Jehovah's Witnesses to youths: "Stop learning stuff!"

2 Dec 2009

Time for another bit of Jehovah's Witness nonsense:

A few weeks back, PZ Myers pointed out a scan from the sect's Watchtower magazine, warning young people of some of the temptations that might lead them into sin. It includes some "dangers" you'd expect from a religious bunch, including

  • Someone dares you to smoke a cigarette
  • You are invited to a party where alcohol and drugs will be freely available
  • "Why don't you post your profile on the Internet?" someone suggests
  • A friend invites you to watch a movie that features violence or immorality


No need to laugh that off just yet. Some of those do pose potentially real concern, not just of the scriptural infraction variety, to people sufficiently young or careless enough. Pretty mild dangers (with the exception of drugs and alcohol), but still things that, say, parents of young kids have to grapple with. 

But then there's the one that provokes the ire of PZ and his readers:

  • A well-intentioned teacher urges you to pursue higher education at a university


Yes, that's right: The Jehovah's Witnesses genuinely do discourage their followers from getting (non-JW) education. 

I see from the recent Watchtower that not much has changed in JW-dom since my departure in the mid-80s. Personally, I went and did everything that this Watchtower bit warns against, and much more. (The exception is drug use, other than alcohol; I steered clear of drugs out of personal choice.) I haven't regretted any of the Watchtower's "dangers"; I wouldn't have had much of a life if I had kept following its sad advice.

I also got one of those dangerous secular educations, and I'm glad for that too. I'm not aware that the JWs have or ever had an official policy of active discouragement – I know it's not a disfellowshipping offense – but as a youth I was certainly on the target end of JW expectations to learn a trade or some such, and not go to a "worldly" university. Trades like masonry or carpentry seemed to carry a seal of approval, at least among the individuals I dealt with. 

Why technical and similar vocational trades? It's easy to see many reasons. First there's an assumption that these won't carry the spiritual risks of a higher-education profession, what with the latter's liberal free thought and book-larnin' an' stuff. (Remember, too, that it was "Christ the Carpenter", not "Christ the Associate Professor of Zoology".) The JW honchos may prefer that congregation members have predictable, easily-understood professions that keep them rooted locally, as opposed to fuzzier vocations ("just what does an economist do, Brother Smith?") that may send them studying or working around the world, exposing them to Lord-knows-what kind of dangerous ideas. And, of course, a job that requires years of study in a university, or crazy irregular working hours, takes a Witness away from the all-important meetings and preaching work. 

I believe there was an even wackier imperative behind the push toward trades. The JWs (or at least some) think that the coming "New Kingdom" of restored Paradise on Earth will still require bricklayers and carpenters and gardeners etc., but there'll be no need in Paradise for doctors and scientists. So, you see, they're really just "future-proofing" their careers.

I don't know how uniform such aspects of non-doctrinal JW "culture" are throughout the organization, but at least that was the tone in my neck of the woods. I'm so glad whenever I hear of JWs who broke out of that "keep 'em uneducated" mold and pursued whatever education, profession, or trade they desired. 


Anyone can take things to the far end of the spectrum in any type of group.  But, I know plenty of JW who went to college, paid heed to the warnings of dangers in the college area, still got their degrees in the fields they desired (i. e. -lawyer, chemist, not just "trades") and still kept their spirituality intact.  Was it easy, NO, Did they need to make an extra effort to achieve their goals, while putting spiritual things FIRST, YES.


My sister has her Masters in Chemistry, no small feat, and she is an active witness, in good standing in her congregation.  Personally, could I have handled her load to achieve that, No.  It can be done if you have the desire, the love for Jehovah and the personal fortitude to make a commitment to do what has to be done and keep yourself in a safe enviroment.


Sorry your experience was not such that you could accomplish what you wanted, without giving up your beliefs.


defaithed's picture

Certainly, one can go on to higher education and learn a profession or a science, while remaining a JW. What's interesting, though, is that the "extra effort" you mention is required partly because the JWs themselves make it hard for people to balance the education and the faith. One would think that a religious organization would be pleased to have its members climb the ladders of education, status, earnings, and influence; that would reflect well on the organization. But it would seem the JW sect doesn't have the confidence that such individuals will remain members. 

