Last week, two friendly women knocked on my door wanting to share the good news about the Gospel with me, as understood by the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They may have been a bit surprised by what they encountered. I declined the little pamphlet they offered, politely explaining that I already knew everything I needed to know about their organization.
My door did not close on them, though, and they invited further dialogue by asking me to elaborate on what I knew. No doubt they were mentally flipping pages through the training materials for Witnesses’ door-to-door proselytizing strategies, turning to a section labeled something like “Dealing with Apostates,” or “Drawing in the Self-Righteous Know-it-All.”
I mentioned their failed apocalyptic prophecies, and said I’ve read quite a bit about their organization along with others like the LDS Church. But then I sought to make the encounter a bit more productive, not for me, but for these two women. This doorstep was definitely stony ground for what they were sowing, but I figured it might be helpful to plant a few seeds of doubt in their minds, about the cultish group whose demands they are compelled to spend hours every week serving.
So I said something like this: “The real issue that I find troubling about your group is how it shuns those who come to disbelieve in its teachings. Disfellowshipping causes a great deal of pain.” Gesturing to each of the women in turn, I continued, “If you decide that there really is a problem with this organization and voice your doubts, then you are forced to have nothing to do with her. Would you like to be treated that way?”
One former Jehovah’s Witness who confronted this cruel form of church discipline, along with a great deal of cognitive dissonance, fear, and emotional trauma is Diane Wilson, author of the spellbinding and carefully researched book, Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness: Escape from the Watchtower Society. When she was told to disfellowship her teenage daughter, to “treat her as if she were literally dead,” her reaction as a mother was understandable: “I started crying and my body started shaking uncontrollably” (loc. 1300-13, 1442-49). She got little compassion from the JW elder she sought out for help, though: “He did not comfort me, however; instead, he made my grief unbearable by blaming me for our daughter’s departure from the organization, and for having left us as well. I felt stunned, crushed, and devastated as the elder whipped me with his words” (loc. 1370).
This was all piled on top of her long struggle with cognitive dissonance about the Watchtower Society’s teachings. Her doubts about the organization, she said,
were causing my entire belief system to break down, and I felt terrified. It seemed like this religion was the glue that held me together as a person and that gave stability to my life; having doubts made me feel like I was falling completely apart and going crazy. I felt like I was being swallowed up by a big black hole, that frightening world of darkness and confusion that the Society foretold would consume any who leave the organization. I feared I was falling prey to Satan. I was so frightened that my mind became obsessed with thoughts of: Perhaps the Watchtower Society is God’s Channel! Perhaps I have no legitimate complaints against the Society. Perhaps I am being rebellious against Jehovah’s arrangement. I had no confidence in myself or in my doubts about the organization; I was scared, and I desperately wanted to feel safe again. [loc. 1117]
Eventually, she said, “I experienced difficulty breathing while just sitting and listening to the meetings, feeling as if I were being literally suffocated. I frequently had to leave and walk around outside the Kingdom Hall in order to get relief” (loc. 1376). I can relate to this, from when a preacher in my former Laestadian Lutheran congregation would start going on about what sinful wretches we all are, his voice rising with pious angst about his sins as well as everyone else’s. Like Wilson, I had seen that my own version of “the Society is adamant in resisting almost all input from others, no matter how well researched or valuable it is” (loc. 3557).
Once questions are voiced, the questioner is all too often told that he or she is to accept whatever the Society teaches and is not to “reason” about it, but must blindly and dogmatically fully accept whatever is taught. The individual’s reason, they stress, is “human reasoning,” but the Watchtower’s reasoning is “God’s reasoning.” If one does not blindly accept all that is taught—however foolish—often their spirituality is impugned, even for sincere and honest questions. One then learns that questions are not to be voiced. [loc. 3564]
All the self-loathing, the quavering gratitude that this angry invisible God would exempt a fortunate few from the eternal torture chamber to which he would be consigning everyone else–for not believing in doctrines he declined to inform them of–just became too much to sit and take.1 Listening to people in the pews around me get caught up in the emotion of the preachers thundering away, about things I knew they doubted, felt like being the only sober guy at a party.
And so I’d find some excuse to take one of the kids out of the sanctuary. Standing in the fellowship hall looking out the window while my kid played with folding chairs, looking at the innocent trees out in the sunshine, I’d wonder what the hell I was doing there.
Wilson’s book provides many other parallels to my own observations about the Laestadian Lutheran Church. I describe some of them in An Examination of the Pearl. Here are locations in the online HTML version where my book cites Wilson’s and discusses some of the similarities. Like many Laestadians, Witnesses
 have a resigned “where else would we go” attitude,
 are discouraged from outside socializing,
 must be obedient even without understanding,
 refer to the organization as the “Mother,”
 can be terrified at the idea of breaking away from it, and
 are discouraged from independently researching their beliefs.
They also avoid Halloween (loc. 235), offering toasts (loc. 252), reading literature from other churches (loc. 378), and extracurricular school sports (loc. 3616). Their rationale for using taped music rather than a live orchestra during JW conventions could have been pulled straight from a Laestadian publication, at least one from a few decades ago: “to protect the members of the orchestra from ‘getting puffed-up with pride’ because of their musical talents” (loc. 704). And they share the view of most Laestadian groups (yes, there are several) that their “organization alone, in all the Earth, is directed by God’s holy spirit or active force,” and to “it alone God’s Sacred Word, the Bible, is not a sealed book” (loc. 587).
