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"There was no return from apostasy."
March 21, 2013 7:11 AM   Subscribe

Leaving the Witness. "In one of the most restrictive, totalitarian countries in the world, for the first time in my life, I had the freedom to think."

The author is Amber Scorah.
posted by zarq (26 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
This sounded crazy to me. Every day of my life I’d been taught to stay away from these people, and I had. I was the person who made excuses not to lunch with coworkers. Who never kissed the boy who loved me in high school. I was the one who didn’t join after-school sports or attend birthday parties or my prom, all for fear of contamination. But I had my instructions; there was no other choice.

This kind of religion steals life from its children's hands. I'm glad Scorah got out.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:14 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow. I had no idea that Jehova's Witnesses were so cult-like. I've known one or two over the years but they weren't this intense. It's scary to see this level of devotion and belief and I see how suicide bombers are created.

I'm glad she had enough self awareness and intelligence to see her treatment of her Chinese friends as wrong and to walk away from her beliefs.

Never trust anyone or anything that wants you to be ignorant - of people, of the world, of other cultures, of knowledge in general. If you can't ask questions, there's a wizard behind the curtain.
posted by shoesietart at 8:15 AM on March 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


In my early twenties I had a roommate who became a Witness. She disposed of me not long afterwards, though we had been close. Though I saw only a little of the Jehovah Witness culture, this accords well with what I saw and adds to my understanding of it. Scorah deserves a lot of credit for having the courage and the clear-sightedness needed to able to turn her back on such a repressive little world — the only one she'd ever known — and write about it so clearly and with such a lack of anger.
posted by orange swan at 8:16 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I used to be a Witness. Yes, this is an accurate depiction. It is that cult like.
posted by chrchr at 8:20 AM on March 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Just a note, Jehova's Witnesses are also the religion that prevent its members from receiving life-giving blood transfusions, even in cases when it would save life.
posted by kurosawa's pal at 8:55 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


That was beautifully written.
posted by bq at 9:13 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I liked this insight on inter-cultural interaction:
These 1.3 billion people I was trying to save looked at life in completely different ways. The concepts I pressed them to grasp and adopt were bizarre abstractions, a not-unpleasant idiosyncrasy one put up with in order to have a Western friend.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:30 AM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Interesting read (I've only made it about halfway through, where she's being tailed by security police).

It kind of reminds me of my "time among the Mormons" when I worked for a Mormon-run and Mormon-staffed (all American, all from BYU) language institute in rural Japan in the mid-90's.

I can see now why LDS focuses so much on learning languages and teaching EFL. You can go to a different country and easily connect with people who want to talk to you. Their guard is down, and you're also, as a teacher, in a position of power - easy to convert.

On the other hand, the teachers I worked with weren't engaged in missionary work, although they did approach teaching EFL (something dominated at that time by twentysomethings looking to party for a couple of years) as a vocation.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:37 AM on March 21, 2013


In the absence of evidence to the contrary — I'm more than open to counterarguments here, because I hope I'm wrong — it seems to me that the primary and maybe only function of missionary work today is to isolate the missionary from the outside world.1 The purpose, it seems to me, is to arrange a series of awkward encounters where the missionary is set up to fail; after the failure, the missionary feels rejected by the worldly and thereby more tied to the religion.

The missionary encounter, as I read it, is supposed to go as follows: A missionary goes up to someone on the street or at their home, delivers a sales pitch, and is then rebuked. Eventually, they'll start to feel the rebuke as being directed at them, as people, even though it's really just about how obnoxious their sales pitch is. What Amber Scorah encountered here was a bug in the system — the people she was told to sell to were so interested in having Western friends that they were willing to put up with her, weird annoying sales pitch and all, and so befriended her anyway.

This suggests to me a correct, moral course of action for people being proselytized to: accept the missionary, despite the weird sad thing they're being told to do, and try to get to know the real person you're talking with.

Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to convert a missionary encounter into a friendship — aside from the China bug, it really is a well-designed system for ensuring rejection — and, well, I feel very slightly guilty about it, but I have to admit that I've never actually gotten myself to be non-lazy and non-snarky enough to even try.

1: I'm primarily thinking of the Witnesses and the Church of LDS here.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:52 AM on March 21, 2013 [20 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick: "In the absence of evidence to the contrary — I'm more than open to counterarguments here, because I hope I'm wrong — it seems to me that the primary and maybe only function of missionary work today is to isolate the missionary from the outside world.1 The purpose, it seems to me, is to arrange a series of awkward encounters where the missionary is set up to fail; after the failure, the missionary feels rejected by the worldly and thereby more tied to the religion."

A former co-worker is Southern Baptist and spend two years doing missionary work in Latvia and Germany. Most of her time was spent on community projects, not proselytizing, but to all accounts she was quite successful at the missionary aspect of her trips there.

Perhaps you're right, and many missionaries are being deliberately set up to fail. But not all of them.
posted by zarq at 10:10 AM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


In the absence of evidence to the contrary — I'm more than open to counterarguments here, because I hope I'm wrong — it seems to me that the primary and maybe only function of missionary work today is to isolate the missionary from the outside world.

Yes, this, and also the bigger the sacrifices the missionary makes to spread the word, the more committed they feel they must be to the cause. I spent two years living in a hut in Brazil, speaking to people who did not like me, with no phone calls from home and letters only once a week and terrible food; I must really believe in this to have done that. (Cialdini 101.) The missionary's commitment is the important part; if they convert some folks, well, so much the better.

As for the feasibility of befriending missionaries: My parents live in rural Maine, and about once a year they get LDS missionaries coming out -- I'm not sure how they get there, come to think of it; I haven't seen any sort of vehicle when they've been there, and my parents are a good quarter-mile from the nearest house or a paved road. Dad is very, very good at getting them talking about aviation or cars or some other interest. Generally they get talking for about two hours and then suddenly realize that airplanes aren't what they're there to talk about, and flee, leaving only their literature behind them. (Meanwhile, I live less than a mile from an MTBA stop and haven't had a single missionary in eight years. I'm not complaining.)
posted by pie ninja at 10:17 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


zarq: Thanks for that — it's good to be reminded that missionary work can mean something different than just public humiliation.

For whatever it's worth, I don't think there's necessarily some mustache-twirling cabal in Salt Lake City cackling about their scheme to send missionaries to the UC Berkeley campus or whatever and thereby alienate them from the world. Really, I suspect the main reason Mormons and Witnesses send their members out to proselytize is because that's what they've always done — ritual is self-sustaining because it's ritual, never mind the content of the ritual. Nevertheless, I think the alienation effect produced by awkward salesmanship helps explain why these particular organizations practicing these specific rituals were successful where other groups with other rituals failed.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:30 AM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


This suggests to me a correct, moral course of action for people being proselytized to: accept the missionary, despite the weird sad thing they're being told to do, and try to get to know the real person you're talking with.

I tend to be friendly with young LDS missionaries who come knocking on our door, but it seems to send the wrong signal. They leave the equivalent of a hobo mark on our door and come back over and over again, usually at dinner time - I'm an easy mark.

And that makes me feel depressed.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:31 AM on March 21, 2013


I spent a week several years ago with evangelical missionaries in Chicago during a July heat wave - 108 degrees for several days. After long days of going door to door in mostly Catholic communities, the kids would all attend a debriefing session. The 'youth pastor' repeatedly told the mass of 300-400 people about a group of missionaries that were spat on and insulted for their 'faith' earlier in the day.

I interacted with almost all of the kids that week and never ran into anyone who'd been in that group. But that story, and the repeated warning that "the mosque here in Chicago recruits every day!", kept the fear level high. It was definitely about defining "us" as a group against the heathens at the gates...
posted by rock swoon has no past at 10:50 AM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


kurosawa's pal: Just a note, Jehova's Witnesses are also the religion that prevent its members from receiving life-giving blood transfusions, even in cases when it would save life.

