Are The Jehovah's Witnesses A Cult?
What to do when people use religion as an excuse for homophobia
Over 6 billion people in the world believe in god.
That is over 6 billion people with hope, endless love and compassion in their hearts, and somebody to always rely on when they need a little help, right?
Well, that probably is true, if you think of religion favourably. If you're one of the 980 million who are agnostic, atheist or 'secular non-religious' then it is possible that you then see the world being very, very full of misled, crazed people who have been raised to believe in some incredibly large untruths.
Which of the two groups are you?
Me? I am neither. I count myself as one of the many people who I like to call 'chip on their shoulder about religion-ists'. Yes, I admit it, I have a rather large chip on my shoulder about religion, because of my upbringing.
You see, I was raised a Jehovah's Witness…
You might think that, being raised as a member of such a strict religious movement that I would be a devout religious person now, but, that isn't how it has turned out, quite the opposite in fact...
First things first, what is a Jehovah's Witness?
A Jehovah's Witness is somebody who believes that God (whose name is Jehovah) is the only true god, and his only creation is Jesus. Jehovah's Witnesses strongly follow the bible and believe it to be historically accurate. They believe themselves to be living in the world, but as separate to non-believers. They will not celebrate Christmas, Easter or other holidays because they believe those occasions are massively affected by paganism and other religions. The movement strongly believes in Armageddon (which they believe is imminent) where the earth will be cleansed and end in its current form, only to become the 'kingdom of paradise' where all will live in harmony and everything wrong with the earth will be over. Of course, only Jehovah's Witnesses will make it to paradise.
There is a lot more to the movement but, that is JW in a nutshell.
So, that is the housekeeping taken care of. Now I can tell you why I have a chip on my shoulder and why I, am so turned off to religion, I struggle to connect with anybody who has a religious belief. Why I, am still so affected by my JW childhood, I live in fear of many different things.
Before I popped into the world, Mum was with her first husband and they had my two sisters before the relationship broke down. Mum was single for a time, before my JW Dad came along. Mum always sort of sided with Dad, and allowed him to express his religious beliefs freely, including a time, my sister tells me, where a fully decorated Christmas tree got chucked out of the house.
My sister has her own story to tell, so this is just a bit of a backstory to my childhood.
I came along shortly after my parents got together and, I think Dad dipped in and out of being a JW. But I know for a time, he was obsessed. We had Watchtower magazines (the JW magazine they hand out to spread the good word) piled up to every ceiling. Mum and Dad had countless arguments about his obsession.
I remember going to the Kingdom Hall (JW church) regularly when I was about 6 or 7? I and the other JW kids would run off playing because services were really long. That was the most fun I remember, being naughty and playing games in the toilet before we got caught and made to sit in our seats again for more endless ramblings I didn't understand.
Doing your JW duty wasn't limited to the Kingdom Hall though.
We once went to a JW convention at a football ground, that was probably the time I remember being scared first.
There were so many grown men and women aggressively shouting down the microphone about how the world is going to end. And the world ending, was quite the theme, in my childhood.
Sometimes the rains would fall heavily and back then the roads near us didn't have proper drainage so the water would rise on the roads quickly. Dad would run around with a crazed face, screaming that it was Armageddon. Mum shouting at him to stop because he was scaring me.
It was relentless.
This relentless obsession with the world ending soon.
He never ever took me to bed, or read me stories and the one time my mum persuaded him to take his daughter to bed, he read me a story about the devil and his part in Armageddon, which terrified me. As it would any small child.
I was so full of fear I even used to stare out of the window of my room and see the distant orange street lights and have panic attacks thinking it was the world ending when in reality, what was actually happening was me living in an endless world of fear.
Then there was the door knocking. So many weekends I had to spend a morning knocking on doors spreading the 'good word' with my Dad who spent the whole time trying to get me to be the one to make the pitch at the next house who opened up.
I never wanted to because I was a little kid, who was shy and funnily enough didn't understand why I should knock on a stranger's door and start talking about god. It wasn't something I was taught to do at school, or that other kids did.
He would always dress in a full suit and shave and make sure he looked good. He would start his pitch with 'Have you heard the good news' and if they listened and didn't slam the door in our faces, he would carry on and eventually pass on a watchtower or three.
The worst was when old frail ladies would answer the door having worked through their frailty to answer the door, only to wish they never had. Or the door would open up to children (god forbid they were from my school) just like me who would look at me funny, and then Dad would be all nice and ask to speak to an adult who would then proceed to get the kids out of the way, not wanting to have to bother explaining who those 'strange people' were that just knocked on the door.
There were also study groups we had to go to, which were very boring. They were run by the Elders who were like the leaders of the local church. We had to dress up smartly for those as well, and they dragged on for hours.
I almost forgot about the exclusion parts. JW kids aren't allowed in assemblies with other kids because of the hymns and modern day preachings. For the whole assembly you would sit with other JW kids in a separate room and do colouring or something. Then face endless questions from other kids about why you missed assembly, and the best answer was 'because we aren't allowed'.
