Questions for Door-Knockers
Zimmerman, James, The Humanist
THEY'VE SEARCHED for you. They've come to your door and knocked. Oh, you might not have answered. Maybe you hid in your bedroom, or peaked through the curtains, but they came nonetheless. You've seen them walking up to your door in their discount suits, clip-on ties, and clean-shaven faces. In 2008 they spent 1,488,658,249 hours doing just that. Indeed, with the possible exception of their constantly evolving policy on blood transfusions, Jehovah's Witnesses are probably better known for their door-to-door proselytizing than for anything else.
It might come as a surprise to learn, then, that for as intensely as Witnesses try to recruit new members, they try even harder to shun those who come to doubt the religion.
One of the most effective tools a religion has at its disposal is shunning. Fear of being shunned is what keeps many members loyal to a religion they no longer fully believe. And for those few who are vocal about the hypocrisy they've discovered in their former religion, shunning is a form of damage control, a preemptive maneuver that prevents the faithful--the "sheep"--from associating with those who may cause their faith to waver.
In religions, and other groups propped up by unverifiable claims, the need for shunning is apparent. Should a member come across damning information about the group, it is imperative to ex-communicate that individual hastily, lest they divulge their findings to others. Of course, merely erasing a former member from a religion's roster doesn't silence them, but it does squelch the curiosity of members in good standing. Simply inform the faithful members of a cult, sect, or religion that their best friend, brother, sister, father, or mother has been excommunicated and--viold!--suddenly, and without dissent, all in the congregation are now under theological mandate to ignore, demonize, and otherwise demean their former companion.
The word "shun" brings with it images of a by-gone era; of women in bonnets in the back woods physically turning their backs on former members; of zealots crying out that their family member is "dead to them:' But far from being relegated to bygone books and plays, shunning is vibrant and thriving in twenty-first century America.
A few years ago, my wife and I left the Jehovah's Witnesses. We did so of our own accord, without creating any enemies. We held no ill will towards anyone. We simply disagreed with some of their teachings and policies and quietly discontinued our religious activity with the local congregation. Over the year that followed, Witnesses occasionally stopped by our door to visit. The visits were brief, amicable, and even friendly at times.
The following May we celebrated our son's second birthday. Witnesses view such celebrations as sinful, but, since we weren't Jehovah's Witnesses, we saw no reason not to celebrate his birthday; much as, say, a non-Muslim sees no reason to fast during Ramadan.
But word of our small celebration traveled through the gossip chain, and eventually came to the attention of the elders. In August (over a year since we had last considered ourselves Witnesses) I received a call from an elder of my former congregation. He requested to meet with my wife and me, but I declined his offer on the basis that I saw no benefit in holding such a meeting.
But Witnesses aren't so easily deterred. The same elder called two weeks later, insistent that we meet. He explained that he knew about our birthday celebration and that the elders needed to deal with our sin. This seemed odd to me; since I was no longer a Witness, why would the elders hold me to their rules? It was as if I had quit a job and then, over a year later, received a call from my ex-boss accusing me of violating company policy during the past month.
The elder had me in a difficult spot. Had I simply declined the meeting again, the elders would have disfellowshipped (the Jehovah's Witness term for excommunication) my wife and me, meaning that all of our Witness friends and family would be barred from speaking to us ever again. …