Reading Time: 9 minutes

I’m reading this piece about IHOP and feeling a shiver go down my spine every few paragraphs. I want to share how it feels to be an ex-fundamentalist reading about a fundamentalist cult gone horribly wrong.

Breakfast featuring an omelette at an IHOP res...
Breakfast featuring an omelette at an IHOP restaurant in Union City, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

IHOP in this context means “International House of Prayer,” and I wish I could still be so innocent as to think it meant –“of Pancakes” like most people undoubtedly think it means. As it is, when I hear the abbreviation I think of the cult, not the cheap 24-hour diner with the numerous wildly-unhealthy breakfast platters. I wish I could immediately think of the diner instead. IHOP now a very large group, with colleges and everything, but this little sub-group within it started out as just a few college kids getting together to pray and get to act out their fantasies of the supernatural being totally real. Things escalated further and further until they got completely out of hand, and that piece I linked you to is about how the leader of this cult eventually allegedly either murdered or ordered the murder of his own newly-married wife, a fellow cult member. What happened with this little cell of IHOP is a cautionary tale, and today I want to talk about how close I was to being in a group like that.

We’ve talked before about my near-miss with a seriously dangerous cult, but I wanted to add to that a little bit now in light of the news about IHOP.

When you belong to a religion, you’ve already conceded that you’re capable of believing stuff for no good reason. Christianity especially is built around fake evidence of all sorts; its leaders may say they value critical thinking and rational thought, but what’s really valued is blind obedience and “faith”–meaning here the uncritical acceptance of whatever those leaders say is the will and word of their supposed god. By wild coincidence, they almost always decide that this “god” says that you should do or believe whatever they happen to think you should.

When someone comes along who says something different from what your current leaders say, then, it’s not like you can rationally examine both claims’ evidence and figure out whose evidence is stronger. Neither of the two sides have any firm or objective reason for believing whatever they believe, so you’re left measuring who had the strongest argument. But an argument is not a substitute for evidence, and someone can have a really strong argument for an invalid idea–and conversely, someone can have a very weak argument for a valid idea. (This is why I find it so curious that fundamentalist homeschoolers often push their kids into learning debate techniques instead of actual science or non-revisionist history.) If Bible verses get involved, things get even more messy because you can prop up any opinion whatsoever with a carefully-mined Bible quote. The debate becomes a battle between two subjective opinions and two subjective sources who each have their own agenda to push.

And oh, what a subjective world I inhabited as a Christian. Remember, I moved and breathed and lived in a world filled with angels, demons, and miracles. To me, this supernatural world was just as real as the mundane one I lived in. When I prayed, I genuinely thought I was seeing a living god move and work through me. At church, any little thing could be blown up into a religious revival, into a god’s spirit being poured out upon the excited congregation. I believed completely and wholeheartedly. And because I was decently good at cold reading (the ability to detect subtle cues to learn things about people–as the child of an abusive parent, I was hypervigilant, so this ability certainly wasn’t supernatural in nature), I spun that skill into a belief that I was being told stuff about other people by supernatural agents–the god I worshiped or angels, depending on my mood at the moment. And I was a living, breathing vessel for this god and a tool for his justice and mercy. I was a soldier in a vast army, and one day we would all fight the last battle for him and then get to party with him in Heaven. The fervor I once poured into my love of comic books, video games, creative writing, and that medieval re-enactment group I was in, Society for Creative Anachronism, got channeled into this religion–which felt like all the fantasies I’d ever spun for myself, except real.

I sure wasn’t the only person who viewed the world in this way. Most of my church did as well. We all lived and breathed this supernatural stuff and we not only fed off each other’s impressions but drew like-minded people to ourselves to amplify the effect. We wanted it to be true; we desperately craved it to be true. But what we did not have was any objective reason to believe it was true. So in absence of these objective reasons, we created our own. We coveted every single scrap of blown-up subjective “evidence”–every odd coincidence, every perceived tiny “miracle,” every imagined touch of our imaginary god–and passed each thusly-invented scrap around ourselves to admire and coo over.

The upshot of this worldview is that it’s super-easy for someone to fall into a dangerous group of people in the religious world. If there are any miracles about my experience with the Farm, it’s that I had the sense to fear that cult that came to my church and to refuse to join it. Quite a few folks were initially very swayed by its leader’s ideas, including me at first; one flaw fundamentalists suffer mightily from is the desire to be more hardcore than anybody else. As a group, we all want to stand out for our zealotry and determination, so we all tried to outdo each other. If one woman in my group wore concealer to hide her skin’s flaws, a more hardcore woman would eschew all beauty products except lotion–and then a more hardcore one than that just prayed away her dry skin. If one woman in my group wore knee-length skirts because that’s what our church taught in the name of modesty, a more hardcore one was quickly on hand to announce that her “god” had given her a revelation to start wearing tea-length skirts, and one would quickly be along to say she’d gotten a “conviction” (that’s Christianese for “a strongly-held opinion thought to be given to that Christian by a god”) to start wearing floor-length skirts. These were examples that happened just within my peer group, incidentally. I’m speaking from experience here.

That’s why you shouldn’t be shocked when you hear about hardcore Muslim zealots saying that they think that women in burkhas aren’t enough: now a more hardcore Muslim zealot has come along saying that women should only reveal one eye, because two eyes is just too immodest and men could feel lust for a woman on the basis of just seeing both of her eyes. Zealotry is zealotry no matter what the religious label may look like. In a crowd of people all trying to outdo each other, you’re going to see abuses like these as they edge further and further into the fringe to stand out from the crowd.

