Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Four Lies Jehovah's Witnesses Tell Themselves

Like it or not, a measure of dishonesty is necessary for maintaining the social system. We all know that young George Washington didn't cut down a cherry tree and that Lincoln's path to the Emancipation Proclamation had less to do with the ideal of racial equality than it did with the pragmatism of reuniting a fractured republic. Men hide their sexual indiscretions from their wives, who themselves would rather not know the truth about their husbands. Dishonesty is so deeply entrenched in the social contract that language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein downgraded it from a moral failure to a mere “language game.”

The Jehovah's Witnesses are no exception. Here are four lies all Witnesses tell themselves.

“I am loved.”
The Witness catechism brochure What Does God Require of Us says that “the most outstanding mark of true Christians is that they have real love among themselves.”

To be fair, Jehovah's Witnesses do a good job of promoting this value among their members. For instance, racism has been all but eliminated. Their literature points to the humanitarian work they perform in times of disaster and to the preaching work itself as an act of love. But in these areas, they are really no different from many other churches that also do good works. Good and helpful though their work may be, the love Witnesses have is not an “outstanding mark,” superior to that found in other religions. They are merely as good as many other religions.

On a personal level, however, many Witnesses complain of loneliness and isolation. Due to strict moral standards and the expectation to marry only within the religion, thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses remain single and have lost hope that they will find someone just right for them. Others may feel left out because they aren't part of the Pioneers' or Elders' club. Hoping to conjure up feelings of amity by force of sheer will, some will testify at the meetings to the love they have been shown or to the love they feel for the “brotherhood.” But all too often it's a sham, a Hail Mary pass at getting the human affection they crave.

Many Watchtower articles have been published to address this problem, most of which assume that if congregation members don't feel loved, it's their own fault; the Watchtower Society has never acknowledged that its own congregations could be the source of their disappointment.

Thus, out of one side their mouth they praise the Organization for having superlative love, while out of the other side of their mouth, they complain—if only privately—that they feel unloved. While a measure of love can be found in Witness congregations, to claim this as an outstanding characteristic of their religion is to ignore the love that abounds outside their Kingdom Halls.

Then again, any religion that describes the ritualized brutality of disfellowshipping as a “loving arrangement” isn't exactly going for what you could call a platonic ideal.

“I am in the truth.”
Jehovah's Witnesses claim to possess “accurate knowledge” of the Bible—that they alone know the truth—and this belief emboldens them to take their unique beliefs from door to door. The single most important doctrine in their theology is their belief that Jesus Christ became the messianic King of God's Kingdom in 1914—and it provides the basis for all of their interpretation of Bible prophecy. That date is arrived at through a series of scriptures handpicked from the books of Daniel and Revelation and whipped together into a dizzyingly convoluted compote of Bible Math. While Watchtower publications occasionally go over this material, few Witnesses can actually explain this chronology without resorting to cheat sheets such as those found in their book Reasoning from the Scriptures. Convinced though they may be about the doctrine, few really understand it. That isn't knowledge. It's mere belief. Consequently, while Jehovah's Witnesses criticize other churches for inducing their members to credulously believe incomprehensible doctrines, like the Trinity, the fact is that they do the same thing themselves.

In 2010, in order to reconcile the urgency of its belief that 1914 would be a prelude to Armageddon with the fact that that year is quickly fading into history, the Watchtower magazine (once again) revised the meaning of the word “generation” used at Matthew 24:34, this time completely removing its definition from the realm of sound logic and doubling it to actually include two generations whose lives overlap.

It is no coincidence that, as its belief system has lost credibility, the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses has shown less and less tolerance for those who would ask difficult questions. If it were secure in the truth, it would encourage—not fear—questioning and dissent. Instead, they drown out cross-examination with the cry “I am in the truth!” for to stop doing so would result in a crisis of faith from which, they fear, they could not recover.

