Reviews: ‘Undertow’ and ‘The Cult That Snapped’

undertow-300pxIn 1999, journalist Karl Kahler self-published The Cult that Snapped: A Journey into the Way International. It was riveting, both as a history of the Ohio-based cult and as a personal account of one man’s experience within it.

Kahler’s approach to the material was effective. He began by giving readers a seat at the turning point in the history of The Way – the reading of a document called “The Passing of a Patriarch.” The document was written by the Rev. Christopher C. Geer, head of the Way’s European arm. Geer had been personal bodyguard to Victor Paul Wierwille, founder of the Way, and in 1986 Geer recounted Wierwille’s last days before his death a year earlier.

More significantly, Geer accused The Way’s existing leadership of straying from its mission. No one was spared. Not the Way’s second president, L. Craig Martindale. Not the vice president, Wierwille’s oldest son Donald. Not the Way Corps, the energetic and fiercely loyal group of Way followers enrolled in a four-year program of education and indoctrination.

The Passing of a Patriarch would ultimately prove to be The Way’s undoing. The cult still exists today, but it is a shell of its former self.

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Merry Christmas (according to The Way International)

If you come across someone who says “Merry Christmas” to you today, Sept. 11, rest assured that this person isn’t celebrating the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in our history.

Years before 9/11 became synonymous with terror and mourning, followers of The Way International celebrated it as Jesus’ actual birthday.

JCOPSThe Way’s founder, Victor Paul Wierwille, outlined his reasoning in his 1982 book Jesus Christ Our Promised Seed, available on for a price so ridiculously high (as of this writing) that the only recommendation I have is to respond with laughter.

Now, a quick Google search will reveal that other groups have come to the same conclusion, so I’m not going to examine their sources to try to trace them back to Wierwille. Besides, it’s probably easier to trace them to Wierwille’s source, Ernest L. Martin, whose book is far more ridiculously priced on Amazon. Martin was part of a different cult, The Worldwide Church of God, before that group went mainstream.

Martin’s book, The Birth of Christ Recalculated, was published in 1980, and Wierwille cites him as a source. This was a new thing for Wierwille, as his previous books lifted passages from other sources wholesale without attribution. It helps to understand that Jesus Christ Our Promised Seed was written by a committee under Wierwille’s supervision, with Wierwille taking credit and responsibility for the contents. The contributors to Wierwille’s book were scrupulous in adhering to publishing standards regarding plagiarism in a way that Wierwille previously had not been.

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The threat of hell is pure extortion

The funniest thing you can threaten an atheist with is hell.

“If you don’t accept my imaginary friend, he’s going to put you in an imaginary place of eternal suffering!”

Ooh. I’m. Scared.

Extortion 2

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between “God The Father” and “The Godfather”

Now, before anything else, let me be clear: if you belong to one of those Christian sects that believes in annihilationism, that hell is not a literal place of torment but a state of non-existence, this post is not directed at you. This is for those sadistic torture-porn lovers (mostly Christian and Muslim) who think God is planning to set the majority of people who have ever lived on fire for all eternity, and that those people deserve it.

Now, there is a word for someone who threatens to harm you but promises to withhold that harm in exchange for your loyalty and devotion. That word is extortionist. There is no other word for it. Well, there is. It’s also called a shakedown artist. But extortionist is a perfectly fine word too.

In my experience, Christians try to wiggle out of the inescapable conclusion that the threat of hell is extortion through a series of implausible arguments. I’m going to try to avoid a strawman argument here, but let me assure you that I personally have been the recipient of each of these lies lines.

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Cult warning signs: Jargon and peculiar vocabulary

Not long after I became an atheist, a couple of family members attempted to talk me back into the fold of Christianity. Both were rude about it (and naturally accused me of being rude about it). But one of them was more interesting than the other. I’ll call my cousin “John” for the sake of this post.

John was deeply troubled by my deconversion. Honestly, I think he took it as a personal insult. And for some reason, he seemed to believe that my former faith was evidence of the veracity of Christianity. “Oh yeah, well you used to believe in God and Christ!” I mean, so what? That’s what happens when you change — you no longer believe the things you used to believe. What does that prove?

red flag


But John was interesting for another reason. He and one of his faith-brothers, let’s call him Jack, bombarded me with arguments about why I’m wrong. And it wasn’t until they did that I noticed something others probably noticed about me during my days with The Way International and its offshoots. John and Jack are in a cult, and they don’t even know it.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that “cult” is a loaded word that means different things to different people. I’ve seen some fun definitions.

  • A cult is what a big church calls a little church.
  • A cult is a religious movement where there’s someone at the top who knows its a scam. A religion is the same thing, only that person is long dead.
  • A cult is a religion that thinks your religion is wrong.

There are others, usually concocted by cults to deflect the “cult” label. For this post, I’m going to use this broad definition, recognizing that others may apply: A cult is a sect of a larger religion with unusual doctrinal interpretations considered heretical by the larger group. These doctrinal differences, in the cult’s view, make them better than the larger religion and are signs that the larger religion has been corrupted.

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Atheists don’t worship Satan, and neither do most Satanists!

In Internet slang, a troll is “ a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.”

In reality, I find the definition to be a little bit more broad than that. I would say a “troll” is someone who sows discord by upsetting people by advocating for inflammatory positions with the deliberate intent of provoking an emotional response, even though the the troll does not actually believe in the position for which he’s advocating.

FSMAtheists on and off the Internet employ the tactic of trolling with gleeful regularity. Late last month, atheists in the Netherlands  succeeded in convincing the government to officially recognize the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Followers of that religion are known as “Pastafarians.”

I neither know nor care who first coined the concept of a Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s basically a God-parody. The idea is, expecting atheists to disprove God is like expecting Christians to disprove the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Or disprove the claim that there’s a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars.

