Us and them

Social group of elephantsIt seems that for many believers part of the appeal of their religion is the community and sense of belonging that it offers. Although this is rarely cited as a reason for sticking with their beliefs, I suspect it has a strong subconscious effect. The desire to belong is natural for humans as it is for all social mammals. Communal living may even have affected the way our brains evolved. When the group offers sharing of food, protection from predators and the opportunity to mate, survival may depend on staying in the group and avoiding social rejection.

The problem is that this kind of thinking leads people to consider some people to be insiders and others outsiders. That makes sense in a tribal society, but in the modern world we have a responsibility to treat everyone with respect. In the view of ethics advanced by Peter Singer, people decide who to treat morally based on whether that person falls within their moral circle. In a modern world we should be looking to expand that circle to include all of humanity (Singer also argues persuasively that we should also include animals in our moral circle).

I think religion can often get in the way of this. I’m not trying to characterise religious people as misanthropes when it comes to outsiders, many are very friendly. I’m sure many believers would also tell you that their religion itself encourages them to be friendly to all people. However, there’s plenty of behaviour common to religious groups which is anything but friendly to outsiders.

Diane Wilson made it clear in her book that the Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly separate people into those within the society and those outside it. This usually involves certain tactics. Although these things are more common in cult-like religions, they can be found in watered-down versions in almost any faith.

Firstly, the stigmatisation of outsiders. This, along with a strong discouragement to associate with them, allows unfair stereotypes to go unchallenged. Those outside the religious group are often said to be unfortunates or that they will suffer some terrible fate, such as a literal hell.

Secondly, conformity. Certain patterns of speech and behaviour are encouraged, through shared rituals or varying degrees of social pressure. Unusual and unnecessary rules also help to define correct behaviour and separate the “ins” from the “outs”. In some cases membership of the religious organisation is considered more important than any aspect of the individual. This was a popular theme amongst the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ , as Diane Wilson reports from a JW sermon:

Bucket of waterThrust your fist into a bucket of water, then pull your fist out. Look into the bucket. The size of the hole that is left in the water is what you’re worth.

To moderate believers this sounds extreme, but there are few religions which celebrate individuality and all have rules of behaviour that define those who are members and those who are not.

I suspect in the case of cults and some newer religions, this is a conscious effort to keep members under the influence of the religion and its leaders. Perhaps in smaller religious groups which differ from the surrounding culture, this is necessary to maintain group cohesion.

Going off on a bit of a tangent, it struck me today that a similar thing can occur with fans of football (soccer) teams, or indeed any sports team fans. Certainly they seem to treat fans of rival teams differently to those of their own team. Similarities have already been drawn between football and religion.

Polish football fans

So what else do religions and football teams have in common? My pet theory concerns the way people choose them. By which I mean they don’t. Well, not consciously. Not like you might choose a new car or house. There’s no weighing up of a team’s odds at being promoted to the next division, no examination of their track record, or the scruples (or not) of the manager.

So in an argument with another fan over which team is more deserving of support, there’s no objective basis on which to justify their decision. No team has a perfect track record, the vast majority are not at the top of division one and in any case, such arguments are after-the-fact justifications – that wasn’t how they chose the team in the first place.

Fans are most likely to choose a team based on which team is supported by those around them – their family, friends, community. Or perhaps the team belonging to the town in which they grew up, which may amount to the same thing in many cases.

Sound familiar?

I think it’s very similar with religion. It seems the reason religious debates ultimately boil down to “Faith”, “Personal experience” or “Agreeing to disagree” is because there is no rational objective basis on which to chose one over another. Interestingly, Swiss theologian Karl Barth said something similar:

“Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.”

I’d go further and suggest that a religious belief cannot even argue with another religious belief. At least no more than one football fan can tell another they’ve chosen to support the wrong team.

Review: Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness by Diane Wilson

Awakening of a Jehovah's WitnessI was motivated to read Awakening of a Jehovah’s Witness – Escape from the Watchtower Society after meeting some Jehovah’s Witnesses in a predictable situation; they came to my door. My conversations with them aroused my curiosity to find out more from a knowledgeable but (now) external source.

The author, Diane Wilson was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for 25 years and her book describes her experience as a Witness, her personal struggle to escape and the discoveries she made along the way. She describes specific incidents which demonstrate the invasive controlling influence of the society. For example, at one time she was forced to redecorate a piece of her own furniture after some other Witnesses visited her house to discover apparently paganistic heart symbols on it. The fact that the rules for behaviour and dress are so strict and members are encouraged to inform on one another makes for a deeply unpleasant environment. The punishment for violation of these rules is either humiliation in front of the other Witnesses or in the worst cases disfellowshipping. In effect this means cutting the person off from the only social group they have – Witnesses are strongly discouraged from having friends outside of the society.

The book is highly readable and gripping, although the subject is obviously quite disturbing. Individuality is squashed and truth is spelt with a capital ‘T’ – always a bad sign in my opinion. Most notably she describes the reaction of the Witnesses who were members during the failed 1975 apocalypse prediction.

For the reader who has never been part of a cult-like religion, it’s hard not to hop up and down yelling, “Just leave them! Get out! You don’t need them! They’re crazy!”. At first it’s frustrating and difficult to understand, but the author does a fairly good job of explaining how she’s feeling and why – despite being desperately unhappy – she feels unable to leave. Lacking in confidence from the outset, she blames herself for not “Getting it” and continues to put up with the emotionally abusive Watchtower Society. The parallels with a person trying to leave an abusive partner are apparent, if not explicit.

