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Sunday, September 12, 2010


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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Memorial Day

By S. D. Bruce>    I worked alone over this Memorial Day weekend, and I had some time to think. I'm a private investigator, which means most of my day is spent waiting for criminals to make a move, so I have an abundance of the solitude which is most conducive to reflection. I dedicated a few contemplative minutes to British Petroleum's parade of failures in the Gulf, a few more to Israel's penchant for shooting Islamist aid workers in international waters, and eventually I came back around to a topic which for me is a continual source of sad incredulity just as abundant and tragic as oil in the Everglades. Since you're reading on this blog I can assume you're already acquainted, at least in a limited way, with its focus: resistance to the mind control tactics of certain quasi-religious movements and the importance of rational thought to a balanced and fulfilled life. Nothing could bring these concepts to the fore more soberingly than the unconscionably sad story of a young man I counted as a friend for many years.
>     On this weekend dedicated to the memories of those who have fallen in the service of something larger than themselves, I'd like to call to remembrance the chronology of a young man who had the courage to live, and die, on his own terms. His life was cut short only months ago, and for many of us his passing is a wound which is still all too fresh and painful. But as we remember him there is also the hint of a great, dynamic life lived well despite it's short span. In his last days he dared to pursue his dreams, and while this may seem an unrealistic, frivolous pursuit to the more jaded among us, there is wisdom in a life lived with passion and with the courage to define it by stepping away from the dreary multitude and into the sun. Too many of us fail to risk anything in quest of our true selves because we fear persecution, ridicule, failure...or even success.
>    Jason Read Bacon was young, only 21 years old; he had rare musical talent and he was working hard to establish himself as a musician despite growing up in the same conformist, totalitarian theocracy as I did. He chose to rise above the limitations imposed upon him and labored to mold a career of his own choosing. I don't need to list the reasons this was a difficult transition, situated as he was inside the framework of the PCG's absolutist regime, but Jason handled it with aplomb. In partnership with his best friend, another young PCG member, he landed the first real gig of his career and they decided to celebrate in Las Vegas--a city Jason had wanted to visit for several years. Again, this took more courage than people without knowledge of the PCG's controlling policies would immediately assume. They went, and they LIVED; they celebrated their new found success and prospects, and they explored the city with the same exuberance and curiosity that Jason displayed throughout his life.
>     But fate is fickle and often cruel, and late one night close to 3:00 a.m. Jason went out onto the hotel balcony to get some fresh air. He overbalanced as he leaned on the railing, maybe to look down on the sea of flickering humanity below or to look up at the star spangled vastness of the Nevada sky; we'll never know the reason for certain, but in a matter of seconds his heady aspirations, his rising career and his former life were over.
>     Jason remained in a coma for days after plummeting to the concrete pool deck below his 8th floor hotel balcony; his spine was severed in the fall and his body was broken beyond hope of repair. Dozens of his friends and acquaintances, in and out of the church, told Jason's story and asked for prayers on his behalf. Jason's closest friend, who had been only feet away in the hotel bathroom when Jason fell, stayed by his side for a featureless eternity of seconds as Jason's life slipped slowly away in the hospital. Amidst this tragedy the response of the PCG ministry was shockingly cold; they had disapproved of Jason's recent choices, and they voiced the view that his tragic fate was the judgment of God against him for living his life without their sanction. They ordered Jason's friend to end his vigil, leave the hospital, and stay away from the funeral services; he reluctantly obeyed. Days later, as Jason's brain function faded to black, his family made the agonizing decision to take him off artificial life support. The last embers of Jason's dynamic life drifted into smoke on April 25, 2010.
>     Jason was laid to rest five days later, in a graveside service on April 30th in Westville, Oklahoma. Robert Brown, a PCG minister, presided over the service. But even as they stood over Jason's grave there was the foul hint of political machination at work; several of Jason's close friends and family who had left the PCG were told to stay away from the service, and Jason's father, who is in another splinter group, was allowed to come but was cut off again immediately after the service. A few PCG members from Edmond attended; more stayed away.
>    On the day after the service, a Saturday, a top-ranking PCG evangelist stood at the pulpit and reiterated his belief that Jason's passing was a judgment from Above because he stepped out of line; he berated Jason's friends and family for sending out prayer requests which were not 'authorized by the ministry', and callously capitalized on the opportunity by warning other youths of the dangers of disobedience, lest they share Jason's fate. In the aftermath many sat in stunned silence. A few had the courage to speak up against this outrage, but even those protests were guarded for fear of reprisal. Jason's family and close friends felt the strain most of all, and in the bleak wasteland of emotional ruin and spiritual assault by those who should have offered comfort, Jason's sister Crystal fell prey and (according to several sources) took her own life on the morning of Monday, May 3rd.
>     This story is without a doubt one of dark pain, betrayal and the icy depths of human suffering when a loved one is suddenly lost, but there is also the glimmer of something more. As I thought about it I came to realize a truth beyond the sadness and anger I felt: In his last days, Jason didn't just exist, he wasn't satisfied with complacent obedience or hollow shades of gray; he chose to LIVE, without conforming to the dogmas of those who wished to run his life, without apology, without regret. He died doing what he loved, exploring a city he loved, with a rising career stretching in front of him and his best friend at his side. No one can take that away from him, and none of us should miss the significance of his powerful decision to live on his own terms, free, in the last days of his life. I wish he was with us still; I wish I could hear the haunting guitar chords blended with flashes of cheerful melody he used to play at summer camp; but most of all I hope I'll live the rest of my life as well as he did. Memorial Day seems like a fitting time to remember Jason, not just because we are saddened by his loss, but also because of the memory of a life lived to the fullest despite the odds. May he rest in peace.