“I am living a fulfilled life as a Witness.”
For someone youthful and ambitious, there are a few opportunities for personal fulfillment in the Jehovah's Witness world. Their missionary and foreign service programs afford opportunities for world travel. Males can advance into leadership positions. Still, the emphasis is on one paramount work: the public ministry, and all members are expected to make it their top priority. If a member balks at this, or finds that it is not his or her “gift,” it is seen as a spiritual weakness. Thus, having a fulfilling role in the Witnesses is something only a few enjoy. The rest are encouraged to make the best of it and are dissuaded from seeking the challenges and rewards that go along with traditional avenues for personal enrichment, such as education, professional development, entrepreneurship or the arts.

For most people, college is an opportunity to explore their interests and get to know themselves. But Witnesses see it as a threat to their relationship with God. The April 15, 2008 Watchtower says, “What, though, of higher education, received in a college or a university? This is widely viewed as vital to success. Yet, many who pursue such education end up with their minds filled with harmful propaganda. Such education wastes valuable youthful years that could best be used in Jehovah’s service.”

Pursuing fulfillment in any endeavor outside of service to the Watchtower Society is discouraged. In a chapter titled “What Career Should I choose?” the Watchtower publication Young People Ask stated:
‘WHAT shall I do with the rest of my life?’ Sooner or later you confront this challenging question. A confusing array of choices present themselves—medicine, business, art, education, computer science, engineering, the trades. And you may feel like the youth who said: “What I consider to be successful . . . is maintaining the comfort level that you grew up with.” Or like others, you may dream of improving your financial lot in life.

But is there more to success than material gain? Can any secular career bring you real fulfillment?
The chapter goes on to discourage such options, claiming that satisfaction “eludes those who build their lives solely around secular achievement.”

When it comes to relationships, Witnesses fare little better. If they are raised in the religion, they often get married too young, only to realize too late that they made an unwise choice. Fearing censure from the congregation if they divorce, they often remain trapped in a disappointing relationship.

Thus, for many Witnesses, finding real satisfaction in work and life is elusive. Yet, there is no room to say express those feelings openly, for to do so would only further isolate them from a community that would see their lack of fulfillment as spiritual weakness. So they maintain a facade that conceals a life of quiet desperation. They live a sad lie of thwarted dreams and aspirations.

“I think for myself”
Ask any Witness if she is in a cult and she will likely bristle defensively and insist that Witnesses think for themselves. As one Witness commenter said in an online forum: “WE ARE NOT A CULT! We are free willed people just like anyone else.” Methinks she doeth protest too much.

The test for someone's capacity for independent thought comes when he disagrees with established beliefs or deviates from expected norms. But when a member of Jehovah's Witnesses disagrees with something found in the Watchtower magazine, what is the expected course of action? Such questioning is seen, not as the functioning of a healthy, autonomous mind, but as the work of the Devil. Says The Watchtower of February 1, 1996:

Another sly tactic of the Devil is the sowing of doubts in the mind. He is ever alert to see some weakness in faith and exploit it. Any who experience doubts should remember that the one behind such doubts is the one who said to Eve: “Is it really so that God said you must not eat from every tree of the garden?” Once the Tempter had planted doubt in her mind, the next step was to tell her a lie, which she believed. (Genesis 3:1, 4, 5) To avoid having our faith destroyed by doubt as Eve’s was, we need to be vigilant. If some tinge of doubt about Jehovah, his Word, or his organization has begun to linger in your heart, take quick steps to eliminate it before it festers into something that could destroy your faith....

Do not hesitate to ask for help from loving overseers in the congregation. (Acts 20:28; James 5:14, 15; Jude 22) They will help you trace the source of your doubts, which may be due to pride or some wrong thinking.

