Herbert Armstrong's Tangled Web of Corrupt Leaders
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- Apostolic Treasures: The Treasures Of Herbert W Armstrong
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Thursday, February 13, 2020
Why Herbert W. Armstrong's Teachings Create So Many Atheists
Why Herbert W. Armstrong's Teachings Create So Many Atheists
Forgive me, readers, for being so presumptuous. I have assumed with my title that many people who leave the Church of God community become atheists. This may or may not be true. Thus, we really have two questions:
Question 1: Do a high proportion of those who leave the Church of God community become atheists?
There is a very real possibility that the answer to this question is No. I don't have the data to answer it definitively. If someone has it, I'd like to see it. I've heard the idea being thrown around before so I think the answer might be Yes.
Personally, the moment I left the Church of God community was the moment I became an atheist. I believe that there was something in Armstrong's teachings that connected those two events, and I have the feeling that other people (consciously or unconsciously) feel the same thing. Thus, the next question:
Question 2: If so, why?
What follows is five reasons that Armstrongite teachings could prime the brain for atheism. Here is the overarching theme: the evidence and reasoning that Armstrong provided for his peculiar beliefs were such that once the believer started to doubt, they realized they were not just doubting Armstrongism, but the very existence of a deity itself.
An analogy, to make it more confusing: You are on the edge of a cliff. The solid ground, of course, is vanilla Christianity. With each argument and belief, Armstrong is leading you off that cliff on what you think is a solid bridge. Suddenly, the foundations of that bridge begin crumbling. You are no longer standing on solid, deistic ground--you are walking a plank that has just been sawn off. You fall--but not back onto the ground of traditional Christianity, but into the abyss. Atheism, humanism, skepticism, mysticism, whatever-you-want-ism, awaits. Armstrong, with his bad arguments, has inadvertently made a good argument for non-belief.
Now for the five reasons.
REASON 1: Biblical Inerrancy is Dogmatic, Extreme, and Flimsy
Biblical inerrancy is frequently criticized within the Christian community, and for very good, self-preserving reasons. If the Bible is meant to be right about everything, tough luck, because a quick Google search will tell you the mustard seed is not "the smallest of all seeds" and it grows to the size of a large shrub. Better, traditional Christianity tells you, that a parable is a parable, and not The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers. All the smart, Hellenized, early Church Fathers knew this, and believed the creation stories were not to be taken literally. Fundamentalism, and its huge emphasis on inerrancy, is a rather modern phenomenon, a reaction to the fact that humans were wrong about nearly everything before the scientific method was developed.
The problem with inerrancy and what can happen to people when they stop believing it is not unique to Armstrongism, so I won't dwell on it here. I'll just take the time to mention that the fall from inerrancy seems usually to be hard and fast. One doesn't notice a single discrepancy and give up the whole theory. One of the most effective ways to deal with cognitive dissonance (the experience of coming across facts/beliefs that run counter to one's worldview), as Leon Festinger first observed, is simply to ignore them. But sooner or later the sheer number of them builds up and ignoring them is no longer an option. When the change-of-mind comes, it's with an overwhelming number of discrepancies, not just our little mustard seed.
REASON 2: The Prophecies Were So Specific and Foundational to a Belief in God
Take, as a main example, The United States and Britain in Prophecy. Here, Armstrong tries to convince us the monarchy of ancient Israel never disappeared but was actually transferred into the British monarchy. In the middle of explaining that God had promised to keep the line of King David alive forever, Armstrong asks us:
"Can one wonder that men like Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll lost faith in the Bible? They saw these unconditional promises, but they could not see how they had been kept. Yet, if we have patience, we shall see!"
As a child, this passage was always very striking (and convincing) to me. Here's the syllogism Armstrong is trying to create:
1) Smart people, like Paine and Ingersoll,* saw that God promised something.
2) Those smart people saw the promise was not kept!
3) Thus, those smart people were justified in losing faith in God.
4) But God actually kept those promises.
5) Thus, we are even smarter than those smart people, who should have continued believing in the God Who Keeps Promises!
But this is a dangerous game that Armstrong was playing, especially when he made this Davidic prophecy such a central doctrine in the Church. Implicit in this extended syllogism is the idea that one should base their faith on whether God keeps this Davidic promise. Here's my formulation:
1) If God keeps promises, we should believe in Him, but if He doesn’t, we are justified, like Paine and Ingersoll, in losing faith.
2) God is not a God Who Keeps Promises, because British-Israelism and The United States and Britain in Prophecy is complete nonsense.
3) Thus, we are justified in losing faith in God.
Now, all of these syllogisms are specific to Armstrongism and have nothing to do with a traditional Christians' faith in God.
But you didn't get to decide not to get caught up in the emotional investment of these specific beliefs being true, and your faith being intertwined with Davidic promises that turned out to be bogus. You bought in to the Armstrong package deal and now the interest payments are due.
The same goes for the belief that Germany is Assyria, or that Herbert W. Armstrong was the "end-time Elijah." You may not have entered the game thinking your faith in God was contingent on these specific beliefs/prophecies being true. But someone down the line, they may have gotten mixed up, with a similar sort of syllogism I've described above.
