Sacrilegious press shot by Becki Whitton.
Growing up, most kids were afraid of the dark, or going to the dentist. But what about knocking on doors when you should have been in the park playing soccer with your pals? What if you knocked on the door of a school peer or worse, your teacher? Being a child of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, that kind of humiliation happened on the regular. Other real and morbid fears for me (bestowed upon me by fellow JW’s) included attacks from demons – but more on that later.
This fear-ridden and shameful existence was my main narrative for 17 years, and irritatingly, my most formative. Most people I speak to are deeply curious about what being Jehovah’s Witness entails, so I’ve taken the liberty of putting it in all in a compact FAQ list.
Is it actually a cult?
I say it is. A religious cult is defined as:
1. A group with a shared commitment to usually extreme ideology embodied in a charismatic leader.
The founder of Jehovah’s Witnesses is Charles Russell, I’m pretty sure he’s dead now but he was heralded as a legend in all of the material at the time I was there.
2. Requires a high level of commitment from its member.
Jehovahs Witnesses spend at least 10 hours a week engaging in activities; whether it’s door knocking, studying the Bible or attending meetings (sermons).
3. There is a hierarchy that separates unsuspecting supporters from the inner workings.
The hierarchy works like this from bottom to top: women must obey their husbands, and husbands are the “head of the family.” If a man in the congregation expresses an interest and is holy enough he will be elected as a ministerial servant (which is an elder in training), and then an elder after that. They call the shots in the congregation- organize stuff, offer bible counseling, lead each sermon. Then you’ve got the people who work as overseers or missionaries, and people who work in head offices – the head office in Australia is aptly named Bethel*.
*I remember going there once on a tour with my family and crying the whole time because it was such a creepy place.
4. Claims to provide answers to life’s biggest questions through its doctrine
JW literature focuses on the creation of mankind, life after death, the key to happiness, work and family life ect – Have a look at some of their classics here. That’s right, they have their own version of the bible and a devoted team in New York where they provide all of they content.
5. Use of both formal and informal systems influence and control to keep members obedient, with little tolerance for internal disagreements and outside scrutiny
If someone is assaulted within the group, the members seek to resolve it internally. The royal commission’s latest inquiry into sexual assault within the religion covers the points above, read about one case study here or the full report here. They’ve developed their own use of language as a means to control. If you’re being problematic, they won’t let you slip under the radar, they’ll schedule a meeting to reprimand you – but under the guise of wanting to help you be a better servant of god. This happened heaps when my parents got divorced, as the church try to avoid that arrangement wherever possible.
6. Seeks to directly control by separating members from others
Something that was repeated to me as a child time and time again was this mantra – “Bad associations spoil useful habits.” You cannot date let alone marry an unbeliever, after-school playdates with friends or sporting activities are frowned upon. If a former member is disfellowshipped, you can not make contact with them for fear they may contaminate your own morale, even if they are family.
7. Discourages critical thinking
The church encourage you to rely on God, and keep faith. If you are questioning something, an elder will get his trusty ole’ bible and tell you what to do. They also ran hypothetical situations at meetings once a week, to school you on how to preach and react when faced with peer pressure or thought- provoking questions. They encourage you to answer difficult questions after consulting a more educated minister who will basically help you build and follow a script.
8. Preach exclusivity
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they are the one true religion, those that worship god in other religions are practicing paganism and will not be “saved”. That’s why they’re so adamant on door knocking, because they want everyone to be saved.
Whats with their beliefs?
Unfortunately, the content of the bible hasn’t evolved with modern medicine, the justice system, or human rights. Rather, Jehovah’s Witnesses base their doctrines on those of first-century Christians, refusing certain practices because they think that the rejection of them is a form of protection.
They say no to blood transfusions because they think it will protect them from disease, and as a result thousands die each year by choice. They do however, accept vaccinations which are commonly derived from blood.
I signed one of these when I was old enough to own a wallet/bus pass. Now I donate blood every 3 months just to spite them.
No to birthdays, because this king killed someone at his birthday party once so god put a ban on it. No to Christmas, because they believe Jesus was actually born in August and no to nationalism because you can only serve the “Government of Jehovah.”
