Happy Graduation Day!

Posted by Joel Gunz

When we were members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was emphasized in meetings that we were expected to “press on to maturity” (Hebrews 6;1). The way I see it, if you were to take that counsel at face value, it would inevitably lead you to leave the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg described the path toward moral maturity as a three-step process, each of which is made up of two smaller steps. I think his way of seeing things applies equally well to our path as spiritual seekers and explains why we were left with no choice but leave Jehovah’s Witnesses behind. I’ve paraphrased his notions here:

Stage One: Preconventional (Early childhood)
Obedience and punishment — How can I avoid punishment?
Having not yet developed their own internal moral compass, small children usually start out here — guided by the threat of external consequences if they misbehave. Time-outs are effective at this stage.

Self-interest — What's in it for me?
Soon enough, children develop a capacity for self interest and learn how to use the reward/punishment system to their advantage. They still have no internalized morality, but they’ve learned how to adjust their behavior in order to reap benefits. During this stage, bribery can work wonders to improve a child’s behavior.

Stage Two: Conventional (Adolescence)
Conformity to social expectations — The good boy/good girl attitude
In this phase the young person accepts society’s conventions regarding right and wrong, and sees the inherent value in upholding them. They learn, for instance, that if they want people to like them, they will not say hurtful things.

Authority and social-order maintaining — Law and order morality
This is the phase in which your children check to make sure you’re driving within the speed limit.

Stage Two-and-a-Half: Anti-Conventional (Late Adolescence)
While this phase isn’t in Kohlberg’s scheme, I think it’s an important one. This, of course, is the time when young people question everything — authority, social conventions and norms, their own identity, their sexuality, their place in the world. Rebellious, risk-taking behavior is usually a part of this stage. They may actively protest authority by engaging in rebellion for rebellion’s sake.

They are testing the value of life’s rules and regulations by violating them. As such, it an important step on the way to maturity, though not recognized as such by Witness Judicial Committees that routinely disfellowship young people for engaging in Stage Two-and-a-Half behavior.

Stage Three: Post-Conventional (Adulthood)
Living by social contract, not rigid dictums — Freedom
At this point, individuals see themselves as separate entities from society. Their own perspective may take precedence over society's view and they may disregard rules that don’t conform to their own world view. They see the value of living in conformity to society’s expectations, but they are also free to deviate from them when it seems reasonable to do so.

Universal ethical principles — Principled conscience
When adults reach this stage, they are guided by an internalized morality. No longer content to blindly follow the law, they adhere to the principles behind the law, an outlook that, ironically, could at times lead to rule-breaking. Unlike adolescent rebellion, however, their occasional non-conformity is guided by the sense that justice may, at times, be lacking in the rules themselves. They have written a unique moral code that works well for them.

What it means
Various religious systems, too, fall into one of these three categories. Some churches, such as revivalist tent meetings that emphasize the reward of heaven and the punishment of hell are very much a Stage One system. Governed by a sense of conformity to social conventions, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and many Christian fundamentalist and evangelical groups fall into the Stage Two category. Self-directed groups, such as some Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists and humanists, might be seen as Stage Three.

When Jehovah’s Witnesses approach individuals who are at the extreme low end of social integration (skid row alcoholics and others whose lifestyle is spinning out of control), they aren’t nearly as successful at gaining converts from this population sector as their literature placements would predict. Such people do, however, often benefit from churches that preach “fire and brimstone” and that point them toward social services, such as 12-Step programs. They need a Stage One religious program.

Those, on the other hand, who are well-educated, stable and who are already following a spiritual path are also notoriously difficult to convert. While Jehovah’s Witnesses attribute this to the “deceptive power of riches,” such generalizing doesn’t square up with what has been observed in independent research: well-educated people are just as likely to attend to their spiritual needs as others, though they may do so independently. Such people could people be viewed as operating from a Stage Three paradigm.

Where do Jehovah’s Witnesses fit in? As a Stage Two religion, their ministry is most successful among people who have a certain sense of right and wrong, but don’t know how to act in accord with it, or whose environment makes doing so an uphill battle. When you think of the people who were your most successful Bible Studies, weren’t they like that? They wanted to improve their lives, but friends and family often kept dragging them down. Or, they simply had no friends or family to speak of. Jehovah’s Witnesses offered something better than what they had been able to find on their own — structure, a set of moral rules, a sense of community. They felt as if they were finally home, and considering where they had come from, they were home.

All of that is fine, but some of us continue to “press on to maturity.” Whether we’d been converted, or had been raised in Witness home, we began to give attention to the doubts that gnaw just below the conscious awareness of almost every Witness: questions about doctrines that don’t make sense; observations that Witnesses aren’t really better people than those “in the world.”

We began to think for ourselves.

While still having a high regard for many of the principles that Witnesses teach (though may not actually practice) — love for neighbor, honesty, a high regard for truth — we began to discover that we no longer fit in.

The constant repetition of questionable assumptions at the meetings, the demand for lock-step adherence to even the slightest suggestion from the “faithful and discreet slave,” the restriction against even questioning statements found in the publications, all became wearisome and, frankly, boring — not unlike a young man who discovers he no longer has much use for his childhood toys, except to dust them off occasionally as artifacts of his immature past.

When we reached that point, we had already moved on, though we might not have recognized it as such. In my case, I was suppressing all of this awareness. In a subconscious effort to make the elders do to me what I couldn’t do for myself — leave the congregation — I went out and committed acts that led to my disfellowshipping. Others of us might have actually voiced our questions and issues — bringing the elders running to “counsel” us back into conformity. But it didn’t work for long, if at all, and we eventually disassociated ourselves or just faded away.

We’d graduated from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Of course, instead of a cap-and-gown and a diploma, our ceremony consisted of a terse announcement at the Kingdom Hall. And with that, we were dispatched to follow the path of Post-Conventional, spiritual adulthood. It might be scary and even confusing at times, but our intuition, will to live and sense of justice got us this far. I don’t think they’ll let us down now.