It’s been exactly one year since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on this topic. I conducted a series of interviews with people like myself, raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses and subsequently leaving around our teenage years. I chose to study this topic because it not only filled a huge gap in sociological literature but provided me with a chance to seriously reflect on how I was raised and whether those memories, good and bad, are shared by others.
For most the Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for knocking on doors from time to time, not celebrating Christmas or Birthdays and refusing to receive blood transfusions. That’s all true, but for a young person growing up within the religion there is a lot more to it than that. To put them into some context there are 6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, established in 1870 by a Presbyterian born Charles Taze Russel. They don’t necessarily consider themselves a ‘religion’ since they disapprove of all organised religion, rather they align themselves closer with their name: ‘Witnesses.’ They witness to, or preach to, all those who need to know about Jehovah and encourage them to convert to a way of life which will protect them at Armageddon.
To put it simply, the Jehovah’s Witnesses distance themselves from mainstream society to protect themselves from what could ‘spoil useful habits.’ Sociology defines this type of religious movement as a ‘sect,’ whose entire organisational structure is based around keeping ‘purity within and pollution without’ (Holden 2005:52). If they were to relax their doctrines even slightly, it could lead to dissonance or schism within the religion. Therefore it is really important to them to keep their members symbolically separated.
This is what came out most prominently from my interviews. We look back on our childhood with memories which ultimately made us feel like we were ‘In the world, but not of the world.’ This is because there are many safety nets set up to prevent young people from falling into the trappings of Satan’s world. There were three themes which seemed to be most felt by those I spoke with: firstly, their views of the outside world, secondly their appearance and finally their education.
Views of the Outside World
For young Jehovah’s Witnesses, their contact with the outside world is kept to an absolute minimum, with school and door-to-door ministry being the only exceptions. For that reason, you tend to have a skewed view of the outside world. For myself, and most of those I interviewed, that tends to be how the religion wants you see the world. And only need to glance at the religion’s publications to see what type of view they are trying to create:
There was definitely a fear in my growing up that if I were to ever leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’d be consumed by a mixture of drugs, sex and earthquakes. Possibly all at once. I sometimes imagined my non-Jehovah’s witness alter ego being some corporate banker who was addicted to whiskey and gambling.
There are a number of symbolic doctrines which the organisation has which are designed to keep you far removed from the secular world. Popular culture must be engaged with at extreme caution, being on the watch for any hints of bad language and sexual profanity. This turned regular television watching really difficult, sometimes hovering my finger over the mute button to try and block out any sneaky swear words. They also have strict endogamous policy, making sure that all dating is kept completely inside the organisation. One time when my sister was about 16 she was presumed to be dating a boy simply because she ‘text him too much.’
Nevertheless, children are socialised into believing that there is a lot to be feared in the outside world whilst the Jehovah’s Witnesses try to recreate an impression of the future ‘paradise earth.’
Appearance isn’t something that tends to be brought up much in the sociological literature on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, mostly because there really isn’t much to say. For the most part, they literally just blend in. For young people however, this isn’t quite the case. It was very difficult to walk around my local area wearing a suit; people would call me a ‘snob’ or most often just stare. For the girls I interviewed they found the rules quite restrictive, being forced to wear dresses to all formal meetings and never to wear a skirt higher than the knee. Some kids were refused to deliver their sermons because their hair was too long or didn’t have the appropriate clothes.
I’m sure that most would agree that finding your own style is hard enough without such strict guidelines on what you can or can’t wear. For myself and other Witness children, this meant making a daily decision of whether to fit in with the religion, or fit in with the other kids.
Education was unsurprisingly the most talked about topic with the interviewees, not least because it’s the main social sphere that blurs the lines between the religious and the secular. Between the time you get dropped off at the school gates, to when you’re picked up, your identity is left completely in your own hands. You have to decide whether you’re going to be a Jehovah’s Witness today, or not.
What I mean by that is when your friends ask you to go to their birthday party, will you lie and say you have other plans, or will you tell them you (or your religion) doesn’t believe in Birthdays. When you enter the school assembly, will you sit by the door so that when the hymns are sung and the prayers are made you can make a quick exit? Or will you sit with your friends, where everyone has to watch as you climb over all the other children to find the door? When everyone in class is making Christmas Cards, Valentine’s Day Cards and Mother’s Day cards will you oblige willingly? Or will you tell your teacher that it would be more appropriate to make winter cards, or just sit out entirely?
How each Jehovah’s Witness child negotiated each day is completely different. Some wouldn’t even tell their friends that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, others would use the opportunity to preach to them. For me, I would keep it to myself unless someone’s comments or questions prompted me to explain why I’m different.
There’s a school of thought in Sociology which describes contemporary life as a ‘Risk Society’, ‘Liquid Society’ or ‘Late/Post-Modern Society.’ While each theory is slightly different, they all run along a theme which argues people have less security in how their life will turn out. People make daily decisions about who they shall be, or how they shall live. When someone cannot answer those questions, it can lead to a sense of normlessness, or as Anthony Giddens terms it: lacking a sense of ‘ontological security;’ meaning that people have no consistency in their self-identity and no predictability which provides us with a sense of routine or security.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses provide that security. They tell you exactly who you should be, and most definitely how you should live. All questions can be answered. Therefore you’ll find a lot of adult converts to the Jehovah’s Witnesses describing a moment where life wasn’t going so well and they turned to the religion for help. For those born into the religion, there was no such moment. They don’t know what it is to live in a fear-inducing world, or how safe their lives are in comparison. Therefore, the religion must teach it to them. And it does so by using all of the methods which myself and my participants recalled.
Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness was a constant battle between what society expected of me, what the religion expected of me and what I expected of myself. There is a constant cost-benefit analysis which had to be made, whether all the effort which had to be invested in the religion was worth the benefits which it provided. For me, I realised that there really were no benefits. And it was when I decided to leave when I realised that I didn’t become my corporate alter-ego. I didn’t get addicted to drugs or die in an earthquake.
Suddenly, I realised that the veil had been lifted and I was seeing the world through my own eyes and not through a framework made by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Finally, I was living in the world and of the world.
Bauman, Z (2000) Liquid Modernity, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage.
Botting, H and Botting, G (1984) The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Giddens, A (1992) Modernity and Self-Identity, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Holden, A. (2005) Jehovah’s Witnesses, London: Routeledge.
WTBTS (2012a) Awake! 1 May, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
WTBTS (2012b) Awake! 1 March, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
WTBTS (2011b) Watchtower, 1 December, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.