I turn 30 this weekend. And so, the time has come for me to bid farewell to Armstrong Delusion. It’s been a lot of fun stickin’ it to the cults, to their leaders, and to their absurd beliefs. However, for me, those days have come to a end. It’s been an incredible experience working with Casey, Eric, and Samuel. They are all incredibly intelligent, not to mention, fantastic writers. I’m sure they’ll keep up the good work for many years to come. For my swan-song, I’d like to write about a subject that COG members should already be familiar with. A subject that has become inextricably linked with Armstrongism over the past few decades. This article is about conspiracy theories and why they are so prevalent within the various churches of Armstrongism.
During the course of this article, I’ll be discussing some of the more popular theories circulating among COG membership. I’ll examine the attitudes of COG leadership towards these theories – and the people who hold them - and I’ll hypothesize as to why the proponents of these theories are so receptive to these ideas in the first place. Are these people simply a marginalized group within the larger body of members? Are they operating within the shadows, skirting the boundaries of acceptable beliefs? Or, are they symptomatic of a larger mentality within the church? Lastly, I’ll look at some conspiracy theories that were actually sanctioned by the WCG over the years.
My own experience with conspiracists in the church begins in 1995. I was attending with my family as part of the St. Petersburg congregation of the Philadelphia Church of God. One morning, a member of our congregation brought a VHS tape to services and gave it to my dad. When we got home, it turned out to be a copy of America Under Siege, a “documentary” produced by filmmaker – term loosely used – Linda Thompson. (It turns out that the film received remarkably high levels of distribution among the right-wing fringe, which explains how it ended up in the hands of a PCG member). Thompson also went on to produce two other films entitled: Waco: The Big Lie and Waco II: The Big Lie Continues - both blaming the US government for the events at Waco.
The film (which can be seen here - if you can stomach the bullshit) was responsible for launching the “black helicopter” and “FEMA camp” phenomenons, both of which survive to this day. It also leaned heavily upon an existing theory, the infamous “New World Order”. The entire movie was an unprecedented exercise in delusional paranoia and fear-mongering, and managed to find a conspiracy in just about everything from street signs to traffic lights. Basically, the message of the film was that a United Nations takeover of America was eminent, during which, the US government planned to imprison large portions of the population in secret FEMA camps. (it’s fairly easy to see why these ideas resonate with COG members.)
Fortunately, and to their credit, my parents did not take the film seriously. I wasn’t privy to any conversation they had with the person who gave them the tape, but this ended up being the first of several instances where conspiracists tried to bring (additional) lunacy into church. During the years we attended, conspiracists would inevitably turn up. My parents always dismissed their claims. Usually, with something along the lines of: “even if true, it won’t disrupt the plan of god” or something similar. If I were to guess, I’d say that this was probably the same attitude held by the other members who didn’t subscribe to this nonsense. Considering the theories they did buy into, I won’t give them too much credit…
So what exactly is it about conspiracy theories that make them so appealing to COG members? Our friends at Silenced have already touched briefly upon the subject in this article. They make an excellent observation regarding the atmosphere within the United Church of God, (a group the Delusion staff does not have firsthand experience with). Silence writes:
Many COG members have allowed their minds to be poisoned by the Rush Limbaughs, Alex Joneses and Glenn Becks of the world… The COG has been drawn even closer into their love affair with the far political right… taking over the Republican Party and try to bring religious fundamentalism and wild conspiracy theories back into vogue. After all, they all share the same delusional persecution complex.
Ignoring for a moment the (very important) part about a shared persecution complex, I’d like to focus on the political elements here. Certainly, many conspiracy theories transcend political affiliations. However, there are some theories that are more appealing to right-wing conservatives (the people who comprise the vast majority of COG membership). For instance, some are:
- RFID technology (Radio transponders) IE: “Mark of the Beast”
- The New World Order/rise of “the Antichrist”
- The “War on the Second amendment” AKA Gun Control
- The “War on Christmas”
- The “War on Religion” (and by that they mean Christianity)
- The “Homosexual Agenda”
- The Obama Birth Certificate ”hoax” (call em’ birthers - they hate that!)
As self-identified pacifists, the COG membership shouldn’t (in theory (pun intended!)) be worried about second amendment rights. The same could be said about the “War on Christmas” (they don’t keep christmas, afterall). On the other hand, COG members would certainly be interested in the other issues, especially the “mark of the beast” and the NWO as it relates to a one world currency and a purchasing restriction that proponents believe to be the one discussed in Revelation 13:17. They get especially hot and bothered over the subject of homosexuals, as shown time and time again.