It’s silliness. No one actually believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or in Russell’s Teapot. It’s not because anyone has disproved either of them. It’s because the claim is inherently ridiculous. Some atheists feel the same about the God hypothesis. We’re expected to believe that the universe, with all its complexity, was created by an omnipotent, omniscient being who would, of necessity, be more complicated than the universe, be invisible, be timeless, and be deeply, deeply concerned about our sexual activity. And the burden is on us to disprove such a being?

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For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the end was just the beginning

I am the last person to call myself an expert on the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the legal name of the organization better known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. You know, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the legal name for the Mormons).

But I do remember bits and pieces of growing up under the organization’s thumb in the 1970s. I have no memories of 1975 being a particularly significant year, although I later learned it was their last prediction for when the world would end and the New System of Things would be upon us.

millions-titleIt’s a little more complicated than that, of course, and the Society will tell you that they never really taught the world would end in 1975. Don’t buy that. They did. But 1975 was just the last in a long line of predictions about the end of the world that would prove false.

In fact, if you ever received a copy of Awake! magazine during that time, you might have noticed their proclamation in every issue. “This magazine builds confidence in the Creator’s promise of a peaceful and secure new world before the generation that saw the events of 1914 pass away.”

You’ll find that promise in your Bible if you turn to … the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. You won’t find it in your actual Bible. Or anyone else’s. Not even theirs.

In the 1920s, Watchtower leader Joseph “Judge” Rutherford began teaching “millions now living will never die.” There are maybe dozens of people alive who may have heard him teach that. There was even a book by that title that they published in 1925. It’s, um, no longer in print. At least, not by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

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The problem isn’t public religion, it’s public religion

Part of an occasional series addressing popular misconceptions about atheism. For more in the series, click here.

I don’t have a problem with public displays of religion, but I have a big problem with public displays of religion.

I came up with that line a couple of years ago, and I love using it. It sounds self-contradictory, but it’s really not. It’s all about how we define words. In this case, the word in question is “public.”

God OK

Original source unknown: Please contact us if this is your image and you object to its use here.

Hermand Mehta, aka “The Friendly Atheist,” had a terrific article last week illustrating what I mean when I say the problem isn’t public religion, it’s public religion. It seems Christians (it’s mostly Christians in the USA who do this) think that atheists want religion to be unseen in public. They misunderstand the objection atheists have to public displays of religion.

In Pittsburg, Kansas, a local post office put up a “God Bless America” sign on its property. Atheists objected, and the sign was removed. But what happened next? A local business printed up 1,200 “God Bless America” signs and had people put them up on their property to spite the atheists who had it taken down from the post office.

And how did atheists respond to this?

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What’s wrong with this picture?

This picture was making the rounds on an atheist Facebook page this week with the following instruction: “Type ‘bull—-‘ when you see it. No hints!”

JesusIt didn’t take me long to respond. This photo is b.s.

Can you figure out why?

Not everyone sees it immediately.

Before I reveal it, let me tell you a quick story I picked up while teaching a writing class a few years ago.

A teacher once wanted to have a few minutes to himself, so he instructed his class to add up the numbers from 1 to 100. Figuring this would give him at least a few minutes of peace, the teacher sat at his desk. He looked up less than a minute later to find most of the students scribbling away in their notebooks, except for this one kid.

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Why atheists care if you pray (spoiler alert: we don’t)

Part of an occasional series addressing popular misconceptions about atheism. For more in the series, click here.

You may have seen this meme when it originally circulated a year or two ago. It popped up on my Facebook feed, and I remember leaving a simple comment: We don’t.

Dear AtheistI can’t speak for all atheists. No one can. But I can speak for myself, so here goes: I don’t care who prays or where. I don’t care if you pray first thing when you wake up, last thing before you go to sleep, before each meal, after each meal, three times a day while facing Mecca, nine times a day while counting beads, twice a day while brushing your teeth, or 20 times a day while clipping your fingernails and toenails. I do not care if you pray at home, in your car, at your job, at school, on line at the post office, in a park, behind your desk, in court, on the street or at a sports stadium.

I care about your attempt to get our government to acknowledge, support and promote your God by imposing prayer on me and my children.

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Parent sues because school educated his daughter

One of my more contentious battles on Twitter came in late 2014, after a dad in Maryland received a no trespassing order from La Plata High School in Maryland. The dad, John Wood, “challenged a history class assignment that had students list the benefits of Islam,” according to a news account.

The reporter lied. Seriously. There was nothing in the assignment about the “benefits” of Islam. The assignment was about the tenets of Islam, and it’s something we should be expecting and even demanding our schools teach.

This is not a double standard. Atheists are frequently accused of crying foul whenever schools try to promote Christianity, but looking the other way when those same schools teach about other religions. But the argument is disingenuous, because there’s a huge difference between a public school promoting a religion and that same school teaching about a religion.

Reasonable people, atheists and theists alike, do not object to public schools teaching about religion.


Martin Luther at work.

A public school curriculum that teaches about the history of Judaism would be perfectly within its rights to expect its students to learn the 10 Commandments, and I don’t know of a single atheist group that would object. A school that teaches about Christianity would, of necessity, include information about the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead three days after his crucifixion. Again, I don’t know of a single atheist group that would object to a public school teaching about those religions.

For a school to teach about the Five Pillars of Islam would be equally uncontroversial.

At least, it would be if parents did not go out and actively oppose the education of their children.

But that’s what John and Melissa Wood of Maryland have done. Last month, they sued La Plata High School over their daughter’s homework assignment, claiming that it indoctrinated their daughter and tricked her into becoming a Muslim by reciting the “Shahada,” the Islamic Creed that states “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

The stupidity of the lawsuit is evident from several facts. Read More