Dec 102014

We’ve received several requests over the last few months for a quick set of links to share with friends or family who are struggling with their association with the COG. While there’s lots of content here and across several great XCOG sites, we found it useful to start compiling a quick sort of “cheat sheet” to share with people seeking basic information on a variety of subjects.

Please let us know what we should add. Thanks!

Herbert W. Armstrong

COG Origins

British Israelism

Origins of Life and the Universe

Splinter Groups

COG Corruption

COG Abuse, Deaths and Assault

Cults and Brainwashing

Dec 082014

Recently, we wrote a lengthy analysis of the COG’s gradual rate of decay, specifically targeting UCG for its numerous very public struggles and failures to grow and remain relevant. And of course, we’ve covered UCG’s shrinkage before.

But UCG’s Roy Holladay just copped to its size and demographics problem being so much worse than we imagined.

See, we had estimated that UCG had about 8,000 members left, post-schism with COGWA, which took about 75 percent of its paid ministry and 5,000 of its members. When we were growing up in UCG, we were always told, pretty consistently by pastors and elders, that UCG had between 12,000 and 13,000 warm bodies in its United States organization (“members” is a historically fuzzy term in the COG).

But Holladay wrote in a November 4, 2014 member letter that many of its nearly 200 congregations have no more than 20-30 in attendance at Sabbath services each week.

We in the home office administration would like to share with you some of our manpower plans for serving our nearly 200 congregations and Bible study groups in the United States. Several of our full-time pastors will be retiring in the next several years after many decades of faithful service. However, the work of leading and shepherding those congregations must continue and we are asking God to show whom He may be calling to serve in the pastoral ministry of His Church. It’s a very important role. One of UCG’s goals from inception has been to give each congregation a live speaker and not become merely a video or Internet church of God.

As you may know, many of our congregations are quite small, often with no more than 20 or 30 in attendance each Sabbath. Our current model has been to give our full-time pastors two, three or four of these smaller churches that may add up to a total attendance of 80-100. But this approach has significant drawbacks. The pastor may not be able to visit any single congregation more than once or twice a month. His travel incurs a great amount of mileage costs and takes a physical toll on the elder and his wife. We believe there are other ways to consistently and effectively serve our brethren in these small, widely scattered congregations.

What we have been doing in some areas, where there is a smaller congregation, is to find a qualified man who is already gainfully employed (or retired), who could be appointed as that congregation’s pastor at a part-time salary or volunteer basis. Before assuming the pastor’s position, he will need to be mentored and have online instruction in pastoral care to equip him with the tools and knowledge for this service. As you know, there is a lot more to pastoring than just speaking or visiting brethren. He would also have access to a mentoring pastor, who would be familiar with his area and would be available to advise and make occasional visits.

A part-time pastor serving only one congregation has the following advantages:

• The pastor and his wife will have only one congregation to serve each Sabbath. They will have more quality time with the brethren, knowing that they do not have to leave quickly after services and drive many miles to another church service.
• The pastor and his wife will be in his congregation the vast majority of Sabbaths, which is not possible for full-time pastors serving three or four churches.
• There will be lower mileage reimbursement costs for distances traveled, which will enable us to be wiser stewards of the money that God provides to care for our members.
• The pastor and wife can develop closer relationships with the brethren because they live in the same geographical area.
• The pastor would not necessarily need to forsake his chosen career.

This is bad for UCG. Even if one could argue some congregations in Texas break that 20-30 person attendance norm or some people just don’t make it to services every week, that’s still not enough to push its numbers to 8,000. At the high end, with 30 people in attendance across 200 congregations, that’s hovering around 6,000 people give or take. On the lower end toward 20 attendees across 200 congregations, that’s more likely somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 people affiliated with UCG in the United States. 

What about international congregations? Numbers abroad have traditionally been in flux and attendance was often viewed as too sporadic to provide good estimates. Baptismal trends were always reportedly worse in other countries too. But remember when UCG jettisoned and abandoned lots of its third world congregations that Dennis Luker didn’t feel like subsidizing anymore? Yeah. There’s no hope for growth abroad either. Its European presence was virtually non-existent before the COGWA split anyway and is even worse now, plus there’s plenty to be skeptical about regarding its African missions. The bulk of UCG’s money — which is the truly important factor here — comes almost exclusively from its U.S. congregations. It’s the only element that matters to the COG’s survival, since these are fundamentally American cults.