It was my self-determined need to be able to make a stronger defense of this teaching which lead to my own departure from the JWs.

I'm surprised at how triggering just reading the buzzwords in that article was. I've been "out" for about 8 years. I've only just started feeling like a real adult, like my life is really beginning. It is (still) wonderful and terrifying and more beautiful than I'd ever been allowed to believe before.
posted by Wyeldfire at 11:12 AM on March 21, 2013 [22 favorites]


Wyeldfire: "It was my self-determined need to be able to make a stronger defense of this teaching which lead to my own departure from the JWs."

Wow.

Thank you very much for sharing that. And for the link within the entry to your essay, "Changing Religion Without Screwing up Your Life.
posted by zarq at 12:03 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick, you're very welcome! :)
posted by zarq at 12:03 PM on March 21, 2013


After reading about her descriptions of the isolation from "worldly" culture, the bizarre encounter I had with an older JW couple makes more sense. They (clearly adults in the 1970s) looked at my Hawaii Five-0 shirt, complete with badge screenprint, and asked if I was a paramedic. As I tried to explain, "It was this popular tv show back in the day? With cops in Honolulu...", they just smiled and nodded, waiting for me to finish so they could get on with their soul-redemption pitch.

It must be so strange to have to catch up on twenty years of pop culture. I'm curious about experiences besides Scorah's. Do Witnesses (especially young adults) really not hear about current events or movies and music, even if just to know what they're resisting? Or is it that brainwashing?
posted by book 'em dano at 12:21 PM on March 21, 2013


Some background about missionary work among Jehovah's Witnesses:

Unlike the LDS, most Witnesses do not undertake missions.
There's a missionary program operated by the world headquarters and it's something of an elite assignment. It's actually not clear from this article if she was a "real" missionary or if she moved to China on her own.

And I can very much relate to Wyeldfire about this being somewhat triggering. I've been "out of the Truth" for 18 years now, and probably for the first 10 of those I didn't want to talk about JWs at all. I had recurring dreams of being at meetings or conventions. Lately, I've been pretty interested in it and I talk about religion and the Bible all the time, and I still find it emotionally resonant but no longer unpleasantly so.

How immersed are Witnesses in worldly culture? I think it varieses widely. I really didn't ever see any R rated movies as a kid, so I hadn't seen the standard action and comedies that people my age grew up with. Depending how devout you and your family were, pop music, TV, and PG-13 fare may be alien to you as well. This varies somewhat from family to family and between congregations.

In my case, as a young teenager I was super into rap music. At some point the Society "banned" all rap music. I had no taste at all for any other music so I systematically tried to learn about rock music, and pretty soon I was attracted to the Velvet Underground and the first wave of punk rock. The moment I first heard Patti Smith's "Oath" I was so shocked I almost drove off the road, and if I had to point to any one moment that lead to my apostasy, it would be that one. "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." Like the writer of this piece and Wyeldfire, in part it was my desire to be more faithful that ultimately lead to the dissolution of my faith.

I later learned that Patti Smith had been a Jehovah's Witness too, and she wrote that poem as a way to claim her identity as an artist.
posted by chrchr at 1:13 PM on March 21, 2013 [13 favorites]


book 'em dano: Do Witnesses (especially young adults) really not hear about current events or movies and music, even if just to know what they're resisting? Or is it that brainwashing?

I can only relay my personal experience. The exposure to such things varies. Quite a few young people keep up on pop culture while they're young - they tend to become more isolated as they become older members of the religion. Still, such young people are sometimes considered to be skirting the edge, or "living a double life". For example, there's a picture on this page (under the heading "View of 'Worldly People'") showing a young person doing things many people would consider normal. They are labeled in the publication it's from as a "modern-day Absalom".

