or in the world around me that was evidence of God and much that I could not reconcile with the existence of a good God. But I also see many people who are as intelligent and rational as I think I am who make the opposite conclusions. I think they are worthy of respect and their perspectives are worth understanding. I think the world would be well served by civil dialogue between groups or individuals with great differences. Of the Four Horsemen, my favorite is Daniel Dennett because he seems to be the most respectful of those with whom he disagrees.
If you are interested in a civil discussion of deep ideas, I recommend a website called closertotruth. It belongs to Robert Lawrence Kuhn and is based on his PBS programs by the same name. Kuhn was a member of WCG and back in the 1970s I read his articles in the Plain Truth magazine.
One aspect of leaving the cult was particularly difficult for me. When I reached a point of a complete loss of confidence in the Worldwide Church of God I wanted to stop attending church services. But my wife was on a different journey of her own and continued to be a true believer. She was horrified by the change in me and believed I was slipping away into the grip of Satan. We had stood side by side together in Church for over twenty years and she wanted this to continue. This was a serious matter and I knew this division between us could mean the end of my marriage. We were no longer united on one of the most important aspects of our lives. Then I made another good decision. I decided to continue attending church to honor my wife’s wishes and we continued to this way for about another year.
Let me tell you how difficult it is to listen to messages week after week that are completely contrary to one’s beliefs. It was an internal battle within me to remain civil. It was a very emotional year. At times I felt like leaping out of my chair and yelling “This is all bullshit!” At times my shirt was soaking wet with sweat because of the heated conversations going on in my head while I sat quietly.
I was very concerned about the distinct possibility that my wife would never see that she was part of a cult or that she would move in the direction of one of the dissenting groups. But to my considerable joy, one day she became quite offended by a taped sermon from Headquarters delivered by Joseph Tkach. He was very condescending in his tone and was basically telling his people that if they could not see what he saw they were stupid. By this time my wife had a few small questions and she did not like being called stupid. This was the turning point for her and she quickly began losing interest in church. Her process of coming out of the control of a cult was much quicker than mine.
We began to skip some of the weekly services and my wife began to become more and more comfortable with this pattern. We did not so much quit church but instead just slowly and quietly drifted away. We attended our last Church service in July 1995 without even realising it would be our last. We just lost all motivation to continue and enjoyed going hiking in the beautiful Canadian Rocky Mountains instead. We began to enjoy two day weekends. We did attend several funerals of people we had known over the years. By this time some of the supposed words of comfort by the ministers sounded ridiculous to my ears.
The time of this transition was during my mid-life, part of a broader midlife crisis, and, while it was upsetting in many ways, it was also a time of intellectual rebirth and growth. As a good cult member, I had avoided the wisdom of the world. But now I had a hunger for knowledge like never before. New worlds opened up to me. I became interested in philosophy, I worked at building critical thinking skills, I read psychology books, and I enjoyed learning more about the universe, both on a grand scale, cosmology, and on a small scale, particle physics. I am an average guy with average intelligence and much of what I read I find interesting but difficult. But there is nothing I can’t open my mind to and draw my own conclusions.
Looking back, I am surprised by where I landed and how quickly I got there. At mid-life I thought a lot about what I believed and what my values really were. I discovered the secular humanist position and within a year or two quickly became very comfortable with it. Today The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles published by Council for Secular Humanism best captures my values. The Bible is a big and confusing book that many people interpret in many different ways. In contrast, the humanist principles are clear and concise and will fit on one page. But they say a lot and really resonate with me. Enlightenment ideas and Western liberal thought also resonate with me.
I watch the spiritual journeys of friends and acquaintances I have known for several decades. After the WCG experience, they scattered in many different directions. Some stayed with WCG as it changed its doctrines and its name and journey with Grace Communion to this day. Some joined splinter groups and offshoots of WCG. Several continue as dedicated Christians within a mainstream church. Some are lone Christians but avoid all organized religion. Some have discovered that they are not really spiritual people and they are okay with that. A few have become unbelievers and are no longer interested in religion. One went in a New Age direction. One is attracted to Judaism but discovered he is not very welcome in that community. One believes the universe is the product of a great mind but is something much grander than the Christian God. Of the hundreds of people I have known from my Church days, I do not know a single individual who would describe themselves today as a secular humanist. That is fine by me as I have no desire to convince anyone of anything when it comes to what values we hold dear. I would like to see, however, more understanding of each other, more tolerance, more respect and less judging and condemnation. But I will be long gone before the world reaches that ideal.
Thank you for listening to my story. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.