Do Jehovah’s Witnesses think their religion is embarassing?

by | June 3, 2014

It’s a running joke among those who know me that I apparently give off a vibe of being in dire need of salvation, because proselytizers are drawn to me like flies to candy. I have been approached – unsolicited – by people who wanted to share the Good News with me about Pentecostalism, Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, Bahá’í, Buddhism, and Scientology (though, admittedly, the last one was in a grey area with whether it was really unsolicited or not), among others. And I’m not just talking about being approached at the usual places, like bus stops, or knocking on my door on a Sunday; one dude actually walked right in to a private hotel in Barbados, right past the security guards, right up to pool side and sat on the deck chair next to me to talk about Mormonism – completely unsolicited – with me sitting there with my shirt off and a shandy (beer & lemonade) in my hand, impressed enough by his stones to at least give him a listen. It happened so often I used to keep a stack of Awake! and The Watchtower magazines, in such perfect sequential order that you’d think I had a subscription (sadly not anymore; the elderly lady who used to be my pusher passed away several years ago).

So I’ve come to accept unsolicited proselytizing simply as a matter of course: I can spot ’em coming, I can brush them off politely – firmly if necessary, though it’s usually not – and, if I’ve got time, I can hear their pitch and even engage them in conversation if that’s what they want. But I’ve realized that not everyone is as comfortable with being preached at as I am, and that many are ill-prepared to deal with an aggressive evangelist. Luckily, relatively few are aggressive… but it turns out that even those who aren’t really aren’t all that honest.

In all the years I picked up my regular copy of Awake!/The Watchtower, I never really gave much thought to the packaging or presentation – it was just part of the subliminal background hum of my life, almost indistinguishable from the tinnitus. But just the other day my sister became part of the family tradition.

Unlike me, she is quite staunchly opposed to discussing religion – she is quite firmly atheist, as is the rest of my family, but she abhors discussing it. (It’s not fear – both her and my youngest brother still live mostly in Barbados, and if you think the US Bible Belt is intensely Christian… yikes. Both of them avoid religious debates simply because it avoids a lot of trouble there. Myself, my other brother and my dad, we all live mostly in Canada now, and we’re not afraid to trot the issue out.) At the whiff of anything religious, she’ll make an excuse and slip away. If she sees a proselytizer heading her way, she’ll go the other way.

Yet the other day, while waiting for a bus in Hamilton, she got approached by a woman handing out pamphlets. As she told it to me, she sensed the woman approaching had religion on her mind. But I suspect she lacked the wild-eyed look that a Barbadian would associate with proselytizers (believe me, Canadian street-preachers are sane, and normal-looking, compared to Barbadian ones), and this being Hamilton – home of both McMaster University and Mohawk College – it was not peculiar to have someone strolling around handing out pamphlets for some cause or another. So my sister let her guard down, and looked at the pamphlet being offered, to see if it was something she would accept.

This is what she saw on the cover of the pamphlet:

The cover of the April 2014 edition of 'Awake!' magazine, displaying only the magazine's title and date, an image of an attractive young woman looking off to one side, and a teaser for an article inside 'Why Go On?: Three reasons to keep living'

Awake! April 2014 cover

Now, I know – at a glance – what Awake! magazine is about, and who publishes it. And my sister is no fool; she knows all about The Watchtower, but we never got Awake! in Barbados (at least that I can ever recall – I actually remember thinking the JW magazines were much cooler here in Canada). (Don’t ask me how she managed to get April’s Awake! just last week. Maybe the Hamilton Witnesses are a little behind. Or maybe they were just dumping overstock.)

I defy you to look at anything on that cover and connect it to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or to Christianity, or to proselytizing in general. And let me stress that according to the magazine itself, it’s purpose – as stated on the inside front cover – is that it is part of a worldwide Bible educational work. Is there anything on the cover related to that? More tellingly, is the lack of anything related to that suspicious? Well, yeah! The cover picture, really, has nothing to do with the title – it’s just a pretty generic attractive woman that someone probably thought could possibly pass as someone dealing with stress, maybe. She’s looking vaguely upward without it being too obviously one of those vacant skyward stares one associated with religious imagery. The background is blurred – is it a church? Who knows? And of the four stories inside the magazine, the only one mentioned is the most secular – not a peep about the interview with the alleged-atheist-scientist-turned-Christian who says “I Am Convinced That There Is a Creator”, or the one about the Bible’s viewpoint on racism. Indeed, other than some info buried in the inside cover table of contents with all the copyright stuff everyone always skims over, there’s no mention of religion at all until page 4. For a magazine whose sole and explicit purpose is worldwide Bible educational work… that’s a bit strange. It’s like a magazine whose cover is just a photo of a pensive businessperson and the title “Arouse!” with article teaser “What kind of things make your workday stressful?”, and the first few pages are some random facts about the oldest albatross and traffic in LA then – bammo – nudity on page 4, where it turns out that you’re reading a porn magazine, and the reason our friend the businessperson looked so pensive is because ze was trying to hide the twelve inch dong in zes ass from zes coworkers. Awake!’s presentation is not quite false advertising, but it’s damn close, and it’s certainly a lot less fun to discover the surprise than it would be for Arouse!.

My sister is no fool, of course. She’s smart enough to spot that there’s probably more to the story than the vagueness on the cover, so she peeked at the back too before accepting the magazine. This is what she saw there:

The cover of the April 2014 edition of 'Awake!' magazine, displaying a large image of a blue butterfly with an article titled 'The Butterfly's Wing', along with some smaller, supplemental information around it.

Awake! April 2014 back cover

Now, readers of this blog will probably be quick to spot what’s going on here: it’s a creationist schtick. But for those who aren’t familiar with creationist bullshit and their keyword phrases (“Was it designed?”; the answer is: “no, jackass”) it would probably just seem a little loopy and faux-philosophical – like so many student-made pamphlets. The only hint of religiousness is the little comment on the bottom about the Bible being available in many languages… right between the note about free issue downloads and the QR code.

What caught my sister’s eye in those few short seconds she had in which to choose whether to accept the handout or not was the back page story, about the engineering structure of a butterfly’s wing. (She is studying architecture; engineering runs in my family.) That piqued her curiosity, so she took it.

As she commented to me later, it wasn’t until she opened the pages and found The Watchtower inside that she groaned: “Oh, no, they got me!” This is what the cover of The Watchtower, buried deep inside Awake!, looked like:

Cover of the April 2014 'The Watchtower' magazine, displaying the magazine's date and title and the subtitle 'Announcing Jehovah's Kingdom', with a large image of a woman praying - two other smaller images of people praying are faded in the background - and the teaser 'Should you pray?'

The Watchtower April 2014 cover

And the back cover:

Back cover of the April 2014 edition of 'The Watchtower' magazin, with 'Bible questions answered' offering answers to 'What will Jesus do in the future?' and 'What is Jesus doing now?'

The Watchtower April 2014 back cover

(In case you were hanging in suspense about the JW answer to the “Should you pray?” question on the cover, their answer is: “Yes.” And as for “What will Jesus do in the future?”, turns out: “marvellous things”. What is he doing now? Apparently he’s in upper management overseeing the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is to say he’s doing what most upper management does: jack all and taking all the credit while the Witnesses actually do all the work. Oh, and no need to worry about all that environmental devastation – Jesus’s big-ass washcloth will buff that right out.)

My sister took the hit good naturedly, with some self-deprecating at being caught off-guard. Some of the terms that were tossed around were “ninja Jesus” and “stealth Jesus”. She got a big chuckle out of the article “You Can Resist Temptation!” with testimonials like:

“I didn’t set out to look for pornography. But I got on the Internet and an ad popped up. Something snapped, and I just clicked it open.” — Cody

Don’t worry, “Cody”’s name was changed, possibly for his protection or something. Then there was “Dylan”:

“An attractive girl at work started flirting with me. One day she suggested that we go to a hotel to ‘play around.’ I knew exactly what she wanted.” — Dylan

“Dylan” apparently works at the same place as all those people who write letters to Penthouse, and where women apparently come on to straight-laced Jehovah’s Witnesses with lines like “let’s go to a hotel and play around”. (My sister seemed to strongly doubt that “Dylan” really had all that good a grasp on what “she” wanted, implying that “she” might have had some surprises in store for “Dylan” after all. I decided not to enquire further.)

So, she got a good chuckle out of it in the end. But I was left thinking.

I have a hard time believing it was ‘accidental’ that The Watchtower magazine – with its blatant religious displays – was hidden inside Awake! – with its curious lack of religion on the outside. That strongly implies intent to me, which would mean that Jehovah’s Witnesses are apparently aware that their message might be off-putting or unwelcome, and they think that it is okay to put on a false front to get past people’s defences. The ethical thinking behind that decision would fascinate me, as well as would hearing how the JW justify it with scripture.

But what do you – the readers – think? Is it ethical to hide your message to get in the door, then spring it on someone later? Is it a good strategy? Should atheists and skeptics use that kind of strategy?

And, if there’s anyone out there who is a former JW and knows how they decide to lay out their magazines or how they encourage their proselytizers to go about their business – or, really, anyone with similar experiences or knowledge about any religious group – do they actually do this deliberately? Is Awake! designed specifically for subterfuge – a false flag magazine that looks secular on the outside and slips religion in on the inside? Are those doing the handouts specifically told to make sure they hide all signs of religiosity when they’re going about their business?

And what would this mean for how these religious groups see themselves? Wouldn’t it imply that they’re a little, you know, embarrassed about themselves and their beliefs? If so, would that be because of their built-in persecution complex, or is it actually because they are a little embarrassed?

13 thoughts on “Do Jehovah’s Witnesses think their religion is embarassing?

  1. Diana MacPherson

    A former JW friend of mine said that Awake! is given to people who they think would be more of a hard sell. It is to lull you into the real stuff. It may be that your sister didn’t look like someone who would be easily converted.

    My friend also said that if you want to make sure they don’t keep coming to your house, refuse to take their literature and don’t engage them. Otherwise, they will see your willingness as a sign that you may be “savable” & will return. They keep track of these things.

    I have to say, that the most offensive thing I find about the JW literature, is the way too tall & too white Jesus.

    1. Indi Post author

      A former JW friend of mine said that Awake! is given to people who they think would be more of a hard sell. It is to lull you into the real stuff. It may be that your sister didn’t look like someone who would be easily converted.

      That’s interesting. Since coming to Canada, I don’t think I’ve ever been handed a Watchtower without an Awake… but back in Barbados I can’t recall ever seeing Awake. Your friend may be right: I can see how they would see Barbadians as “soft sells” – Barbados is already 95% Christian (though only 1% Jehovah’s Witness), so they hardly need a secular approach – whereas there are a lot more irreligious in Canada, especially in the cities.

      My friend also said that if you want to make sure they don’t keep coming to your house, refuse to take their literature and don’t engage them. Otherwise, they will see your willingness as a sign that you may be “savable” & will return. They keep track of these things.

      I’ve never had that problem in Canada. I can’t recall ever having anyone come to my door (I’ve always been approached on the street), in any of the four cities I’ve lived in.

      In Barbados, though… every weekend. Like clockwork. And they’re darn persistent, too; my father is outright hostile to them, far more than i ever would be – even to the point of threatening to set the dog on them (not that that would actually work with that ignorant, lazy, useless mutt) – yet they keep coming back.

      I have to say, that the most offensive thing I find about the JW literature, is the way too tall & too white Jesus.

      That’s funny, one of the things I noticed was a very self-conscious effort to be multiracial. In the Awake my sister got, one of the 4 small news blurbs at the front was about South African women using skin-lightening cream, and one of the 4 articles inside is about the biblical view of racism (which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t mention the nasty bits).

      In the Watchtower, every single page that has a picture of a person except for three includes people of colour – three pages have *only* people of colour (though they’re all pictures of the same model). Of the three pages with no people of colour, one is about a persecuted 17th century English nontrinitarian with his portrait, another is about a former Spanish Catholic nun with her portraits from ~1970 and now, and the last is just a picture of some dude with his hands and eyes raised “accepting the spirit” for the “Should you pray?” article. (I didn’t count the big white-looking Jesus hand scrubbing the Earth on the back.)

      I gather race is a fairly touchy issue with Jehovah’s Witnesses, hm? Frankly I don’t know much about them – not nearly as much as I know about Mormons and Scientologists, for example.

  2. billybob

    I must be seen as beyond redemption, I have not been accosted in years. Is this in the GTA?

    “Is it ethical to hide your message to get in the door, then spring it on someone later?”

    shrug.. it is ethical to their tribe/cult, what is an ethic anyway?

    Is it a good strategy?

    Yes, look at what politician do, lie to you while hiding their real agenda. Works for them.

    Should atheists and skeptics use that kind of strategy?

    More right and wrong stuff? Practically speaking the answer is yes, but some people have something called ethics so they may not agree.

    1. Indi Post author

      I must be seen as beyond redemption, I have not been accosted in years. Is this in the GTA?

      Hamilton, actually. Downtown, on King East somewhere between James and Wellington.

      I’ve been stopped several times in Hamilton too, both downtown and up by McMaster.

  3. Eamon Knight

    We’ve got a stack of Awake and WT because my wife keeps engaging with the nice old guy that comes round every month or so.

    It’s the old art of the soft sell. Do you have a problem with depression/family strife/money/the state of the world/etc? — extend that list, and you’re bound to get a hit before too long. Dispense a few bromides on the topic to make it look like you a) care and b) have something useful to say. Once they’re softened up, hit ’em with the hard stuff.

  4. dusttodust

    When they catch me at home not particularly busy with anything then I launch into aggressive questioning and challenging of their beliefs. Even to the point of mocking the beliefs. They hang out a little but make their escape eventually. It’s kind of fun to less loose all the observations made of the insanity of their beliefs.

  5. PatG

    The JW are out a couple of time a week outside les Terrasses de Chaudieres in Gatineau. I guess they figure Anglo civil servants and French Catholics are a soft sell. The Depression issue is still on display at their stand.

    I hadn’t seen any in years on the Ottawa side until a couple came to the door two or three months ago. Quoting Leviticus and Corinthians seemed to stun them a bit then they left quietly.

  6. Bubba Kincaid

    Well, to play Devil’s Advocate, it does seem that they somewhat do provide a sort of ear to the ground general overview of what the majority concerns are/zeitgeist is of the general populace, simply by their mere apparent footwork and eagerness to provide answers to what they catch in their wide as possible nets. Concerns that we seem to increasingly be unable to discern because of some sort of what may be class induced/introduced dissonances.

    You always sorta get that slight feeling of “Ahh…so that must be what the other people around me are most concerned about in their personal lives (and also in global matters),” when you read these mags that you know, we are supposed to think, are presumptively trying to address concerns of people they are trying to “draw in.”

    That’s not to say that’s actually what they are doing, intentionally or not. But the feeling seems to also be bolstered by some sort of notion that we can somehow trust their intentions in some ways more than say, someone who is doing the same thing for what can be construed as a much more immediate gain, simply by this notion of some sort of more “eternal”, far-reaching intentions.

    Of course, I’m strictly speaking of the psychology of the whole thing.

  7. Tim Underwood

    I always ask the person in the doorway, “Who do you think wrote those Gospel Stories?”

    It takes far longer to explain that ‘anonymous’ has been credited with these works than the majority of Saturday proselytizers have.

    If they are still listening, I can continue by mentioning the various secular writers who have been proposed as possible authors.

    If they become interested: where the Gospel’s were most likely published, is even more destabilizing.

    One of the higher echelon JW leaders appeared at the doorway to defend a distraught witness who I had cavalierly told, “If you knew who had those stories published, you certainly wouldn’t be a Jehovah’s Witness any more.”

    I gave him a DVD of some of the religious studies material from off of the Internet and they have never been back.

    I have another DVD ready for when the Mormon boys come by. They say they are encouraged to not spend time with media while on mission, but who knows?

  8. Indi Post author

    I find it funny that so many of you like to let the hounds of logic loose on them when they come to preach at you. I don’t disagree with the tactic – if someone comes up to you to convert you unsolicited, they’re already showing a complete lack of respect for you and whatever it is you believe, so have at it – but I prefer a more laid back approach.

    I tell them right up front that I’m an atheist – and now i even add that i write for an atheist blog – and then i just invite them to bring their A game. I use the encounter more as an opportunity to see what they do than to show them what *I* can do – i challenge their claims more to see what they try to offer as explanation than to embarrass them. I let *them* trot out all the techniques they were taught to debate disbelievers they encounter, and observe.

    I see each encounter as a learning experience, and encourage them to give it their best and to try again some other time if they like (though i *NEVER* give them my contact info, and – again – always make it clear that i’m a pretty committed atheist who’s probably heard all they’ve got to offer and more). In fact, I mentioned the elderly Ukrainian lady who used to hand out JW literature at the strip mall near where I lived – she and I were actually something like friends: if I saw her handing out her stuff while walking to the store, I’d swing over to grab some and chat with her in my broken Polish and Russian (she spoke almost only Ukrainian), which she seemed to appreciate even though we never really got much across to each other beyond “hello”, “thank you”, and “have a nice day”. I was actually sad when I stopped seeing her, but, you know, she was very, very old, to the point where she could barely hold the stack of fliers without her hands shaking. Even the two Mormons I met in Mississauga – in between them trying to tell me why their scriptures were legit, they told me some stuff about Utah and Mormonism (they were like 19, but they were called “Elders”) and what they thought about Ontario; I had a bit of a chuckle ribbing them about how they got the cushy mission to Mississauga instead of some squalid and dangerous third-world country – they surprised me by teaching me that the vast majority of missionaries actually either stay within the US or go to South America (mostly to Brazil and Argentina, which really aren’t that bad, but certainly aren’t in dire need of more Christianity).

    So yeah, i mean if you like go ahead and scare them away. But consider also that the encounter can be a learning experience. Give them a chance to show their chops, then share what you’ve learned with the rest of us. The more we share their tricks, the less effective they become in general, and the better our own arguments become.

  9. Pingback: Pushing Jesus | Indi in the Wired

  10. Corwin

    I ran into my share of proselytisers of different stripes when I lived in North America, although I never encountered one as brazen as the Mormon who came up to you beside the swimming pool. I’d usually chat with them a bit unless I was in a hurry or an irascible mood, just to find out what they’d say in response to various objections and perhaps sow a few seeds of doubt into the bargain. Here in China it’s not really something I have to deal with.

    I don’t recall ever seeing an issue of Awake!, but I do get a vague religious vibe from the cover of the one that your sister acquired. It’s probably based on a combination of the Deep Question about why one should go on, the model’s skyward glance (skyward enough, anyway) and the simplicity of the layout and wording. It looks sort of like other evangelising propaganda I’ve seen over the years.

    The cover isn’t overtly religious, though, which brings us back to your good questions about hiding the message to get in the door. I’m not sure it indicates embarrassment on the part of the Witnesses, just a certain pragmatic acceptance of the fact that some people will reject their message out of hand unless it’s at least thinly disguised. It’s kind of a sleazy approach, but I assume that it works often enough to make it worth using. There are probably people who wouldn’t be likely to accept a pamphlet they knew was pushing religion, but would give a religious pamphlet a casual read (out of boredom, curiosity, or whatever) if they happened to pick it up without realising what it was.

    I don’t think atheists and sceptics should stoop to that sort of tactic, but it’s fun to think about how we might. Perhaps a tract in the Jack Chick style, with a plucky kid from a simple but god-fearing family who challenges a smug latte-sipping biology teacher on the subject of evolution? Of course, the teacher’s arguments would turn out to be entirely convincing, and the kid would discover the joy of science, abandon religion, and end up in a happy and productive academic career.

    I suppose shandy must be less awful than I’ve always thought it sounded, if you were drinking it by the pool. I’ll have to give it a chance sometime.

  11. Paulette

    Why do would they do it? “…put on a false front to get past people’s defences”? “…hide your message to get in the door, then spring it on someone later?” “…address concerns of people they are trying to ‘draw in’”? For what purpose or agenda?


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