But first . . .

GOOGLE EARTH

Daniel: ‘Based on your minimalist comments regarding Google Earth, is it possible that you – being primarily from the lands of flat spaces – have not grasped why Google Earth is one of the most astonishing inventions ever? I’m sure you’ve already seen this but just to be pedantic, be sure that you have ‘Terrain’ checked in the primary display selection window. Enter ‘Grand Canyon, AZ’ as your search. Apply the ‘adjust tilt’ selector, which is the lever control to the right of the main navigation panel. Now try flying INTO the inner gorge with the canyon walls on both sides and zoom in to the point that you can see the rapids. Next, with ‘Buildings’ check-marked, enter New York City as your search target. Apply the tilt lever. Now try navigating around THROUGH the downtown buildings. Be astonished.’

☞ Heck, Luke Skywalker was flying through canyons in 1977. Still, it’s kind of neat we can now do it ourselves. I just worry that if we all try this at the same time, there could be collisions. Wear your helmet.

EYESIGHT

Ron C.: ‘When you include a column from another source, you print it in very small brown type that I find extremely difficult to read. I assume you are trying to save space, but I’m trying to save sight. If you can do something about this problem I suspect many others besides myself would be very grateful.’

☞ Thanks, Ron. I think there’s probably a way to adjust your browser to display the whole column larger. But until you find a 17-year-old who knows how, you could always just cut-and-paste those 10-point excerpts into Word and then raise the font to any size you like. (In Word, control+open-bracket notches highlighted text up larger and larger.)

And now . . .

NOTES FROM A FORMER CULTIST . . .

With seemingly nice teenagers morphing in just months into suicide bombers, it’s of no small interest how exactly this happens. I sure don’t know. Still, this note from one of you helped me imagine how one comes to drink the Kool-Aid. (Have we a remarkable readership, or what?)

My Cult Years
Personal History by John Seiffer

Growing up in an upper middle class town with parents who were smart, intellectual, and cultural Jews, I was a hippie wannabe. I was old enough to identify with flower children, smoke a little pot and even march against the Vietnam War, but I was only 14 when Woodstock happened and I wasn’t old enough to be a full-fledged YIPPE or anything serious like (god forbid) a Weatherman. And I wasn’t the right color to be a black panther. Perhaps I could sue for discrimination?

The summer before my junior year in high school (1970), an older sister of a friend of mine came back to town as a Jesus freak and turned a bunch of us on to the bible. Now this was something cool! It was unusual (to say the least) and totally anti-establishment. It was against established religion (not that I’d had any ties to religion to begin with) it was certainly anti-intellectual. It gave us a cause (we were on a mission literally to save the world) and it was communal. Not in the sense that we lived together but we were a tight knit community. Having alienated everyone else, what other choice did we have but to commune with each other?

The group was The Way International, a two-bit ‘ministry’ founded by a guy in Ohio who had gotten kicked out of his parish years before. He said he was forced out for teaching the real truth like it had never been known before, but I’ve since heard it was for messing with the money, the women or both.

We started some prayer meetings and bible studies in high school and since we were in a liberal part of the country (Westchester county NY) and most of us were top students we attracted the attention of a writer who did a story on us for Life Magazine called ‘The Groovy Christians of Rye, NY’ My mother was quoted in the article as saying ‘Drugs I can understand, but this is creepy.’ Don’t you hate it when your mother turns out to be right after all these years?<

When I got involved, the group was beginning a pretty large growth spurt that in the next 10 years would include almost 100,000 people. So there was a need for leaders. I went through their leadership program and got ordained. I was legally able to perform wedding and funerals and such. I was never at the very top of the organization – I rose to a level perhaps analogous to Vice President in a public corporation.

The teachings of the group were supposed to be built on biblical research but as is typical in such organizations, it was really built on ‘What the head guy says is THE TRUTH.’ There were some references to obscure ancient texts, some mistranslation of Greek and Aramaic and such, but no real questioning allowed and certainly no academic-style inquiry. It was pretty fundamentalist in doctrine and very conservative in politics – which it didn’t mind foisting on followers who were assumed not to be spiritual enough to make up their own minds about such matters.