Though relationships can wind up being strained if not entirely broken off, Laestadians don’t shun their former brethren as severely or rigorously as do the Witnesses.2 When I pointed out the cruelty of this treatment, the women at my door protested that it’s for their own good. That’s pretty much what one JW correspondent told me (while asking me to include this link): “Disfellowshipping, while very difficult for the person, may lead to a change in behavior, repentance, and a better understanding of a person’s relationship with Jehovah, and a return to living by Bible standards.”
Then my visitors prepared to list off some Bible verses for me. I saved them the trouble, knowing those passages all too well myself: Do not “keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one, no not to eat” (1 Cor. 5:11). “[W]ithdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2 Thess. 3:7).3 And to their argument about letting their light shine before men, upholding the glory of God (Jehovah), etc., I asked what kind of light and glory there is in cutting people off from their families and people they’ve known all their lives. (See this and this.)
For Wilson, the prospect of this happening to her made leaving the Watchtower Society
additionally difficult because my entire social system was tied up with the organization. Since it requires Jehovah’s Witnesses to limit their friends to only other Witnesses, disassociating from it would leave me completely isolated socially. This prospect was very frightening to me, and it contributed greatly to my delay in leaving the organization. I knew that disassociating myself would result in being shunned by all of Jehovah’s Witnesses forever. [loc. 3035]
But leave she did, eventually, and her book’s conclusion is one of hope and healing. “As stinging wounds from thornpricks heal, and those from penetrating lacerations produce scars that remain, so heals the emotional pain caused by my involvement with Jehovah’s Witnesses—though the scars may long be with me” (loc. 3396). She reports developing “deeper, more meaningful and satisfying friendships,” and retaining a firm belief in Jesus, occasionally visiting churches and enjoying “the spiritually uplifting, contemporary music offered there” (loc. 3401).
I wish her much peace and happiness. She’s earned it. If you have engaged in a similar struggle to find independence from an authoritarian religious group, you’ve earned it, too, and you’d benefit from reading her book.
Update, August 23, 2014: I’m still on their list of places to visit. Here is what I posted on Reddit about this morning’s encounter with a young JW woman at my front door:
It was a soft, tentative knock, just a couple of quiet taps on the front door. When I opened it, the blonde young woman holding her zipper-jacketed Bible and pamphlet smiled at me and asked if I would be interested in some literature. Her hand cradled the pamphlet in the space between us, across the threshold of my doorway, across a vast gulf of differences. I could see with a glance what it was: The Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses was offering me an invitation to cross that threshold, printed in pastel colors, a soft-focus background image, and a smooth sans-serif font.
I looked back up at her smile and listened to her wonder aloud whether I might want some literature from this organization she did not yet name. One of my daughters is about the same age this girl looked to be. She is happily continuing her life in the fundamentalist Lutheran church that my wife and I grew up in but left a few years ago. She will probably bear a lot of children and limit her life’s choices based on things we taught her, things we no longer believe. They are both innocent believers, these two girls.
“Were you raised in the Jehovah’s witnesses?” I asked, not responding to the pamphlet.
She slowly brought it back to her chest next to the zippered Bible. “Yes, I was.” The smile brightened.
“Do you think that the possibility of being shunned by your parents might cloud your objectivity about this?”
The smile continued, but with a little movement now around her eyebrows. “Well, of course, I’ve thought a great deal about my beliefs. It’s very important.”
“But have you really considered the thought of your parents shunning you for doubting what you believe? Don’t you think that might make it hard to be objective about this?”
“Are you referring to disfellowshipping?” I nodded. “OK, see, that only happens for serious sins...”
“Well, apostasy is a serious sin. If you were to decide, I don’t know,” I waved at an unseen collection of vaguely remembered doctrinal issues, “that the whole 1973 or was it 1978 thing was a real problem and the Faithful and Discreet Slave wasn’t really so faithful or discreet after all, that would be apostasy. And your parents would have to treat you like you were dead.”
She nodded faintly, looking down for a second, the serious eyebrows taking over now from the smile. I love my daughter tremendously, and fortunately, she is still able to love me just as much, religion or no religion. This girl and her parents would not have the same luxury. She looked back up, and the Watchtower machinery ground back into gear. “Disfellowshipping is done out of love, and...”
“Yes, well, I’m not wanting to debate the reasons for it.” I was leaning against the wall just inside the doorway, my hands hooked in my pockets. The door hung wide open, off to the side. It was cool and bright outside, with a little breeze rustling the leaves. There was no hurry, no conflict, just a chance to let this young woman consider something as she stood in a quiet moment of morning sunshine outside my door. “I just wanted you to consider how much of a motivator that is for you. If you ever decide you don’t believe this stuff, then your parents would have to treat you like you were dead.”
The smile had now fully transitioned into a frown. “It sounds like you have experienced this first-hand. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had...”
“No, no, I’ve never been a J-dub. I’ve just studied it a lot, along with the Mormons and a bunch of others. And I wanted to give you something to think about.”
“Well, thank you,” she said, and then the smile returned with her missionary voice that spoke a few more words to gracefully wrap things up. The pamphlet was back in its stack, and she wished me a good day and I wished her one, too.
To their credit, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not consign anybody to eternal torment, believing that the fate of those outside the organization is just annihilation. In that, at least, we agree. ↩
The Bible is no moral guide in this or many other matters, it turns out, and this is just the New Testament. In the Hebrew Bible, believing the wrong thing would earn you a violent death at the hands of the Chosen People. As I point out in EOP, if a family member or your wife or a dear friend secretly asks you to go worship other gods, it’s not enough to say no and rebuke him or her for the apostasy. Deuteronomy 13:9-10 says you have to kill him or her: “thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” ↩