Christmas and Easter were also huge exclusion occasions. We would always have Christmas as far as I can remember, but most of them Dad just wouldn't be involved. I remember once in the car desperately saying to Dad, well if you can't do Christmas what about Boxing Day? We could call it 'Day after Christmas Day' so you can still celebrate. I just wanted him to be a normal Dad on those days so much. But he just got more and more angry until my Mum had to tell me to leave it alone. Which leads me on to one of the biggest issues I had, and the reason I think religion never stuck.
I never knew why I had to go knocking on doors, attending study groups or conventions. I never got any answers as to why Dad was angry at Christmas, and wouldn't be involved.
The best I got was 'whilst you are under my roof, you are a Jehovah's Witness'. Or even better 'because I said so'. I never knew about my relationship with Jehovah or why I should believe. I never had that explained to me. So from a child's perspective, the whole JW thing was just something that took things from me, and made me experience bad things.
Where was my Mum in all this you might wonder. Well, her and Dad would argue almost constantly about it all, but she still allowed it to happen, and allowed many things to happen, that shouldn't have happened… But eventually I think she gave an ultimatum and so Dad had to keep his religion to himself, which eventually caused his relations with the church to crumble because you're meant to 'disfellow' (push out) anybody who isn't a believer, even if they are your family. So I guess because he didn't, he got shunned. Even so, Christmases were never a happy day of celebrations, but I can't say for sure that is because of the JW part had played in our lives previously.
For me, being raised a Jehovah's Witness meant being raised in total fear. Worrying all the time about the world ending for one reason or another. It also meant I was forced to do things, I didn't want to do, repeatedly, like harassing strangers when all I wanted to be doing was spending quality time with my Dad, or reading the bible when I only wanted to be reading Enid Blyton books. I missed out on a ton. I missed out on my Dad. Dad wasn't present or attentive or loving when I was a kid. Dad gave all his love to his JW brothers and sisters (what they call each other) to his favourite elders, to other JW families, but not to his own.
It was only through meeting two particular devoutly religious people later in life that I realised how my upbringing could have had me turn out. I met a Mormon at college who was so excited to marry her husband and get married in the special Mormon church. She was so in love with her faith. She was so happy to be a Mormon and to go into adulthood as a Mormon. I could ask her questions about it and she would be happy to answer. She would wear modest clothing, and proudly at that. She knew why she had to wear it, and was happy to serve her god. That was my first experience of somebody being brought up religious and absolutely loving it. My second experience was at university. A very special guy called Dave was in my classes and, he was a devout Christian. The type who didn't have sex before marriage. He would happily explain all of his Christian things to me, explaining everything in an enthusiastic and happy way. He was so warm towards others and, he gave me an explanation about religious sacrifice I will never forget. I said to him do you believe that I, a non-religious person am bad or should be punished for having sex before marriage? He smiled warmly as he always did and said to me, no, not at all, I just love you as my friend and I wish you could experience the warmth and love god gives me for marrying first. I want you to have that same feeling, that same happiness. It was such a lovely explanation, I have never forgotten it, or him. He's still married to the person he married at 21, and has children and the same happy face he always did. Those two people taught me that religion can be a joy, no need for fear or exclusion. I wondered if I would be religious still now had I been brought up with that same lovely religious sunshine they seemed to carry around with them.
Now, as an adult, I remain non-religious. I love engaging in chatter about religion and I remain open minded, but, I certainly want to run if I meet anybody religious. I particularly get a pang of worry and sadness in my heart if they are raising their children to believe in whichever god they have chosen to follow. I worry for those children. I worry they might experience all the complex feelings I should never have had to feel as a child.
I continue to discover repressed memories, new truths and in some cases, horrors about my, and my sisters childhoods that cause me to believe that the issue lays in part with the parenting, and in part with this particular religion. I continue to struggle with a fear of the world ending and other deeply ingrained anxieties that were placed years ago. I know others do too, there's even a #exjw hashtag, and ex JW meetups across the UK. The Jehovah's Witness movement has even been described as a cult. It has the hallmarks of one but, that doesn't make every JW family bad, or every JW person bad. It definitely didn't help my Dad find the belonging he was so clearly after, but perhaps that was on him, not the JW movement.
After this, I ask you sincerely and strongly, that if you are religious and choose to raise your kids to follow that same religion, listen to them. Answer their questions honestly and let them explore your faith. Let them understand, and come to their own conclusions. But mostly, let them have a childhood. Let them have you, Mum and Dad, and all the love you have to give, because they really need it, more than they need god.
Anneka is a freelance writer of 3 years, passionate about animal rights, travel, photography and spreading kindness. She can usually be found either buried deep in a laptop with a Starbucks on hand, or shooting pictures at the local nature reserve taking some time out.
Follow Anneka on instagram @_iheartvegan_