I don’t usually do reviews of the Watchtower Society’s literature, but the November issue of the AWAKE! magazine was special because it dealt with atheists and atheism. This isn’t something that flies off the Society’s printing presses every month, and as an atheist with Witness in-laws, I just had to bite. Now that my reviews of each article dealing with atheists are over, I wanted to clarify some things and explain my conclusions about the AWAKE! in a single, cohesive article to tie it all together.
There’s one major point I need to mention before we can begin. That’s the huge gulf between the values of ex-Witnesses turned atheists like myself and the values of the Watchtower Society. I’m not talking about values like honesty, hard work, and all that. I’m talking about how both groups value information and how we form our opinions. These issues are much bigger than they might seem and can be applied to all sorts of peoples.
For this post, I’ll be focusing on what makes good reading to atheists versus what makes good reading for Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’ll also try to explain what those differences mean for both groups.
Differing Values, Or How We Know These Articles Weren’t Meant For Atheists Like You and Me
Let me hit you with something that will probably annoy any Jehovah’s Witnesses who might read this post. (Sorry, guys. I assume you came here by accident anyway.) Here’s the bomb: for the most part, the Society’s literature is less about informing its readers to help them draw their own objective conclusions about any given subject than it is about reaffirming what Jehovah’s Witnesses already think they know.
Think about that for a second. Because this is something that flies in the face of the things we skeptical atheists often value most.
This is why atheists will never appreciate anything about the Society’s literature, unless it’s a grudging admiration for its ability to convince Witnesses to take everything it says so seriously. I think that goes double for ex-Witnesses turned atheists like myself. Meanwhile, Jehovah’s Witnesses will continue to think the literature rocks because it makes them feel good about “the truth” and themselves. Which is pretty much all it’s meant to do anyway. Well, that and give them something to talk about when they knock on our doors.
For those not so familiar with the literature or who didn’t quite get what I was talking about a few paragraphs back, let me explain it another way.
The Society’s literature is written with its core audience in mind. Remember, the Society is a publishing company as well as a religious organization, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are its core audience. The Witnesses need the literature because it’s an integral part of their worship. They already know (believe, actually) that the Society’s teachings are “the truth.” So, unlike everyone else, Witnesses don’t need anyone to convince them that the Society’s teachings are “the truth.” They’re already there, man. So the literature doesn’t really need to bother with any of that. That’s what Witness parents and mentors are for.
An atheist reading their literature would not only want proof that the Society’s teachings are true, they would want proof that the evidence supporting that truth is trustworthy. What can I say? We’re a skeptical bunch. As far as the facts are concerned, Witness readers only need to know the details of the Society’s teachings so they can explain them to prospective converts. As I said, the rest is about feeling good and confident in “the truth.”1
So, in the final analysis, atheists are not their intended audience. It should surprise no one that we would react very differently to these articles than most Witnesses would.
So What The Hell Is That About Anyway?
Here’s the odd thing about the literature. Despite our ability to see through the veil, even I–as an atheist–can admit that the Society’s publications still feel informative. Especially when they aren’t being very informative at all. The books and magazines are actually pretty formulaic if you pay attention to them, but darn it all, I gotta say that the formula works. In the AWAKE! articles I reviewed, you’ll notice several strategies were used over and over again throughout2. And still, they continue to work on millions of people decade after decade. The Society is especially adept at using authority figures to help make its points, even when the expert’s credentials are more than suspect.
How the hell does that happen?
Like it or not, tweaking the facts and exploiting our emotions is one area where the Society’s authors truly excel. Jehovah’s Witnesses value the literature immensely, even seeing it as their “spiritual food.” Well, I suppose the Society telling them that the literature is their spiritual food helps. Anyway… Only someone who has a fair grasp of concepts like critical reasoning skills or the principles of debate can detect these problems with ease.
Face it. Humans may be smarter than the average chipmunk, but we’re still driven by emotion and impulses. We like to think we’re better than that, but we’re totally wrong about it. Emotion motivates us far more than anything intellectual seems to. People still do things that feel good in the short term despite knowing that these things can kill them or make them miserable in the long term. Why would we do that if we were truly driven by our intellects?
If you can tap into our emotions, then you’ve pretty much got us by the short and curlies. If you can make us want to believe your views on gods or cars or atheists, then sooner or later, we probably will. And all because it feels good when we do.
Atheists often adopt mental processes like critical reasoning skills to help us compensate for this weakness in the brain’s reasoning centers. We’re good at recognizing these mechanisms at work within ourselves. We’ve learned not to trust our impulses, especially when it comes to big issues, like religion. But these are not innate skills. We had to learn them and practice them. Even then, we can’t honestly say we use them perfectly. So we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get too cocky.
