by Sarah Mills
former Jehovah’s Witness
Like many devout persons, I thought my religion was unique and my belief in it unshakeable. But after years of nagging questions, for which my faith could only supply feeble, unconvincing answers (or none at all), cognitive dissonance took its toll, and I made a decision that would cost me some of my closest relationships.
When I left the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I realized that my former religion was not unique at all. I began noticing parallels with others that only an unclouded, outside perspective could afford me. While I was hard-pressed to come up with a religion entirely untainted by past or present abuses, I noticed there is a marked difference between cultural systems that interfere little with the lives of their members and belief systems that demand inflexible devotion to the detriment of their followers.
After much study, I concluded that the belief system I followed is not fundamentally different from another pernicious religious strain that was making headlines, namely, Islamism. The faith I had left and the extremist ideology that was leading its adherents to kill and die in its name both exhibit characteristics that could only be described as cult-like. This conclusion raised two questions: What could a pacifist Christian sect and a militant Islamic one, neither of which are even classified as cults, possibly have in common? And why should we care at all?
The answers could very well help us understand—and prevent—radicalization and the acts of terrorism that often follow.
While many treat Islamism as an exceptional phenomenon, I learned that the underlying mentality is common to a number of groups, not the least of which is Jehovah’s Witnesses. The organization prides itself on its peaceable teachings, its united, worldwide brotherhood, and its vision of a paradisiac future in which harmony will prevail. Below the utopian surface, however, is a high-control society that employs coercive techniques, which sociologists, psychiatrists, and other experts in the field of human behavior have methodically outlined in various studies.
Not part of this world
As a child growing up in the faith, one of my earliest memories was of a birthday party at school, when I was about six years old. I had dutifully refused to partake in the celebration, as per teachings that condemn birthdays and holidays as pagan, ‘worldly’ customs. My fellow Witnesses showered me with praise. I would continue to be touted as exemplary for abstaining from entirely inoffensive things (including dating as a teenager, cohabitation, and sex before marriage, the last of which can earn a Witness excommunication and a subsequent severing of all relationships, including from family members).
The Christmas before had been my last. I had celebrated with my father’s family. After that, there was little reason to see them again. They weren’t one of us. I am still trying to reconnect with them, though the familiarity afforded through shared memories is irreplaceable. As for those with whom I did share my childhood memories—we haven’t had contact since word got out I am no longer a believer.
My school years were a series of painfully uncomfortable flag salutes, political discussions, birthday parties, Christmas concerts, Halloween plays, Valentine’s Day grams, sleepover parties, school dances, movie viewings—from which I was always excluded in self-imposed exile. These situations, which were unremarkable for the vast majority of students, left an indelible impression on me. I was not ‘part of this world,’ as I was reminded at weekly church services. Whenever I was called upon to explain my anti-social behavior, I would invoke any number of unimpressive, ready-made responses (always using the Watchtower’s vocabulary, which would earn me more than one blank stare) as the heat rushed to my face.
What I now refer to as nothing less than a cult created a divide between the rest of the world and me. It became my sole identity, and it occupied the greater part of my time between tri-weekly meetings, evangelical work (there were de facto quotas in place for hours spent going door-to-door), personal Bible study, and close reading of all publications put out by the society.
I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses before I was anything else.
Without any form of identity that country or cultural tradition or even extended family usually afford through festivities and social gatherings, I was forced to look ever within the organization to fulfil the most fundamental need for companionship. The goal of the organization, I came to learn, is to exclusively provide all-encompassing answers and create an insular environment in which members are fully dependent – and for which they are supposed to be willing to die.
It isn’t easy to forget the time a brother in the faith, while giving a talk on the importance of obedience, said that if the Watchtower organization were to instruct its followers to wake up at three every morning and jump up and down ten times in a row, we would need to do it unflinchingly. The message was clear: We needed to be prepared to do anything, and this included refusing the life-saving medical treatment of a blood transfusion.
