Q&A: Fear of Breaking the Sabbath?

A reader from Arkansas writes:

Hello, Mr. McNally. I saw your web site where you listed yourself as a former World Wide Church member. I am a former United Church of God member who is reviewing Karen Armstrong’s book, The history of God. It’s very informative to say the least.

How did you get over your fear not keeping the Sabbath? I’m really wrestling with that commandment. I still feel that eternal damnation is at my heels.

I’d really appreciate your input.

As long as you still think of yourself as a believer, then you’ll be wrestling with various “commandments,” because you’re trying to figure out what God wants you to do, and you ascribe special significance to things like the Ten Commandments. Eventually, I came to the place where I saw the Commandments as I see the rest of the Bible: not divinely inspired, but rather a work of folk literature created by humans. In this light, the Commandments are really just “suggestions” from a time and culture that no longer exists. And while some of them may still carry ethical validity depending on how they are interpreted, that in no way vindicates them all.

If you think you would enjoy reading an irreverent parable that discusses this concept in a humorous way, I recommend Kissing Hank’s Ass.

Was the WCG a “Cult?”

A young person recently wrote to me with a seemly simple question: “Is the Worldwide Church of God a cult?” I’ve decided to repost my response here.

I wish I could give you a simple “yes” or “no,” but the question is a bit more complex than that.

I don’t object when contributors to the blog call the WCG a cult— I understand the hurt and anger so many feel, and the term is definitely useful as a “snarl word” used to express that pain. But the word “cult” is one I personally try to avoid because it has no single clear meaning. Some people who study “high demand religions” prefer that term instead of “cult,” because it better describes what members go through. I have seen “cult” defined by one “anti-cult group” as, “A closed system whose followers have been unethically and deceptively recruited through the use of manipulative techniques of thought reform or mind control.” But in my opinion, this definition could also be applied to most “mainstream” religions as well. A better definition I’ve seen is simply, “Cults are religions that espouse an alien belief system that deviates strongly from the traditional faiths with which most people have grown up.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that the WCG lay on a spectrum of demand, between extremely low-demand religions and extremely high-demand religions. In my experience, the WCG as it was when I grew up in it was in the moderately high-demand range, but there have certainly been other organizations that were much more demanding, and destructive. Organizations can also change their demand level over time, on one end becoming “death cults” that demand the sacrifice of its members and/or the death of its enemies, and at the other end becoming moderate religions that tolerate open society and that are tolerated in turn. Fortunately, this latter direction is the one in which the WCG (now GCI) has moved.

A final thing to consider is that different people have had very different experiences within the WCG over the years. The organization’s doctrines and practices established a certain level of demand, but some individuals had it far worse at the hands of elders, ministers, and congregational cultures that were far more oppressive or abusive in some times and places than others. Again, I think this is nothing unique to the WCG— many religions contain abusive elements that are not readily apparent and that do not affect all members equally.

I hope this discussion helps. You can find more information on the benefits and problems of the Anti-Cult Movement (ACM) on the web site of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.


Hello all;

I’d like to ask for a little advice. I was born and raised in the WCG. Inevitable result: I am completely unable to understand why anyone, ever, would choose to be part of any church.

This causes problems.

Baffled and mildly disgusted at any mention of faith, I “shut down” when the subject is even hinted at in passing, and lose some respect for the speaker. I just can’t get past my knee-jerk dismissal long enough to learn about their beliefs and accept them.

So now for the question: How can I learn to appreciate the value of other peoples’ religions? It upsets me that I can’t have a conversation with friends without sneering whenever they say “pray”.

Clearly plenty of people here have gone from loyalty to WCG, to disdain for all religion, to acceptance. Any hints and resources on how to fast-forward to acceptance?

Thanks for reading.

Queensland, Australia.

Q&A: Raising Freethinking Kids

Heather writes:

I grew up in the WWCG from 1976–1994. I am now 34 and I have children of my own. I “fell away” from the church at 19 and I find myself living in the “bible belt” of all places! My kids are 5 and 7 and they have started picking up things from their little friends like, “Did you know that God made us?” or even worse “Jesus loves us”. I am freaking out about it and I do not want to damage my children the way that I was. I just do not know how to explain to them that it is all just a messed up fairy tale. Both kids are being asked to go to church by their friends and I have actually had to explain to one of the more persistent parents the reason I do not believe as she does. She said she does not understand why that would affect my belief in God. Any advice? I have told my children that people go to church to learn how to be good people and that my husband I are good people already and we are teaching them the same. Does anyone else have near panic attacks at the mere thought of walking into a church?

