Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society

The JWs: Genuine, kitschy but not authentic

By 1985 I had been studying the Jehovah’s Witnesses intermittently for over five years. This study had included visits to the local Kingdom Hall, and the JW assemblies at Norwich City football ground, along with talks and correspondence with Kingdom Hall members. I can say straight away that all I saw left me with the overwhelming impression of a culture that reeked of flawed human motivation. I saw a repertoire of unconscious and self-inflicted tricks exploiting the human vulnerability for soaking up typical conceits and self-deceits: In particular a “swallow whole and digest slowly” world view was served up on an enticing plate. Like so many other religious package deals this included promises of banishing ambiguity with spiritual authority and of being part of a spiritual elite who have turned their back on the cold evil outside world and are now moving in the warmth and security of a caring off-the-peg-community. That community is overseen by a presiding patriarchy claiming to be in touch with absolute Truth. All one has to do in return is to sell up (figuratively speaking, but sometimes literally as well) and let that patriarchal spiritual authority do all your thinking for you. All you need think about is trying to understand the message proffered and to become a proficient single minded salesperson of the sect.  Basically it’s the same old, same old story repeated again and again by every Christian sect/cult between here and Salt Lake City. All these cult people no doubt mean well, but in the final analysis it’s the usual story of epistemically challenged humanity throwing up their hands, abdicating epistemic responsibility and seeking the security of clear cut, definitive and authoritative answers; and of course there’s no shortage of egotistical religionists (sometimes boarder line mentally ill) who claim to have those answers and will loudly pronounce everyone else to be fundamentally wrong! These religionists offer an all-or-nothing faith package none of which is negotiable. Any persistent attempt to negotiate any part of it is taken as a sign of disobedience to the Almighty himself. One is required to accept the whole package without argument or else be damned!

It was in 1985 that I came across Raymond Franz’ book “Crisis of Conscience”, a book published in 1983. Franz was onetime governing body member of the Watchtower publishing organisation. It is this organisation that provides the JW Kingdom Halls with detailed instructions about their observance of belief and practice. Franz’ book tells the story of his disillusionment with this organisation and his eventual break with it. As with all religious cults that try to envelop their members lives so totally, breaking with them can be a painful  business as Franz’ book confirms. I can recommend this book to all cult watchers.

In order to capture what I myself had got from the book in 1985 I typed up a five page summary of my personal take-home lessons. This article is now in computer readable format, and can be downloaded from here.

.  It picks up on some general characteristics that as it turns out are common to all cults/sects and even, I’m bound to add, characteristics that can be found (albeit in a less pronounced precursory form) amongst fundamentalists and perhaps even some moderate evangelical Christians.

I have to admit that having been a long time watcher of Christianity in its cult forms I find the whole phenomenon disturbing; in fact I’m reminded of the sinister legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. That story probably has a basis in some real event, an event which prompted a Hamlin town chronicler to record in 1384 the macabre entry: “It is a 100 years since our children left”; if as some have suggested this was a reference to the Children’s Crusade it is all the more appropriate to my case*. The idea behind the Pied Piper legend is that of some kind of spell being worked to make people leave their homes apparently voluntarily. But with today’s communications secrets are difficult to keep even in the control freak atmosphere of a cult and so the spell that these cults work on their members can be scrutinised and analysed. I think it important to emphasise the metaphor of a “spell”; for I believe it is wrong to accuse cult members of lying as they appear to have been seduced by a self-deceit.

My article has four sections that, as I have subsequently learned, describe features common to other cults and which are part of the cult dynamic. So here then is a brief summary of those sections which are admirably exemplified by the JW Kingdom halls and their controlling publishing organisation, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

Section 1: Unaccountable authority: The sect leaders think of themselves as stewards of an institutional authority that should not to be gainsaid.
Section 2: The clash with reality: The account that the cult provides of the world around them often does not match up well against reality itself. In the case of the Watchtower this is seen in the repeated failure of their anticipated end time history to correspond with real events. (Since writing my article in 1985 I note that the Watchtower has given up on its prediction that “the end of this system of things” would come within one generation of 1914)
Section 3: Spiritual spin: The leaders have to find a way to account for the intellectual dissonance that may result of their failure. They therefore engage in what today we might call “spiritual spin”, that is, they give the story a spin that in the first instance attempts to explain the failure away. After that they rely on silence and short memories; new recruits are not informed of the failures since nobody talks about them.
Section 4: Character defamation. The sect/cult believes that world beyond their community is depraved and in particular those who take a robust stand against their observances are thought of as especially depraved. It is therefore a very natural part of the sect/cult mind-set to believe that those who attack them must do so because they are sold-out to the darkness of evil and are on the wrong side of the Almighty. They therefore feel entirely justified in abusing detractors by accusing them of heinous sin. For people outside of the cult this equivalent of name calling may be just water off a duck’s back, but for members  who are held thrall to the cult spell and whose lives have been so thoroughly socially immersed in the cult this is a real threat: It provides a frightening example of what will happen to you if you contradict the cult authorities; one is cast into the outer darkness, or "hell" if you like. This moral abuse, I feel, is an important part of the cult dynamic. For cults that don’t have economic control over their subjects this social control is the main means of coercion; one is effectively “burnt” with words of moral disapprobation, the equivalent of the heretic’s pyre! In this connection, whenever I approached JWs about Raymond Franz I found that they automatically concluded he was a sinner and liar. The upshot was that this completely blocked even so much as a cursory examination of the evidence. So let’s be clear: Unless cult members proactively seek you out there is probably little point in you trying to “de-convert” them: To them you are guilty until proved innocent. If they do seek you out it may be a sign they are already having doubts. So let them take the initiative first, but be ready for them when they come your way.

Postscript: At the time I was studying the WT and other cults I was moving in evangelical circles. What began to disturb me in those early days of my faith was that the sort of thing I was seeing amongst the JWs and these cults I also found, albeit in milder form, in some of the stronger versions of evangelicalism and especially in evangelicalism’s fundamentalist communities. For example, I note that AiG supremo Ken Ham is very much into 4 above… those who disagree with him he will paint as morally flawed compromisers. But that is another (long) story.

Relevant Link:

* If 1284 is the date when the Children of Hamlin left, then this is actually too late for the Children's crusade story which is dated circa 1212. Another theory is that the Children were lost to "Dancing Mania", a social phenomenon that occurred in mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries (according to Wiki). As I read up on the subject it is clear that once again we are ham-strung by epistemological limitations.

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