I’ve been following several of the Armstrongist splinters for a while now. I stumbled across them while researching cults and their internal mechanisms, and they struck me as a particularly interesting example. Not only do they subscribe to an end-of-days worldview, but several have gone so far as to repeatedly set dates–often only five to ten years in the future. These dates then pass without anything untoward happening, but the cults simply rearrange their teachings slightly and then carry on.
On the surface it seems ludicrous that any organization (or person) which claims to be in direct contact with an all-powerful supernatural being should make clear predictions and have them fail repeatedly without this having a serious impact on their follower base. But while it is true that some leave, or head for a different Armstrong-based group, the essential belief in prophesy and the core tenets of Armstrongism often remain intact despite the perennial reality checks.
This phenomenon seems to defy all logic. In a logical world, people would see a ‘prophet,’ listen, and then simply watch to see if the prophecies come true. In the event of a failure, then the ‘prophet’ is either mistaken or out to deceive people. In the event of a mistake the ‘prophet’s’ judgement is obviously impaired–it’s a big step to go out and declare yourself the direct recipient of a divine message, and then tell people to arrange their lives accordingly. On the other hand, if the ‘prophet’ stands to gain power, influence or money by propagating a fraudulent belief system, then it is much more likely that he is seeking personal aggrandizement to the detriment of his followers.
So how do the Armstrongist splinters defy the logical outcome? What keeps people inured, even after they witness failure after failure?
I am starting to believe that the reason this seems so strange is because I thought of the Armstrongist splinters as religious movements. I would argue that this is at least partially a mistake. Armstrongist groups that I have seen so far are cults that assume the form of religious movements, but do not act as you would expect a religious movement to act. They use the forms, customs and language of religion, but if you analyze their teachings, both overt and implied, then you find a different beast entirely.
There are a few things that the splinters I have observed so far have in common:
- They all teach that they are the One True Church, and that certain passages in the Bible pertain exclusively to them. They are at the very epicenter of God’s plan, and have a special status that non-members can never hope to attain. Taken out of religious context, they teach that they are an elite.
- They all teach that the only way to do God’s work is to follow the teachings of the church, and to do so wholeheartedly. If you disagree, then God has simply not enlightened you yet, and you must follow the teaching anyway and hope God will enlighten you along the way, or maybe this is just a sign that you are not a part of the elite after all. Outside the religious context this boils down to the tenet that Obedience is Virtue. Lip service is paid to independent inquiry, but it is only allowed in certain avenues and strongly discouraged where core beliefs are concerned. You are asked to “prove all things,” and I have yet to find a single person being encouraged to prove that the Bible is the word of God, for example (except in the sense of being trained to confirm the bias that it is God’s word).
- None of them seem to be terribly interested in the world outside the cult, except as a source of new recruits or as a theatre in which they can look for signs that corroborate their views. They see the non-cult world as essentially bad, and something you should not have too much to do with. They are primarily focused on the good of the cult, not on the overall state of mankind. A religious movement that claims relevance for all mankind is, at its core, ostensibly an organization for the betterment of all mankind. They claim that by bringing people closer to God’s ways, they will improve their lot. By contrast, the Armstrongist cults are not that interested in this, and stress the importance of the cult itself – it is the “church” that is mentioned in the Bible, and the parts of the Bible they identify as mentioning the church have a message that is meant exclusively for them. If you remove this from a religious context, you arrive at a manifest destiny for the cult.
- All of them seem to have a single leader who is either spoken to by God directly, or gets his knowledge from divinely inspired interpretations from the Bible. This leader has the final say, and often a failure to adhere to the rules he sets leads to excommunication. If we were to take this out of a religious context, then we are looking at a leadership principle and a strong authoritarian hierarchy.
The ideology seems to be this – the cult is the greatest good, it is God being active in the world. It is at the very epicenter of God’s plan and the only institution that really understands it. To be a part of it is to be part of an elite. Obedience to it is obedience to God and to his plan, so disobedience is a sin against God. The church has a destiny that is directly governed by God, and the leader has a mystical connection to that destiny. To go against the leader is to go against God. To disobey the cult is to remove yourself from that destiny, and so lose your status as part of the elite. You must sacrifice for this cause – it is not for the faint-hearted. Your elite status is bought with obedience to the hierarchy.
