Truth or Reassurance

Over the course of the past several years since moving in, I have been the recipient of 'the good news' several times. In conversations distinguishable only by slightly varying opening gambits, the purveyors du jour of the Watchtower share with me their thoughts, or at least those thoughts that don't involve telling me how I will be going to hell if I don't repent my ways.

I was visited once more a little while back. A middle-aged man with a local accent stood next to a squat, white-haired older gent who I would later discover when he finally spoke, to be American, possibly on a trip over to see how his English brethren are getting along at brainwashing the unwary.

The conversation started predictably with all the wrongs in the world, and whether I was religious, and quickly moved along to matters of creation and the 'crisis that evolution was in'. There was the usual back and forth of finding watches on the floor, hurricanes blowing through a scrapyard, and theories versus proofs. A transcript would read like a thousand impassioned internet discussions.

But one thing stood out that day. Throughout the experience, I was assured that the men stood before me represented a movement that stood for the truth, a fundamental value in a faith system whose people were able to see with eyes unclouded, unlike those from 'the other religions' - the stark reality of what is out there. Those people who have looked on the world, seen the evidence for and against this and that, and come to the wholly rational conclusion that young-earth creationism explains fully our existence. On a particular point of evolutionary development we moved onto the subject of whales. In particular, their hind limbs, a vestigial part of their anatomy that is a tell-tale sign that they are descended from four-legged, land-dwelling animals. Long-since encased in the whales' immense blubber, they have no other reason to be there other than an artefact of their past.

Upon questioning, I was assured that the younger man had indeed visited the Natural History Museum, and he was fully clued up on evolutionary theory - in fact he assured me he was an expert.

I asked him about the hind legs of a whale. He shook his head. 'Whales don't have hind legs', he said with a snort.

I assured him that they did, but they were encased in blubber, and were a perfect example of an evolutionary adaptation to life in the sea, mentioning on the way that, current whales are a living example of an intermediate species - between a long-extinct land mammal with legs, and a future whale-like creature whose legs have completely disappeared.

Again, he shook his head. The elderly American gent folded his arms. It was clear that this information was encroaching on their cosy worldview, so I gave it another little shake.

'You can look on the internet, or in any museum where a whale skeleton is on display. They even looked at one on the 'Inside Natures Giant's' series. You say you have no proof of evolutionary change - well here is an example of something that you can see for yourself with your own eyes.'

Both men stood there, in silence. The older man was silent. The younger man, who I had spent most of the time talking to and thus getting the brunt of my passions had his arms tightly crossed. He was smiling a painted smile and shaking his head.

And then it hit me.

It was kind of obvious in retrospect that 'the truth' isn't really what these guys are interested in finding - a statement given more weight with their quip shortly afterwards that they 'didn't like the idea of having a monkey for an ancestor' - but in that moment it became clear to me just what it was that they wanted. 'The truth' was only something that had value to them if it did not go against their doctrine. In other cases, it was something else they desired - a form of reassurance.

The Jehovas' Witnesses are a minor cult whose beliefs are a bit left field of a major religion. Consequently their groups are isolated and naturally under pressure by the lives of people around them who seem to live happy lives seemingly without godly retribution. A bit of basic group psychology on your average cult identifies two main actions applied by the group on itself - maintain the integrity and stability of the group in the face of outside influence, and find inner peace that by joining the group, the individual has made the right decision.

The first one takes the form of the leaders often forcing their flock to renounce ties with the outside world, often at the cost of friends and family units being abandoned as they are deemed to be a corrosive influence, or even labelled 'mentally diseased'. This causes the members to have less opportunity to get outside influence that might make them have doubts and ask questions.

The second action comes from the individual, vindicating their choice to believe in the required doctrines, by getting other people to believe in them too. And it was this that was happening here. The 'truth' - that thing that can in certain circumstances be demonstrated with empirical evidence - only had value for as long as it could be made to look like it agreed with their beliefs - a growing consensus on the acceptance of their beliefs was their one true goal.

It almost doesn't matter what it is they are believing in, so long as they can feel cosy within the warming embrace of a group of like-minded thinkers, and this can be more or less applied to all religious groups, though it seems stronger in the smaller, tighter communities. These feelings of belonging are addictive, and it is this that ensures the survival of the cult through the generations, almost like a living entity. And of course as soon as they detected that they were about to have their eyes forcibly opened like in the example of the whale bones, they stopped dead in their tracks and went no further. Certain excommunication from their group was too much of a risk to chance taking it any further.

The conversation ended on a stalemate not long afterwards, but I was strangely satisfied with what I had learned. I held onto the hope that the two men had a spark of doubt that their faith was the all-providing security blanket they thought it was, but it looked pretty unlikely in the light of my minor revelation. Still, the mystery of why some people join these religions and spend a good portion of their lives trying to convert others was a little clearer now.

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