Jehovah’s Witnesses: going beyond the doorstep convo
How the organisation dodges responsibility for some pretty heinous behaviour
Something I didn’t expect during this pandemic was for Jehovah’s Witnesses to come out as pro-vax.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are not opposed to vaccination. We view vaccination as a personal decision for each Christian to make. Thus far 4,902 (99 percent) of the 4,926 at the offices of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York State are fully vaccinated.
Jehovah’s Witnesses who choose to get vaccinated view their decision to be consistent with their “love of neighbor” and their belief in the sanctity of life, two bedrock Christian principles.
Jehovah’s Witnesses seek quality medical care and appreciate the many advancements of medical science to reduce the risk of serious illness.
If only Christian megachurches followed their lead!
But as the golden rule goes in life, with the good times comes the bad — and a recent global video convention for Jehovah’s Witnesses really highlighted the bad. The video series from leader David Splane instructed his followers to be suspicious of all negative reports by former members, media, and the government.
He also explains why settling cases out of court doesn’t connote guilt. Yikes.
This is very, very bad when you realise that since 1950 — in Australia alone — Jehovah’s Witnesses knew of 1,800 victims of child sex abuse by 1,006 alleged perpetrators.
These cases were managed internally by the church’s own leadership. None were reported to police or secular authorities.
So strap in as I hand over to a guest writer — an ex Witness who now works at a New Zealand University.
“I was a witness until I was 17 and started to fade. I couldn’t easily leave as there’s a lot of emotional manipulation. When I discovered it was all a lie, I was depressed for many years. I’m okay now.”
He found Splane’s recent message disturbing — but that it also offered an insight into how this religion functions. Let’s dive in.
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Jehovah’s Witnesses: going beyond the doorstep conversation
Jehovah’s Witnesses are not regularly in the news. When they are, it is often because they are congregating for a large convention, or more recently, when an article describes their modified preaching work because of the pandemic. Aside from knocking on your door, these articles provide the most everyday glimpse into the religion.
These articles, however, are infrequent and brief. You would be forgiven for knowing very little about the religion and its doctrine. In popular media, Witnesses are typically door-knockers and nothing more.
I recall the Black Books episode where Bernard enthusiastically invites them inside to talk about the Bible to procrastinate from doing his taxes. The preachers confess that they have never been invited inside before and are unsure what to do next.
If you went to school with a Jehovah’s Witness, you might recall the lack of Christmas, birthday, or Easter celebrations; as an educator you might have asked a Witness student to leave the classroom during sex education; or as a doctor you might be aware of their rejection of blood transfusions.
“Do they believe in Jesus?” “Are they a cult?” are common questions: I took them from the FAQs of their own website, jw.org.
(Yes, they believe in Jesus. No, they are “Christians who do [their] best to follow the example set by Jesus Christ”, but no cult self-identifies as a cult anyway).
There is little opportunity to know much about the religion if you haven't gone beyond the doorstep conversation. Recently, however, this has changed.
The organisation’s handling of child sex abuse is attracting attention from the media, the legal system, and the public. And — to a certain extent — Witnesses who were unaware of the abuse. The Witnesses’ mishandling of child sex abuse is the consequence of many failures in organisational policy.
They adhere to a “two-witness rule”, whereby two people are needed to witness a crime before the elders investigate, an instance incredibly unlikely in cases of child sex abuse. Victims were also expected to make their allegation in the presence of their alleged abuser. The elders also won’t report a crime to secular authorities unless bound by law to do so.
It’s clear the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ safeguarding of children is woefully inadequate.
This was made evident in 2015 when Australia launched a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Commission reported that the organisation’s “policies and practices are, by and large, wholly inappropriate and unsuitable for application in cases of child sexual abuse.”
The enquiry revealed that since 1950 — in Australia alone — Jehovah’s Witnesses knew of 1,800 victims of child sex abuse by 1,006 alleged perpetrators.
These cases were managed internally by the church’s own leadership. None were reported to police or secular authorities.
This issue is not geographically isolated.
Where the Jehovah’s Witnesses are consistent in dress and doctrine, they are also consistent in policy — a top-down structure directed by the religion’s Governing Body, a ruling council of eight men.
New Zealand media has covered some of these institutional failings. Writing for Spinoff in 2018, Amy Parsons-King asserts that the situation in New Zealand “point[s] to a culture of discouraging victims from going to secular authorities and an aversion to involving Police, in an echo of the findings across the Tasman.” Sadly, a failure to notify authorities permits abusers to continue their offending.
Much of this abuse is historical, but evidence is becoming harder to gather due to the organisation’s reluctance to assist the police and courts. The religion’s leadership would rather a pedophile continue unrestrained rather than “bring reproach on Jehovah’s name.” As in, if they admit there are pedophiles, then it might make the church look bad. The organisation’s reputation supersedes justice.