Regarding the November AWAKE! itself, it’s clear that the magazine wasn’t written with atheists in mind despite the fact that we’re its main subject. It might have been fun reading a plea from the Watchtower Society for atheists to visit their local Kingdom Hall. But that’s not what this AWAKE! was about. These articles were about making frowny faces at sad old atheists so Jehovah’s Witnesses could throw their arm around other Christians who don’t think much of us either. They’re really just a conversation starter for Witnesses that encounter people who don’t like atheists at the door.
If your Witness parents bring this issue of the AWAKE! to your house because they want to have another intervention to save you from the world or yourself, try not to sigh too loudly before you tell them you aren’t interested. Then try to use the articles to explain why it isn’t going to work…if you dare. In the meantime, if the Society publishes something that’s truly meant for atheists and skeptics, I’d like to see it. Really, I would. Curiosity would draw me right in.
Is A Publication That’s Designed To Make Jehovah’s Witnesses Feel Good About Themselves And Their Faith A Bad Thing?
You just had to ask. Thanks for that. Now I’m really in for it.
You know, it’s tempting to answer no to that question. After all, if this is what the Society’s readers want, why not give it to them? Isn’t that what other publishers do? Aren’t we just judging the Society by a double standard if we say yes?
That sounds like a good point. But the Society isn’t any old publisher, now is it? This organization claims that it is offering us the one and only truth of all truths. It claims to be on a mission to save us from the Devil, Armageddon, and even ourselves. So I say their own mission statement means they should be held to a higher standard than the average issue of the Enquirer or even The New York Times.
What if there is a god and its not very happy with those who fall for your teachings? Unless that god is talking to you personally, that’s always a possibility. So if you’re conversion tactics are dishonest–even a little bit dishonest–then you’re basically playing God and trying to make up your reader’s minds for them. You could be condemning loads of people to their doom without offering them a fair chance to figure it all out for themselves3.
How can that be moral?
I realize that some people may scoff at this by claiming that the Society’s mission is all bunk anyway, so it can’t be as big a deal as all that. But even if you don’t buy into the Society’s teachings on Armageddon and the New System of Things, the organization still asserts the authority to shape how millions of people see the world, raise their children, and live out their lives. So no matter how we view their mission statement, the Society is still asking people to stake their very lives on the opinions of its leaders4. That’s a big big big responsibility. One I’m not sure that anyone should bear without something I call full disclosure.
Full disclosure means you tell us all the facts, which you better have before you decide your beliefs are right, BTW. It’s one thing to have an opinion and try to convince others to agree with it. It’s another thing to simply assume you’re right and just kinda wing it from there, ignoring reality as you go whenever it gets in the way.
To convert others to your point of view in a responsible and honest way, you have to offer potential converts all the facts. Even the ones that might disprove your opinions. To do otherwise is either very deceptive or, at best, cowardly. Why hide the facts if you truly believe you’re right? You can still try to explain those facts away, but at the very least, you should make some effort to present them. I just don’t think the Society bothers enough with that.
Hey, I know that no one can do this perfectly, but I think it can certainly be done better. Since the Society’s writings affect the lives of millions of people, the stakes are too high for the governing body to skim over pertinent details. They simply don’t have the right to cherry pick their facts here or to play God. Yet it seem to me that they do it all the time.
Everybody deserves the opportunity to make up their own minds about what is true and what isn’t true. Skewing the details to make your arguments seem stronger than they really are isn’t cool.
I believe that the Society owes it’s readers a lot more of something that’s a whole lot better. By the governing body’s own admission, it’s not as if Jesus is popping in on their board meetings and telling them what to print. Until this starts happening, then “the truth” is entirely the product of their human brains and nothing else. In other words, “the truth” is merely their opinion and not an absolute fact. To assume otherwise is…well…a lot less than humble in my eyes. And I thought the rest of us were supposed to be the prideful ones here.
Please forward your hate mail to the comments section below. And to those I did not offend, thanks for reading.
NOTE: This is part of a series of posts about the this issue of the AWAKE!
- No soap commercial jokes please. ↩
- Stay tuned. I’ll be talking about the strategies I’ve found in the literature in more detail during another post. ↩
- Sure, they could turn to other sources, but if you claim those sources are untrustworthy because the world is run by Satan, I daresay you’re playing dirty pool. ↩
- Please don’t say that the Society is run by Jesus. Jesus doesn’t have a New York address, ya know. ↩