Has the reading or listening to apostate ideas or worldly philosophy introduced poisonous doubts? … It is of interest that many who have become victims of apostasy got started in the wrong direction by first complaining about how they felt they were being treated in Jehovah’s organization. (Jude 16) Finding fault with beliefs came later. Just as a surgeon acts quickly to cut out gangrene, act quickly to rout out of the mind any tendency to complain, to be dissatisfied with the way things are done in the Christian congregation. (Colossians 3:13, 14) Cut off anything that feeds such doubts.—Mark 9:43.

Stick closely to Jehovah and his organization. Loyally imitate Peter, who resolutely stated: “Lord, whom shall we go away to? You have sayings of everlasting life.” (John 6:52, 60, 66-68) Have a good program of study of Jehovah’s Word so as to keep your faith strong, like a large shield, able “to quench all the wicked one’s burning missiles.” (Ephesians 6:16) Keep active in the Christian ministry, lovingly sharing the Kingdom message with others. Every day, meditate appreciatively on how Jehovah has blessed you. Be thankful that you have a knowledge of the truth. Doing all these things in a good Christian routine will help you to be happy, to endure, and to remain free of doubts.
In other words, Witnesses are told that if they don't agree with The Watchtower, they should do whatever it takes to start agreeing again.
[Independent] thinking is an evidence of pride. And the Bible says: “Pride is before a crash, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” (Proverbs 16:18) If we get to thinking that we know better than the organization, we should ask ourselves: “Where did we learn Bible truth in the first place? Would we know the way of the truth if it had not been for guidance from the organization? Really, can we get along without the direction of God’s organization?” No, we cannot!—The Watchtower, January 15, 1983
Clearly, thinking for oneself is not highly valued in the Witness community. Nevertheless, Witnesses insist that they do, in fact think for themselves. Objective outsiders easily see it for what it is: Jehovah's Witnesses lie to themselves about their supposed freedom of thought.

Just admit it.
In 1843, Karl Marx described the fall of the French ancien rĂ©gime as tragic “as long as it believed and had to believe in its own justification.” He saw a parallel between the end of that age and the then-current crisis rippling through Germany, which “only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world imagine the same thing. If it believed in its own essence, would it seek refuge in hypocrisy and [the plausible but fallacious arguments of] sophism?” The very same question can be asked of the Jehovah's Witness belief system.

In Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) contended that “in the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration.” That statement doesn't go far enough. The entire world revolves around the polite rituals of mutual deception, and Jehovah's Witnesses are no exception. Unfortunately, their refusal to acknowledge that fact makes them a laughingstock among pharisees, the butt of a self-inflicted, cynical joke.

This isn't to say that the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses will disappear any time soon, imploding under the weight of their falsehoods. Obsolete religions are like uranium: they can have an astonishingly long half-life. Sustained by delusion and falsehood, they are just as toxic.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Check Out My New Blog: A Year of Sundays

For the first couple of years after I left the Jehovah's Witnesses, my spiritual life was a gradual unpeeling of the layers of belief that kept me in the religion. One day I was shedding my reverence for the governing Body and the next I was realizing that I would one day die. Along the way, I tried a church or two, but my efforts to explore other beliefs were haphazard at best.

Then along came Amanda P. Westmont.

Herself a lifelong church-phobic agnostic (her father is a former Christian Scientist), Amanda was fascinated by my story as an ex-Witness. That, in addition to her own quest, inspired Amanda to go on a church tour. One thing led to another, and we decided to write about our journey. Next thing you know, it became a blog. It's called yearofsundays.com and you really should check it out.

Each Sunday for the next year, Amanda and I will visit a different church. One week it may be a variety of Christianity, while the next it might be Buddhist, Mormon, Muslim, Unitarian or Church of the Subgenius. After our visit, we will write about our experience as if it were a restaurant or movie review. The point isn't to evaluate theology or doctrine—frankly, we couldn't care less about that. We'll be writing about the experience itself.

