Tag Archives: religion

A drawer full of speeches

DrawerI think most, if not all, ex-Jehovah’s Witness have an imaginary drawer somewhere in their head full of speeches ready to go for the next encounter with people on the ministry. “Your interpretation is wrong because…”, “Yes, but have you thought about this…”, “Were you around to see ‘Armageddon’ in 1975?…”

In my head I’ve always loved the idea of having a blowout argument with a couple of would-be knockers, however each time they’ve come to my door I have always been greeted by very sweet elderly women. I really can’t break out the artillery on someone who could be my grandma.

Saturday morning was different though. I was awoken at around 9am which immediately put me at a disadvantage since I was scrambling to find the key to the front door, let alone the key to the speech drawer in my head. Nevertheless, I opened the door and stood blurry eyed at a middle aged women and her daughter of around 13. I responded to the opening statements by declaring that I used to be a Jehovah’s Witness and that my mother is still currently practicing; I’ve always found this either encourages them to leave or at least gets me some buy-in so that my remarks aren’t based on hearsay but actual lived experience. Following that, most of the conversation revolved around the many reasons why I not only left, but was unlikely to return: agnostic/atheist, feminist, gay, degree-educated, common sense etc. I began to wonder whether this would be my opportunity to have some closure and tell them what I really think. It wasn’t. Around half way through the conversation something suddenly changed the way I felt.

I declared that I believe in evolution and the little girl let out a laugh and smirked. Suddenly I wasn’t looking at a 13 year old girl, I was looking at myself, 10 years ago, standing with my father on the ministry. At that age I actually believed that I knew more about the world than any scientist or physicist. “They’re so deluded, they really believe in this crap?”, “Evolution and the Big Bang is such nonsense and these people have no idea.” I know for a fact that there was nothing any one could say on the door to convince me any other way, probably because any counter-evidence was too complicated for me to understand. After all, the big bang was so easily explained away by an Elder on the platform by shaking Lego in a Tupperware container and asking “why hasn’t my shaking built a house yet? This is why the Big Bang could never happen.” I was so dogmatic, convinced… brainwashed? Maybe. But actually, it all just made me feel sad. Sad that the little girl, like so many kids, having had only glimpses of what the real world is actually like, about the people who live in it, about science and even reason (which is ironic if you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading the ‘Reasoning Book’.

Coming away from it all I realised that there really is nothing that I can do or say to prove to them that I’m better off without them. There’s nothing I can do to show how wrong their organisation is, how it oppresses so many groups of people. I recognise that there are many good things that it can provide (comradery for example), but I also believe they can be better sourced elsewhere.

So maybe it’s time to take the speeches out of the imaginary drawer, perhaps I should archive them, or shred them. Whatever I decide to do with them, I think they’re best used with people who understand, those who have lived through it and who have left. Leave the JWs to do what makes them happy, but remain hopeful that kids like the little girl have the opportunity to make their own, well informed decisions about what they do with their lives.

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‘In the world, but not of the world’: The story of adolescents who defected from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah's Witnesses on the Ministry

Source: WTBTS (2009a) “Bearing Thorough Witness” About God’s Kingdom, New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

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:

Front Covers of the Watchtower and Awake

Front Covers of the Watchtower and Awake

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

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

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.

References

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.

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Reflections on gay marriage

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Gay Marriage on Fox's 'The Simpsons'

With the UK Government’s marriage consultation underway and the USA’s snowballing momentum on gay-marriage laws it seemed fitting that I should contemplate my own position on gay-marriage. Not to mention that I have seen, listened to and taken part in a number of debates on gay-marriage but never made my opinion explicit, therefore this may be as much as a journey for me as I hope it will be for you.

Rather than responding to the conventional arguments against gay-marriage that you would usually read in the media, I am concerned with the anti-assimilationist perspective that derives from some strands of LGBT liberation and Queer theory (although I do often position myself within these perspectives for the most part). For a very clear and well articulated argument from this position I recommend reading Kieran Burn’s blog post written at the end of 2011.

It was not very long ago that I would have argued against gay marriage for many of the reasons Kieran so eloquently described, although it is both my studies at University and my long term international relationship which has evolved my perspective.

Is marriage an oppressive institution?

What surprised me about the gay-marriage debate was the amount of focus paid to religious claims of the “long history” of the “sanctity” of marriage. This was because for a while now I have been aware of how marriage itself has predated any religious claims. By tracking the concept of marriage as far back as ancient Rome it is clear to see that marriage for the most part has been more of an economic agreement rather than a romantic affair. In fact, it was only after the 10th century when Christian ceremonies could take place inside a church and then the 13th century when a priest took charge of the proceedings. In addition, the 16th century brought with it the Protestant reformation which then rejected the church’s involvement, arguing that it was strictly a government issue. So the idea of marrying for love is a fairly recent phenomenon.

The point I am trying to make here, is that marriage as an institution predates any religious stranglehold and certainly predates modern capitalism; therefore it would be unwise to reduce such a complex history to a neat blueprint which was recently designed by capitalists to necessarily oppress certain groups.

I do recognise, however, that throughout history women have consistently faired a lot worse in marriage than men. But to automatically associate marriage as an oppressive institution would not only ignore the historical structural and cultural changes but also undermine the individual agency that people have, presuming that they are unwittingly duped into an oppressive regime. Research has demonstrated that the nuclear family, despite being a popular paradigm, was never truly as prevalent as sociologists once made out. I believe that marriage has been infused with a larger system of patriarchy, rather than a route cause of it.

Marriage then should not be seen as a ubiquitous container of oppression, but rather as a social construction which is classified and perceived by a specific moment in time. It has consistently evolved and will continue to do so, therefore I argue that by allowing many LGBT individuals to get married would not assimilate them into a hetronormative culture. Instead, it would reappropriate the meaning attached to marriage and once again evolve the institution into a new age.

Who wants to get married anyway?

Following on from the argument that I have thus far made about religion’s recent claims to marriage, it no doubt plays a large role on people’s everyday realities and perceptions of what marriage is to them. Therefore allowing gay-marriage would allow a substantial amount of religious LGBT individuals the right to practice their relationship in line with their faith.

In addition, marriage is a globally recognised phenomenon which allows couples the right to apply for citizenship in the country their spouse is located. This is all too familiar in my case since my boyfriend lives in the United States, a country where federal laws would not allow my migration to America based upon marriage.

What this amounts to, is that to argue gay marriage is just a case of semantics is to ignore the real implications that the term has on actual people’s lives. To be recognised as ‘married’ carries a global significance. Marriage is a civil right – not an expectation – therefore we need not worry that the entire LGBT community will be swallowed up by the hetronormative beast. Many LGBT couples, like straight couples, will decide not to get married.

Concluding Thoughts

What I hope this argument does, is bring to light the complexity that the marriage debate has. That it has no claim to religious “sanctity,” nor to any modern capitalist endeavour and does not necessarily bring with it any innate oppressive features. I truly believe that the efforts made for equal marriage will bring a new level of global recognition to LGBT relationships, will help to reinvent the concept of marriage, as well as drastically improving the lives of so many individuals who wish to marry, not just civil partner.

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