Personally, I was very serious about my faith, so I avoided such things as much as possible. This meant that I didn't have many friends my age and was never in the "right" cliques. It also didn't help being an Elder's daughter (an Elder who, at one point, was Presiding Overseer). I was already a bit of an outsider socially before I was "officially" shunned by my family and friends.

There's also a well-developed gossip network among the JWs, which I believe is pretty common with many religions. Unfortunately, this meant I heard about things I did in public/at work from my father after other JWs saw me doing something, disapproved, reported me to their Elders, and the Elder(s) contacted my Dad (this occurred even after I was in my 20s). So, I had quite a few reasons to avoid seeming "worldly". I was fortunate to be able to go to college in the 90's, when the anti-college sentiment among the JWs was on the wane. (My folks, of course, didn't have money for that because the world was supposed to end before college was even an option for me.) Even then, I lived at home (deliberately, to avoid "worldly" influences), so I still was not exposed to much.

I'm still catching up. My wife is keeping a mental list of all the Christmas-themed movies she's decided are canon, and I may well end up locked in the house with DVDs and Netflix this December.
posted by Wyeldfire at 1:26 PM on March 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


chrchr, I don't know if you've ever seen her live, and if you haven't, you should, because when she does that number it's like the whole venue goes up in flames. Good flames.
posted by rtha at 1:26 PM on March 21, 2013


chrchr: I had repeated nightmares of being physcially assaulted by my family and trapped in my parents' house and/or convention sites until last year or so.
posted by Wyeldfire at 1:28 PM on March 21, 2013


"So because you were born here, and I was born into my world, God’s going to kill you and your family and friends and associates, but not me. Because you were educated differently, in a different culture, and therefore have a different explanation for life, for spirituality, for goodness, for meaning, you will die, and I will live."

This really stuck out for me. Even though she wasn't saying this in so many words, the realisation that this was the message that was being relayed, and all the arrogance and elitism and just plain crazy that goes along with it.
posted by Broseph at 2:04 PM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have so much to say about this I don't know where to start.

Before I get into it, I'd like to suggest The Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks. It deals with many of the same themes that turn up in this piece and is also very well written.

So...I've been involved with the Hare Krishna movement for over fifteen years now. About a year ago, for reasons I still don't fully understand (though, like Wyeldfire and chrchr, it definitely had something to do with a desire to go deeper into my faith) I began to actively deconstruct the things I had come to believe and the lifestyle I had adopted. I still feel a strong connection to the essence of the philosophy I'd accepted (albeit in a perverted form) and still maintain many of the same practices I have for so many years now. But I am now independent, having largely divorced myself from the institution (ISKCON) that is the most visible (and dominant) exponent of what has been more traditionally known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism. The short version – At one time ISKCON was definitely a cult (or at least behaved like one), and though it is now much more akin to any other of the more harmless institutionalized religions, it is still a seriously dysfunctional organization. (That said, there is an unbelievably wide spectrum of practitioners and degrees of involvement/dedication, so many people may never directly encounter the cultishness or the dysfunction.)

Again, I have too much to say. I don't want to go off on tangents that no one is particularly interested in hearing. I did, however, want to comment on You Can't Tip A Buick's theory re: proselytizing. There may be some truth to it, but don't underestimate the other side of the coin.

Like LDS and Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishnas are pretty well known for their street preaching, what "devotees" call "book distribution." Aside from the other big motivator Amber Scorah mentions in her piece – "Preaching to others is...held out as the way to save your own life." – devotees who preach find it to be a way to keep "enlivened," a way to constantly reinforce the things they believe and the decision they made to believe them in the first place (as most devotees, even in India, come to ISKCON later in life as the result of a personal decision/conversion).