This corresponds with what I’ve personally observed back when I attended church. The main topics of conversation for conspiracists in my congregations were NWO related. The same people subscribed to 9/11 and FEMA Camp theories (which are basically sub-categories of NWO). I got the impression from one such family (while attending COG-FF), that they had been run out of the PCG specifically because of the conspiracy theories they were promoting. That family (and at least one other) left COG-FF after the pastor got up at the Feast and asked for members to stop discussing conspiracy theories. There was no love lost when the conspiracists packed up their butthurt and left.
Based on this, and similar accounts from others, it would appear that the leadership in at least some of the COG’s are opposed to conspiracists spreading their nonsense among the congregations. (On the other hand, some like this minister, actually preach the insanity) While this appears to be a step in the right direction, we should still analyze the real reasons for it. I’m not about to credit these ministers with an overabundance of critical thinking skills. Most likely, they are simply worried about the effect these conspiracy theories might have on the membership. Members not fully investing their time and energy into the church is bad for business. After all, time is a valuable commodity, especially if that particular church needs volunteers for activities like filling news-stands or writing bogus reviews for COG literature on Amazon.
It could also be possible that the ministry is concerned about generating negative publicity (especially within other COG’s) by letting conspiracists run wild in their church. Considering that these churches (and basically all of Christianity, now) are waging a never-ending war of attrition, this could be a serious concern. Members frequently church-hop, leaving one group to attend another. Perhaps each minister doesn’t want potential members in competing groups to think that his church is full of tin-hatters, or, worse yet – that these theories are sanctioned by the church. That could damage attendance and drive down income (the primary reason for there being a church in the first place).
I’d like to get back to the subject of why COG members might find conspiracy theories appealing. From a secular standpoint, (which we’re always happy to provide!) this article by Dr. Gad Saad published in Psychology Today may help to explain the reasons why conspiracy theories are prevalent within these churches. He writes:
As I listened to the conspiracists, I was struck by the similarities between their belief systems and associated cognitive processes (or lack thereof) and those inherent to religious narratives….
…Both religion and grand conspiracies are immune from reason and both are impervious to evidentiary standards…
…Both religion and grand conspiracies ascribe great power to “invisible” forces… These “invisible” forces appear to be as omnipotent as are Gods in the various religious traditions.
Now, it’s safe to say that a certain segment of our audience will disagree with that assessment, but it is worthy of mention. There are, of course, other reasons that a COG member might buy into a conspiracy theory. For one such reason, we need look no further than COG doctrine itself.
Armstrongism, as a belief system, is entirely predicated upon the idea of an ancient conspiracy. (Relax, I’m not here to bash the bible. Today.) In a nutshell, the religion is based upon the idea that the “true gospel of Christ” was kept from the world for “over 1900 years!” (as Herbert loved to repeat). Additionally, they believe that “true christians” have been persecuted throughout those 1900 years (persecution complex as mentioned earlier). In both cases, these conspiracies (well, theories anyway) were planned and perpetrated (or allowed to happen) by invisible entities such as Lucifer, Yahweh, angels and demons. How did Dr. Saad put it? “religion and conspiracies ascribe great power to invisible forces“.
On the same subject, Michael Shermer had some equally interesting things to say in a piece published by Scientific American a number of years back. He writes:
Why do people believe in highly improbable conspiracies? In previous columns I have provided partial answers, citing patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise) and agenticity (the bent to believe the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents). Conspiracy theories connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency. Add to those propensities the confirmation bias (which seeks and finds confirmatory evidence for what we already believe) and the hindsight bias (which tailors after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened), and we have the foundation for conspiratorial cognition.
I won’t beat the confirmation bias drum any more than we already have over the years. What I will do, is point out that Armstrong’s organization, going back to its earliest days, was one massive exercise in patternicity - another parallel to conspiracy theory proponents. Herbert himself was notorious for connecting the dots of world events to find some hidden significance. Entire departments at Ambassador College were dedicated to scouring news reports from across the globe for “dots” to connect and events that could be shoehorned into ”bible prophecy”. Once found, these items were presented to the membership as “revealed truth”.