I'm not sure whether your last comment is directed at me, but responding to it anyway: I, too, could have accomplished education while retaining the JW beliefs; I felt mild pressure against education, but was never tied down or even directly told to steer clear of universities! Shedding the beliefs came purely out of my own reasoning, and I honestly don't see the education as being a key force behind it. (That is, if I had gone right from high school into a career in waste handling, I think I still would have ditched religion. Though I admit I can't run an alternate-reality experiment to test that!)

I pursued higher education, learned how to think and got out of the religion.  So I guess that means they were right...:-)  But the reality is that the goal is institutional survival for them, and keeping their followers dumb and "happy" (I've actually never met a less happy group of people than JW's), keeps the institution intact.  Thank goodness I found my way out.  You can be sure that my kids who still go to the KH with their father WILL be getting higher educations.

defaithed's picture

I hope your kids do go on to higher education, and gain the same critical thinking skills you did. Thanks for the positive note!

The reality is that while some JWs do get an eduction, they aren't in the norm and tend to fall into two categories

  • they're already viewed as "spiritually weak"
  • they come from a "powerful" JW family

JW elders who encourage their children to go to college/university and who advise others to do the same will likely be removed as an elder. This was taught at the last elders' meeting I attended with the Circuit Overseer.

The WT Society is afraid of educated people who will be able to rationally see through flawed logic of their teachings.

Yes, anyone encouraging someone to put themselves in a dangerous situation should not be in a position of oversite.


Going to college/university - meaning - staying on campus and being immersed in the total enviroment, is totally different than just attending only the classes at a college/university and living elsewhere out of the "college enviroment".  Even those who are not JW's admit that living on campus and the college enviroment is NOT safe.  You can get a higher education without putting yourself in harms way.  It has even been mentioned in the our meetings, due to the job market, additional education may be necessary to be able to attain a job and support yourself.  Sound reasoning in making the decision of how and where you get that education is what is encouraged.


I think it ironic that you are leveling accusations against Jehovah org., yet you pose as a wolf in sheeps clothing.  You fraudulently pose as a true servant of Jehovah, a shepherd of the flock, you sit a position of trust of those attending your kingdom hall and look to you as their elder.  Yet you lay in wait, speaking twisted things, giving just enough facts so that it has a ring of truth.  I pity you and have full trust that Jehovah who sees all, will execute justice swiftly.



defaithed's picture

With regard to living away on a campus, I'm not sure what sort of "dangers" you're talking about –physical dangers of living in a community removed from home, or some sort of "spiritual" danger? Either way, I would think your suggestion of "sound reasoning in making the decision" applies here too: A given campus/college environment might be less physically or morally safe than a youth's current environment, or might be more safe. Like anything, it depends on the specifics...

Re the poster you're replying to: Only he can answer this, but I got the impression that he's an ex-Witness, not a currently-serving elder as you suggest.

Incidentally, what's the organization's current ETA on that "swift" justice you mention? Is it true that the "within a generation of 1914" schedule for Armageddon was dropped in 1995? 

I wandered across this blog through your link at Pharyngula.  I'm glad I did.

 Yes, it is true that they modified their beliefs in regards to the "generation" from 1914.  They've come to redefine the word "generation" to mean something much like they use to define a creation "day";  an unspecified period of time that is charecterized by certain traits of the end times.  I'll admit to being a little hazy on the specifics, its been ten years.

Incidently, although there are many things about my upbringing that are upsetting, I think the one that has caused the most long-lasting anger is being denied access to higher education.  When my mother found out, after I had left the organization in my mid-twenties, that I had enrolled in college she said "All of the education in the world won't keep you from dying at Armeggedon."  That was probably close to the last time we've spoken.

defaithed's picture

Yes, it is true that they modified their beliefs in regards to the "generation" from 1914. They've come to redefine the word "generation" to mean something much like they use to define a creation "day";  an unspecified period of time that is charecterized by certain traits of the end times. 