Diane includes accounts of conversations with her therapist, whom she had to visit in secret, as external counselling is strongly disapproved of. This adds much insight and clarity both to her thoughts and the reader’s understanding.

The latter part of the book shows some of the research the author did in the process of examining her beliefs. There are some very interesting comparisons of Watchtower publications and their flip-flopping doctrines. Particularly eye-opening were the apparent changes relating to medical practices such as accepting organ transplants or vaccinations.

Reading this book I got the impression that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ branch of Christianity is like many other religions, only concentrated. Many religions encourage their members to behave in an insular way, socialising mostly within the group, not questioning the religious leaders or conforming to group behavioural norms. Few take it to the extremes of the Watchtower Society.

Overall the book should be essential reading for any Jehovah’s Witnesses – perhaps it should be published in a mock-bible binding to aid with secrecy. For everyone else it provides a valuable insight into both cult-psychology and the running of the Society.  She mentions that other Kingdom Halls (JW equivalent of a church) were less strict in some respects. However, judging by the numerous positive reviews from former Witnesses, her experience seems likely to be typical.

Not Scaring Them Off

I was visited a few months ago by some Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t actually introduce themselves as JW’s, perhaps because of the reputation they’ve gained as pushy porch preachers. Instead they simply ask if you’ve read the Bible and indicate how important they think it is.Watchtower Buildings in Brooklyn, New York

Most of the people I’ve told about their visit respond with imaginative suggestions for getting rid of Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as pretending to be part of a completely different and obscure religion or opening the door stark naked. I can see some of these being quite amusing, but unnecessary. I think if I politely asked them to leave, they would. In any case, I’d like to try to understand what they believe and why. I don’t want to scare them off.  Luckily for me, JWs are only too keen to talk about their beliefs and debate theological questions.

They seemed a little surprised when I invited them in and offered them a hot drink. I noticed that while they are trying to get their message about the Bible across, they are also happy to make friendly small-talk and ask questions. It’s pretty clear they’ve been coached in witnessing (evangelism), so I found it interesting to try and work out the thinking behind their methods. My guess is that asking questions of the householder makes their visit seem less preachy and more like a conversation, which people are generally more responsive to than receiving a sermon.

Secondly, it allows them to assess their host to see what chance they might have of being convinced by the JW’s message. For example, it came up in conversation (I think they saw a photo) that my wife and I were recently married. Not long after, the woman asked if we’d lived here for long. I replied that we’d been here a couple of years. Only later did I wonder whether premarital cohabitation is something they disapproved of and that her indirect question might have been a way of working out how sinful we were. I could’ve been reading too much into it, but Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite professional and deliberate in their actions, so maybe not.Awake! magazine

We chatted for well over an hour about their beliefs. I tried to ask as many searching questions as possible. I expected to get somewhere as they are Biblical literalists. However they have a variety of justifications for the contradictions and immoral statements in the Bible. For instance the old testament law books are “Mosaic law”. Apparently this is not about the moral implications of arranging coloured tiles to form a picture, but the law from Moses’ time. Their reasoning is that when Jesus said, “I fulfil the law” he wasn’t mis-quoting Judge Dredd – what he meant was, “All that really nasty stuff from Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Mosaic Law) doesn’t apply from now on”.

How could anyone have misunderstood that? Well, quite easily. Which leads them neatly into their central doctrine that no one can properly understand the Bible without the official interpretations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Society. They are apparently the sole (self-appointed) authority on such matters, and their regular publications (Watchtower and Awake!) are seen as infallible.

Unlike Christians of many other stripes, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do know the Bible very well, and will quote their subtly reworded version at every opportunity. So my unprepared questions didn’t worry them. Likewise they seemed quite satisfied with their fairly unconvincing responses to the traditional arguments against religion such as the argument from evil or from religious confusion.

On a later visit, I was more prepared and had refuted an article from the Awake! magazine they had left with me regarding the respect for women as found in the Bible. They seemed to apreciate the effort I’d gone to, and while most of it seemed acceptable to them, I was satisfied that my questions about Genesis 19:5-8 (In which Lot allows a mob to rape his daughters) were something for which they’d have to get back to me.

The one thing I pointed out to them which really seemed to throw them was my commentary on their publications. One issue had said clearly that nothing in the Bible contradicts science, while a subsequent issue had a long article explaining how evolution was not compatible with the Bible. This seemed to worry them and they were at first uncharacteristically lost for words. After a few moments the woman said, “I wouldn’t call evolution science.”. I disgreed and told her that it wasn’t enough to redefine what you consider science to suit your argument, but they were unable to offer a proper explanation and seemed genuinely unsettled.New World Translation

So I think this approach might be the best one with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their publications are something very important for their beliefs. They are carefully worded and accessible if tiresome in their preaching message. They also contain enough factual errors or inconsistencies that a thorough read could pick a few out, particularly when compared against current scientific knowledge or previous publications.

They’ve now visited three times, and left me with a copy of their New World Translation of the Bible. Each time I’ve been better prepared and made more effort to show the problems with their beliefs. They haven’t returned recently, so I hope I haven’t scared them off. I have plenty more (awkward) questions for them.