There is a shorthand name for the kind of authoritarian, elitist and leadership-driven ideologies that claim that simple sets of rules should replace the complexity of modern life: Fascism.
To me it is not surprising that the Armstrongist splinters have their roots in the 1930’s, a time when serious socio-economic upheaval, the last gasp of the class-driven society and the increasing drive for enfranchisement of more and more people were creating a lot of confusion. Many sought safety in a return to a more authoritarian organisation of society, with simple rules and ideologies. It saw the rise of Nazism, Stalinism and Fascism as people sought strongmen to protect them from the vagaries of the complex new Age of Technology.
Now I am not saying that the Armstrongist splinters are fascist organizations per se – I am merely using it as a shorthand that reminds us of the dependence on strongman-leaders, the anti-democratic tendencies and the notions of superiority that prevail in both ideologies. But if we consider Armstrongism to be a form of theocratic fascism, then I think the problem of explaining its ability to survive the innumerable failed prophesies largely disappears. The fulfilment of prophesy is simply not of the first importance – in essence, all theology that does not have to do with the members’ elite status as God’s particular chosen ones is more or less window-dressing.
What is important is that the theology supports the idea of the members as an elite, and that the movement provides a simple set of rules for its members to follow, a set of rules that will guarantee them a position of importance in the world to come, as well as in the manufactured reality of the cult itself. This status is earned through obedience to the church and the leader (rather than any truly meritorious efforts, it should be said).
What are a few missed deadlines in a scheme like that? They are merely challenges, even opportunities to show just how loyal the members are, how devoted, and how willing to sacrifice. Making it harder to believe only shows that it is true they are an elite – if it was easy, anyone with half a brain and some common sense would be able to do it. The cultist is made of grander stuff than that!
We can point out the gaping holes in the logic and the catastrophic failure of each and every prophesy until the cows come home – it makes no difference at all. The reason that people stay is that to leave requires a real critical assessment of the movement and of themselves, to come up with an honest answer to the question – WHY do I believe these things? This takes a considerable amount of intellectual honesty and psychological fortitude. Most people, unfortunately, prefer to seek out facts that support what they want to believe, and ignore facts that upset their existing views.
[Editor’s note] In other words, the sheep are indeed “the weak and the base.” Sadly for them, though, their delusions of unmerited grandeur, of being lifted up to the airy heights of greatness on the wings of sheer belief, are just that–delusions. They aren’t “confounding” anyone but themselves–and they aren’t “the mighty.” To do the honest work of truth-seeking, one must be “bold as a lion.” But these aren’t lions, they’re sheep. When has a sheep ever stood up for anything? We challenge our readers to be lions instead of sheep. We have witnessed before the transformation of sheep into lions. It can be done. Often, if you poke a sheep enough it will unleash on you something that sounds suspiciously like a roar. So, we poke. And poke. And poke…to awaken that slumbering lion!
Armstrongism has an emotional hold over its members – it offers simple answers to complex problems (no independent thought or research required), it offers a worldview where its members can be part of an elite (without doing anything meritorious to that end), and gives a clear reason why this elite is not in charge of running the world, which in their own view they are clearly meant to be (merely because of what they believe). It tells its members that instead of ordinary, everyday individuals they are special, chosen. It offers a sense of belonging, a community.
In most cases, you cannot hope to prevail against these emotional bonds with mere logic. Logic is a bitter pill for sheep, so it must come wrapped in some kind of emotional appeal or provocation. For example, you can point to the trail of financial and emotional ruin that these cults leave behind them, and ask “are you sure God meant for those excommunicated people to suffer loneliness, rejection, the disruption of their family life? Are you sure it was God, and not some spiteful preacher trying to protect his gravy-train? Was it really God who meant for that preacher to live like a king off the donations of followers that grow poorer?…Who says it is so? And why did you believe them?”
- The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer
- When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger