Faith is no excuse for banality.
I received a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet a few months ago. You can check out the text at the Jehovah’s Witness site.
Let me begin by clearing up some misconceptions. I don’t dislike Jehovah’s Witnesses as a group. As a Buddhist, I do believe in the proscription against proselytizing. I don’t think it’s fair to try to convert someone else in the vast majority of instances: In many cases, someone embraced what we had to say not because they had intelligently reviewed all of the answers but because they were desperate enough to jump at the first answer stated by someone who cared. Still, I am not against the idea of sharing our faith door-to-door. If you believe in something, why shouldn’t’ you share it? How is it fair for any of us to demand the silence of anyone else? I speak out against silence constantly. How can I possibly consistently deny them their chance to speak?
I also think that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have several quite valid points about Christian exegesis. While there’s some positions that they have about the Bible that I think are batty, a lot of their points are well-taken. (Again, this is said as a Buddhist with no personal stake in these theological questions, merely scholarly ones).
But when someone comes along and tells you they have the answer, you better hold them to a goddamn high standard.
Not even science claims to have the answer. Einsteinian relativity is a way of looking at the world, a model with very good empirical support. Evolution has many components to it, and scientists still debate the minutiae (not the core of the model, but questions like how often speciation occurs, how much evolution may be bounded by other factors, etc.) Many fields of science have an answer to phenomena.
In sociology, when we look at a single variable or a single model, we’re happy if it explains 20% of the variation in another variable. That’s practically a sociological home run.
Yet religious people are so often convinced not only that they have an answer, a way of looking at the world that may have some value, but the only perspective.
Anyone who says that had better back it up. And the arguments in this pamphlet are facile. They are barely even coherent answers when taken as one possible aspect of the equation, let alone the whole thing.
Before I go into beating up on silliness, Let me repeat an analogy I often use. If I get sick, is it because a virus or a bacterium got into my system and replicated? Might it be because I didn’t wash my hands, or wasn’t careful enough about exposing myself to people? Maybe it was because I had a bad diet, or drank alcohol, or had some other comorbidity like asthma? Maybe it was because it was an opportunistic infection? In fact, the answer could well be “Yes, all of those things were part of it”.
When someone says, “A square is a polygon with four sides”, they’re accurate, but not completely so. If they say, “A square has equilateral sides”, they’re again accurate but still not completely so. Someone has to say, “A square is a polygon with four equilateral sides with right angles that is a special case of a rhombus”. Only when they include every part of the reality are they accurate. But in real life, there’s never just one or two or three causal factors at play. The entire universe prior to any one event had some interplay. So if you want to describe even something as apparently simple as you reading this article, you have to go back to the absolute beginning of the universe.
When people like Wittgenstein and Russell tried to find an absolute foundation for logic and math, they failed. It’s just too complicated.
So how can someone have found the answer? Well, they didn’t.
The pamphlet opens with this gem: “Where would you look for answers to these questions? If you went to libraries or bookstores, you might find thousands of books claiming to provide the answers. Often, though, one book contradicts another. Others seem valid at the moment but soon become outdated and are revised or replaced.”
But anyone who is honest would have to admit that there is no special reason that the Bible is different, that it “contains reliable answers”. That’s an article of faith, not reason. In fact, the Bible is very outdated, including renditions of history, science, astronomy and cosmology that we now know to be at best simplistic and at worst utterly wrong. The Hebrew scholars were fantastically devoted and honest at rendering their holy text, but they didn’t have the benefit of millennia of intellectual work.
Okay, fine, that’s too easy to point out. So let’s say that the Bible truly is a special book. It really does contain answers that are true across all space and time.
What does the Bible have to say about how you should prepare zucchini?
Fly an airplane?
Do open heart surgery?
I know, I know, those aren’t spiritual questions. But when you’re on a plane that’s about to crash, what would you rather have: A philosophically uncertain appeal that you’ll go to heaven upon your death, or a manual for how to fly the damn thing? “The truth” that matters to you is contextual.
Even the six questions that the pamphlet asks, “Does God really care about us? Will war and suffering ever end? What happens to us when we die? Is there any hope for the dead? How can I pray and be heard by God? How can I find happiness in life?” aren’t answered exhaustively by the Bible. The idea that sociology, psychology, biology, political science, etc. can’t help answer some of these questions is just absurd.
So, let’s take these, one by one.
First of all, in response to the idea that God may not care about us, they offer this evidence: “God never causes what is wicked. ‘Far be it from the true God to act wickedly, and the Almighty to act unjustly!’ (Job 34:10)”.
But this is obviously a rhetorical dodge, not a real argument. You can’t just have your text say, “God is good”, to prove God is good. It’s a circular argument. Maybe God directly never acts wickedly or unjustly, but that doesn’t prove that It cares about you. Plenty of people who are plenty righteous don’t care about some random individual they don’t know. And while God does know people, maybe God is just operating at a higher level. Do you care about an individual ant?
The fact that God seems to callously allow us to suffer requires something better than this argument.
They then go on to argue that, “Our Father in the heavens, let…your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” But Jesus teaching us to pray isn’t a guarantee that any prayer will be fulfilled. The fact that I can ask you for something and you will literally get the message doesn’t mean you’ll reply. In fact, a lot of people pray for things that they don’t get.
They finally cap this off with, “God cares so deeply about us that he has gone to great lengths to make the fulfillment of his purpose a certainty”. But this is, again, handwaving the problem aside. The fact that He has a purpose doesn’t make that purpose very helpful for someone suffering. Why is it okay that justice will take thousands of years to fulfill (putting aside that the idea of justice in the Bible is pretty creepy and awful)?