Afterword: If you're concerned or confused by the statements of several PCG ministers regarding Jason's tragic accident as a punishment by God for certain choices he made in the recent past, please take the time to read our upcoming article regarding scientific probability, "time and chance," and the rational analysis of these statements in light of the statistical facts. Hundreds of ex-PCG members, including the authors of this blog and many who supply information to us, have had unprecedented successes and are enjoying the best health and happiness of their lives thanks to rational decisionmaking and the freedom which comes with the honest pursuit of knowledge. We will explore the concept of divine retribution soon in an article titled "Time and Chance." We hope you'll read it and find greater peace as a result.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Apostasy of the Pedants: How Faith and Fear Are Bouyed by Religious Illiteracy (Part One)

I have always been enthralled by words and ideas. As a boy I would spend countless hours poring over old encyclopedias and dictionaries, each new discovery an initiation into a kind of sacred communion with the Universe. My memories of those Halcyon evenings are thankfully not haunted by my later metaphysical rationalizations: at the time I had no clear conception of the indoctrination to come, and my autodidactic adventures were, for that brief period, free from theological mind-wrenching.

As Armstrongist propaganda began to wrap me in its obscuring embrace, however, I gradually and inevitably turned my inquisitive mind toward the task of reconciling dogma with knowledge. Being a mere human, I didn't have time to study everything, so I of course focused on the beliefs that were relevant to the subjects I was most keenly interested in, while the rest was taken for granted. I failed to prove the claims behind British-Israelism, for example, or the contradictory propositions for the nature and character of Armstrong's god. And all the while, everything was being filtered through my Armstrongist indoctrination: the claims were fundamentally true, I assumed; how they were true was the only question.

The cult's teachings on evolution are a good example, since their arguments I found to be lacking in rigor. Even so, I took the basic position for granted in that I spent a lot of time looking for arguments that would support Creationism over evolution, instead of simply following the evidence. I was toiling under a confirmation bias in the form of a proposition hoisted upon me by the cult, and which I accepted without complaint or investigation: that a particular conception of God exists as a person and created humans in his image for an astounding purpose. Part of what led me to accept it, certainly, was its sheer elegance. Something that made that much sense, and which was so soul-crushingly beautiful, just had to be true! (I wouldn't learn what a non-sequitur was until I had left the cult.) Besides that, it was biblically sound (you'll notice this statement contains two more assumptions I took for granted as true).

