Christadelphian alternative reality

By Phynnodderee

Growing up Christadelphian, you grow up in a slightly different reality from everyone else. It’s not until you break free of the religion that you realise just how much it controls your perception of reality – and how much you need to unlearn.

Past, present, prophecy
Christadelphian reality consists of an inaccurate picture of the past, a distorted picture of the present, and dubious expectations about the future.

The Christadelphian version of the past, from the beginning of the world to the first century AD, is taken simply and literally from the Bible. Ancient myth and legendary tradition are read uncritically as straightforward history, thus creating the first disconnect from reality. The evidence available to us, used by scientists and scholars to reconstruct the history of our universe, our planet and our species, points to quite a different story. In the minds of many Christadelphians, billions of years of stellar and planetary formation, biological evolution and early human history are crudely and absurdly reduced to a near-instantaneous magical creation and a human story of only a few thousand years.

Once the Bible narrative comes to an end some time in the first century, the next narrative takes over. Christianity, we are told, soon descended into false teachings, leading to a long dark age of heresy and ignorance. Finally, in the mid-nineteenth century, enlightenment came once again through a single man, John Thomas, who rediscovered the true message of the Bible through sheer determined study and a uniquely independent mind. His work was then taken up by Robert Roberts, who was largely responsible for the formalization of Christadelphian beliefs.

The problem with the first part of this story is that it relies unquestioningly on an ancient collection of writings which have been shown to conflict with the available evidence. To give just one example, most scholars doubt that the Exodus from Egypt – a crucial event in the story of the Israelites – actually occurred, or that Moses was a real historical person. Christadelphians are either unaware of the scholarly consensus or dismiss it as being motivated by wilful unbelief or a lack of respect for scripture.

John Thomas
The problem with the second narrative is that it is grossly oversimplified and crudely framed to present John Thomas and Robert Roberts as the heroes of the story, the rest of Christendom as benighted heretics, and the emergence of the Christadelphians as a triumphant vindication of truth and divine providence. But far from rediscovering the truth, or even producing an entirely independent interpretation of the Bible, Thomas appears to have borrowed many of his ideas from other people, simply combining them into a new set of doctrines as it suited him.

Nor has there ever been a single agreed list of Christadelphian beliefs (at least not for long): the community has always been split by disagreements over one point of doctrine or another, leading to schisms and breakaway groups. Thomas and Roberts themselves changed their minds about certain aspects of doctrine which they considered fundamental enough to make it necessary to be re-baptised. In other words, although the truth was supposedly recovered, there has never been a single, universally agreed ‘Truth’ among Christadelphians. The Christadelphian founding myth is a biased narrative promoted by Thomas and Roberts themselves and still widely held because people rarely bother to objectively reassess it.

This brings us to the present day. Christadelphians view the world they live in through the distorting lenses of their beliefs, which tell them that the world is full of evil and getting worse day by day. They separate the human race into two camps: Christadelphians and ‘the world’. The true believers, humble, righteous and wise unto salvation; and everyone else, the foolish, the proud and the pleasure-seeking. The arrogance and self-importance of this attitude still shocks me.

The Christadelphian perception of human nature, society, politics and global affairs – the whole present reality – is shaped by entrenched beliefs that rely on a hefty dose of ignorance and bias. If their beliefs are correct then humans are incapable of making any real difference to their own condition, therefore they are not making any real difference. Evidence that shows any improvement in some aspect of human wellbeing or moral behaviour is ignored. When I left the Christadelphians it was hard for me to shake the idea that the world was in a hopeless, miserable state and destined to get worse and worse. Reading books like Steven Pinker’s ‘Enlightenment Now’, which analyses a range of indicators of progress, helped me to take a more balanced view of reality.

Prophecy in the news?
So what about the future? Since the days of John Thomas, Christadelphians have been anticipating one certain future event. Their expectations are based on an unquestioning confidence in the prophecy interpretations of the pioneers about the times leading up the return of Christ, and shored up by the perceived worsening of the world around them. World events are interpreted in the light of prophecy, eager observers detecting in human affairs the outworking of a plan which few, apparently, are wise enough to see. More distastefully, tragedies and disasters in the news are greeted by some Christadelphians with a sanctimonious “Told you so” kind of attitude, as being part of a dramatic countdown to Christ’s return. But does it make sense to have confidence in predictions about the future that are based on demonstrably inaccurate beliefs about the past and present?

How the alternative reality is maintained
How can so many people be held inside this bubble of false reality? It’s not very difficult to explain – it’s well known how religions, especially high-commitment groups, inculcate their ideas. A person is most likely to accept a set of beliefs if they are instilled in childhood, when the mind is at its most impressionable. As well as being fed inaccurate information, Christadelphians are taught that unquestioning acceptance is itself a virtue. As a result they often lack the critical thinking skills that would enable them to distinguish justified from unjustified beliefs.

Another key factor is being surrounded by other people with the same beliefs, and being sheltered from alternative ideas. Christadelphians are trained to distrust their own reasoning and intuition. The general atmosphere is hostile to doubts, questions and open discussion (less so in liberal meetings). You are not really free to think independently because it may well cost you the respect and acceptance of your ‘brothers and sisters’.

Alternative reality
People are also guarded from outside knowledge through a degree of social isolation. In particular, they are conditioned to be suspicious of any claims that contradict their religious teachings, especially scientific claims about human origins and scholarship that casts any doubt on the divine inspiration of the Bible. Although this leads to a number of beliefs which are wildly at odds with the best current understanding, the ideas don’t seem so unlikely when so many around you believe them too (or act as if they do).