I’m very grateful that the pastors in the fundagelical church I attended kept a close eye on the cliques that formed, so we never really had a chance to develop in isolation like this IHOP group did. That’s why, ultimately, the Farm failed to attract more than a couple of people from my church; the social bonds we’d formed with the older, more settled and established Christians in our church prevented most of us from acting on our desire to be so hardcore. The two who went weren’t as much of a firm part of our church; I wouldn’t call them fringe, but they were very new Christians and hadn’t quite been assimilated yet.

Some very subtle differences prevented a greater tragedy from occurring there than did for this IHOP group, which developed in isolation and didn’t have oversight from anybody with a wiser head. I’m not saying that the problem here was one of execution. The paradigm IHOP uses, its worldview, is in my opinion to blame; it encouraged these young people to go this route and did not stop them. Locked in insularity, with no external brakes on their increasingly harmful and toxic zealotry, their little mini-cult developed and flourished right under the noses of IHOP’s authority figures.

I felt a chill reading that article because I know exactly what that mindset is like, and I know how prevalent it was among my friends. I wanted once to be that hardcore. I ached to find the proof I knew I hadn’t seen yet. I wanted only to see Jesus and to feel him around me like I had when I’d first converted to fundamentalism. I searched and searched for the perfect way to express my devotion to him through my entire life. I saw my progression through the various denominations of Christianity as a search for the original Christianity, the original and pure way I imagined the first Christians had worshiped. I sure didn’t know that my perception of this pure, rustic, untouched “original Christianity” was just an illusion; the early Christians squabbled constantly over points of doctrine and practice, especially as the religion got popular.

But I did eventually realize that the closer I felt like I was getting toward that vision, the more predators and abuse I seemed to be seeing and experiencing. The people who claimed to have seen and channeled the most miracles, who talked the loudest about having proof, who gloated the most about living like 1st-century Palestine Christians, were the people who had the most shocking skeletons in their closets. This all happened long before all those “famblee values” politicians began getting caught with their dicks in the wrong people, but I was starting to get a feel for this kind of hypocrisy even then: the people who talked the most about a zealous fervor were the ones who failed the most to live up to their own ideals. And when those people got caught and exposed as hypocrites, their zealous cause was always given a total pass on examination; the problem was in execution of the ideal, not in the ideal itself that had opened the door to such rampant abuse.

Would I have come to this realization had I fallen in with a group like this IHOP group? I feel like in my youth I was an awful lot like the young person in the article itself–who was fairly independent, and who even now probably wonders how he’d ever gotten caught up in her cult leader’s influence, and who was eventually ostracized and shunned from the group when that leader decided that the branding of him as a scapegoat had finally reached its nadir of expression. How far would I have gone, in his place?

Sometimes I feel like I know exactly how far I’d have gone. It’s not a fun idea for me. My deconversion wasn’t something I really expected. It took a lot of things happening all at once for me to see the big picture like I finally did. I’m not someone special or especially gifted or wise. I’m not a theologian, and most of the stuff I know today about my onetime religion–the apologetics arguments I can debunk six ways from Sunday, the science and real history that contradict the Bible, the strangely uninspired way the religion got rolling–I learned way after leaving it.

That’s why I think compassion is important. That young person in the article, that could have been me–or just about any other ex-Christian. This religion’s had thousands of years to hone its story and its strategies. Through trial and error–and now, with the advent of psychology and behavioral sciences–Christianity’s adherents and leaders learned how to rope in young people and keep them indoctrinated. It was terrifying for me to even think that my religion’s claims, threats, and promises might not be true; I felt like I was stepping out on a cliff’s ledge when I began to seriously question what I’d once so wholeheartedly believed. I don’t regret questioning it at all, don’t get me wrong, but that feeling of being in a collapsing house of cards is one I would not wish on my very worst enemy.

I got lucky, that’s all, and nowhere do I see the truth of this assertion than I do when I see stories like this one.

I think it’s very important that we continue to uncover stories like this one, and that we continue to question the worldview and paradigm that leads people to this kind of cult. That kind of magical thinking, the worldview that lets young people see angels everywhere and imagine themselves as mystic warriors for a living god, that is the thinking that leads people to do really awful things in the name of religion.

If that young person from IHOP ever sees this post, I hope he knows I understand, and that whatever he ends up with religion-wise, I hope nothing but the best for him and for the others who got caught up in that toxic cult leader’s wake. I know very well how hard it is to recover from an experience like this one. I don’t hold against him that he wanted more than what he could see in this world or that he desperately wanted his faith to be real and true. That’s such a human thing to feel; all through history, we’ve seen how people did that–from the people worshiping the snake-statues of Glycon in the Classical Era to the modern mystics who blather about Ouija boards’ ability to contact the dead. But we’ve got to move past that, because that mindset has such potential to hurt people.

Ultimately, what cured me of zealotry was moving past my intense desire for there to be something more to this world than what I saw. That desire, combined with a tragic lack of critical thinking skills, led me into more trouble more often than I ever want to remember. As the saying goes, I couldn’t just see the garden and think it was pretty; I also had to believe there were fairies at the bottom of it. That thinking wasn’t good for me. I needed to understand at a deep cellular level that no, that’s what there is: what I can verify, and that what I can verify is more than enough. This real world’s a wonderful and wondrous place all by itself, and we–as people, as the points of light in this universe who are looking outward and then back at ourselves–don’t need more than that for it to be the most amazing place ever.

Have a good week, everybody!

(Edited to reflect gender of the ex-cult member.)

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...