Having been born and raised a Jehovah's Witness, I was interested to learn recently of your upcoming PBS film KNOCKING. I've long been a fan and supporter of PBS for its superior and informative programming, and my email to you is in the spirit of keeping up PBS's high standards.
-- Alan Feurbacher's email to Joel Engardia of Knocking.org:
First a bit of background on me. My family has been involved with the Witnesses since my paternal grandfather, in 1918, stood overnight on his porch with a shotgun, protecting a near-dead Bible Student colporteur who had been tarred and feathered in his small Oklahoma town of Shattuck.
The townsmen were caught up in the fever of WWI and did their patriotic "duty". Grandpa never became a Bible Student, but grandma did in 1920, and was, using Jehovah's Witness jargon, "of the anointed".
My dad was born in 1917, and grandma nearly died of the Spanish influenza while carrying him. He became a member of the Brooklyn Bethel staff in 1938 and stayed there until he married my mom (born 1927) in 1946.
He quickly rose up the Bethel ladder, and became friends with a number of men who today are top Watchtower officials. Today the President and Vice President of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania remember my dad fondly. He died in 2001.
I was born in 1951, and of course was brought up in the Witness religion. In 1954, Barbara Anderson (who wrote you a few days ago) was a 14-year-old who appeared at the Kingdom Hall in Hempstead, New York, where my family attended JW meetings. My dad was the Congregation Servant. My mom befriended Barbara and they remained close friends until Barbara left the JWs around 1997. Today she's like my big sister.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Watchtower Society encouraged the JW community to believe that 1975 would probably bring the long-awaited battle of Armageddon. I didn't go to college, after graduating high school in 1969, because I was caught up in the fever of that belief. However, I went to college in 1978, after the 1975 date proved wrong.
I graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982 with a BS in electrical engineering. I now have an MS in that field, and work for an international semiconductor company, designing microchips that are used in everything from cell phones and hard disk drives to Nintendos and Sony Play Stations.
While at MIT, I took an anthropology course, and had to write a term paper. I chose to write an essay upholding my belief in the JW view of Noah's Flood, using the notion taught by the Watchtower that the spread of languages from Mesopotamia after the Flood proved that it was a real, historical event. I was happy to have the use of MIT's extensive library facilities.
Unfortunately, when I researched the many references in Watchtower publications to secular material that supposedly supported its teachings, I found that the majority were unusable, because they either failed to support the point being made, or even contradicted the Society's claim.
Eventually I wrote a paper on a different subject, but this experience taught me that the Watchtower Society is guilty of much scholastic dishonesty. This, along with my disappointment in the failure of the Society's predictions for 1975, led to my quitting the Witnesses, for all practical purposes, by about 1980.
In 1975 I married a JW "pioneer sister". We had one daughter, born in 1985. By 1986, after my wife came to realize that I was never again going to be an active JW, she emotionally gave up on me, figuring that it wasn't worth her investment to love a man who would soon die at Armageddon.
We divorced in 1994-96.Over the years I did a great deal of research into the beliefs and history of Jehovah's Witnesses. My research completely confirmed what I had accidentally learned back in 1980 -- that the JWs as an organization are intellectually dishonest.
I've been active on the Internet since 1991, learning and writing on JW-related topics and plenty of other things. Today you can find how much writing I've done by typing my name in any Net search engine.
In 1997 I married an ex-JW I had met on the Net several years earlier. In that year also, by an odd series of coincidences, I learned that Barbara Anderson had left the JWs, and we soon connected. Through her, it was confirmed for me that many rumors of mishandling child molestation issues by the Society were true.
For example, in 1984, Governing Body member Leo Greenlees was convicted by the rest of the JW Governing Body of molesting a young boy. Greenlees was forced to leave Bethel but was never reported to the police, and he was assigned to be a "Special Pioneer" for the Society until his death a few years later. Since 1997, I've worked with Barbara and others behind the scenes trying to force the Watchtower Society into a position where it had to properly deal with this serious problem.
As you know, JWs practice shunning. Shunning is done on both formal and informal levels. The formal level entails both "disfellowshipping" and "disassociation". In the first case, a person goes through a trial of sorts and is judged unrepentant of some sin, and then formally expelled from the JW organization.
In the second case, the person is declared to have removed himself from the JW organization. In practice, the two terms amount to the same thing -- shunning of the expelled person by all JWs. Informal shunning covers a range of possibilities, from a JW simply deciding not to associate with someone, to the Society's writing a letter to a family or congregation suggesting that a person be informally shunned.