But it’s already bad. A Radio New Zealand report of New Zealand’s own Royal Commission states that church elders have been told to destroy documents, and survivors fear this will lead to the cover up of cases. In 2019 in the United States, former elder Mark O’Donnell uncovered a secret database of child abuse — thousands of cases unreported to police.
For a religion largely out of the spotlight, this negative attention toward its practices has caused the organisation’s leadership to address the issue, not with apology or policy reform, but by pretending it doesn’t exist.
David Splane’s big talk
This brings us to David Splane’s recent talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses, which I will analyse in three parts: apostasy, the media, and the government.
In examining Splane’s talk, we can see how the organisation controls information, and how this control affects members’ knowledge of their religion’s failings, and simultaneously dismisses the voices of victims of abuse who seek justice.
Part 1: Apostasy
Splane begins by talking about apostasy, and does so for a while. But the key with this video is what goes unsaid — as Splane’s rant on apostasy is tactical, building a foundation to sow suspicion against all criticism.
Apostasy is defined by Jehovah’s Witnesses as “abandoning or deserting the worship and service of God.” They are “mentally diseased”. Apostates can be those who have left the religion, or anyone who rejects the organisation in some way.
It is important to understand Splane’s description of apostasy:
“[L]et’s talk about apostasy, and we’ll call it spiritual poison. Now, think about poison. What’s the best way to avoid being poisoned? Well, we have to recognize poison when we see it, and then avoid it.”
In an age where information of any quality is easily accessible, this concern is justified. But it’s clear the religion’s leaders are concerned how outside information might affect obedient Witnesses. Just as a conspiracy theorist can find similarly minded folks online, so too can Witnesses easily find information that’s inconsistent with their doctrine, something Splane is aware of:
“We receive letters at times from brothers and sisters who are troubled by something they saw on a web page, an accusation, a rumor about the Society, or about the organization. And the problem is, they had no idea that apostates were behind it… they often pose as sincere Witnesses who just have questions or concerns. And some who aren’t really apostates can cause just as much trouble as the apostates do by their negative talk and criticism.”
The understanding of apostasy here is stretched, as the actions of people “who aren’t really apostates” — negative talk and criticism — are viewed as apostates just the same. The threat is not apostates, nor even criticism, but something even more dangerous: questions.
We are now given a hypothetical example of someone asking such questions on a forum:
“What did you think of last month’s broadcast? Did you really find it encouraging?” or “Do you think the brothers who write Watchtower articles are living in the real world? I wonder if they realize just how hard it is out here.”
And then a few others join in with their own negative comments. Now, you don’t know whether these individuals are apostates or just brothers and sisters who are in serious spiritual trouble. But does it matter? How does it make you feel?”
Often referred to as “spiritual food,” Witnesses regularly watch video broadcasts from the religion’s website. This is relatively new. The organisation's turn to a form of televangelism only began within the last decade. In any case, it appears personal responses to these broadcasts are not up for discussion.
These questions, referred to as “negative comments,” are worth inspection, especially since they are hardly interrogative!
“What did you think of last month’s broadcast?” This is a broad question, and is not inherently negative, only by way of tone. Its negativity stems from its open-ended nature, which permits an answer that could deviate from what the leadership prefers. It should be expected that someone might not have enjoyed last month’s broadcast.
Did you really find it encouraging? This isn’t doubtful of doctrine but instead the shared emotional response. It appears only positive responses in discussion are welcome, despite not all people finding the same video encouraging.
The question about the writers being in the “real world” is an interesting one, as it possesses some self-awareness. This is a religion that ended their 2016 convention with a video of men in tactical gear confronting Witnesses who were hiding in a bunker.
The video concludes with the Witnesses sitting on a beach, eating fruit, having used their faith to defeat Satan’s wicked people, non-Witnesses. Since the inception of their online broadcasts, other conventions have ended with similarly dramatic and fear-inducing videos:
It would be unfair to suggest that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not persecuted to some extent. The religion is considered “extremist” in Russia; hundreds have been arrested for practicing their faith. In Korea, many have been arrested for refusing to join the military. Despite other religions enduring worse, Witnesses believe they are the most persecuted, and that their persecution is a sign they are God’s chosen people.
The more interesting question is one oft-repeated in cults and high control groups:
How does it make you feel? Splane implies that your reaction should be based on feelings. If you’re not sure what to feel, Splane tells you: “sad, uneasy, uncomfortable.” In this religion, thinking isn’t permitted. Witnesses are told to fight against independent thinking because Satan promoted it.
If a follower has a question about doctrine — such as why Witnesses have falsely predicted the end of the world multiple times — then before discussing this with others, they must first consider how it might make another person feel. This prevents any productive biblical discussion. Members are thus coerced to toe the line, even with unexplained changes in doctrine. There is a social pressure to keep doubts private, as voicing them might attract accusations of dissent, apostasy, or “causing divisions,” which is something you could be shunned for.