One of the funniest things about the church is that they believe in angels, demons, god, satan, and heaven – but not hell. They believe that an Armageddon-like scenario is coming pretty soon, but that only they, the true believers, will be saved. So, when you die, you’re probably not going to heaven (that’s reserved for a select 144,000 special ones.) Instead, you’re either getting resurrected to live eternal life on a paradise earth (ETA TBC) or staying dead.
Sometimes people ask me where satan and the demons live if god and the angels get to hang in heaven, basically the story is that the bad dudes walk among us. Pretty good fear-mongering tactic if you ask me.
An actual pic from their literature depicting the promised paradise. That’s right, we can be friends with lions and wolves in the paradise earth ‘cos they’re gonna go vegan.
Though they state they are not superstitious, they believe in demons to the extent that they would not have used items in their homes for fear of objects being possessed by previous owners and therefore inadvertently opening the door to these beings. If you suspected you were being attacked by one, just say god’s name and the dudes would go runnin’. Almost every person in the congregation had their own variation of a ghost story.
Do they actually make you door knock?
They don’t physically make you do it, but peer pressure is pretty strong within the cult. The whole idea is that they door-knock out of love and sympathy to deliver everyone from evil, so what does that say about you as a worshiper if you don’t?
How did you get out?
When I was 4 years old I was chatting to my mum, and mentioned that I didn’t think god was real. I got smacked real bad that day, and that always stuck with me. When I got smacked for other stuff I could at least understand that it was because I probably punched my sister in the gut and it physically hurt her – but this incident was an anomaly. The response was physical alone rather than logical, so I always believed through fear and guilt alone, instead of faith and love. I think I was always questioning in the background. I don’t blame my mother in that regard, because she probably didn’t have enough critical thinking going on at that time herself to deal with such a speculative statement.
It’s pretty hard to leave because Elders and members of the community all tag-team in calling to “check in” and offer to do Jehovah’s Witnessey Stuff with you. I was able to stop receiving those calls because my mum had a very bad time with them and they knew they were in the wrong, so only the really brave (deluded) ones ended up calling.
Education was the nail on the head for me, there was pressure mainly from my grandparents to finish school at the end of year 10, get a job in a bank, get married and become a pioneer (which is like a full-time door-knocker). I have a pretty good friend who was able to turn on my critical thinking. They basically talked me through how logically the idea of doing those things was ludicrous. So I finished year 12, got drunk a bunch of times, got a boyfriend. In my mind I had set myself free.
What does your family think, seeing as it’s kind of a family affair?
Lucky for me, my dad escaped when I was a kid, and my mum fled about 10 years after, so I still talk to them. Both of my parents actually had horrible experiences leaving the cult; people slandered them both to my face, manipulated and gaslit them, but that’s a whole other story. So, a heavy sigh of relief was exhaled all round. The other part of the family that remains in the church has always tried to level with me and never quite rejected me as they should have, but it seems to be on the proviso that they’re trying to get me back in – lol.
Do they ever poach people from the real world?
Pretty much all believers I knew in my time were born into it, including my sisters and my own parents. The only people who weren’t were pretty old and found this religion when it was ~cool~. Other people I saw come in during my time were those who needed support. These were people who were new to the country, single parents, people in mourning, ex-criminals etc. The community can be great in this way, but often there is a compromise involved and something must be returned.
So are you an atheist now?
Hard to say. I don’t have a problem with spirituality because that’s a personal thing, but I do have a problem with organized religion especially where indoctrination of children is concerned.
How do you recover from a situation like that?
The idea that you are a sinner, and that you should be so lucky to receive love and salvation from god plagued me for a long time. I always thought critical thinking would take the longest to cultivate, but it turns out that self-worth takes a lot longer, and I realise now that that’s the cults most powerful weapon.
I did the rebellious thing and gave in to the narrative that I was a bad person, and once I lived that I began to unpack and find an identity with all my new found free- time. I was already playing two contradictory characters to survive in both worlds, so all I had to do was weed out the Christian girl chunks. Lucky for me, I’ve got some A+ friends and counselors around me to talk to when old issues reincarnate in a new form.