Clarifying Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs
Jehovah's Witnesses, the people of my ex-religion, need to do a better job of getting their dogma understood by the public. For all the sect's doorstep proselytizing, folks always get the JWs' beliefs wrong.
I have no intent to defend any JW beliefs – they're as goofy as the dogma of any other faith – but I don't mind making corrections so critics at least address actual beliefs. In that spirit, I offer two corrections:
1. Jehovah's Witnesses are not anti-medicine!
On the May 1 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Jon and guest David Barton discuss religion-related issues such as conflicts involving employers' beliefs. (Tangent: PZ Myers had much to say about the interview overall.) The discussion doesn't focus on any sect in particular, but JWs do pop up as an example of an employer objecting to the provision of employee health insurance on anti-medicine religious grounds.
Nope. Wrong sect.
Facts on Jehovah's Witnesses and medicine:
- Jehovah's Witness doctrine prohibits blood transfusions (or other intake of blood, such as ingestion).
- With the above exception, Jehovah's Witnesses are perfectly fine with modern medicine.
The blood transfusion proscription is a horribly harmful commandment. It's bad enough when adults choose to die in the name of religion, but JW children have died after being denied needed transfusions. The dogma is also founded on the most ridiculous of Biblical interpretations: the Watchtower Society insists that, somehow, maintaining the sacredness of a supposed symbol of life is more important than maintaining life itself!
But setting aside that rant (as well as the minutae of what is and isn't acceptable to JWs with regard to transfusions, and the history behind the dogma; start with the Wikipedia entry if interested), I only want to note here that there's no JW restriction against other standard medical practices. Pills, injections, X-rays, chemo, surgery (if transfusion-free!), therapies of all sorts, health insurance, whatever; it's all OK. (I should note that JWs will likely shun some woo alternative practices, like faith healing, on the grounds that it's associated with "spiritualism" or "the occult" – a rare case in which religious dogma works out for the better!)
Apparently, people confuse JWs with Christian Scientists or other faiths that do eschew medicine in favor of "the power of prayer". In actuality, a JW with pneumonia probably will pray a lot – but will also toss back the prescribed antibiotics without hesitation.
Delving a bit into tangent: Like a number of sects, JWs do prohibit illegal drugs and harmful substances like tobacco. But although you may hear otherwise, they have no prohibition against caffeine or even alcohol. Drunkenness is a no-no; alcohol itself is not. (Which is sensible enough, theologically; Jesus himself not only drank wine, he allegedly made and served it.)
2. Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in hell!
A recent episode of The Atheist Experience podcast also misrepresented a JW belief in passing. (Sorry, I was in transit and didn't note the episode number or the hosts.) During what I semi-recall was a discussion of how religious believers see other faiths, a host briefly mentioned that Jehovah's Witnesses would view the holders of other beliefs as bound for hell.
No big deal, as a minor error in passing, but it is incorrect.
Facts on Jehovah's Witnesses, hell, and the afterlife:
- Jehovah's Witnesses reject the doctrine of literal hell.
- Surprise: Jehovah's Witnesses reject the doctrine of an immortal soul!
A number of Christian sects, including Jehovah's Witnesses, equate Biblical suggestions of "hell" with simply "death". But for the JWs, the rejection of eternal torment is part of a broader belief that's definitely outside the Christian mainstream: lack of a belief in an immortal soul.
That's right: According to JW doctrine on the afterlife, when a person dies – you, me, devout JW, it doesn't matter – that person is just dead. (One minor exception: a scant 144,000 selected persons who go to heaven to serve with Jesus. We can set them aside for now.) After death, there's no wafting up to the Pearly Gates, no descent into fire and brimstone, no afterlife at all; the soul dies and ceases to exist. (Replace that religious word "soul" with "consciousness", and you'd have a downright atheistic-sounding claim!)
But wait – it's not quite all over for poor Grandma. The JWs believe that once Armageddon comes and goes, the deceased will be brought back to life during Christ's thousand-year reign. They'll have their dead bodies and dead souls recreated by Jehovah and his Godlike powers of super-memory, and will gain a final chance at judgment. Those that fail the test go back to being dead – this time, forever. (And again, that means dead dead; they don't go to heaven, and hell doesn't exist.) Those that pass judgment win the best reward package in the religion industry.
Don't take my and Wikipedia's word for it. Head to the JWs' own listing of beliefs; in the table at the bottom, you'll see links to their scriptural justifications for "The human soul ceases to exist at death", "Hell is mankind's common grave", and "Hope for [the] dead is resurrection".
So there you have it. It's interesting: blood transfusions, door-knocking, and shying away from Christmas are what people most associate with Jehovah's Witnesses. Yet the sect's biggest theological eye-opener – no immortal soul! – seems widely unrecognized.
Did I get that right?
It's been a long time since I last set foot in a Kingdom Hall (and I'm not planning a return). In my attempt to correct others, I hope I'm not creating new errors. If a practicing JW (or anyone) sees a mistake in the above, let me know.
(Via comment, that is. Please don't ring my doorbell on Saturday morning...)