On shunning, Jehovah’s Witnesses practise disfellowshipping. If a baptised member commits a sin — anything from smoking a cigarette to donating blood — a group of elders form a Judicial Committee to decide their fate.
If they are disfellowshipped, they are to have no contact with current Witnesses–this includes family. There is also no minimum age for baptism, so a child as young as ten can get baptised, get disfellowshipped, and be cut off from their family, even though they are too young to drive. This practice serves as an effective type of social, emotional, and behavioural control.
When a member does deviate, there is a temptation by some Witnesses to ‘help’ them. On this, Splane does not muddle his words:
“Staying in that forum to ‘help someone’ is like holding his hand while he drinks poison and then having some yourself so that he doesn’t have to drink alone.”
Information is not poison, but the key point is that ‘poison’ is contagious and dangerous, thus followers are taught to be immediately suspicious of any questions that might invoke doubt. He continues:
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.”
Even rather simple, broad questions are threatening. Splane mentions “causing divisions” which is vague, but also carries the severity of disfellowshipping.
Strangely, “murmuring” does as well. No one is allowed to criticise. If there is any issue, it is to be kept quiet. Dialogue is controlled by the leadership, the Governing Body the only source of true information. But again, it’s not a cult, these are people following first-century Biblical teachings...
Listening to other perspectives could “weaken our faith”. But let’s think about that. Imagine having a faith so weak that, even after years of indoctrination, it crumbles after a simple internet search or forum discussion.
But what if someone does engage with opposing views? It could be someone with a high ranking in the organisation. Splane has a response to this:
“Someone who thinks they are spiritually strong is like a weightlifter thinking he can drink poison because he’s so big.”
Rather than offer ways to verify information, Splane instead attempts to control what information can and cannot be viewed. If Jehovah’s Witnesses do indeed possess divine truth, then their beliefs should hold up to scrutiny.
It is not unreasonable for a member to be a unconvinced of Splane’s reasoning at this point, and so we are given the question:
“Wouldn’t you feel awful if negative comments you made were responsible for someone leaving the Truth?”
By conflating the feeling of guilt with viewing contrary information, Splane reasons with emotion, not facts.
Before continuing, it’s necessary to explain the phrase, “the Truth”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they have all the answers to life’s questions, and so they refer to their religion as “The Truth”. A person is either “in the Truth” or “not in the Truth”. When someone leaves the religion, they are “no longer in the Truth”. People who aren’t Witnesses are “worldly” and members shouldn’t socialise with them.
The interesting linguistic challenge with “The Truth” is the cognitive dissonance that occurs when one might question it. How can it be false if it is called The Truth? For someone in the group, grappling with this type of question is cognitive torture.
This language is fundamentalist. By constantly categorising people as “in” or “out”, a Witness is regularly reinforcing a black and white view of the world. It is us vs. them.
Things are either good or bad with no in-between. When choosing friends, they are “good associations” (Witnesses) or “bad associations” (worldly people). This dualistic view of the world is a perspective without toleration, ambiguity, or nuance. For Witnesses, there is no room for dissent–it’s all or nothing.
In navigating questions, skills like introspection and critical thinking are helpful, but this is not advised. Rather than address criticism, Splane recommends members say the following when a person raises an issue:
“We have nothing to hide. When you’re at the meetings, listen carefully to what the brothers are saying. Watch how we interact with one another. Take note of how the organization is financed. Get to know the elders and their wives. Introduce yourself to the circuit overseer and his wife when they come. Visit world headquarters or the branch. I’ll come with you. I’ll help you. And I want you to get really acquainted with the organization. And if you do, I’m sure you’ll soon realize that what these people are saying about us isn’t true.”
Whatever issue the person raises remains unaddressed. If you are interested in joining the religion and have children, then their failure to inform authorities about pedophiles is a valid concern, but you won’t be able to discuss it at all.
Splane’s speech on apostasy lays a foundation of skepticism that is only directed outward, while this same skepticism is not welcome when directed at the organisation itself. For an outsider, this reeks of insecurity.
Their latest publication demands its followers to be obedient, even when direction from the top “does not make sense”.
Following Splane’s instruction frees members from opinions that might create, or more likely, validate existing doubt.
Splane concludes by saying that “an accurate knowledge of Truth is the best defense against apostasy”. To that I say: if you have to avoid outside information so that you continue to believe what you were taught to believe, then you should, well, probably look into that.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ two most famous magazines are the Awake and Watchtower which, in light of this talk, are ironically named.
Members are instructed to be asleep as to what happens both inside and outside their religion. Watchtowers surround a prison: they are not there to see out, but to keep people inside.
David here again. It gets pretty intense, right?
Here is Part II — as Splane shares his thoughts on government officials and the media — all under the umbrella of ‘apostasy’. And, you know, dodging the whole pedophilia allegations thing.
Talk soon — and sound off in the comments below. I’m especially curious to hear from any JW’s: current or ex!