And notice that Holladay too avoids the fuzzy “member” term, which historically applies only to the COG baptized, and instead opts for “attendance” which we can assume includes kids. That’s even fewer baptized members, which is really the point of Holladay’s letter since he’s lamenting the loss of retiring ministers and the lack of baptized laymembers to promote in their place.

Then consider these estimates are comparable to Grace Communion International’s (WCG’s) reported numbers from 2012. Nearly three years ago, GCI reportedly had 300 congregations and 7,832 total members, which translates to a similar average congregation size of 26 people. Factoring in UCG’s international congregations, the cult may have withered down to the same total attendance numbers as WCG, an organization that at one time claimed around 140,000 members (also possibly a lie) and suffered multiple massive schisms in the mid-90s to bring it down to its current weakened state. If these estimates are to be believed, UCG, after years of being assumed the strongest, wealthiest and largest COG group — compared even to the shriveled husk of the WCG mothership — may have shrunk by 50 percent or more across the U.S. in the last decade. That’s a far faster rate of decay than we even dared to imagine, without the multitude of massive splits WCG had to blame for it.

UCG may not even be the largest COG group anymore. An assumed COGWA employee has been rapidly reverting changes to his cult’s Wikipedia page, to the point where the article has been flagged for review by the community (fingers crossed they ban him). The COGWA shill has inserted the non-cited claim that the cult boasts 10,000 members now. Even though they’re likely lying, if the stat is even close to true, that’s 100 percent growth for COGWA since its 2010 inception.

A more likely scenario is that people are simply fleeing the COG all together, or just dying off from old age in greater sums than anyone has noticed. While it’s probable there is a slow trickle of UCG members to COGWA, where the grass might seem greener and the ground more fertile, we haven’t heard anything about a new wave of disaffected moving between the cults, at least not one large enough to account for this devastating loss of human capital.

There’s no coming back from this for UCG. COG cults do not grow. Any perceived increases in members are usually insignificant and quickly offset by losses. UCG is only going to shrink more rapidly than anyone could have guessed.

And this puts the claimed congregational numbers of other COG groups under the microscope too. It’s self-evident they’re lying constantly about everything. But this suggests that LCG, PCG, RCG and others are even weaker than fathomed to this point.

TL;DR: holy shit, UCG. You guys are falling apart.

Clarification: obviously, 20-30 is not the max and Holladay doesn’t claim that, and neither do we. It’s a baseline we can run with to estimate what UCG’s actual size might be, and it’s much lower than estimates we’ve previously seen and heard over the years. Outlying large congregations, while they exist, are pretty unlikely to provide significant enough numbers to reach previously surmised estimates. And again, to emphasize, these are not numbers of baptized members. Including the unbaptized among “attendees” skews UCG’s actual number of human resources upward.

For UCG to have estimated numbers more comparable to where the crippled WCG was three years ago is a significant revelation. Holladay’s numbers would have to be significantly off-the-mark for them not to signal trouble for UCG.

Dec 062014

Armstrongism has always mocked every other religion, especially mainstream Christianity, for not possessing its special brand of “truth.” It holds a magnifying glass up to the absurdities of other faiths, one the COG has never turned on itself.

But there is no other religion the modern-day COG despises, fears and studies more than Islam.

The reasons why are obvious. The COG is an American cult, and the United States is naturally suspicious of radical Islam after a slew of terrorist attacks and several wars in Middle Eastern countries over the decades. There are deep-seated animosities between Muslims and Jews and Christians, where Armstrongism borrows heavily from the latter two.  Muslims have also taken fire not only from American troops, but from rightwing politicians and media personalities since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the COG is fairly closely aligned with those ideological forces. There’s good old institutionalized racism and a fear of outsiders mixed in there too.

