To become, to be and to have been: about the Jehovah’s Witnesses
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, in the following text referred to as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or “the organisation”, is a worldwide Christian organisation with about 6.7 million members. The organisation has many times, without any success so far, proclaimed Armageddon when they expect Jehovah to return to Earth. They interpret the Bible in their own, often very literal way, and require their members to live according to these interpretations. Among the consequences of this, members are forbidden to vote, to do military service or to receive blood transfusions. Apart from attending the three weekly meetings, members are expected to be active in missionary work, known as “publishing”. If a member fails to do a certain number of hours’ publishing, he or she risks being deprived of active membership status
Sweden in general is considered to be a society where the population is not very religious. The formerly state-governed Lutheran church has lost its influence and the vast majority of ordinary Swedes do not visit church on other occasions than weddings, funerals or christenings. Expressing one’s own religious values has become somewhat of a private matter where publicity is seldom appreciated, which is contrary to the practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is one of the reasons why the Jehovah’s Witnesses are commonly perceived by average Swedes as a “suspicious” religious organisation.
The aim and methods of the study
This dissertation seeks to describe and investigate the entering and leaving of a highly structured and hierarchical religious community, exemplified in this case by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. What are the thoughts and aspirations of someone who is considering becoming a Jehovah’s Witness? What are the priorities and what experiences seem important when a person is going through such a process? And when this person has finally reached his or her goal of becoming a member, is it the same motivation that makes him or her stay in the organisation for longer periods of time, possibly for the rest of their lives, or does it change during the process of entering, or does this motivation change its character during the transition from entering to being a regular member?
Why do some of the members change their attitude to the Jehovah’s Witnesses from rejoicing to bitterness? And how does this process of exit manifest itself? In what way is it different from the process of entry?
The respondents in this study were chosen from both active members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sweden and those who have left the organisation for personal reasons. Repeated interviews with ten active members of the organisation have been conducted in the course of the study and compared to equal numbers of former members. The interviews have been semi-structured to deal with questions of how a person has come into contact with the organisation; how they retrospectively experienced the process of entry; the reasons for becoming a member. Questions have also been asked about life in the organisation. The group of “exiters” have also been asked about the experience of leaving, why they wanted to leave, and how this process was started and carried out.
In addition to this I have analysed a four-year diary describing the time inside and the process of leaving the organisation. This has given me an extra psychological insight into the inner experience of someone who has gone through the whole process.
The analysis has been done by categorising the content of the transcribed interviews. An attempt to outline a model of an entry and exit process has been made, based on ideas and interpretations presented in the interviews. The analysis of the diary has involved thorough reading, resulting in a division of it into four different parts, where each part has been given a certain key-word, signifying the author’s emotional state when writing it. A great deal of the information about the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been collected through discussion boards on the Internet, informal talks with members and ex-members, interviews with representatives of the organisations during visits to its different offices (Bethels), such as St. Petersburg, Russia, and Brooklyn, New York, USA.
Each organisation evolves in its own context with its own norms, roles and stories that would not survive outside it. With this as a starting point, there is a chapter dedicated to the description of the organisation’s history, structure and activities. It has been stated that the organisation’s treatment of its critical members and the strategies for recruiting new members have evolved over the years of its history. At the beginning there was an openness allowing members to be critical. As the structure of the organisation has become more rigid and formalised, the treatment of internal critics has become much less tolerated and exclusion has become a frequent option.
As a rule many new members have been attracted to the organisation when (1) the day of Armageddon has been pronounced to be approaching; (2) the members of the organisation have been persecuted or threatened with persecution; and (3) the organisation has discovered a “new market”.
The processes for entering and exiting
How the entering processes manifest themselves depends on whether the person has been brought up in the organisation or not. A person converting as an adult has to pass six phases before being considered a Jehovah’s Witness by the organisation. These are:
Contact with the Jehovah’s Witnesses,
- Studying the bible with members of the organisation,
- Being active as publisher (spreading the belief),
- Being baptised.
For a person brought up in the organisation, the process to full membership is much shorter:
- Upbringing in the organisation,
- Taking a stand on the belief,
- Being baptised.
The exit process contains of seven phases:
- Different levels of doubts,
- Testing of doubts,
- Turning points,
- Different kinds of decisions,
- Different steps in executing the decisions,
- Floating, a period of emotional and cognitive consideration of membership and its experiences,
- Realtive neutrality.
The process in and the process out are both slow and are accompanied with anguish and doubts. When a person is going through the process in or out of the organisation he or she experiences criticism. This is when people around the adept question the decision to continue in the process. The result of the criticism depends on where in the process the person is. If he or she is at the beginning of the process, the criticism will probably make the person insecure and the process will slow down or stop. If the criticism is pronounced in a later phase, the process will probably speed up.
The norms of the organisation affect the behaviour of the members. There are techniques for inclusion that both bind members to the organisation and shield them off from the surrounding society. Examples of techniques for inclusion are the “work situation” and “closed doors”. The work situation signifies that members who do as the organisation recommends – doing simple work – often end up in the same branch of industry as many other Jehovah’s Witnesses. This often means that the person has other witnesses as workmates. If the person is unemployed or moves to another town it is easy to find a new job through connections in the organisation.
Doubts and exclusions can lead to problems since they entail a risk of losing one’s job. This can also result in problems getting a new job. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not supposed to talk to excluded members, which of course mean difficulties working together. “Closed doors” means that members who do as the organisation recommends – not pursuing higher education, not engaging in civil society, working with a manual or in other way simple job, putting much time into the organisation – will, after a long life in the organisation, have problems starting a new life outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The language used in the organisation shows the community among the members, thus the language is one of the most important symbols. A special way of thinking is created through the language. It binds members to the organisation and sometimes it can work as a way to get back into the normative world of the organisation.
Randall Collins’s (1990, 2004) thoughts about “emotional energy” have enabled an understanding of the solidarity and unity in the organisation. This also gives an understanding of the way the members treat doubting and critical members. The members who want to exit have to open up the binding/screening off. A possible way to do that is through language, to become aware of the effect the language might have. Another way is to search for emotional energy in another situation.
During the exit process, shame might be of some importance. When members become aware of the shame they feel, because they perceive they are “acting a belief”, the exit process might accelerate.
Lund: Lund universitet, Socialhögskolan , 2007. , 231 p.
Swärd, Hans, ProfessorLars, Olsson, Fil.dr.