I grew up in a “non-denominational” Christian church, which was viewed by most watchdog groups as a cult. And it was. You may be familiar with the Worldwide Church of God (Plain Truth magazine and Ambassador College), founded by Herbert Armstrong. If you haven’t, you’re that much better off. My dad was a minister in the church for 35 years. The cult/church has since thrown out much of its obscure former doctrines and embraced “mainstream” Christianity doctrine. You can learn more by checking out my WCG page.
Blast from the past...
Born Again, Brain Engaged
The WCG used to teach that it was the only true church, Saturday was God’s Sabbath and the only right day to worship God, kept most of the Jewish “holy days” from the Old Testament, condemned the celebration of Christmas and Easter…and the long sad list of crazy beliefs goes on and on. I was automatically labeled as “different” by many in public school…living a normal social life was difficult at best. I was baptized at age 19. At that point, I was acknowledging my belief in a God/Creator and that was it. But I still believed I was a part of God’s one and only true church. All other “Christian” churches were of the devil. We were not to associate with the “world” too much and basically just wait for Christ to return.
Then, in ’95 (I was 25) the church/cult changed its ways and embraced the concepts of “new covenant” theology: that we are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ. The church lost half its members and income because half of the group (of over 150,000 members worldwide) wanted to stick with the old beliefs. I agreed with the changes and stuck with the “new and improved” cult…I mean church. The next two years were crazy. The church was going through a major identity crisis. But many were excited because now Christian cult watchdog groups were embracing the WCG and its changes. Others were validating us as legitimate and the Christian walk no longer had to be so painful. It was unprecedented as cult history goes. Ministers were being laid off due to loss of income (everyone used to tithe 10%…it was taught as a requirement of Christians). After the changes, tithing a tenth (of your gross income) became a “guideline” rather than a requirement. Income dropped. (Hey, if God doesn’t require it…?)
About two to three years after the changes and the split in the church, my dad was laid off after 35 years of service at age 55. He came into the cult at age 19. His story is another of thousands of sad stories coming out of the whole mess. He gave his entire adult life to the church, and now after being let go, he is still trying to figure out exactly what to do with the rest of his life. He did what he thought was right; and being only 19 years old when he got sucked into the “Borg,” it’s difficult to blame him or anyone who got sucked in at such an early age. The church had no retirement plan set up for the ministers because they thought the church would have been whisked away to a “place of safety” during the imminent World War Three/Armageddon long before now. When my dad got laid off — mainly because of the way he was let go, with little compassion or concern from the top guns at the church headquarters — I decided I had had enough. It was simply the last of many straws for me. My wife and I were running the youth ministry; I was a song leader in church and sang in the choir and did solos. Very involved. At the ages of 27 and 26 we walked away from the church we had been raised in to attend a “healthier” Christian church.
As far as I am concerned, we jumped from the frying pan into the fire: from obscure cult to popular mainstream Christianity. We started attending a “mainstream” Bible church pastored by a prestigious seminary graduate with a doctorate. He was trained and fluent in Greek and Hebrew, apparently. If anyone ever knew the Bible, this guy certainly seemed to. After about 1.5 years of this, it began to occur to me that I was still buying into someone else’s ideas of who God is and what life is all about. I was looking at life through their interpretation of a book that most find to be a difficult and frustrating book to work through, the Bible. If God wanted us to know his plan so bad, why do we need Bible seminaries so people can learn to understand what was written? But I had always believed it was “the inerrant Word of God.” That’s what I was taught. After all, very credible “scholars” were teaching me this. Who was I to question their lifetime of analysis, hard work, and dedication (and we’ll assume, good intentions)? But, I began questioning not only the Bible’s authority, but also Christianity as a whole. But I did so with much fear and trepidation. And I prayed about it a lot. How could I be questioning The Holy Bible and Christianity?
Now, let me tell you about my approach to prayer at the time, because it’s relevant to my story. In my early 20’s I adopted an approach to prayer which was very simple…I simply prayed for God’s will in my life. I did not believe in using God like a genie. Sure I would ask for certain things, but I was big on asking for something only in accordance with his will. I must say, with all honesty, it appeared to be working. As I would periodically look back on my short life it would seem clear that some sort of force was intervening. Doors “seemed” to open, things “seemed” to work out, and I always “felt” peace when I prayed like this. So, I applied that approach to prayer with my internal struggle with Christianity as a whole:
I said, “God, I am struggling to square this and that in the Bible. I am struggling to just read the Bible, even though I have studied it my whole life. If it is your will for me to understand this stuff, please open my eyes to it. If it’s your will for me to read the Bible every day like a “good little Christian,” take Bible courses, and do this, that, and the other thing and really work, work, work at his until it all really makes sense, then please inspire me with a will to do so. If you want me to continue down my path of being a “fired-up fella for the Lord” then please help me to maintain that course. However, if this is all just another hoax, another — only larger — version of the cult I grew up in please make an escape for me. If your will is for me to question these things and do something completely counter to what everyone around me is saying I should do and think, then give me the strength and willingness to do it. Even if I have to do it alone. Even if I have to reject everything I have based my life upon. Even if it means I have to re-evaluate my concept of who and what you are or IF you are. But if I am being deceived by the devil, giving into my “evil sin nature inherited from Adam” then please save me. Put me back on track. Whatever your will is for me, let me know. That’s what I genuinely want.”
