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.