Could the idea of possessing such “truths” provide these members with a bit of a thrill? Perhaps similar to one a conspiracist might experience by discovering some new piece of “hidden knowledge”? Now combine that with the feeling of benevolence inherent in sharing that info with the “unsuspecting masses” of the world and maybe a sense of power or control that could come from exposing some “sinister plot” and you have the recipe for a massive ego trip. They have all the answers. Nobody is fooling them. They know what is behind the curtain and everyone else is duped (or is in on the conspiracy). Sound familiar?
I also wanted to touch briefly on some conspiracy theories that were actually given greater exposure via official Armstrongite channels. Believe it or not, the “lost gospel” was not the only conspiracy theory propagated by the church over the years. in 1961, another theory actually got a booklet of its own, entitled: The Truth About Masonry. Essentially, this was an amalgamation of existing anti-masonic literature and COG doctrines, designed to report the “Shocking truth!” about Freemasonry. Some of the more amusing little gems:
One seldom sees anti-Masonic literature, even though much has been written. Because printers are often Masons, dedicated to conceal the secrets of the Lodge, it has little chance…
Masons admit that they know or have heard of brothers guilty of a crime against society who were never brought to trial because of their affiliation with the Lodge
Now this is pretty ironic when you consider that the WCG occasionally rented Masonic lodges to use for weekly church services. It seems that, the “shocking truths” about masonry were trumped by budgetary concerns. Also contained within the pages of the book is a reference to another conspiracy theory that was held in high esteem by many in the WCG hierarchy and even worked into the doctrines of the church. It arrives on page 29:
But, is that really what is pictured by the Legend? There is a more revealing answer! Hiram Abiff is Nimrod! Alexander Hislop in The Two Babylons gives some of the reasons for Nimrod’s fame.
The Two Babylons by Alexander Hislop is the book from which Herbert got the idea that the Catholic church was the “great whore of Revelation”. You thought that was a Herbert Armstrong original? Revelation from god, perhaps? Think again. Not only was this an essential piece of the “prophetic” framework supporting Armstrong’s theology, this same theory was widely held among other religious fundamentalist groups, most notably Jehovah’s Witnesses. The book ended up receiving considerable criticism from scholars who found fault with Hislop’s research and translations. These days, only fringe fundamentalists view this tome as a credible source of information.
Of course, you cannot discuss end of days fundamentalists without also bringing up another fringe group: the “preppers”. It’s already difficult to distinguish between these two groups, so it should come as no surprise that this mindset exists within the churches of Armstrongism. And “prepping” is more or less the other side of the conspiracy theorist coin. They have the “inside info” so what do they do with it? They prepare. Some of the more notable “preppers” connected to the Armstrong movement are the Dervaes family. But they are not alone. The mentality was prevalent throughout the WCG dating as far back as the early 70s when members across America prepared to flee in 1975. We all know how that turned out.
It’s impossible to know what percentage of COG members are also conspiracists. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. They all believe in a conspiracy in one form or another. Anyone who buys into the “lost gospel” or the “great whore of revelation” is a conspiracist. Despite a total lack of evidence for these ideas, even we believed them at one time. We’ve been in their shoes. So, my point here is not to simply label the Armstrongists, but to offer some helpful advice. I want to conclude the article by quoting from a Skeptoid podcast entitled Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Crazy. In it, Brian Dunning says the following:
Conspiratorial thinking is not a brain malfunction. It’s our brain working properly, and doing exactly what it evolved to do.
So then, why aren’t we all conspiracy theorists? Why don’t we all see conspiracies all day long? It’s because we also have an intellect, and enough experience with living in our world that we are usually able to correctly analyze the facts and fit them into the way we have learned things really work. It is, exactly as it sounds, a competition between two forces in our head. One is the native, instinctive impulse to see everything as a threat, and the other is our rational, conscious thought that takes that input and judges it.
This statement applies to COG members and conspiracists alike. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s not that they’re crazy. For that matter, it’s not that we’re smarter or better than they are. At one time, we also accepted bad information from supposedly legitimate sources, from men who seemingly had the purest of motives. Just like COG members do now. Maybe those ideas appealed to a noble sense of curiosity or altruism, as they did with us. Unfortunately, we were still operating under a set of biases that clouded our vision. The very same thing can be said for COG members today. It doesn’t make them crazy, or even bad people. It also doesn’t make their beliefs any less wrong.
The only difference is that we won the competition Dunning describes as playing out in our minds. And it’s the same one playing out inside the heads of COG members right now. We correctly analyzed the facts and applied them to reality by setting aside biases, no matter how painful.
If we could do it, I know they can too.