Hello! That "generation" bit always was a bit fuzzy. I don't know whether the JWs once (such as immediately after 1914) defined a generation as "20 or 30 years", i.e., the usual way we think of the time between one generation and the next. I do know from first-hand experience that during the 70s and 80s, "generation" was explained as "a lifespan", which still allowed a bit of breathing room as the decades since 1914 kept passing. 

I wouldn't be the least surprised if, as you suggest, "generation" has now lost even that meaning, and is just an undefined length of time. To be honest, I would have loved to be at the first meeting where that change was announced to a congregation! 

Incidently, although there are many things about my upbringing that are upsetting, I think the one that has caused the most long-lasting anger is being denied access to higher education.  When my mother found out, after I had left the organization in my mid-twenties, that I had enrolled in college she said "All of the education in the world won't keep you from dying at Armeggedon."  That was probably close to the last time we've spoken.

That is truly sad. My own "falling away from the truth" was so much easier than it's been for many ex-Witnesses, as only my immediate family were witnesses, and all fell away at about the same time. So we didn't have any tragic family breakup (well, at least not for that reason!). Whenever I'm tempted to tell an uncertain believer "Just leave, man", I have to remember that it's not equally easy for everyone.

Do you listen to The Atheist Experience podcast/TV show? It seems to that about the most frequent call-in question they receive is from ex-believers wanting to know how to break away from a religion without their families blowing up. What's even sadder: the show hosts know, from experience, that there is no surefire way to avoid this...

Regarding your mother, perhaps she and other Witnesses with her mindset took the reinvention of the "generation" timeline as something akin to a last-minute stay of execution from the Governor, a temporary reprieve that gives sinners one more chance to repent and be pardoned. Maybe they're genuinely gladdened by the new timeline. I don't know. I can no longer put myself in the shoes of people hoping (?) for the world to end...

defaithed's picture

[quote=Mark Hunter]JW elders who encourage their children to go to college/university and who advise others to do the same will likely be removed as an elder. This was taught at the last elders' meeting I attended with the Circuit Overseer.[/quote]

Very interesting. I never heard that myself – then again, as I was in "the Truth" until only age 18 or so, I didn't pay a heck of a lot of attention to internal organizational or political aspects of the congregations. 

You say "last elders' meeting I attended"; does that mean you were an elder? If so, I'll bet you've got fascinating stories to tell. (Got a book or website of your own?) 

I'm still wondering about what was, to me, one of the greatest mysteries at the time: How did those among the 144,000 "know" of their special status? Or how did they convince the organization (is there someone in charge of granting/denying requests for recognition as one of the 144,000?) I believe I even worried once or twice that I could be one of them, yet be too ignorant or too sinful to know it! 

Should any knowledgeable ex-elder or overseer etc. with an insight pass by here, please fill us in!

Yep, except when they need more attorneys, doctors and other professionals in the org. Or if you're of the 'privileged' class. Check out the McCabe family in San Diego:

I finally went to school at 40 years old, after being jw for 23 years. It took me another 3 years to get a clue and quit the religion. sheesh

defaithed's picture

I would expect that the JWs would be especially keen to have doctors as members – captive physicians who'll work with the "no blood transfusion" insanity. Then again, a JW doctor trying to push that doctrine onto non-JW patients would be a disaster. Hmm, is there even such a thing as a JW surgeon? 

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defaithed's picture

Wow, this is quite a unique and thorough resource. In many lands, employers aren't supposed to ask about employees' religious practices – and yet, the employers then have to deal with all the thorny issues those practices raise.

I see there are plenty of miscellaneous juicy court cases covered too (JWs assaulting people who don't take their magazines? Wow, I never saw such fun while "out in service"). I expect I'll have comments to make on some of those cases as I wade through the site. 


