On mind-controlling cults, Fred Phelps, and Ockham Awards

I spent the weekend before last at QEDCon, a convention for people who like science and don’t like pseudoscience. While I was mainly there to speak on a panel, I also ended up winning an award after you, the readers of Leaving Fundamentalism, had managed to get this blog shortlisted. This was the Ockham Award for Best Blog, sponsored by The Skeptic.

Here I am receiving the award from Nate Phelps (Thanks to zooterkin for the photo). Nate is an escapee from Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious cult. Of which more in a moment.


The eagle-eyed among you will notice that the usually-professional Richard Wiseman had in fact furnished me with the wrong award, but I was too busy being pleased to win to notice this:

And then someone pointed it out, which led to this:

Of course, this award is not just for me. So far this year, I think I’ve written less than half the posts on this blog. This is for everyone who has contributed to Leaving Fundamentalism, and thank you all for making this happen. The Ockham Awards are judged by the distinguished panel of Richard Wiseman, Deborah Hyde, Gia MilinovichChris French and Wendy Grossman. This award is an important moment for the campaign against fundamentalist education and the credibility of this blog.

A special thanks should go to Anaïs Chartschenko, because her post, “My meaningless diploma“, was one of the five I submitted to the judges for their consideration.

Nate Phelps is, of course, the son of Fred Phelps, the infamous and recently-deceased pastor of Westboro Baptist Church (the “God Hates Fags” people). This led to a storm of comparisons between me and Nate; I think some people are thinking of me as the English Nate Phelps. I don’t think this comparison is deserved, flattering though it is. A lot of things about my upbringing weren’t good, but I was never flogged bloody by a man who ranted about how God hates fags.

Then again, there were far too many similarities between Nate’s story and mine. Nate is a phenomenal speaker. His entire QED talk is on YouTube, and although the quality isn’t great, it’s well worth watching (there are captions). His delivery (and I imagine this is conscious) is the exact opposite of the fire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher. He speaks slowly and quietly, almost monotonously, and pauses often. It doesn’t sound like a gripping recipe, but I, like everyone in that room, was spellbound. I don’t think I took my eyes off him for the entire hour. When Nate was silent, there wasn’t a murmur from the audience. He speaks with dignity even when describing terrible indignities. I’ve rarely been more moved.

All I could think about, though, was how the people I left behind would say that they are nothing like Westboro Baptist Church. To some extent, that’s true. I never knew any strict Calvinists, nor anyone that said God hated any group of people. Of course, I did know many people who said God would send groups to hell for practising immorality, but that God still loved them. The “God hates you” rhetoric is at least more internally consistent. The world I left has some important differences from WBC, but the similarities are more important.

The most frustrating thing is that those I left behind are far too close to WBC for comfort, but they just won’t see it. Nate did a fairly good job of addressing those arguments in his talk—not in any way that would convince the faithful, of course, but who could? This is why I’ve come to think of the term ‘cult’ as unhelpful. ‘Cult’ is a useful devil term that allows churches to dismiss the similarities between controlling, abusive groups and themselves. When I attended the INFORM conference earlier this year, J. Gordon Melton gave the closing address, and he pointed out, as he has many times before, that not so long before the Jonestown Massacre, Jim Jones’s church was considered mainstream in evangelical circles, and held up as a model for other churches to imitate. Melton is often accused of being a cult apologist, but I think that by pointing out how Jim Jones used to be mainline, he makes an important point: There’s no easy distinction between a religion and a cult. Westboro Baptist Church shares vast tracts of its doctrine with conservative evangelicalism. Jim Jones was an ordained Assemblies of God minister. For years, members of the Children of God used Accelerated Christian Education to homeschool their kids.

I’m now wary of the term cult, even though I’ve used it a few times. Mainstream churches can be abusive, while small, new religious movements could be fairly benign. What matters is how people are treated and what the ideas are, not how old a movement is or how many adherents it has. Calling any group a ‘cult’ just lets big, established churches off the hook, and they don’t always deserve that.