The point of all this is to show the reader that even an obsessive pedant like me took a lot for granted; so, where does that leave the great multitudes for whom careful reading for more than ten minutes at a time sounds like cruel and unusual punishment? It leaves them believing, apparently.

Religious Illiteracy in the Cult

I obviously was not the only cultist who took my beliefs for granted and, ironically, took them seriously at the same time. A regular feature of my life under Armstrongism was having to explain basic teachings to people who should have known better. One of these encounters was with a visiting preaching elder, over the question of whether humans would hold governmental offices in the "World Tomorrow." He implied that they would, and I mentioned that Armstrong had written in his booklet, The Wonderful World Tomorrow, What It Will Be Like, that they would not. The elder, in the presence of the entire dinner party, apparently thought it necessary to defend his double portion of God's spirit: "I think if you go back and look, you'll see that you misread that passage." I chose not to press the issue; I understood, apparently better than this anointed one, what "God's government" was all about.

But the truth was vindicated next week when a local deacon who had witnessed the exchange approached me with a copy of Wonderful World Tomorrow opened to the passage I had referenced. "You were right!" he exclaimed, as though there were something to be astonished about. There wasn't. The knowledge was sitting right there, in a book every serious cultist should have "dog-eared" (as they say) from overuse, knowledge that was, after all, the central point of "God's 7,000-year Plan" according to Armstrong. And this elder and deacon, appointed by God to be better than the rest of the lowly sheep (and the former was supposed to be qualified to teach them), couldn't be bothered to remember it.

I could go on with anecdotes about my discussions with fellow lay members, but this will suffice as a most illustrative example of what I'm talking about.

So, what's behind all of this religious illiteracy? For one thing, these cults make so many claims and produce so much literature that it's hard to keep up
, especially when there are actually better things to do that have nothing to do with keeping one's dogma straight. But there is also a more "meta" issue. Cults survive because they are good at what they do, so most of their activities can be seen as tried-and-true strategies for keeping asses in uncomfortable, metal folding chairs.

Eric Hoffer, in his insightful classic, The True Believer, explains that "the effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood but has rather to be believed in."(1) If the Armstrongist cults were serious about their lip service exhortations on reading church literature (not to mention education--as in "education is salvation"--in general), they would require some accounting of their members' grasp of such important knowledge, even make good performance on such testing a requirement for membership--since it is, after all "dangerous knowledge." Instead of requiring understanding, of course, they require belief (measured in tithes and offerings and obeisance to the ministry, among other things I suppose--"fruits of the spirit").

Hoffer continues, "The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds."(1) It is almost too obvious to bring up the anti-intellectualism of Armstrongism, the nervous warnings against "human reason," the ploy of demanding the "right attitude" before "proving all things," and the totalitarian-inspired banning of "dissident literature." These are of a piece and are, of course, inconsistent with other teachings, and are reduced to obscurantism when you start asking questions like, if "human reason" is to be avoided, what rules of Logic does God play by then--and what rules of Logic do you use to support this assertion? I will cover anti-intellectualism in another post (stop salivating). Suffice to say, urging people to avoid thinking too clearly about what they are being taught is not a good way to encourage understanding, but it is highly effective for the purpose of inspiring blind faith.

Religious Illiteracy in "the World"

One of my most disheartening discoveries upon coming out of the cult and adopting secular humanism as the core of my worldview was the raging piety out there, especially in the U.S. This was "The World!" They were supposed to be, according to Armstrongist propaganda, all fair-weather Christians and unwashed secularists, who only held on to their faith for the Christmas presents. Certainly, I had not been prepared to see them as anything but incapable of theological tenacity or certitude. I fully expected to be embraced, like some anti-prodigal son, in the welcoming arms of a godless world. I couldn't have been more misinformed.

The fact is Armstrongism is nothing special. Membership in this particular cult doesn't make one more pious or knowledgeable than those poor "pawns of Satan" on the outside. It's just one brand among many competing for your allegiance, submission, fear, and, especially, your honest earnings. It does what religious cults have always done; its methods, and even many of its teachings (as I will cover exhaustively in my book), can be traced back through a long line of prophetic, pre-Millennial, Protestant sects. Furthermore, the strategies that give it its cult status, are, of course, common to all cults. It should be no surprise then that the religious illiteracy that runs rampant within the cult is just a subset of the general milieu of ignorance among the mass of credulous faithful. And that is quite a large mass--a block so big and immovable by reason and evidence that it could be described as the constipation of the world.