People who join the JWs are not told that they'll be required to completely shun someone they might love simply because a group of local elders applies the "disfellowshipped" or "disassociated" label to them. The practice is glossed over in the "Bible studies" leading up to formal baptism into the JW organization. Nor is a convert told that one of the baptismal vows is a legally binding one of absolute loyalty to the JW organization.
Children who are baptized as JWs -- even as young as 7 or 8 years -- are treated exactly the same as adults in terms of shunning. There are many stories of young teenagers doing the normal teenage stupid things, and ending up being shunned for life by their entire families.
I have a good deal of experience with shunning and the wrecked families it can create. My wife (and her youngest sister) has been informally shunned by her JW brother and sister since she quit the JWs in 1985 and divorced her abusive husband.
About 1988, her brother wrote a letter to the Society asking how he should treat her. They told him not to pursue disfellowshipping, but to informally shun her. This has caused immense pain all around, especially to their parents, who are two of the dearest people on the planet.
In 1999, my daughter, at age 14, left her JW mother and came to live with me. She was never baptized, but is now informally shunned by the young people she grew up with, and has a strained relationship with her JW mother.
In 2002, as a result of Barbara Anderson's appearance on NBC Dateline, my JW parents (my mom and stepdad; my mom and dad were divorced in 1969) learned of my involvement with her and the Silentlambs organization. They immediately disinherited me and have shunned me ever since.
Beginning about 1997, my parents began shunning Barbara Anderson, after a friendship of more than 40 years. Her only crime? Ceasing to attend JW meetings.
This practice of shunning obviously creates much unnecessary pain and is extremely destructive. About 1994, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) produced a documentary called "Children of Jehovah", which largely consisted of interviews with young people who quit, or were expelled from the JWs, and whose parents shunned them. One can hardly keep a dry eye watching this film. All of this shunning, of course, is done at the direction of Watchtower leaders.
My point: any proper film on Jehovah's Witnesses needs to emphasize that shunning is an odious practice and is part and parcel of being a JW.
I have the impression, Joel, that you were raised a JW, or at least, had a great deal of exposure to the religion while growing up. Hence your concern about showing that JWs are really not a cartoonish religion.
While JWs as individuals are certainly not cartoonish (most of my large family are JWs, so no one has to convince me of this), the Watchtower Society's beliefs and practices over the years have included many, many cartoonish images. Here is a small list, off the top of my head:
*A 1961 Watchtower magazine article, "How can girls guard against temptation in this sex-crazy world?" compared the way young girls and young men interact sexually to the way cattle do. This demeaning article invokes belly laughs from non-JWs.
*In the early 1950s, the long-standing teaching that God lives on the star Alcyone in the Pleiades constellation was formally jettisoned.
*In the early 1950s, the long-standing claim that vaccinations are a work of the devil was abandoned. This was to facilitate travel by Watchtower officials, who had to have certificates of vaccination for international travel.
*In 1945, the notion that vaccinations violate "the everlasting covenant between God and Noah" was applied to blood transfusions, and over the next decade this was gradually built into a complete ban on transfusions.
*In 1929, the teaching that the Great Pyramid of Gizeh was built at God's direction and was an important marker in "Bible chronology" was changed to be that the Great Pyramid was the work of the devil.
*Beginning in the 1920s, in the magazine "The Golden Age", the Society hawked all sorts of quack medical ideas, claiming that the medical establishment was a complete fraud.
*In the 1920s, the Society recommended a bizzare, quack machine called "The Electronic Radio Biola" as a cure for all sorts of chronic diseases.
*In 1876, the founder and first president of the Watchtower Society, Charles Taze Russell, began claiming that Christ had returned invisibly to the earth in 1874. In 1943, the Society changed this date to 1914. Russell's teaching was based on the failed prediction of his mentor, an Adventist named Nelson Barbour, that Christ would return visibly in 1874.
*In 1877, Russell claimed that Armageddon would begin in 1878. When that failed to happen, he claimed it did, but invisibly.
*In 1877, Russell predicted the complete end of all nations by 1914. This became a staple of Bible Student teaching. When that failed to occur, Russell's followers gradually decided that the end had occurred, but invisibly.
*In 1877, Russell predicted that the long-awaited "resurrection of the saints" would occur in 1878.
*In 1878, when "the saints" failed to appear, Russell predicted that they'd appear in 1881. When that failed, he claimed that they were indeed resurrected, but invisibly.
When "the end" failed to appear in 1914 but WWI began, Russell claimed that Armageddon had begun, and predicted it would end in 1918.