I think it is more to do with what's more important. If the end of the world as we know it does come soon, who wants to say, "Wow, amn't I glad I studied for seven years to be a lawyer, then another seven at a junior position in the company, slogging day in day out, from 7 in the morning until 7 at night? Sure I had a fancy car and home, but it's all ashes now". From reading the previous posts some feel that unless you have a "higher" education, studying loading stress points on bridges, or how to programme computers, it's as if your brain and power of reason is somehow stunted and you will remain a Neanderthal. Where would we be if everyone wanted to be a doctor? Who would empty your bin? There are many honourable jobs a man can where he can live a simple life, feed his family and have self-respect. Education is a life-long experience, not simply confined to a few terms at university, perhaps studying a specialised subject. The world would be a better place if people simply learned good manners and cast off the cynicism and sarcasm. I don't think there is such a university course available.

defaithed's picture

Yes, the corporate "rat race" path may have seemed foolish to some people if the world suddenly ends – and it also seems foolish to some even is no such end comes. It's not for everyone, and a more blue collar trade can be, exactly as you say, a respectable and great way to both contribute to the community and earn a living. (A very good living in many cases, too!)

I don't see anything inferior about such trades. Nor is there anything wrong with an adult proposing such a path to a young person, based on sound reasons. Say, a Jehovah's Witness elder telling a youngster, "I know you're looking at going into law, but I wonder whether you've at least considered some other options. I've been a builder for 40 years; let me tell you why I love this work..." Followed by a frank discussion of the good and bad of different careers, based on fact and experience and, sure, even plenty of opinion. What's wrong with that? Nothing!

The problem facing some religious youths is a different one, though: Adults steering them into career paths not because of practical and reality-based considerations (education cost, job market, expected pay, job satisfaction, etc.), but because of ridiculous faith-based concerns. Like fear of universities' effect on belief. Or even a calculation of what job skills will be most in demand after Biblical Doomsday!

That's just wrong. I think we're agreed on that.

Like the above posters pointed out, pursuing higher education's always been strongly discouraged (though this scan would be the first time I've ever actually seen it in print that blatantly). There are the powerful families... the ones who somehow do go to school, have kids who do things that are "bad" (whether more minor like having an aura of unsavoriness or more major like drinking and fornicating) yet somehow get forgiven and have no reproach on their families. Those people can get their higher education without question but those are actually rare. While I've seen and heard of such families, they haven't been consistently in every congregation I was ever in (and I was in a LOT, thanks to moving around a lot growing up). I remember the numerous talks, both at the meetings AND in the assemblies and conventions about the dangers of pursuing higher education. The things they always SAID were the obvious rhetoric about "why waste your time pursuing wordly things when we have so little time before the end; focus on spiritual things (i.e. the ministry work) instead".

In my experience what was always unsaid, yet VERY STRONGLY FELT were a few discrete, yet related issues. First, pursuing higher education for the sake of learning makes the implicit statement that you value secular education and are potentially willing to believe in or at least listen to the lies of the world (remember that wordly history and archaeology are so often wrong, wordly science is so often wrong, all secular knowledge except as quoted in the Awake is wrong or at least potentially wrong). Second, pursuing higher education for the sake of having a higher wage-earning potential implies that you don't believe in the immediacy of Armageddon or the last days - ergo, you're not really putting faith in what the faithful and discrete slave is telling us about us being in the absolute last days of the last days. Third, and tied into the higher-education-for-sake-of-earning motivation, OBVIOUSLY, you wouldn't feel the need to get a decent job and make a decent living if you weren't putting material things first - put the kingdom first and god will provide; clothe his followers like the lilies of the field, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Fourth and finally, pursuing higher education for the purpose of acheiving a higher social or socioeconomic status would be showing fear of man and placing value into worldly status which would be an EXTREMELY unacceptable attitude amongst any of Jehoprah's people. While the last point is probably the LEAST likely to EVER be a bona fide motivator for JWs seeking higher education, I can guarantee from listening to people talk that it seemed to always be a given assumption that people who pursued higher education often (if not always) had such a motivation.