As you would expect from a group that believes God has called them to spread the one true light, there was a high degree of fanatical devotion. It differed from the current religious right in isolating itself more from main stream society (it was, among other things not nearly as involved politically) and in a few doctrinal differences (acceptance of abortion being one – turns out the top leaders needed this to cover evidence of some of their indiscretions).

The organization was based on fellowships in people’s homes. It was not a communal cult, like the Branch Davidians where everyone lived together. But it did have a sizeable training program where as many as a thousand people lived on 4 campuses for 2 years of indoctrination. At its height it had fellowships in all 50 states and dozens of other countries. And it was certainly a cult in the sense of devotion to its leader and the obedience it required in almost every aspect on people’s personal lives. There was also, I was to find out later, quite an amassing of money and sexual favors at the very top.

Looking back, I know that the reason it appealed to me personally was I was a kid with ‘potential’ but no inner drive or direction. Not uncommon when one has an overbearing mother and an emotionally distant father. Involvement in The Way provided direction, a surrogate family and a strong father figure. Not to mention shelter from having to do the hard work of growing up emotionally.

When I first joined, it was a rather free spirited, but as it grew in numbers, the organization instituted rules and required more commitment – especially for leaders. Commitment to such a cause required orienting your entire life around it – jobs, friends, family etc. In my case, with no internal ambition, I found this an easy path for me to follow. I stayed involved through college and into my thirties.

They provided a ‘career path’ for some who became paid employees. But they weren’t paid or treated well. I found it easier to remain a committed volunteer. I supported myself with a series of small businesses that gave me the income to live and freedom to be involved with annual retreats, and leadership conferences. They also encouraged leaders to move every few years, and being entrepreneurial made that easier. So it was actually the start of my life as a serial entrepreneur.

And as an ironic side note, as the group grew, it became obsessed with growth and even more so after the numbers peaked and started to slide. The height was probably in the late 1970’s. In the early ’80s I was in charge of the fellowships in Marin County (and up the coast) in Northern California. It was a time when Japan was economically kicking the butts of companies in the US so there were a lot of business books written about how to get, or stay on top. My ‘boss’ was in charge of a couple western states, and at our leaders meetings he would talk about stuff he was learning from those books in an attempt to help us increase our numbers. So it also furthered my education in business principles, which in retrospect has been a lot more helpful than what I learned about the bible.

As things progressed I did feel a bit constrained but by then I had no other part of my life to balance out. Leaving the group would mean having to rebuild my entire life – new friends, new employment, new identity in a certain sense. And I wasn’t ready to even consider that. It took an organizational crisis for me to decide it was time to take that jump. By then I was married (thankfully we got out before our first child was born) and I don’t know if I could have done it without the support of some friends who were doing the same thing.

What happened was a power grab. The man who started the organization (Victor Paul Weirwille) had decided, for whatever personal reasons, that he would replace himself as leader before he died. He chose his successor based on loyalty. This guy (Craig Martindale) was loyal, but also loud, boorish, and obnoxious. The group was already starting to decline in numbers (due in large part, I think, to social changes that made YUPPIES more attractive than Jesus Freaks) but Martindale’s leadership style furthered that decline.

Still Weirwille was around for a number of years and either through senility, declining health or frustration with having been kicked up stairs (even though he himself did the kicking) he lashed out against his successor just before he died. But he lashed out privately – to a confidante he had installed as leader of the operations in Europe, a man named Chris Geer. Coincidentally Geer was a fellow ‘groovy Christian.’ I knew him in high school and we had gotten into the organization at the same time. Weirwille told Geer of his dissatisfaction and also the fact that he was dying of cancer. He told him to wait a year after he died and if things didn’t change, to come back to the States and raise hell. Which is what happened.