In her Washington Post review of the book, Religious Literacy, by Stephen Prothero, Susan Jacoby writes:

The United States is the most religious nation in the developed world, if religiosity is measured by belief in all things supernatural -- from God and the Virgin Birth to the humbler workings of angels and demons. Americans are also the most religiously ignorant people in the Western world. Fewer than half of us can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount...Approximately 75 percent of adults, according to polls cited by Prothero, mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." More than 10 percent think that Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels, and -- a finding that will surprise many -- evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts.

(to be continued...)

1. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1951) 80-81.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Apostasy of the Pedants: How Faith and Fear Are Buoyed By Religious Illiteracy (Part Two)

In her Washington Post review of the book, Religious Literacy, by Stephen Prothero, Susan Jacoby writes:

The United States is the most religious nation in the developed world, if religiosity is measured by belief in all things supernatural -- from God and the Virgin Birth to the humbler workings of angels and demons. Americans are also the most religiously ignorant people in the Western world. Fewer than half of us can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount...Approximately 75 percent of adults, according to polls cited by Prothero, mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." More than 10 percent think that Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels, and -- a finding that will surprise many -- evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts.

The article goes on to discuss another aspect of religious illiteracy detailed in the book that is ubiquitous among the most pious of believers: ignorance of other religions. How strange it is that one can take so seriously one's own unexamined beliefs, especially given the preponderance of contrary beliefs, all of which are accepted or rejected without due examination by the various faithful. How can they be so sure of things they haven't bothered to consider?

As with ignorance of one's own belief system, this rejection of outside beliefs without examination is common among religious groups, and Armstrongists are certainly no exception. In his booklet, Does God Exist?, Armstrong presented a question he had once received in a letter. "An atheist wrote me: 'We have the history of many religions, and many gods. Which one of these gods do you claim for your God—and how do you know that He exists?' That’s a fair question. It deserves an answer!"[1] The obvious gist of the letter-writer's question was, "You claim that your god exists, but so do all these other claimants, and their gods are very different from yours. Why should your claim be taken more seriously than theirs?" Of course, Armstrong either didn't get it, or cynically dodged the intent of the question. His answer: "He who did the creating—He who brought everything that exists into existence, including all else falsely called God—He who created all matter, force and energy, who created all natural laws and set them in motion, who created LIFE and endowed some of it with intelligence—He is GOD!"([1]; emphasis HIS, of course).

It won't be lost on the knowledgeable reader that many diverse devotees claim for themselves the creation of the universe as the exclusive act of their god or gods. So, which of the 103 creator gods[2] did Armstrong "prove"[3] the existence of? Elohim? Unkulunkulu? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? Here it is religious illiteracy that allows Armstrong to convince thousands that creation mythology is somehow peculiar to his own special brand of theological nonsense--and, beyond that, that merely claiming one imagined being is responsible for the assumed creation of the universe, rather than any others that could be imagined, somehow makes it so. Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. Freely asserted, freely denied, Herbert.

Education is Salvation

"The deceived do not know they are deceived." They typically don't know much else either, which is how they come to be decieved. It is a great irony that those who haven't bothered to examine their own beliefs (not to mention fair challenges to those beliefs) have learned to shout this mantra the loudest. A lack of education leaves them in the position of naive prey to those who would devour them. This includes a lack of deep education in religious matters.

Most de-converts describe their former religious lives as being supremely studious, and they often attribute their eventual apostasy in large part to their in-depth religious knowledge. This is because those who really "dig deep" (as the ministry of PCG is fond of exhorting its members, safe in the knowledge that most will not put forth the necessary effort) discover things they weren't intended to know. Internal inconsistencies, contradictions with verifiable external realities, abuses of power and trust, dubious doctrinal changes, failed prophecies, etc., all lie festering at the bottom of a great mound of smooth-sounding bullshit.