* I feel the need to defend Paine and Ingersoll here from the gross distortion of their beliefs which Armstrong paints. Anyone who reads even a few pages of Paine or Ingersoll would know that their unbelief had nothing to do with this Davidic promise. There were dozens of other reasons.
REASON 3: Armstrong's God Just Could Not Have Used Evolution
Early in The Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong, the author tells us of the dual questions he studied when converting (essentially) to a branch of 7th-Day Adventism: they were 1) Divine Creation vs Evolution and 2) Saturday vs Sunday worship. I always saw these as the equivalent of: 1) Does God exist and 2) What type of God is He?
First we decide (1) God exists (because evolution is false), and then we decide (2) that everyone else (traditional Christianity) has been worshiping Him wrong.
You might not see it in those terms, but I'm sure some people did. The way Armstrong talked about evolution let you know that there was a serious dichotomy happening. Either God made you, or you were made by chance--and that's just not the way that God operates. In syllogistic form:
1) Either God created you or evolution created you.
2) Evolution is Definitely Not True.
3) Thus, God created you.
4) (Also) Thus, God exists.
This is similar to what happened above with inerrancy. Black and white thinking. It must seem strange to the 40-or-so-percent of Americans that still don't believe in evolution, that most educated Anglicans believed in evolution within a few decades of Darwin's publication in 1859. Their syllogism runs a little differently:
1) God could exist and evolution could be true.
x) Thus, God exists and evolution is true.
So, what happens when you buy into the first syllogism and you read a biology textbook? Line 2 becomes "Evolution is Definitely True" and suddenly God ceases to exist.
Now, I've been giving the impression ("black and white thinking", "buy into") that Armstrong's syllogism was wrong, or simplistic. Obviously, I'm trying to convince you of something entirely different with this article, not discuss the Evolution vs God debate. But even after trying to distance myself from everything related to Armstrongism, Armstrong's syllogism is still a more convincing format than the second. Whether this is because I'd been primed for years by Armstrongite logic or whether it really is the case that the two cannot co-exist, you'll have to decide for yourself. To me, if God had really used evolution as the human design implementation, I'd have to believe that for at least 3 billion years, God had been running an Earth-wide cage-fighting competition between all species--each generation weeding out the weak species and replacing them with fitter, more agile ones capable of killing, eating, outwitting, or (in the merciful cases) co-existing with, the other species. With this kind of competition, you could fit the half-decade-long Holocaust in as a commercial break in between the real slaughters.
Again, if you grew up with Armstrong's Evolution vs God dichotomy, once you escaped the Church of God community and went out into the real world with a curiosity about nature, you might just find yourself an atheist.
REASON 4: Mainstream Christianity Was Criticized with Atheistic Arguments
During one conversation where the older men in the congregation were talking about How Obviously Right Our Religion Was, I heard the following argument:
"The One True Religion cannot be one of the large religious denominations. Those religions, like Catholicism or Islam, believe that they have The Truth but they condemn everyone who does not believe them to eternal Hell! This means all the rest of the people who were born in the wrong region (the Middle East if Christianity is correct/Europe if Islam is correct) are condemned because of geography. Surely the One True God wouldn't be so unfair. Thus, our religion is right."
What strikes me about this argument is that it's actually pretty good ... right up until the end conclusion. And, it's a typical argument used by ... atheists!
If you inspect a number of the arguments the Church of God community used against traditional Christianity, you'll find many atheists use them as well:
- Catholics started Crusades against unbelievers, created Inquisitions against heretics, and were in general just Very Bad throughout history.
- Protestants can't agree on anything, even though they read the same Bible, because they obviously aren't guided by God.
- The Trinity is nonsense, born of an intellectual devotion/constriction to the ancient Greek philosophers.
- Christians don't actually follow what the Bible says, they just make up their own rules as they go.
Of course, there were plenty of arguments Armstrong used which atheists wouldn't dare try: "The Catholic Church is the Beast of Revelation," etc. But if you were the type to notice the glaring deficiencies with mainstream religion, you might already be half-way to unbelief. Perhaps this is the secret to why Armstrong, with his death and the fall of his movement, produced so many atheists.
REASON 5: Armstrong Was Right About the Pagan Influence in Christianity
I've found, after leaving the Church of God community, that the only thing Armstrong seemed to be right about was paganism's influence on Christianity. Yeah, he was wrong about Nimrod. Like, really, really wrong. But Jesus not being born on December 25? Christmas being the December Solstice celebrations? Easter bunnies and eggs not being Christian? Local communities just absorbing Christian customs and applying them to their existing gods?
Yes, all these things are true, and they remain weird facts that you have to process upon leaving the community and deciding whether or not you want to remain religious. I have Christian friends who tell me that it all doesn't matter, "as long as it brings attention to Jesus," but the argument doesn't ring true. Many Christians really believe the birth narratives and pastors will preach them as if they were true. For all the negatives of Armstrongism, you aren't going to leave without taking with you some skepticism of the traditional Christian stories. That stays with you.
So ends my five reasons. There are probably more. If you think you know one, please leave a comment.
Please note I am also very uninterested in hearing about why these are not good arguments for atheism. I am not here to debate the issue of whether these are true--only whether Armstrong taught them, and people later used them (consciously or unconsciously) as arguments for their own non-belief.
submitted by Kieren Underwood