And then, most importantly, are COG interpretations of prophecy, specifically the End Times notion that the Biblical “King of the South” will emerge from the Middle East, provoke the so-called European “King of the North” and ignite World War III. Armstrongites have viewed a radical Islamic caliphate as the fulfillment of that prophecy for decades and have since jumped at multiple suspects, from the Ayatollah to Al Qaeda to ISIS. Awhile back in UCG, following the 2001 attacks, we were told the cult was even thinking of publishing that the 200 million man army was to be reinterpreted as Muslim, because “those Arabs reproduce like flies” and would easily have enough soldiers to fulfill the prophecy. Fortunately, it’s a doctrinal push we never saw launch.

The aggression of ISIS in the Middle East and another round of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians have reignited the COG’s schadenfreude news voyeurism as the cults drill down into yet more apocalyptic paranoia regarding Muslims.

Oddly, on this issue, the COG finds itself aligned on the subject of Islam’s danger to the world — regardless of the specifics — with some strange bedfellows: the flag-bearers of New Atheism.

Recently, one of the remaining three Four Horsemen of New Atheism, neuroscientist Sam Harris, has been under fire from the American left and Muslims alike for his hard-line criticism of Islamic cultural values and extremism and perceived racism on his part and that of rational atheists.

A few weeks ago, Harris and actor Ben Affleck got into it over Islam on Bill Maher’s Real Time:

So how is it that rightwing militarists, new atheists and the COG all find themselves on the same side aligned against the whole of the Islamic world? Is there something to the notion that Islam, more than any other religious force in the world right now, is a threat to Western civilization?

Affleck’s claim about the number of ISIS militants barely filling a minor league ballpark is significantly underestimated, though his point is well-received. If any notable percentage of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims were violent extremists, we would be in serious trouble and American streets would be torn apart by religiously-motivated violence. Instead, we have Muslims living peacefully in the United States, and in even in Western Europe where there’s currently more religious-versus-secular tension on display. During Egypt’s iteration of the Arab Spring, Christians and Muslims worked together in peace and many challenged and disapproved of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Indonesia, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, we barely hear a peep out of when it comes to violence, and the younger generation in Islamic countries tend to be relatively freewheeling if not outright secular. So statistically, terrorism is a paltry threat.

Additionally, while Islamic honor killings, the persecutions of those who leave the Muslim faith, the hideous way women are treated in counties like Saudi Arabia and absurd death sentences in Iran are all horrendous crimes against humanity and basic civil rights, Muslims are far from alone on that score. For instance, Christians in the U.S. and Uganda have collaborated to violently persecute homosexuals while Jews have persecuted women in Israel and the occupation of Palestine certainly has religious overtones. Then there’s the Arizona preacher who recently advocated the execution of all gay people. Pope Francis just wrapped up his trip to Turkey, where he decried religious extremism, acknowledging that all religions have their own sects of lunatics, to paraphrase. And those are simply some modern-day examples. Christians historically are responsible for atrocities during the Crusades and 600 years of Inquisition against non-believers, while Zionist Jews practiced terrorism against the British Empire and Arabs.

Islamic history has been one described by conquest, its empire forged partially by way of the sword, and the Koran contains scriptures viewed by some as advocating violence against non-believers. Yet, there are also many scriptures of peace in the Koran. The Bible, which is also filled with scriptures of peace, is also notoriously filled with violence — for example, the Israelites took their “Promised Land” by way of genocide against the native peoples.

The idea that the Islamic world today is regressive and backward compared to the western Judeo-Christian world also misses the parts of history where Roman Catholicism persecuted scientific advancement for centuries, and also ignores the fact that despite the Islamic Empire’s violent history, it also allowed math, astronomy and other academics to thrive.

The bottom line is that religious extremism, violence and regressive thinking is and has been present in all three major world religions — in roughly similar percentages in the modern world — and it’s all horrible. Nobody gets a pass. It’s by and large been rational, freethinking scientists, philosophers and benevolent rulers who have advanced civilization in spite of religious authorities or their personal faith, not because of them.

Where people get in trouble is when they try to say that Islam represents a special threat against peace and societal advancement. Debates over Islamophobia tend to occur between those attempting to paint Muslim extremism as a microcosm of larger cultural issues in the Islamic world and those who argue such views are inherently racist.

