The Shunned Speak Out
There are approximately 8.3 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, and they evangelize in 240 locations around the globe.
Jehovah’s Witness don’t don a particular style of dress or live in cordoned communities. In the U.S., they are almost equally racially and ethnically mixed among whites, African Americans, and Latinos. Only the well-known rules of the religion-- no holidays, including birthdays, Christmas, and Easter; no saluting the flag; or accepting blood transfusions-- differentiate them. They are insulated, however, by lifestyle. The governing body of seven men who disseminate rules and develop doctrine, warns members to limit association with non-Witnesses, including family members.
A person usually gets involved after a Jehovah’s Witness offers one of their publications and a free home Bible study course. After the person accepts and begins to attend meetings, they are eligible to begin evangelizing. If the publisher fulfills the hourly requirement and attends all meetings, she is allowed to be baptized. Baptism is a lifelong commitment to the tenets of service. An infringement of the rules could result in removal and shunning.
Besides this mode of conversion, about a third of Jehovah’s Witnesses are indoctrinated as children of JW members, known as being "born in."
Members are required to attend weekly meetings, to study the Bible and assigned publications, and to evangelize actively among friends, neighbors, and strangers, according to David Voas, a sociologist of religion at the University College London. The weekly time commitment is around 10 hours for the average Jehovah’s Witness.
The Witnesses teach that heaven is only for 144,000 people. At death, most people will lie in their graves for eternity. There is no hell other than soil and dirt. At a future unknown date, God will destroy non-believers and the earth will be restored to the paradise Adam and Eve lost in the book of Genesis.
Andrea Rota, a professor in the sociology of religion at The University of Bern in Switzerland whose research focuses on Jehovah’s Witnesses, does not like to use the term "controlling" when discussing the influence the organization exerts on members’ lives.
"When you say control, it negates the fact that many Witnesses choose to stay and are quite happy with the sect," he said. Rota said that there are Jehovah’s Witnesses who practice while maintaining a sense of freedom to do as they choose in the privacy of their homes, even if their actions violate religious rules.
"I know Jehovah’s Witnesses who are faithful, but they may choose to watch an "R" rated movie at home, but they won’t talk about it with other Witnesses," Rota said.
A 25-year-old Jehovah’s Witness from South Carolina who chose to remain anonymous agreed. "You just do what you have to do. I don’t think having a tattoo is wrong, but I’d cover it when I go to the [Kingdom] Hall," she said.
The organization may mandate that family members and friends cut off communication, but members sometimes choose to speak to disfellowshipped or disassociated loved ones anyway.
But the choice is complicated. The organization tells members that doing so undermines punishment or that they may be punished for communicating with nonbelievers. Sometimes, feeling too conflicted, members suddenly withdraw communication even after years of contact with a former members.
Former Jehovah’s Witnesses have carved out networks in the ground of recovery. The underway is illuminated with insider jokes, information on current doctrine changes, and encouragement for shunned former members. The shared stories of milestones juxtapose old visions of Armageddon on the horizon.
One chilly fall day in a suburb of Boston, Karen Wilson hosted a workshop for victims of spiritual abuse (her term). Wilson had taped large sheets of easel paper on the walls of the meeting room adjoined to a church where the workshop was held. The sheets had information on the ways religious groups control members and blank spaces for participants to write in their experiences.
"Recovery is a process. It happens bit by bit," she said.
Psychologist and author Marlene Winnell coined the term religious trauma syndrome to describe "the condition experienced by people who are struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination." Her research identified cognitive, emotional, and social symptoms of the syndrome. People who experience religious trauma syndrome may experience depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, difficulty with pleasure, and loss of meaning.
The groundbreaking research on mind control by mental health counselor Steve Hassan has led to insight into how organizations control members. Hassan created an acronym, BITE, which stands for behavioral, informational, thought, and emotional control, to help identify organizational control tactics. Julia Gutsell, a criminology researcher based in Brussels, applied Hassan’s research to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The organization controls behavior by regulating relationships, among other things, says Gutsell. Information control starts during recruitment by "withholding or distorting information about the group," discouraging members from seeking outside information, and promoting peer-to-peer surveillance. Thought control is accomplished by weaving in the notion that the group possesses the ultimate truth. Finally, they establish emotional control by making members think how sinful actions "make Jehovah feel." The organization sometimes refers to members as "good-for-nothing slaves."