The thing is that they've gone back-and-forth so many times on this point, but they've always consistently come back to the anti-higher education stance for the simple reason that education makes you think and thinking is inimical to JW theology. My brother and I came from families that had been born and raised "in the truth". We lost everyone we ever knew by walking away from the faith, but we HAD to because we both finally hit a point where we couldn't pretend to believe anymore. It was our inability to stop thinking and our insatiable intellectual curiosity that drove us to learn everything we could - even about the "truth". Reading the bible cover to cover over and over didn't strengthen my faith in the bible, it destroyed it. Sending bears to maul kids to death for making fun of a bald man? Genociding all of humanity AND the animals (how sacred was their bloodlife THEN) in a global flood because people were partying too much? Denying salvation to all the gentiles and thus condemning them to permanent death until the Israelites rejected Jesus and we all got offered salvation thanks to their bad? Women being permanently condemned to second-class status and lifelong subservience and deference just because they were born with different genitalia? Lot's daughters raping him and having his kids? HUH?? Abraham being willing to murder his son because Jehovah told him to? REALLY? JOB! THE WORST STORY IN THE WHOLE BIBLE!!! SO MANY TALKS GIVEN ABOUT JOB'S FAITHFUL EXAMPLE. His children murdrered, all the suffering and torment he was put through, and for what? To prove a point to Satan? Really? Perfect god's perfect justice let him sit back and watch as Satan not only sadistically tortured Job for no reason, but MURDERED HIS CHILDREN. Then, when Job gets his rewards for his faith, he gets ten new kids? WHAT!? Even as a little kid I couldn't help thinking "but why didn't he just resurrect his old kids... no matter how many new kids he had, they'd never be able to replace his old kids... they're different people... they're still dead...". Thinking is the JWs' (and all religions, really) worst enemy. THIS is the TRUE fundamental reason why they hate and will always hate higher education. True; they need professionals. They need lawyers and doctors and even scholars that are familiar with ancient languages and the archaeological and historical context of the times that biblical events took place in to properly translate and understand the ancient texts. The need for educated professionals though will NEVER outweigh the need for an uneducated, mentally pliant mass of people who not only don't question whatever they're told, but lack the critical thinking skills to do so were they ever so inclined.

defaithed's picture

Lots of good stuff in your comment. Let me reply to a couple of items:

First, I salute you and your brother for leaving "the Truth" in order to be honest to yourselves, even when it meant losing your community. You overcame the wall that keeps lots of people locked inside. 

Reading the bible cover to cover over and over didn't strengthen my faith in the bible, it destroyed it.

Amen. Ask a bunch of atheists what's the one book they'd like Christians to read, and you'll get a lot of answers – but one very common answer will be The Bible. The whole thing, not passages cherry-picked by a pastor. There's no better reading to make a believer queasy about his faith than all those blood-soaked, hate-filled, women-loathing scriptures that the sermons gloss over. Unfortunately, few believers actually will read the whole thing...

Job? Yep, a horrible story. The pastors and elders, following the biblical authors' lead, tell the story as if Job were the center of the universe. But how about this: Try telling the story from the point of view of one of Job's kids:

"You're a kid. God lets the Devil kill you as part of some bet they're playing out. You aren't consulted or divinely 'visited' or anything. There's no test of your faith. No coming to 'know God' and living your life accordingly. No choices for you to make, no options, no anything. The story's about Job; you're a prop. A dead prop. Later, Job gets new kids, but you stay dead. The end."

Lovely. Now repeat the above obscenity for all the first-born in Egypt, for every child on Earth in Noah's flood, and on and on. The Bible's message: "Unless God picks you out as a main character in his little play, you're lower to him than a tissue. Now shut up and die already."

Actually Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians who believe that the Bible is God's word and that Jesus is their Savior. This Christian denomination dates back to the late 19th century. 

defaithed's picture

Why, yes, that's correct. And widely known.

The article relates to "A well-intentioned teacher urges you to pursue higher education at a university" ... not a gener alization ... though you are correct.

I have never come across this intention, but I was dis-communicated (is that the correct term) "chicked out, way back in the late 80's. Still I can't remember any push to stop further education.