As a member of the clergy, I was invited to some of these hell raising sessions which had the effect of putting the organization in turmoil. Folks were deciding which person they were going to follow and a few of us decided not to follow either of them. Some started their own groups but me and some others took the opportunity to reject the bible, Christianity, and any of the stuff we’d been taught. We then got on with rebuilding our lives.

Epilogue

I left in late 1986. The group is still alive. Groups actually. Geer runs his own. And many followers have left to form or join off­shoot groups. Martindale was tossed out as President of The Way a few years ago after a former employee sued on charges of sexual abuse. It was settled out of court. But the group never came clean about the extent of the problem. They just kicked the one guy out and hushed it up. The Way became much more legalistic in the years after I left. It has shrunk to a number estimated at fewer than 4,000 with maybe half of those children. But it is reputed to have assets of around $40 million.

Most of the former members I know who did not join (or start) an off-shoot have in fact gone back to beliefs similar to those they grew up with. In my case, after some therapy, a divorce and re-marriage I’m a more fervent agnostic than I’ve ever been, and I practice non-observant, cultural Judaism with a burning indifference I never had before.

Conclusion

The experience has certainly given me insight into the fundamentalist mind set. You can’t talk to these people. It takes so much effort to maintain these kinds of beliefs, despite all the evidence that the world doesn’t work that way, that logic is just not given much weight. Every idea, action, opinion, thought and emotion is judged only against the holy doctrine and is concluded to be either right or wrong. No shades of gray are allowed. The sense of superiority and hubris are immense. Such is the burden of one called to know and (more importantly) spread the only truth that can save people from an eternity of damnation.

When applied to action, this mind set provides intense motivation to do tireless grunt work. Such vast armies of dedicated folks who are willing to be seen as weird yet who are conditioned not to think outside the lines are a huge benefit to leaders who want to rise to power.

In “my day” we focused this action on recruitment (the Mormons still do). But in the last 20 years it has been focused on transforming politics and education. I no longer pretend to speak on behalf of the almighty, so I’m not willing to say if God equates an elected town council person with a saved soul, but I can tell you it probably feels a lot more successful to man a phone bank or hand out political flyers than it does to try to get the disinterested to come to your church or bible study.

This attitude has taken the political left completely by surprise. Even when the progressives (or whatever you call them) had people in the streets and willing to do the work (I’m thinking of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement of the 60s) those leaders never considered that their followers would gladly give up their capacity for thoughtful questioning. But such is the mind set of a fundamentalist.

I’m not sure my personal history of getting in and out of this mindset can be applied to the religious right today. The main reason that I got in was as an act of rebellion. My sense is that most “believers” today are in due to a sense of community and family tradition – not rebellion. Also my involvement was due to some intense psychological/emotional needs. As you can imagine most relationships were pretty superficial so I didn’t really know the others involved as well as I thought I did. But I’d be willing to bet they had psychological problems as well. I can practically diagnose the top leaders as narcissists and megalomaniacs. I’m sure some of that plays into the thinking of fundamentalists today – but maybe in a less pathological way because there seems to be more functionality on a social level.

And I got out due to an internal crisis, with the support of others doing the same thing. But I was in a group removed from society (and we knew it). The religious right today is much more a part of society – albeit one they are trying to reshape – so the prospect of an organizational crisis that shakes their belief system is less likely. And trying to “get someone out” is like trying to cure an alcoholic before they’ve hit bottom. I knew people whose parents hired deprogrammers to kidnap them. A number of them came back, they were after all of legal age.

And the biggest problem is that once you are a believer that mind set filters everything else you allow yourself to consider. It’s not just that the ends justify the means (which they believe) but that the end conclusion justifies or invalidates any logical argument or whether you consider any data set valid or not.

It happened to communist ideologs and radical lefties who were out to change the world (where are they now?) and it’s always been present in the radical religious movements in this country. One difference now it they’ve learned the patience and the willingness to work the system in ways that other groups have not.

 

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