What is more valuable to us? A measly life in this ‘system of things,’ as the non-believing world is referred to, or our relationship with Jehovah and the prospect for an eternal future in Paradise? It was an example of one of the most insidious ways cults latched onto vulnerable people—through the promise of an afterlife that would make this present one insignificant in comparison.
Further education, the pursuit of pleasurable experiences, a lucrative and fulfilling career, financial wellbeing—these are all deemed futile and those who seek them, selfish.
Why am I relaying all of this?
The degree of influence religion exerts over one’s life is directly correlated to one’s freedom. The first step in addressing the problem of violent extremism is by understanding its precursor—the ideology. What does it take for extreme devotion to manifest itself in extreme ways? Would it be so radical to imagine a scenario similar to Jonestown play out within the confines of another place of worship? By acquiring a better understanding of cult mentality, we may be able to better understand the process of radicalization and the driving force behind devotion-based violence. The psychology of the indoctrinated, and especially of those who are able to free themselves from the shackles of cult control, is fundamental to an understanding of recruitment.
Islamism seeks a similar hold on both believers and non-believers. It regards the non-believer as intrinsically inferior, something to be contended with at best and eliminated at worst. There is a strict binary that pits the ‘us’ against the ‘them.’ Its worldview is comprehensive and transcendent. Apostasy is punishable by ostracism, or even death in extreme cases. The lives of those unfortunate enough to exist under its domain are micromanaged, and those who deviate from its dictates are subject to unimaginable penalties. Martyrdom is praised. Submission and conformity are favored over individuality, self-expression, and independent thought.
The strict control Islamism wields over the individual is achieved through a process of brainwashing that scoops out a person’s individuality and critical thinking and replaces it with something like insulation. To combat only the violent manifestations of a cult is futile. It is akin to attempting to rid a house of an infestation by squashing insects one by one. The nest must be found and eradicated so as to prevent new ones from emerging.
Questions threaten power structures
A sure-fire way of knowing whether you are dealing with a cult-like group is to gauge the extent to which it allows opposition. I only left the organization when enough distance was placed between it and myself—when I could finally come up for air and have the time to actually contemplate the questions that had previously only sparked for a moment before the barrage of daily indoctrination inundated me as usual.
When religion micromanages, when it ruins relationships, when it threatens one’s physical or psychological health, when it separates its followers from the rest of the world, when it emotionally blackmails people into never leaving, when it is directly responsible for deaths—I am not willing to classify it as non-violent.
We must re-examine what we allow under freedom of religion. When people are indoctrinated from birth, when struggling, disillusioned individuals are exploited and fed with a victimhood narrative, a divisive ideology, and false promises to make them soldiers of God who detonate themselves and kill others in the process, is this freedom? When transcendence shifts value from individuals to God, from this life to the next, people view the end as justifying the means and we become frighteningly more willing to exploit one another.
Freedom of the mind is freedom from religion and it can only be achieved when we place limits on the leniency we allot to religions. Psychological health must be protected. Social workers investigate into the lives of children at risk of suffering abuse. Do we similarly investigate what is being said at high-risk places of worship? By understanding why people turn to cult-like communities and how they are able to extricate themselves therefrom, we hold the key to unlocking both the psychology behind terrorism and the strategy necessary to stop radicalization in its tracks.
Better than knocking on doors
It’s true. I have lost something. I still find myself wondering whether I am at risk of further deepening the divide between family members still within the organization and myself. But I have gained so much in the process. I have acquired a unique understanding into two worlds that often only cross paths in the most violent and tragic of ways.
I know what it is like to be afraid to ask ‘Why?’, to feel guilt for thoughts, to watch as others lived but as I waited, and to be conditionally accepted by and summarily ejected from what I thought was my extended family.
But my conscience has never been so clear. I am unfettered. And to hear, from even only one person, that my writing has motivated them to critically confront an ideology that thrives on exclusion – from the publications one is allowed to read, to the friendships one is allowed to form – means that I am engaged in more important work than knocking on doors and warning of an impending doom for which there is neither proof nor purpose.
They say religion offers hope. But we only have evidence for one life. And the sooner we realize it, the better chance we have to make this existence meaningful, for both ourselves and for those with whom we share the planet.