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.


  1. Hey Casey, Hoffer was one of my favorites, and i still study his work.