CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


On Growing up in the Family and the Freedom of Belief

by Daniel Tarpy
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2011 International Conference in Danshui, Taiwan. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author.

When it comes to matters assumedly outside the bounds of empirical science, one is often at a loss in trying to quantify or measure this phenomenon. Participant observation offers an enlightening firsthand account, but there is still something lacking that is not complete till you truly experience it as part of your being. You have to belong to fully grasp the significance: not just the experience, but what it all meant.

Today, I want to give you a brief insight into the significance of growing up in the peculiar environment of the Family, to the meanings behind the experience, and to something that does not just apply to the Family or other religious groups but to all of us as humans.

Brief Overview of the Family

For those of you who are not familiar with the Family, I will give a very brief introduction to the group. The Family began in the midst of the full blown hippie movement in California in the late 1960s, first known as the Children of God. David Berg was the founder and prophetic leader of the group. As more converts joined, the Children of God expanded throughout the US and began establishing ‘colonies’ or homes in other countries as well. In 1978 the Children of God was restructured and rechristened as the Family of Love.  After it again changed its name to simply the Family in 1982, the group had expanded to 10,000 fulltime members living in 1,642 homes. In 1994, with the death of the David Berg, the spiritual leadership was passed to his widow, Karen Zerby, who currently heads the Family. The last name change was in 2004, when the Family became the Family International. Currently the Family International has a total membership of 11,200 in over 100 countries.

For the purpose of this paper I will be speaking specifically about the Family during the period of time I was growing up—between late 1980 and early 2000. But I will also touch on some aspects prior to this, including the inception of the Family, as well as ones that developed later on. Some elements have since changed or morphed or been replaced, but all have had a sizable influence in shaping the Family and many are still continuing to do so. So although I am speaking about the past, it is not just an insight into how the family was, but hopefully it can also shed some light on the Family as it presently is.

Life in the Family

In order to better understand life in the Family, it is necessary to look at two seemingly conflicting but in fact complementary values that helped comprise the bedrock of Family life. On one hand, there was a great emphasis placed on witnessing—the driving purpose of the Family. Members were endowed with a compelling necessity to give the world the truth, to give the people salvation, which was further fueled by an unshakable conviction in the imminent rise of the Biblical Antichrist and the End Time—expected to come within the lifetime of the first generation members. 

On the other hand, following the Biblical principle of ‘be ye separate’ and helped along by an anti-establishment carryover from the hippie era, the Family went to lengths to exclude itself from its surrounding societies. Most fulltime Family members did not hold outside jobs, did not send their children to outside schools, and were barred from becoming intimately involved with people outside the group. The Family was then, an exclusive group that concerned itself with reaching out to as many people as it could. Most things were undertaken or abandoned with one of these two principles in mind.

While the Family taught separation from contemporary society, it certainly did not preach personal isolation. Not only were members greatly encouraged to participate in fellowship with one another but the Family practiced communal living which included a kind of economic socialism based off the Early Church account where “all that believed were together and had all things in common”. During this time, it was not unusual to have homes where upwards of 50 people lived together under the same roof. These homes were quite like a family—everything was shared.

In these homes, part of the belongingness inherent in the traditional family was transferred to the community. Especially so for the first generation, the Family was not just the Family, but their Family. Even so, individual families were not rendered irrelevant in the upbringing of their children. They played a part—mostly in making the big decisions and during ‘family time’ in the evenings and ‘family day’ on the weekends.

This lifestyle was perhaps the most noticeable distinction of the Family and something that was essential in constructing its particular environment and producing many of its unique experiences. Additionally, as one might expect, this had immense influence in shaping Family policies and doctrines, which by this time had expanded to cover pretty much all aspects of personal, communal, and public life—from sexuality and childrearing to finances and interaction with the public. Living communally better ensured the effectiveness of these policies and supported the authority structure of the Family.

Some form of authority is apparent in most, if not all societies, and in this point the Family was not an exception. But the difference came in the kind of authority. The Family had an authoritarian structure, but there was a very familial feel to it. David Berg was known within the Family as ‘Dad’ and referred to in children’s books as ‘Grandpa’. David Berg was a very charismatic leader who wielded not just physical but psychological influence over the group. He was believed to be the End Time prophet and his words to be inspired truth. This led to a special kind of reverence or devotion towards his authority and accordingly, to those whom he had entrusted with leadership positions, and had the effect of encouraging a psychological dependence on leadership.

In the Family, individualism was discouraged and in its stead, conformity to the group was promoted. Life was regulated by leadership and Family doctrines, as well as by the schedules of the homes wherein most members lived. Yet oddly enough, in this regimented environment, a kind of individual freedom existed. Although an outside perspective might have seen it in an oppressive light, for the most part this was not the way it was perceived from within the group. This was partly due to the familial structure of authority in the Family; partly due to the expanded sexuality liberties which were granted to members; partly due to the individualistic Christian value of faith which was emphasized in the group; partly due to a certain freedom of the spirit which I will touch more on later; partly due to being absolved from some of the weight present in an uncertain, insecure society. Perhaps it was that this freedom existed merely within a funnel of acceptability, regardless, it helped safeguard the environment of the Family from becoming autocratic.