I have two boys, 8 and 4, and my wife still attends WCG, and takes them along. Of course, WCG is not what it once was, but the kids (especially the older) are well aware of the issue of religion, and they ask questions. I think the first step is to realize that ultimately your children will be responsible for what they believe, and that the most important thing you can do is to let them know that you’ll love them no matter what they end up believing about God and religion.

The second step is to understand that right now is when you have the most influence over their mental development. By the time they are in their teens, peer groups become a much stronger influence than parents. But notice that I’m talking in terms of influence. Just as your kids will be responsible for what they believe, no-one— not you, not their peers, and not society— can dictate their beliefs to them, or “protect” them from ideas of which you do not approve.

So how can a freethinking parent best use their influence to raise freethinking children despite the conformist pressures all around them? Here are some ideas.

Educate yourself on critical thinking

The best way to teach your kids is to be an example to them. There are many great books and web sites on matters of interest to freethinkers, so become familiar with them and use them as ongoing resources for your own understanding.

Take your kids to museums and cultural experiences

I was shocked to learn that a friend of mine who grew up in the Bible Belt had never been to a science museum in her entire life. I think frequent trips to science museums should be part of every kid’s upbringing. But all sorts of other museums are good too: museums and galleries of art, natural history, culture, and children’s museums. When you go on family vacations, make a point of finding local museums to visit.

Read your kids challenging books

Ask your librarian to recommend books for your kids’ age-level that contain ideas that challenge artificial social “norms.” Even many of Dr. Seuss’ classics contain “subversive” ideas that help kids learn to understand different points of view and think for themselves.

Get books for kids that specifically teach critical thinking

I recommend Dan Barkers’ children’s books:

There is also a good children’s book on critical thinking about religion written in German, but the artwork thumbnails and English text are available online: “Which is the Way to God, Please,” Little Piglet Asked.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking also offers free downloads of their Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking for Children.

Build a library of DVDs on nature and science

There are many wonderful nature documentaries you can buy online or find in your library. Kids love these and watch them over and over again, and they’re a great way to learn about the diversity of nature as understood by science.

Point out the need for critical thought in every day life

Every time you shop, watch TV, or have family discussions there will be opportunities to dialog not only about what you and your kids think, but why you think it. For instance, on the rare occasions my kids get to watch television (usually in a motel room when we’re traveling) I will point out when commercials come on and ask them to figure out what they’re trying to sell— it’s not always obvious, but the kids enjoy the game of ferreting out the advertisers’ agenda.

Acknowledge the role the Bible and religion plays in our culture

Even if you don’t subscribe to particular theological interpretations of the Bible, it’s undeniable that it has played a huge role in shaping our Western language and culture. Furthermore, making any subject taboo only increases its mystique. So don’t shy away from opportunities for your kids to hear Bible stories or study the Bible as a document of historical, cultural, and literary significance. If you help them understand that the Bible is just one part of a rich human tradition of folk literature, then they’ll have a much better framework for understanding its true significance.

Point out that people have many differing beliefs

When growing up in an area where one sect of one religion dominates, it’s easy for kids to think that they need to do what “everyone” does. But it’s not too difficult to show them that everyone doesn’t think the same way about God and religion: there are many different kinds of Christian churches— who often don’t agree on critical issues; there are synagogues, mosques, and various sorts of temples in most cities, and there are also universities and science research facilities that often give tours. Show your kids that they don’t live in a monoculture of religion, but indeed, they live in a true “marketplace of ideas.”

Know what you believe and why, and be frank about your beliefs

My kids know I’m an atheist, and they also know their Mom believes in God. She and I explain our beliefs to our kids, and we don’t require them to choose between us. In fact, when my son starts talking about “being an atheist like Dad,” I tell him that he’s not old enough to decide what he is yet, and that he needs to relax and listen to what lots of people tell him, and make up his mind when he’s older.

Let your kids know it’s OK to not know everything, and freely admit that you don’t

I think this is one of the major points of distinction between religious believers and freethinkers: the former think they have “Truth” tied up in a package with a bow, and the latter will usually admit that even with the great discoveries of science, our questions about the universe far outnumber our answers. If you show your kids that you are comfortable with the “great unknowns” in the universe, then they are more likely to grow up comfortable with them as well.

Do you have additional ideas on raising freethinking kids? Leave your comments below!