There are answers to these questions that one can provide, either by having an idea of God that isn’t omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent or by actually handling the issue head-on. But these aren’t answers. They’re not even the best Biblical responses.
As for war’s ending, they claim that “[God] will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things [including today’s injustices and sufferings] have passed away (Revelation 21:3,4)”. Now, to their credit, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not view Hell as fiery torment but just as oblivion. But the fact that even Jacob and Job are going to go to oblivion is pretty remarkable. What kind of God wouldn’t save everyone from oblivion? Moreover, while they cite some aspects of the Bible to suit their needs, the idea that Sheol or Hell is just nothingness doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Why have a word and an idea for it?
Anyways, the point here is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses point only to the end of days, basically. Great. Can we stop war before then?
They don’t even include the little tidbit that a pretty classic Christian answer to the idea of endless peace is that it’s impossible due to original sin and Man’s corrupt nature. That’s a pretty big omission, isn’t it?
I think we can stop war, or at least come pretty damn close. I believe that based off of my view of human history, psychology and biology.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even want to try to answer that question. This is the answer to the question of war. But it’s a useless one for the vast majority of people that will ever live.
The third question, “What happens to us when we die?”, doesn’t even bother to find any kind of support from near-death experiences, even though some of them do support the Christian narrative. The Jehovah’s Witnesses view Hell as basically just being dead. Basically, since Jesus only grants everlasting life to his followers, and since Hell would still be a form of everlasting life, that’s somewhat logical…
Except for Matthew 25:46, where he says “Then they will go away to eternal punishment”. It’s dishonest to interpret that as just being “death”. Punishment implies something active. Matthew 13:50 further clarifies: “and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Again, it’s just not honestly possible to view that as being some kind of weird description of garden-variety oblivion.
Revelation 21:8 clearly states, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death”. Again, the fact that anyone would view this as justice is creepy. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses just want to ignore the passages they don’t like. Remember: Revelations 21:3-4 was cited above by them! They’re ignoring passages in the same book!
Mark 9:43 also states that “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out”.
So the idea that the sinner and the unbeliever will burn in fire isn’t a modern misconception. It’s right there in the text.
I say all of this not because I believe a lick of it (I do not believe there is any Hell besides the prison of an unjust mind trapped without meaning and love), but because they’re not being honest about fully representing even the one source that they use. Why would you trust anyone who can’t even cite one book’s relevant passages fully? Why would you trust a book that includes some really complex arguments that are at best hard to reconcile and at worst outright contradictory?
Finally, there’s the most noxious answer that they give: About happiness.
They begin by pointing out, correctly, that fame, money and beauty aren’t real solutions to the problem of unhappiness. That’s fair enough, except that these things can sometimes grant happiness, even if only in the short term.
They then argue, again I think with a lot of support, that “Jesus identified the key to happiness when he said: ‘Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need’” (Matthew 5:3).
How do I get there?
They claim, “True happiness can be found only if we take steps to fill our greatest need—our hunger for spiritual truth about God and his purpose for us. That truth is found in the Bible. Knowing that truth can help us to discern what is really important and what is not. Allowing Bible truth to guide our decisions and actions leads to a more meaningful life.”
Great. Except there’s plenty of miserable Christians. There’s plenty of devout people who go to church and can recite the dogma who are angry and confused.
So… That’s not the whole goddamn secret, is it?
What about marriage? What about altruism? What about a good and rewarding job? What about seeking meaning in philosophy? What about discovering new and amazing things in the world?
Biology, sociology, psychology, and a ton of disciplines help us try to characterize happiness. Plenty of philosophers worked within Christianity, as do many psychologists today. Kierkegaard discussed the path from Don Juan to Socrates to the faithful man. There are ways of being a Christian and seeing greater meaning. There are ways of using the Bible as a beginning to meaning, not an end.
I won’t address tons of other fallacies found in this pamphlet, like the argument from popularity when they say that millions have found happiness as a result of their specific Bible interpretation, which even if true wouldn’t prove that the façade was meaningful. An honest person would admit that there were plenty of happy worshipers of Zeus, Thor and Marduk. A person eating a pork chop may think that that’s the best cut of meat, but how can they be sure it’s the best until they eat a steak? Just because someone says that they’re happy as a result of these programs doesn’t mean that they are, especially in the long-term.
I’m not trying to pick on Christianity or Jehovah’s Witnesses here. My point is that these ideas are really, really important.
Whether or not we can end war, racism, sexism, economic exploitation, violence, rape, ecological devastation, homophobia, terrorism and political instability is a real question. Anyone who actually cares about human beings will want as many ways to guarantee that we can as possible.
Whether or not we can achieve happiness in this lifetime is a question that every person struggles with. Even those of us who are happy want to insure that we maintain that happiness, and that that happiness is meaningful and rich.
Christians have every right to come to the table and offer their position as to why they believe there are answers to these questions. But they better be ready to admit that they’re only offering part of the answer, part of the truths that can be helpful.
Just like no good photographer owns only one lens for all occasions, so too can we as a human species not tolerate only having one theoretical lens to try to look through.
Every religious leader that is not encouraging the followers of their faith to think as deeply, broadly and humanly as possible is failing humanity. This pamphlet says that the Jehovah’s Witnesses would rather have obedient followers than people capable of discovering real truths. It’s cynical at its core.
Humanity deserves better.