By way of a (very brief) introduction, I was born into the Christian denomination known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and was part of it until around age 13. I was recently in a situation where I was encouraged to attend the annual Memorial of Jesus Christ with family members still within ‘the Truth’ and so, with an open mind and a happy heart I attended and listened actively. My personal beliefs aside, I was compelled to document my experience and see if my 15-year absence from the organization had altered my views at all.
The lights in the Kingdom Hall were too bright and too artificial. I could see every pore on every face, every hair out of place, every awkward smile and tentative gaze. Brothers and Sisters approached me from every direction, hands outstretched, to introduce themselves. From my limited memory, Witnesses are told at the meetings leading up to the Memorial—a public service—to be welcoming to every single person who walks through the door with no exceptions. (Generally, if someone has been disfellowshipped, or publicly shunned, they’re treated as such—except for Memorial night.) They all did a brilliant job of trying to figure me out without being too obvious; eye contact, firm handshakes, questions about who I was attending with. I got some curious sideways glances, too—with a nose ring, an undercut and a small visible tattoo, I was enough to pique the interest of anyone that saw me.
I threw politeness and affability back at them in bucketloads. I shook hands. I smiled. I answered questions. I made eye contact. Just as they were were working hard to figure me out, I was doing the same. I wondered why were they here. What exactly was it that kept bringing these intelligent people back to this over-lit, plainly decorated building multiple times each week? What had they found here that I had missed in my younger years? Should I be back here, looking for it?
For the bulk of my adult life, I’ve believed that the appeal of religion in general is a sense of relief at finding some answers, a belief that there’s more out there than we can perceive, and that there’s a reason for it all. Talk to any devout person of any denomination and they’ll tell you they’ve found the correct religion (like spirituality is a multiple choice test with only one correct answer).
Jehovah’s Witnesses are no exception. They call their religion the Truth, and they use that term with zero irony. They genuinely feel like they’ve got it figured out, because everyone else in the Truth says so, because those in the Truth are, apparently, the only ones that have really studied the actual Bible… a document whose origins are only questioned to a certain extent, but ultimately is regarded as fact. Truth.
And I find these people approaching me are wearing an aura that reeks of self-assuredness, presumably because they don’t have to look for answers any more. For them, it’s not about the journey, the search for answers, or introspection; it’s being handed the answers on a plate and blindly devouring them before lying back and feeling the relief that comes from not having to harvest those answers themselves, let alone ask the questions. They’re high on what they think is the ultimate knowledge.
So how did it feel? The energy in the room was that of a group of people that had just had a luxurious massage or a heavy dose of painkillers. They were relaxed and perhaps a little numb. It rubbed off on me; like the rest of the people in the hall, I sank into my drab corporate-conference-style seat and felt my brain slow down. You could feel the mental salve being applied by the smartly dressed man giving the talk—his verbosity coupled with his monotone voice made me feel like I was at a university lecture, surrounded by intellectuals who were confident in their knowledge but totally unaware that they were being psychologically and emotionally manipulated.
It felt like the kind of place where existential questioning goes to die. Hey, don’t worry about why we’re alive on this planet. Ain’t nobody got time to search for answers. Here’s the shortcut to the juicy stuff! We did all the work so that you don’t have to! See, what we just said is true because it says so in the Bible. We’ve got all the answers right here.
A young and awkward man is introduced to me. He looks about sixteen but I later discover he’s in his mid-twenties. I’m told he’s recently married. I smile and congratulate him as he waves his wedding ring at me.
“How’s married life?” my companion asks him.
“Oh, it’s great!” he says, “she’s parking the car now. She even carried my briefcase inside for me.”
“Sounds like a good wife”, says my companion, and we all laugh knowingly while I turn around so that they don’t notice my eyes rolling all the way back into my head while I simultaneously scramble to check my iPhone and make sure it’s actually 2013. Wifely subservience to men is still most definitely a thing here, though most Witnesses won’t admit to it. I guess it’s mostly inferred in literature.
The singing at the beginning and the conclusion of the service is exactly how I remember it from my younger years; a room full of voices barely keeping a tune that only a few of them know, the rest singing a fraction of a second behind the pre-recorded piano backing in an attempt to use it as a tonal guide. It’s embarrassing to be a part of, and I cringe.
Prayers haven’t changed, either. I didn’t really expect them to.
I make it through the duration of the service by marveling at the sheer number of shades of brown that they’ve managed to include in the one space. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use symbolism in any way, so the halls are always as plain and modest as possible and contain very little color. (Perhaps being raised as a Witness contributed to my current fascination with big, ornate, architecturally complex places of worship.) As well as the decor, I take in the stillness of all the heads in front of me, watching them listen intently and look down at their Bibles in unison every time they’re directed to do so.
I also spent some time during the service thumbing through a magazine I’d picked up on my way into the Hall entitled ‘Listen to God and Live Forever’. I admired the detailed illustrations and how little the design style has changed in 15 years, and quietly swallowed my rage upon reading captions such as “a wife should cooperate with her husband”, “marriage should be between one man and one woman”, and “Jehovah hates murder, abortion and homosexuality”, among many other fascinating and disgusting insights into the things that God apparently loves and hates.
Going to a Jehovah’s Witness service for one night, and one that was purposely watered-down for the public, confirmed my personal viewpoint that religion satiates that incredible thirst for belonging to something. It’s our tribal instinct at its most manipulative, that craving for community we all experience at one time or another. The regular Witnesses laughed and chatted amongst each other, enjoying the opportunity to show off the camaraderie they’d built with one another to other potential recruits. They offer a one-stop package for spiritually and socially lost souls; the big answers, a promise of everlasting life on Paradise Earth, and an instant circle of friends. A fraternity with incredibly strict moral rules, standards, and rituals.
It’s human nature to see a group of happy people and to want to be involved, and the harder it is to get in, the more people will want to be part of it. Kids do it to each other at school with cliques and clubs. Adults do it with music scenes, politics, sporting clubs, friendship groups and—of course—religion. I don’t care to speculate on the motivation of the organization. I know from experience that their strict rules around shunning have (and will continue) to ruin families. But it works; millions of people worldwide dedicate their lives to spreading the word of Jehovah’s Witnesses, often at a very high cost.
Looking around the Kingdom Hall, I felt sad. There was no vitality or spark present. It was all business, all about doing things right so that they could reap the benefits later. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that if they live a morally sound life and follow the rules of the organization (and by default, God), making sacrifices and difficult decisions and simply enduring this difficult and painful life, they will eventually be resurrected into a perfect paradise Earth and live forever. Not a bad deal, right?
They tell millions of people around the world to just get through life quietly, sit still and follow the rules—as if life’s a pap smear or a prostate exam. Think about that for a second: life is something to endure. Life. If you manage to endure it and do all the correct things according to them (the organization that promotes wifely subservience and tells you that God hates—yes, hates—homosexuality), you’ll be rewarded with everlasting life.
You know what? I think I’ll take the risk and live this life fully, properly, and with an open and accepting heart. Besides, wouldn’t living forever be kind of shitty when the sun inevitably dies?