In our view, Islamic extremism and terrorism and the horrors inflicted upon women and nonbelievers by Muslims are indeed rooted in deep-seated cultural problems. Harris is right when he says that Muslim extremism isn’t on an x-axis, but instead can be viewed as a Venn Diagram of overlapping beliefs among different schools of religious thought — and there are many in the fractured, disorganized ideological stew that is Islam.

But the same can be said of Christianity and Judaism. How many COG members have heard someone terrible like Pat Robertson prattle on about all things homophobic, racist and bigoted about “the world” and nodded their heads in agreement, even though they would traditionally view him as a “deceived” mainstream Christian? How many Reformed Jews make a spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem in their lives, even though its roads have been paved with blood from religious war between extremists?

All three dominant schools of religious thought are broken into scatterings of different theologies, denominations, churches and sects. But they all share underlying premises and despite their differences tend to tolerate one another and have several planes of common ground — and some of that common ground is pretty dreadful. Even while the Protestants and Catholics were at each other’s throats for hundreds of years in Europe, they would largely agree that witches, scientists and other heretics should be burnt at the stake, just as the different schools of Islam from Sunni to Shiite to Wahhabi might at their most extreme tolerate or promote honor killings.

Islamaphobes are also very paranoid about demographics. The nearly 2 billion Muslims on Earth — an estimated 23 percent of the human population — is a scary thing to Christians who are used to being the world’s religious plurality and Jews who fear being wiped out. Muslims have large families while the Western world in general makes fewer babies, though the hyperbolic numbers used by anti-Muslim champions are usually false, out of context or overblown. But even if there were significant demographic shifts, the idea that Sharia Law is coming to a township near you misses some fundamental realities, such as the fact that a unified Islamic Empire could never exist among today’s granulated and divided Muslim sects. There is no central organizational body akin to the Roman Catholic Church in Islam. In fact, there are no churches at all, much less a universal concept of Sharia. If there were to be a joining of Islamic theology and state on a more global scale, there would likely be a hundred years of disagreement over which brand of theology to institute.

“The King of the South” expected by the COG won’t emerge from a unified caliphate (or at all), because despite some aforementioned awful common ground among some Muslim schools of thought, the divisions between those sects still run very deep. Inter-denominational and internal political strife is still more commonplace among Muslims than lashing out at those beyond the fold. The idea that the Muslim nations of the world, or even just those in the Near and Middle East, are going to unify under a single banner ever is a joke that demonstrates fearful ignorance about Islam among Armstrongites, adjacent ideologies and right-leaning wingnuts.

Harris, Richard Dawkins and others, meanwhile, when invoking Islam as a special threat, are very much focusing on present-day geopolitical and social ills they can connect to Muslims as a means of driving their point home that religion is a destructive force for delusion and regression. In doing so, they — perhaps unintentionally — align themselves with rightwing forces who criticize Islam for less than noble reasons, because it’s clear in their worldview and from their writings that they place all religions in the same boat. Extremist Islam is merely a simple, immediate example of the harm religion can cause, because despite bad examples to be found among other religions, those aren’t dominating the headlines, and some of the more hideous acts perpetrated by Christians and Jews are their past, while Islam is currently suffering from a spate of violent extremism. The voices of new atheism also don’t tend to have the same background in religion as those they criticize, and while they certainly can see things from the outside looking in that the faithful miss, not having a religious upbringing robs one of some perspective when critiquing it.

In short, the COG and new atheists are right that Islam has some cultural problems regarding human rights and some violent elements within. But the history and present-day reality of the other “Abrahamic” religions suggests that religious extremism among Muslims is unlikely to be an apocalyptic force set to crumble western civilization, regardless of demographic or political shifts now or in the future. The COG, once again, is cherry-picking the news and allowing their thirst for their theology to be proven right to blind them to the facts.

Nov 292014

A hypothetical: If scientifically and philosophically we’ve demonstrated that free will as we understand it doesn’t exist, where does that leave the core of Armstrongist doctrine, which states that our “works” in this life decide whether we get a golden city or the Lake of Fire?