Since we're both the kind of impious delinquents who get our thrills pissing people off, this blog won't be for the religiously faint of heart. If you're a believer, you might want to slip on a pair of steel toed boots before visiting our page. I admit that I may have issues with religion in general. So accept my apologies in advance for any snark, sarcasm, cynicism or otherwise bitter remarks. Hey, if you were forbidden to masturbate for 30 years, you'd get a little edgy too.

But that's not to say we don't have serious intent.

We write our reviews with one criterion in mind. Regarding humankind's amazing variety of music, Duke Ellington famously said, “if it sounds good, it is good.” That's the benchmark we will use to evaluate every religious services we attend. You're invited to agree, to disagree, or, if you really don't like what we write, to start your own blog. Comments are always accepted and unfiltered. Better yet, if you have a church in mind that we should visit, drop me a line in the comments section here or at A Year of Sundays and we'll try to work it into the schedule.

Just to show you how serious we are, we even wrote a manifesto:


Because it’s fun.

Because Margarita Monday was already taken.

Because Joel thinks Amanda looks cute in her Sunday Go To Church dress.

Because we think it might be good for the kids.

Because everybody says they’re going to do it but nobody ever does.

Because there are worse ways to nurse a hangover.

Because, for Joel, it feels oddly naughty.

But for Amanda, it feels oddly nice.

Because, though we suspect that God is dead, we still like to hedge our bets.

Because we thought that if we could actually get through 50 posts, we could write a book.

Because sometimes you need a break from sex and happy hour.

Because we made a pact that if we break up, we’ll still write this damn thing.

Because Amanda needs a reason to buy old lady hats.

Because, frankly, we’re a little jealous of the people who believe.

Because Baptists can’t have all the fun, Buddhists can’t have all the peace, Jews can’t have all the guilt, Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t all the apocalypse fantasies and Catholics can’t have all the cute altar boys.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why I love the Jehovah's Witnesses

According to unofficial Watchtower historian Russ Kurzen, God chose to put his earthly organization in New York then the center of the world to be a light to all nations. Maybe. But I think they stayed for the posh city view.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” --James Baldwin

It's easy to take a jaundiced look at one's years spent as a Jehovah's Witness – and I often do. But there's also a trunkful of great memories too, and I refuse to give them up, because to do so would entail denying huge swaths of the things that make me me. I'd like to talk about the love I feel for the Organization.

Funny as it may seem, I actually enjoyed going door to door, challenging the beliefs of others – and laying my own convictions on the line. For a while, my territory included the Reed College area, whose hypersmart students – a.k.a. Reedies – kicked my intellectual ass every Saturday morning. Most Witnesses hated working that area, but I loved it. After all, I possessed something unassailable – the Truth (or so I thought). Their relentless debates forced me to take a rigorous approach to my personal Bible study. At first, it made me a better pioneer. Eventually, it made me a halfway decent “apostate.”

Another great memory. Walking into the Tacoma Dome on Friday morning, Day One of the District Convention, and feeling engulfed by the love of 8,000 other like-minded people. Those conventions were a three-day high for me and even though I knew that soon enough I'd return to my endless cycle of whacking the Soprano and guilting myself for it, by the time the Sunday afternoon closing remarks rolled around, I could do nothing but savor the final moments of what seemed to be a spiritual paradise. Yes, I cried during the final song and applauded like a spastic gibbon when it was all over. I know how cult indoctrination retreats work, and maybe I was a victim of that. But the good feelings I experienced then were very real, and I feel no need to tag them with the graffiti of jaded hindsight.

One specific convention memory. Okay, make that two:

1) District Convention, July, 1983. Walking with my stepfather along the perimeter of Oregon State University's Gill Coliseum, headed to our Food Service table and munching a Muff-N-Egg, unwrapping the tin foil as we go along. We'd left the rest of the family behind and it was just us two, missing most of the program, attending the convention as workers. Not avid outdoorsy types, we called these working vacations our “annual fishing trip.”