All devotees, even those who don't actively preach, trade what they call "sankirtan stories," which are meant to be inspiring (if not downright miraculous) stories from their experiences on the street "spreading the glories of Sri Krishna." Some of these stories are actually pretty impressive and, regardless of whether or not they are true, there is often the tendency for both the storyteller and the hearer to exaggerate the significance of minor events or to see enthusiasm where there may be none. (Devotees will often talk about how "favorable" someone was, even though the genuine enthusiasm of the person being preached to may be completely blown out of proportion, if not altogether imagined.)

There is, most certainly, among Hare Krishnas a prevalent conception of "us and them" (devotees are often warned against "associating with non-devotees"). And ISKCON's approach to Krishna consciousness is at times (and especially among Indian devotees for some reason) tainted by the fire and brimstone approach to preaching and self-persuasion. But as far as this street preaching is concerned, I've found that individuals are driven far more by the idea of "saving conditioned souls," and so they are encouraged by their success much more than by their failure. Whenever someone buys a book, or visits a temple for the first time, or "comes to Krishna consciousness" (among preachers there is a lot of talk about "making devotees") that's a giant boost for the morale of the individual devotee and the collective. As an example, the sort of thing that dominates the "news" in devotee circles is positive PR: number of books sold, number of temples opened, and the specific celebrities, politicians, and public figures who have recently received books or met devotees ("Obama just got a copy of the Bhagavad-gita? Worldwide domination is just around the corner!").

I should say at this point that, despite all this, I still believe in the idea that if someone is genuinely the recipient of wisdom (spiritual or otherwise) their desire to share that wisdom can be a beautiful, altruistic thing. I know a few sincere souls who are in that rare category. Unfortunately, many (perhaps the majority) of the world's preachers are motivated by less noble desires. In ISKCON, success in preaching is equated with spiritual realization, and those who have sold the most books are afforded a sort of celebrity status that is not only a-spiritual but may also lead to their own spiritual downfall. Perhaps the most tragic effect of all this is that once you're in the door (and it's clear you won't be leaving), you're no longer a priority – even to yourself. Devotees will expend heroic amounts of energy on the constant drive to "make devotees" and neglect their own spiritual (to say nothing of emotional, psychological, intellectual) development and physical well-being. So many of them are so busy chasing this sort of external success (which is almost always quantitative), that there is no chance to introspect or to honestly confront doubts that may be jsut below the surface.

Anyway, I have to stop somewhere. I know, tl;dr. Thanks for sharing, zarq.
posted by eric1halfb at 3:51 PM on March 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


My formative religious experiences happened before i was ten years old - I grew up in Papua New Guinea, and watched a procession of the more... extreme Western Missionaries walk into the town where i lived and tell the New Guineans - "all that stuff you've been doing? The way you dress? The way you dance? The way you live? It's all sinful - that's the truth. The REAL truth. This Real Truth comes from a land on the other side of the world, and because you didn't have the great fortune of being born over there where you could hear about it, you're going to go to hell. And all your ancestors, who for 40 000 years have been doing just like you - they're all in hell right NOW. So Shape Up."

The mindless nastiness of that attitude struck me forcibly - years before i heard and parsed the full force of the words 'cultural imperialism' I understood the disconnect between the message of an infinitely loving god and the petty cultural bullying of the messenger, and i didn't want any part of any organization that would tolerate that among its parishoners.

There is, of course, the other sort of missionary. The sort that sees a yawning cultural gulf as a manifestation of the manifold variety and splendor of an infinite god, rather than footsteps on the path to Armageddon, and goes into the bush and spends thirty years living as his (or her) neighbors do and translating the bible into a local language that has never had a written alphabet and might only be spoken by two hundred people in the whole world - not wholly for the sake of the bible, but because this is one sure and certain way to record and preserve that language before an encroaching modern world swallows it up. Along the way, some cross-cultural respect and understanding inevitably rises up - in all directions - and THAT, in their eyes, is all to the glory of god as well.

That kind of missionary I can get behind.
posted by tabubilgirl at 8:00 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


To summarize, the words "religion made me a better person" don't always mean what the speaker thinks it means.
posted by tabubilgirl at 8:03 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


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