*In 1918, Joseph Rutherford, second president of the Watchtower Society, began an advertising campaign called "Millions Now Living Will Never Die". He predicted that Armageddon would occur in 1925.
*Between 1918 and 1925, many Bible Students prepared for "the end" by selling their property and engaging in preaching for the "Millions" campaign. When 1925 rolled past uneventfully, nearly 3/4 of the Bible Students quit.
*After 1925, Rutherford emphasized that very soon, the "ancient worthies" such as Abraham, Samuel and David would soon be resurrected and take over the governing of the earth.
*In 1929, the Society began work on a mansion for Rutherford to live in, in San Diego. This came to be called Beth Sarim.
*About 1930, Rutherford formally deeded Beth Sarim to "the ancient worthies" and described how his followers should recognize them.
Beth Sarim was initially described in Watchtower publications as a home for "the ancient worthies".
Today the Society describes Beth Sarim as a home for Rutherford. According to some sources, that's probably closer to the truth, because Rutherford, as a drunk and adulterer, was a thorn in the side of his underlings.
*In the early 1940s, the Society built a bomb shelter for Rutherford on a property near Beth Sarim and called it Beth Shan. They later claimed that they never built such a thing.
*In 1967 the Society banned organ transplants, calling the practice cannibalism. The policy was reversed in 1979.
*In 1971 the Society began teaching that the physical heart is the seat of human emotion, and carries on "conversations" with the physical brain, which determines what a person does. This teaching was illustrated at the 1971 district conventions with a giant green brain and a giant red heart on the speaker's platform, where during the introductory speech, a dialog was played with the heart and brain "talking" to one another. During the speech, the heart would light up when it "talked" and the brain would light up when it "conversed".
*In 1971, the Society began a program of instructing the JW community what to do and not do sexually, in embarrassing detail. Oral and anal sex were described in public talks, and condemned. Over the next few years this resulted in the opposite of what they intended in some cases, and in others to the disintegration of marriages. After a number of lawsuits by injured non-JW marriage partners, the Society largely abandoned these teachings in the early 1980s.
*In 1966, the Society began predicting that "big things" would come not later than 1975. By the next year, this had grown into a nearly definite prediction that the battle of Armageddon would come by 1975. When that failed to happen, the rapid growth of the JWs in the years between 1967 and 1975 reversed.
*In 1993 to 1995, upon realizing that its teachings about "the generation of 1914" were about to go down the tubes, the Society drastically revised its ideas, and made the idea virtually meaningless. Most JWs barely noticed.
*In 2002, about a week before the NBC Dateline program on child molestation problems in the JWs aired, the Society directed the elders of three congregations to disfellowship four people who were prominently to appear on the show: Barbara Anderson, William Bowen, and Carl and Barbara Pandelo. The Society claimed to the news media that the disfellowshippings had nothing to do with Dateline.
With respect to the cartoonish nature of the "1914 doctrine" of JWs, Carl Sagan made an interesting comment:
"Doctrines that make no predictions are less compelling than those which make correct predictions; they are in turn more successful than doctrines that make false predictions. "
But not always. One prominent American religion confidently predicted that the world would end in 1914. Well, 1914 has come and gone, and -- while the events of that year were certainly of some importance -- the world does not, at least so far as I can see, seem to have ended. There are at least three responses that an organized religion can make in the face of such a failed and fundamental prophecy. They could have said, "Oh, did we say `1914'? So sorry, we meant `2014.' A slight error in calculation.
Hope you weren't inconvenienced in any way." But they did not. They could have said, "Well, the world would have ended, except we prayed very hard and interceded with God so He spared the Earth." But they did not. Instead, they did something much more ingenious. They announced that the world had in fact ended in 1914, and if the rest of us hadn't noticed, that was our lookout.
It is astonishing in the face of such transparent evasions that this religion has any adherents at all. But religions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof. The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration were needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry. [Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain,Ballantine Books, New York, 1982, pp. 332-3]
I've often thought that the leaders of Jehovah's Witnesses are reminiscent of the lunatic rebel leader in Woody Allen's film "Bananas", where once he got power, he instituted all sorts of lunatic changes.
I hope that my comments give you some food for thought, and that you'll take them into account as you finalize KNOCKING. In my opinion, Jehovah's Witnesses are an extremely destructive sect, because they often destroy families and long-standing friendships. Their misguided policy on blood transfusions has killed thousands of innocents. Examined critically, many of their beliefs and much of their history are cartoonish by anyone's standards.
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