2) Same place, the following year. Working the Food Service table again, handing a plastic carton of Swiss Miss vanilla pudding to Sandi Everly. After stalking her that day with a pair of binoculars and a pizza-faced chaperon at my side, I see her up close for the first time, framed in a simple blue cotton dress, her blonde hair pulled back into a French braid; a girl from Eastern Oregon whose sky-blue eyes, like heliotropic sunflowers, always seem to seek the horizon. If you and I happen to be in the Mid-Willamette Valley and it's getting to the end of a perfectly clear summer's day and you see me lost in thought, scanning the distant Cascade Mountain Range, no matter how much I love you, you'll know who I'm thinking of.

Like most people raised in the Witness world, I didn't go to college. For me, Bethel service approximated the experience (minus the education). As a young man in New York City, it was my first taste of life away from home. That's where I had my first drunk experience: thanks to (last I heard) missionary Jeff Taylor, I can't tolerate vodka in anything more potent than fancy spaghetti sauce. In the City, you can be poor as I, like most Bethelites, was and still have a rich experience – if you're getting three square meals and have a roof over your head. And let's get real – that roof happened to be in hoity-toity Brooklyn Heights. My room at The Towers hotel had an unobstructed 180-degree view of the East River and Lower Manhattan's financial district. Circuit Overseer Keith Kelley once complained to me that while he and his wife, with their combined 60 years of service, had to live in a travel trailer, punks like me got to live in nob hill luxury.

Hey Keith, guess what? I also lived across the street from Norman fucking Mailer.

The Bossert Hotel, once known as the Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn. My room was on the 10th floor, fourth balcony from the left. Lavish, yes, but I called it home for a while.

Memory montage: Getting lost in Manhattan and discovering John & Yoko's Dakota apartments or just lolling around Central Park with friends like Jon Courson, Brian McCristall, Tim Norvell, Dave Schafer (now a "helper to the Governing Body" – GO DAVE (I guess)!), Paulo Flor, Joel Stangeland, Joel Sommers, Joel Sidoti and a bunch of other Bethelites named Joel. Or with blonde-headed Wayne Barber, tiptoeing our way through the projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant while residents jeered at us from the windows, yelling, "You boys are lost in the soup!" Some of these guys are still at Bethel, some are gone, and a few have left the Witnesses altogether.

My crew on the building 3, floor 4 burst binder. That's me on the far left, behind the multiracial gay couple.

As a Bethel tour guide, I got to meet Witnesses from all over the world, most of whom had scrimped and saved in order to make the pilgrimage to Headquarters. As I showed them along the preternaturally shiny factory floors and multimillion-dollar printing presses humming theocratically along, I could see the pride in their faces as they saw what their hard-earned contribution dollars were accomplishing. I felt it was an honor to tour them around then – and I still feel that way. Sure, there's plenty to disagree with in the Watchtower, but who am I to begrudge these people their stake in the only thing that gives their life meaning? That would be like refusing a dying drunk his bottle.

Stella and her daughters Martha and Mary, a.k.a. the Triplets of Brooklynville. I spent every Thursday at their Park Slope house for book study. Their spare bedroom became my base camp for weekends away from Bethel.

When I heard that the Brooklyn properties were going up for sale, my heart broke a little. Charles T. Russell moved the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society up there in 1909. There's a rich legacy of religious history bound up in those old brownstones and grand hotels. It's a shame that they would cash out and walk away from all that. The Society's coffers must really be hurting.* If that's the case, we might be witnessing the decline of a unique 19th century millennialist Bible society. I, for one, hope they don't disappear completely. To tell the truth, I'd miss them.

Of course, there's more to this trip down memory lane than just that. Gradually, things got ugly until it was time to leave the Witnesses behind or die trying. Still, I love the years I spent in the Organization like I loved high school. They were some of the best years of my life and wild horses of the Apocalypse couldn't drag me back.

*Since 2006, hundreds of U.S. Bethelites have been returned to the field.