But there again I don't read The WT or Awake anymore...

Thanks for the update though...brought back memories 

Actually, the Jehovah's Witnesses are not Christians, as defined. They are a cult.

defaithed's picture

JWs believe Jesus Christ existed, was the son of God, performed the miracles attributed to him in the Bible, died to atone for humanity's sins, will judge mankind at Armageddon, and will rule over a paradise Earth afterward. Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Savior, the role model for all, blah blah blah.

Er, if that's not Christian, then what is?

Re cult: Yes, the JWs are a cult. They're a small cult which, along with many other cults both large and small, make up the very large cult called Christianity.

What a crock of bull.  I really think these guys have it wrong I'm sorry.  Jesus would not say "Stop learning stuff!"  Can we think rationally about this for a minute?  Good grief.


defaithed's picture

Then again... Did Jesus tell his followers to learn all they could? To question, to doubt, to go out in the world and observe all they could, and to use – or develop – methods for separating truth from fiction?

I can't think of anything Jesus said along those lines...

I think I just laughed for about 10 minutes. The world would really end if someone received an education about their religions.

I am not a JW but have a dear old man who is that faithfully visits me at least once a week. He truly cares about people and me as well. He is different than the others Ive had come who blatantly push their religion and beliefs. My point is that although their doctrine isnt perfect for the most part they are trying to help people. The same as any religion is not perfect or flaw free... however the same goes for those who call themselves atheists...although they may not belong to an organized group with an official doctrine or theology of life, they still have their own personal one they use to make choices with. No one is perfect but most of us for the most part want to do whats right... can we not just try and look for the good in each other? Eddie

defaithed's picture

I have no doubt that proselytizing work can go much beyond shallow "Follow my religion or else!" haranguing. Sometimes, whatever the truth or falsity of supernatural claims being made, what's happening at the core is simply well-meaning people making personal connections to other well-meaning people. Back when I, too, was "out in service" for the JWs and knocking on doors, I saw cases in which a householder welcoming the offered "home Bible study" was merely a lonely (often elderly) person wanting companionship. Yet when it became clear that the "student" wasn't planning to make a commitment and join the religion, the JW visitors didn't necessarily leave in a huff. Lots of people are just too nice at heart to do such a thing! And so a somewhat sweet but sad charade would play on, with people connecting as good people do – yet always with a "Bible study" shoehorned in, despite it doing nobody any good. 

I certainly understand that people, religious ones too, are often trying to do what's right. But let's take things back to the topic of the post. Trying to "save" a lonely stay-at-home senior through Bible study, to no net end beyond hours spent chatting over tea, is one thing. But trying to "save" a high-schooler from a higher education, steering that youngster away from exciting and useful life paths just as he/she should be excitedly exploring those, is something else entirely. It's harmful. As such, we're only doing good when we point that out!

Nothing against the faith and beliefs on the JW's... but shouldn't the youth be up to date and educated on basic essential stuff like using the internet and all? I do agree that staying away some things can prevent a person from committing a sin. But I think that everyone also has the right to learn new things and be aware of how things are these modern times.

When I was young (1970s-80s) I remember reading in the Watchtower and Awake magazines that a college education should not be considered. None of my JW friends went to college and neither did I. But I eventually left the faith in my late teens because I began questioning their teachings out loud (not just internally), and my mother kicked me out of the house. I enrolled in an occupational school to learn computers and office administration because it was very affordable. But I always regretted not going to college. Now at 48 years old, I'm a college freshman and full-time student, and the anthropology, human biology and psychology classes I'm taking are expanding my mind even more (exactly what the JWs are afraid of). I haven't told my deeply devout mother yet because I know her response won't be a supportive one. But I'm proud of this step and my husband & friends are too! 

defaithed's picture

Hey, I'm proud of you too! Back to school at 48 – that's great.

I remember that feeling of growth – and even sense of fun – that comes from opening the mind to fields of study that had been discouraged by the faith. Keep growing and keep enjoying!


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