And then, I always made sure I didn’t second-guess what I believed God was inspiring me to do. I relied on my heart (my conscience), after I subjected it to God’s will through prayer. I now call this my CYA prayer (cover your ass). I have written an article about it titled, “The Doubter’s Prayer.” The message here is that if there is a “God” then I know I am covered. At that point in my journey, it gave me peace. But knowing what I know now, I see that prayer as something similar to buying hurricane insurance in the Arizona desert. If you believe you may need it, it may give you peace of mind. But eventually – hopefully — you’ll figure out that it was a waste of money. But, hey, you have it just in case your sense of reality is completely out of whack. Maybe you live in the Twilight Zone.
To continue with the story, after I prayed and prayed, I then waited and waited. And waited some more. I kept going to church, thinking, analyzing, and trying not to rush to a decision — just hanging low, asking some questions…thinking for myself and continuing to pray about it. What happened then? The house of cards was falling one by one. I had a harder and harder time reconciling in my mind that the Bible was without error or that it should be interpreted a certain way, absolutely. I began reading books by non-Christians. Imagine that! How many Christians do you know who study material from the “other side?” Certain ideas that much of Christianity promotes as absolutely historical and literal were now clearly ludicrous. To read more about the questions and doubts I was having, check out my article, “Now That I Think About It.”
Bottom line…I simply couldn’t square it anymore. I would ask: Why does this contradict that? Why would God allow this? Why did he set it up that way? Why is it so damn difficult to put together? Why do I need to know a little Greek and Hebrew to really piece the stuff together? If God really wanted me to know his plan for mankind, why would he make it so difficult to understand? I’ve worked at this, I’m an analytical guy – more than average – and I couldn’t piece it together. How many years would it take? I could no longer accept the reply my “fellow brothers in Christ” would give me (though well intentioned):
“You need to be careful and not let your human reasoning get the best of you. Ask God to help you think and do as Jesus would do.”
“Well, some things, we just have to accept on faith and trust that God knows what he is doing.”
Sorry, but not anymore. Not with a clear conscience. Not this guy.
So I walked away from THE CHURCH on the grounds that I couldn’t square the teachings anymore (and also – though less important — on the fact that the particular church we were attending at that time was about as personable as my Bible). So, where do I stand now? What do I believe in now after all of that?
I am an agnostic with a strong leaning towards atheism. Okay, okay, I’m an ATHEIST!! There, I said it. I do not believe in a deity (certainly not the god of the Bible), so that makes me an atheist. However, I also know there is not conclusive evidence to support the belief or non-belief in a deity, so that makes me an agnostic. Faith is belief in things that we can’t know. My life is too precious to live it based on a feeling or a hope that can be toyed and manipulated by church patriarchs. I discovered peace in accepting my inherent “original ignorance” to borrow half a phrase. I am intrigued by the sense I have that there is some mysterious force that I can’t understand. I just don’t know what it might be. Whatever it MAY be I am definitely no longer comfortable referring to it as “God” and I know it has nothing to do with the Christian mythological deity. And not to worry, I’m not converting to any “alternative” mystical religion either.
So, as I become more aware of the mythological foundation of my childhood religious beliefs and recognize the fallacy of most of what I was taught, I have also become more aware of the real dangers of organized religion and the Religious Right. It’s become clear that fundamentalist and other dogmatic organized groups try to force their personal viewpoints and bigoted and biased agendas on the world around us. I am learning more and more how threatening radical religious dogmatists are to the separation of church and state, civil liberties, and our First Amendment rights. If you want to ask yourself some hard questions and get serious about learning what the system of Christianity is really all about, where it came from, and how it’s impacting your rights and the rights of others in this country, please do some research.
Through this process I was “born again” to borrow an expression. But this time, my brain was truly engaged. So, what happened next? Since walking away from Christianity and organized religion and becoming a “born-again” freethinking, agnostic atheist, I have been quite humored by the methods people use to express their religious or philosophical viewpoints. A specific (and less serious) example: I am amazed at the whole fish decal war occurring on car bumpers these days. It makes me laugh and sigh at the same time. Have you noticed the fish? You’re more likely to find them in the Bible belt or ultra religious communities. First was the Jesus Fish. Then the Darwin folks came out with their Darwin Fish with legs mocking the Christians’ Jesus Fish. Then the Christians (turning the other cheek) came back with the Truth/Jesus Fish eating the Darwin Fish. My response: Whatever. WHO GIVES A FISH? So, being a web site designer by day, I decided to create my own web site and market what I call the “Whatever” Fish. My site is called: www.whogivesafish.com. It’s a simple site. I recommend that everyone show his (and her) fish to the world. I didn’t start the insanity, but I say why stop it now. Let’s have some more fun with it. It’s my little outlet for expressing how I feel about organized religion and anyone who would assume they have even come close to figuring it all out.
We may believe a lot of things, accept them on faith. But that doesn’t mean we KNOW squat.
Copyright (c) 2000, 2001 by Troy Witte. All rights reserved.