I was interested that one of the sermons that influenced Fred Phelps was Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God”, a sermon so bloodthirsty that, according to one eyewitness:

As Pastor Edwards preached, people began crying out for him to stop because they could not bear to hear any more. When he finished, I could hear the cries of those around me, “What shall I do to be saved?” “Oh, I am going to hell!” “Oh, what shall I do for Christ?”  (quoted in Accelerated Christian Education’s Social Studies 1087, p. 7)

I’ve done a vlog about this, because I studied it no less than three times in the course of my ACE education. It sums the whole mess up. According to Edwards, God hated the damned, and in eternity, we would learn to hate them too, and watching them burn would be one of the great pleasures of heaven:

The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss. (“The Eternity of Hell Torments“, 1739)

This ideology has a distinguished history with the church fathers; there are still Christians that believe this today. And it is the ideology that fuelled Fred Phelps.

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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on April 22, 2014, in Atheism, Christianity, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Well done on winning the award Jonny. It was very much deserved.

  2. Wonderful award. Congrats Jonny. 🙂

  3. I am so happy for you! Also, extremely grateful that you are speaking out and making a difference. These things take time, and people in high places are taking note. This WILL lead to better education, Jonny.

  4. Congratulations on the award! More congrats for eventually getting the right one! 🙂

  5. Congratulations! A well earned award for someone who works so hard to expose the problems of ACE and Fundamentalism in general. Hope fully this will also get the blog and your other work some more exposure too to help you continue to spread your important message to those who feel alone or confused in the face of religious indoctrination.

  6. Congratulations! You deserve it.

  7. Regarding J. Gordon Melton, here is what I wrote about him in an article in the Cultic Studies Review journal (the numbers are to endnotes):


    If Bainbridge is an unreliable authority on The Family because of his partiality and misinformation, then J. Gordon Melton, author of the 2004 book The Children of God: “The Family,” 19 is equally unreliable. In both the 1986 edition and the revised 1992 edition of the Encyclopaedic Handbook of Cults in America, Melton wrote critically about The Family for five pages, concluding that “The sexual manipulation in the Children of God has now been so thoroughly documented that it is doubtful whether the organization can ever, in spite of whatever future reforms it might initiate, regain any respectable place in the larger religious community.” 20 Yet just two years later, in 1994, he co-edited a collection of essays favourable to The Family entitled Sex, Slander and Salvation; Investigating The Family/Children of God. 21 Kent and Krebs describe 22 how that book was a result of Family representatives seeking advice from certain scholars, including Melton, on how to create a positive public image in the face of negative publicity revolving mostly around allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation. They also describe the substantial efforts The Family took to make sure any potentially discrediting information, such as sexual material involving children, was not available to researchers, and that researchers had access only to special, sanitized ‘media homes’ that were not at all representative of regular Family homes. Unsurprisingly, The Family touts that book, which they offer for sale on their Website, as “…proof of its legitimacy and the group has distributed copies to media in an attempt to gain favourable press.” 23 The Family considers Melton, as well as Chancellor, experts on the group, 24 and in 2000 Melton received USD $10,065.83 from The Family. 25

    As for Melton’s 2004 book on The Family, Raine points out that “…much of his discussion of sexuality in this latest book … is a reiteration of his contributing chapter” 26 10 years earlier in Sex, Slander, and Salvation, which begs the question: Does Melton deliberately downplay the more controversial aspects of sexuality in The Family? Raine identifies several instances wherein Melton demonstrates a seemingly uninformed naiveté concerning The Family’s sexual doctrines and practices. For example, “Melton uses language to minimize the atmosphere of child sexualisation” 27 in The Family. He also glosses over the issue of adult-child sex by ignoring the fact that the practice was advocated in official Family publications, even though he had the benefit of Chancellor’s research, which does admit that fact. 28 Melton also glosses over the issue of rape with the simple, but misleading, assertion that Family founder David Berg “condemned” it. 29 Because the issue of rape is not covered in Chancellor’s account, this article examines Family publications regarding rape that reveal just how misleading Melton is on this subject. By ignoring, downplaying, or misreporting certain inconvenient facts regarding sexuality in The Family, Melton undermines his purported expertise. …

  8. Jonny wrote: “There’s no easy distinction between a religion and a cult. Westboro Baptist Church shares vast tracts of its doctrine with conservative evangelicalism. Jim Jones was an ordained Assemblies of God minister. For years, members of the Children of God used Accelerated Christian Education to homeschool their kids.”