Another aspect that played an important role in defining the environment, supporting authority, and reinforcing the community, was the emphasis placed on spirituality. The Family was a very spiritual group. Much of Family life centered around spiritual elements like heaven, life after death, revelations and communication with the spirit world, and most conversation was phrased in a spiritual context: from guidance and help from Jesus, angels and spirit helpers, to interference or attacks from Satan and his demons. Many physical things were given spiritual significance or incorporated with spiritual principles. Spiritual values and virtues took precedence over material ones.

Even with the preeminent spirituality that pervaded, the Family embraced many rudiments of the physical human experience. Relaxation and fun had their place in Family life. Daily sports or exercise was encouraged, as were weekly or monthly fellowships. Members usually had a day on the weekend to themselves, and a highlight for most of the older children and many of the adults were the weekly movie nights.

But one thing in particular that the Family embraced and even extolled, which distinguished it especially from other Christian groups, was sexuality. The basic notion of sexuality was that sex was a gift from God—not just for procreation but for the pleasure of humankind. This, along with the communal lifestyle and the personal disposition of its founder, led the Family to become a highly sexualized community, which was reflected in its publications: both in what circulated inside the group and that was given to the public. The Family preached sex, and for a short period of time even used sex as a form of proselytizing, called ‘flirty fishing’. Traditional taboos or prohibitions such as premarital and extramarital sex were not banned and in some cases even encouraged.

This approach to sexuality had practical ramifications as it led to an increase in mixed and single parent families, and in some cases, to disrupted marriages and accusations of child abuse. But the main impact this liberal attitude towards sexuality had on the Family was in that it brought the community closer together. It fostered a greater intimacy between members. Also, it gave people a sense of freedom, especially the first generation members who experienced the heavily regulated sexuality of most churches or who experienced it from their parents.  

Although sex was regarded as a very natural, almost nonchalant occurrence, it too was infused with spiritual meaning. Either sexuality was spiritualized or spirituality was sexualized, whichever way, the intimacy of sexuality was brought into the religious experience. A very particular application of this concept was introduced later on with the Loving Jesus revelation, which encouraged members to engage in spiritual lovemaking with Jesus, either alone or with a partner.

The Ideology of the Family

Thus far, I have touched on some of the aspects that helped shape the environment of the Family and some principles that helped give meaning to the experience, but to fully appreciate its culture it is essential to uncover the heart of the Family, its fundamental ideology. What was the reason those early converts joined the group in the first place; what was it that kept them there?

To better understand this ideology it is necessary to contrast it to that of contemporary society, or at least the way the Family saw it. Similar to the mass society of the Frankfurt School, of alienated individuals held together by a culture industry, the Family saw the society surrounding it as a dog-eat-dog system of the survival of the fittest, as an institution that revered materialism and the pursuit of money, that was motivated by self-interest and greed, that was held together by fear and a base desire to survive, and that was headed towards its own destruction.

This view was shared by a number of young, middle-class teenagers, many of whom had already dropped out of their schools, their jobs, their previous lives, to search for something they could believe in, for somewhere to truly call home. In the Family they found such a place. A place that disavowed the means and the goals of mass society, a place that resonated with their own hopes and dreams of a better world, a place that said it was possible to build a new society, one of love and peace and harmony, where the meek really did inherit the earth.

This ideology fostered a belonging. Not a belonging based on survival or a selfish need to belong but a belonging that was based on compassion, on placing the needs of others above themselves. Not a factory where they were just cogs in a machine but a family where each one was important. Work was not motivated by greed or fear, but by some heroic mission to help each other and to save the world. The ideology got them together and this belongingness held them there.

Not all of them could quite understand it, but they all felt it. They talked about it, they sang about it. They called it the Spirit. It was in their songs and their dancing, it was in their smiles and on their children’s faces. It was felt so strongly that they had this idea that if people would just come to see one of their homes, they would be won over by its undeniable presence.

Granted, this ideology did not create a society that was perfect or without its own systematic flaws and individual mistreatments, neither was the daily grind always as grandiose as the ideal. But there was something about the Family in general that often stood out in stark contrast to mass society. In spite of all its faults, no matter how impractical it may have been, there was something beautiful about it. It was in the lifestyle, it was in the culture, it was in the ideology, but more, it was the belief itself.

The Freedom of Belief

Here I will deviate from speaking specifically of the Family to talk about belief in general. This is something that goes beyond just the Family or other religious groups to something that I think applies to all of us as humans. Belief is more than religion, it is apparent to some degree in every society and in every individual. What specifics are believed in is not what is of paramount importance, but the act of believing.

In 1997, Richard Dawkins stated in the Humanist that “I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils”.  I do not presume Mr. Dawkins to be an authority on faith or belief, but he does echo a particular sentiment, especially relevant in this present age with the focus on religious extremism.

Besides the proposed danger of faith, another disparaging attitude toward belief is to confine it to the realm of the immaterial, or to regard it as an opiate for the weak-minded and insecure. These assumptions I feel are rather unenlightened. It is my firm conviction that belief, despite all of its flaws, is the most noble of human endeavors, the pinnacle aspiration of the human condition, and a great precursor of human progress.

Belief, by its nature, celebrates the cognitive exceptionality of humanity in declaring ‘I believe, therefore it is’. More than just religious tolerance, more even than religious liberty, the freedom of belief must be cherished and protected at all costs, for it is what defines us.