Most sheep do not bother to delve beyond the ear-tickling preachments at the surface, and they take for granted that the fundamental claims are sound. For example, for them to be right about the Tribulation, they would have to be right about several other claims upon which the Tribulation myth hangs, like so much rotted fruit, from the branches of a diseased tree. There is no more reason in the proposition that "they might be right" about the Tribulation because you were taught so, than there is in the proposition that Catholics might be right about Hell because they teach their children that they will be tortured forever if their lives diverge from their traditions. (And a bit of religious literacy will tell you that these two propositions are mutually exclusive! They both can't be right, but they can both be wrong.)

It's preposterous to take seriously a claim you take for granted, especially to the point that it frightens you. If it scares you, then doesn't it make sense to investigate it, to find out if there is in fact something to fear? Of course! My forthcoming book, The Plain Truth About Armstrongism will lay that whitewashed tomb wide open, and give those who are still confused or afraid the tools they need to disprove Armstrongism for themselves. Education really is salvation (of a sort), and the truth, contrary to what the cult would like you to believe, does not drip like honey from the mouths of their shepherds--it is a hard won jewel that requires a lot of work (in terms of research and critical thinking) to extricate. But it will indeed set you free. So, take my hand, and we'll disperse these phantoms together--once and for fucking all.

[1] Herbert W. Armstrong, Does God Exist? (Philadelphia Church of God, 1957) 3.

[2] At the time of posting, the tally of creator gods had increased to 104. Joy to the world, another delusion is born.

[3] The Plain Truth About Armstrongism will contain a brief survey (because that's all it requires) and consequent dismissal of this spurious and illogical "proof," for those brave souls who do not fear free inquiry.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dealing With Dissonance: The Secret to Being Right

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort one feels when holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. The pain is usually rather brief, however: we are quite skilled at finding ways of reducing dissonance, especially in those all-too-common cases where one of the contradictory beliefs is that we are right. The typical strategy in this scenario is to reduce dissonance by ignoring or trivializing evidence that contradicts our rightness, and then rationalizing our way to a better night's sleep. This is apparently a trick our brain uses to protect us from being crippled by stress, but it does nothing to keep us from being wrong. For that we need a better way of dealing with dissonance.

The first thing we must do is recognize that it is not conducive to the purpose of being right to have our egos bound up with our beliefs. This problem manifests itself in all situations where people take personal offense at the criticism of cherished ideas. In amateur debates, one will unfailingly encounter comments that mistakenly describe perfectly valid arguments as being "disrespectful." We must avoid the trap of thinking that ideas deserve respect merely because sensitive egos are attached to them. More importantly, we must not allow ourselves to get emotionally attached to the ideas that have taken up residence in our brains, to the point of self-identifying with them. These propositions, attitudes, beliefs, etc. are just that: it is foolish to imbue them with personhood, especially from the perspective of one who wishes to hold correct beliefs instead of merely being self-righteous.

Once we have divorced ego from the business of considering propositions (including those we already hold) then we will have positioned ourselves to reduce dissonance in the direction of any corrective evidence we may encounter. The next step, of course, is to examine our beliefs (and consider challenges to them) from this disinterested vantage point, as an unbiased outsider. In cases wherein evidence can be marshaled against the positions we hold, we will then be prepared to judge that evidence on its actual merits, rather than on the basis of how it makes us feel. Always remember that by considering valid arguments we are not submitting our selves to judgment, but rather the impersonal positions that have become insinuated in our brains by various means (some less rational than others, it should be noted). With practice, one may even learn to sidestep dissonance altogether, noting the ego without serving it, self-aware and ever mindful that a person's worth is not diminished when she modifies her beliefs upon learning some new thing. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It is with this attitude that I invite you to read whatever precocious conceits follow in this blog, and especially my forthcoming book, which will show you that Armstrongism was never correct (and therefore it was never necessary to fear its eschatology) and that by dismantling this myth, you will open up a whole world of alternatives for living a life of full joy and inspiration outside the morbid (and most importantly, fallacious) constellation of Armstrong cults.