    When US religion reporter, Don Lattin, wrote a book about the Children of God cult he used a sub-title that brought him some criticism from mainstream Christians.

    “Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge” http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Freaks-Murder-Madness-Evangelical/dp/0061118060

    In the introduction to that book, Lattin addresses that issue:

    “SOME CHRISTIANS MAY take issue with the title of this book, Jesus Freaks: A True Story o f Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge. They may argue that the crazy cult chronicled in these pages has noth­ing to do with Jesus or the evangelical movement. They may say its founder was not a Christian-that he was a spiritualist or controlled by demonic forces. His sexual immorality, they may argue, is the very antithesis of moral values in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    That’s an understandable reaction, but the odyssey of David Brandt Berg is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Berg, the founder of The Family, came straight out of American evangelicalism. His grand­father was a famous minister with the Methodist Church, and his father was ordained into another mainline Protestant church. His training as an itinerant evangelist was at his mother’s side in the Christian and Missionary Alliance. And it was in the Alliance that Berg began his own late-blooming ministry.”

    By the way, the current Canadian Prime Minister is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

  9. Very nicely done on your award, Jonny. Totally cool and you deserve it.
    As for to be a cult or not a cult, I think all dogmatic belief systems are cults at their core. Religion is perhaps the word that should be dropped.

  10. Jonny

    Don’t get me wrong, I do not travel with your anti-Bible discourse. However, as a Bible-believing disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, I have to agree with much of what you say about ACE as a mode of educational delivery. I have been saying so, quietly, since I was first exposed to it when it was introduced to Australia.

    I was convicted, and now am convinced, that Donald Howard was not informed by the Bible (Fundamentalism’s anti-Law stance inhibits a fully Biblical approach to all of life outside of personal relationship with Christ for personal salvation) in the development of ACE’s methodologies, but rather was informed by B. F. Skinner’s Behaviourism (Teaching Machines and such like).

    Came across a quote today, and I thought it would be something that you might like to explore. I would be interested in your discoveries.

    “Modern economic theory, like old-fashioned Skinnerian psychology, works rather nicely for explaining how to get people (and rats) to do things they don’t want to do, but falls apart entirely as soon as we turn our attention to play. Since play, to some degree, infuses most of what we humans do, Skinnerian psychology and modern economic theory have limited utility for understanding human behaviour.” (Chapter 7: The Playful State of Mind – no pages in the Kindle Version). Gray, Peter (2013). *Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life*, Kindle Edition. New York: Basic Books.

    Baptist Bible Colleges abandoned Biblical counselling, and embraced secular Psychology informed counselling very early, because of their antinomian theology. Was Donald Howard a student of B. F. Skinner? Are ACE’s methodological roots in Behviourism, not Biblical pedagogy? Biblical pedagogy is rooted in education in life – and militates against any kind of schooling, even “Christian” schools. In fact, schools cannot be Christian; even home schools; even Christian home schools.


    *Lance A Box Jangala,* PhD (Candidate), MEd (Leadership), BEd, DipT (Primary), DipPCBM, DipBibStuds (Honours), Cert IV TAE, AdvCert LEM Phonics, Cert Spalding Phonics, Cert 4S LitProg, Cert AdultLit.

    On 22 April 2014 17:32, Leaving Fundamentalism

    • Interesting ideas, Lance.

      I don’t agree that ACE is anti-Law however; I think they’re generally into Mosaic Law in a big way. Also, they haven’t abandoned Biblical counselling for secular psychology at all; their counselling course is based entirely on Jay E. Adams nouthetic counselling (unless you think that is based in secular psychology too).

      You are certainly right, however, that Skinner is the main influence on ACE’s pedagogy.

  11. It is a bit ironic that William of Ockham was a Christian — more than that, a monk and a theologian? I do think it’s a bit naughty of atheists to use him name and claim him for their cause. Just an aside to the main debate. 😉

    • The Ockhams are not atheist awards. They’re for skeptical activities, not atheist ones. They oppose using supernatural explanations where there is an adequate natural one, but most skeptics agree there are some areas outside the scope of skepticism.

  1. Pingback: Nate Phelps – “Leaving Hate Behind” at #QEDcon

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