As a result, it’s quite easy for even an intelligent, educated person to unwittingly find themselves inside an alternative reality. 

Breaking the spell
When you start questioning your beliefs, perhaps because you’ve spotted something that doesn’t add up, and the real reality starts to trickle in, it’s like waking up from a dream or taking off a pair of distorting glasses. Part of the process of moving on is getting used to the idea that reality is different from what you thought it was. I found this bewildering at first, but the more I explored all the information out there, the more interesting and exhilarating it became and the less influence my Christadelphian upbringing had on my mind.

Realising that Christadelphian attacks on science were absurd gave me a greater sense of awe when I looked at nature and a greater respect for scientists (who, it turns out, are not biased against the Bible or wilfully trying to destroy belief in God – another ‘fact’ of the alternative reality I once inhabited). Disentangling myself from prejudiced beliefs about non-Christadelphians allowed me to let go of distrust, get to know what really makes other people tick, and enrich my own understanding by exploring other perspectives.

In my opinion, our beliefs about reality should be based on the careful examination of evidence and the drawing of logical conclusions. Educate yourself, using all the resources at your disposal. There’s a wealth of easily accessible information out there now. Immerse yourself in the marvels of science and the fascinating stories of history. Find out what we know about the human brain and why individuals and societies behave the way they do. Learn about how scientists and scholars evaluate evidence and reach their conclusions. Understand the difference between the methods they use and simple faith-based acceptance. Get a feeling for the truly amazing age of the Earth and the rest of the universe and experience the dizzying, humbling effect of deep time. Anatomically modern humans have been around for perhaps 200,000 years; the Earth is 22,700 times older than that and the universe as a whole is 68,800 times older.

We’re not the culmination of creation, we’ve been here for the blink of an eye in a universe that was not created with us in mind, but which contains infinite tantalizing mysteries that we’re lucky enough to be able to investigate. It seems so petty and inward-looking to reduce this marvellous reality to a primitive, self-centred myth. Step outside the Christadelphian bubble and you might just discover that reality is more complex, more marvellous, more astonishing and more beautiful than you ever imagined.


  1. "Part of the process of moving on is getting used to the idea that reality is different from what you thought it was"

    This is so true. It's pretty destabilising, and a little scary to realise that much of what you believed about the world may in fact be wrong. Having been through the process of re-evaluating all of my most fundamental beliefs about reality, and having changed my mind on a lot of it, I am now much more accepting of reality and doubt. And yes, once I moved past the scary, threatening phase where cherished beliefs disintegrated, and I even had to reconstruct who I thought I was, the world started to become an amazing place to explore and learn about.

    It's just like you said...

    "Step outside the Christadelphian bubble and you might just discover that reality is more complex, more marvellous, more astonishing and more beautiful than you ever imagined"

    I could not have said it better. 100% agree!

  2. It is very easy for the indoctrinated, when surrounded by like minded peers, to believe in absurdities such as iron age gods and strange rituals.
    I have often suggested to CD friends and family that they should try stepping outside of the bubble for a while and experiencing the world for what it is.
    I have explained that we have never been healthier, wealthier or safer at anytime in human history than we are now. Humans as a whole aren't evil, they're just getting on with their lives. Scientists aren't conspiring to hide the real truth that the world is only 6000 years old and we all came from Adam and Eve. Evolution is completely and utterly proved by all branches of scientific study.
    But of course my words are looked upon with a sense of pity that I can't see the real "truth", and they just carry on as before, oblivious to the facts under their noses.

  3. This is an excellent description of the CD mindset. It reminds me of some of the nonsense I was taught at Sunday School. At only 10 or 12 years old you tend to accept what respected adults tell you, even though you may be a little dubious. There were three "urban myths" I now find particularly amusing, even though they were presented at the time as evidence of the accuracy of the bible.

    I was reminded of the first when my own children repeated the belief that men have one less rib than women. I remember being told this story back in the 60's. Our Sunday School class spent 10 minutes trying to count our own ribs (not each others!) and concluding that indeed the boys had one less rib than the girls! That this easily disproved idea was still floating around in the 90's shocked me. To be fair to the CD's this is not an exclusively CD idea, it goes back to medieval times when there was a taboo on examining corpses, which led to the belief that the Genesis account of the creation of Eve must mean that men had lost one rib.

    The second story was that mathematicians had discovered that the Moon was 24 Hrs out of position, (the Apollo Moon program was major news at the time). This of course refers to Joshua's Long Day and Hezekiah's request that the shadow should move back on the steps. Again this is a fantasy story, there is no calculation possible to compare the position of the Moon in the past and present. An accurate position measurement from before and after the event would be required, we only have the latter.

    The third story was that archeologists had shown that the Phoenicians had sailed to Cornwall and had brought tin back to the middle east. This one is of course important to the CD's as part of the argument that Britain can be identified as Tarshish. But there is absolutely no evidence that the Phoenicians ever came to Cornwall. Cornish tin almost certainly was traded across channel to Brittany, and then possibly overland to the Mediterranean, but there is no sign of the Phoenicians in Cornwall.

    Although these stories seemed powerful evidence to a 12 year old, they may have carried the seeds of their own destruction. Once the credibility of one story is destroyed then others are challenged, the ultimate lesson was that these trusted adults did not know what they were talking about.


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