Cable television providers are generally loathed because they force consumer to buy a product that they do not want. Their business model is based on selling several tiers of bloated and expensive station offerings. Most of which viewers will never watch. This concept is called bundling: tying something desirable to something less desirable. Recently though, cracks have begun to appear in this model. Tired of the spiraling cost of their cable bills, consumers have begun to demand ‘a la carte’ options.
In this scenario, no longer are folks at the mercy of corporate entities forcing them to buy channels they do not want. Each person can make their own selections based on their interests. The manner in which this paradigm changes the balance of power is obvious: An expensive, monolithic, one-size fits all approach versus one where individual taste and economy are honored.
Given the option who wouldn’t want the ability to make decisions based on their personal needs? Who would knowingly want to defer choice to a large organization, far removed from their day-to-day life? Yet strangely enough, in what is arguably the most important aspect of life, this is exactly what humans have done: outsourced their spirituality to third parties.
This hands-off ‘tell-me-what-to-do’ approach is a key reason centuries of ordinary people have perpetrated atrocities against their fellow humans. And, unfortunately, Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) are supremely conditioned to surrender spiritual development to ‘The Organization.’ They do this even more so than the average mainstream religion. JWs are constantly reminded that there is no spiritual growth outside of God’s chosen Organization – only darkness.
If you are a gay JW, wanting to move on, your ability to determine whether spirituality is contingent on involvement with a religion will have a significant impact on your future peace of mind. We are going to examine the elements of spirituality and see why ‘unbundling’ them may truly be ‘the key to happiness.’
Is Spirituality Contingent on Religion?
Essentially spirituality is the desire and ability to connect to someone or something outside of the usual experiences and mechanisms of the physical world. Spirituality can make one feel connected to the planet, another person or a Supreme Being. People have often spoken of having a spiritual experience when listening to certain types of music or even while engaging in sex.
JWs though are trained to look down on the term spirituality in the absence of JW branding. And it’s easy to understand why. If, independently, someone becomes aware of their particular spiritual needs and then devises a way to satisfy them, the whole concept of religion becomes more difficult to justify. It is similar to the New Testament’s account at John 11:48 where the Jewish religious leaders in fear of Jesus lament: “If we let Him alone to go on like this, everyone will believe in Him and adhere to Him, and the Romans will come and suppress and destroy and take away our [holy] place and our nation [our temple and city and our civil organization].” (Amplified Bible, Classic Edition)
Looked at from a different perspective, the Old Testament account of Cain and Abel demonstrates that what created the circumstances leading to Abel’s death was a desire by both men to have a spiritual connection with God. Note that the act of creating the burnt offerings sprang from a personal desire of the two brothers, not from a ritual instituted by a religion. (Genesis 4:3, 4)
Based on the Bible’s reckoning, for an estimated span of at least 1000 years, from Adam up until Moses, there was no official religion (also see Deuteronomy 12:8). So when read without the bias of religion in one’s mind, the early Old Testament accounts are really an exploration of the spirituality of these ancient men. The concept of religion, as we now define it, is nowhere to be found in those early accounts. Of course after the Exodus the Mosaic Law was introduced and along with that the birth of what would become the Israelite’s religion: Judaism.
Religion as a Construct of Society
When there are a small number of inhabitants in a geographic area individuals are able to decide for themselves how they wish to pay homage to the Supreme Being (e.g. Cain’s vegetable offering versus Abel’s animal sacrifice). But once that group has grown in size the human tendency to conform the community to a shared belief begins to take hold.
For example imagine that an ancient fledgling community comes to the conclusion that the sun is their God. For decades the community elders teach this idea to every person born into the village. However a few generations later a member of the now much larger community looks into the night sky and decides that the serenity of the moon seems to be a more pleasing representation of The Creator. When this new idea is brought before the village elders what will be the likely outcome? Given human nature and the investment of time in worship of the sun God the fate of the budding moon sect would probably be very uncertain.
Were the moon worshipers wrong in their beliefs? Had they deviously apostatized from the communities true religion? No. They were only presenting an alternate view. But the sun worshipers, being the dominant members of the village, are now the arbiters of what is true and what is heretical, as well as what is spiritual and what is not.
Looking at this from a modern perspective consider ISIS. Most of the civilized world correctly considers the movement’s repressive attitudes towards women, homosexuals and education to be atrocious. Yet in the caliphate’s understanding of the Koran they are engaged in God’s work. In fact their success in claiming territory in several Middle Eastern countries has only served to bolster the conviction that God is on their side. So when ISIS moves into an area it does not matter what faith was practiced before, their form of Islam is immediately forced upon the populace – not because it is right, or because it has God’s backing but because they won the battle.
It is not difficult to read through Leviticus and find many common sense laws that served to safeguard the Israelite from physical harm (as well as promote Judaism’s brand of spirituality). Yet when one considers the Law’s prohibition against homosexuality it is difficult to understand what was inherently harmful about it. The rejection of same sex relations seems more likely a product of Israel’s discomfort with the unconventional sexual practices of the nations around them. So as Israel moved into more areas of the Promised Land it did not matter what faith was practiced before, the Hebrew’s form of religion immediately became the law of the land – not because it was necessarily right, or because it had God’s backing but because they had won the battle.
Rather than a product of God, religion seems to be the prism through which humans have attempted to explain the Supreme Being. And just as white light projected through a prism produces many variation of color, so too the prism of religion has created numerous interpretations of God. This has allowed humans to present the Supreme Being in the manner most conducive to the perspective and long-term goals of the local community. And for minority members of those societies, all to often, the God that springs forth from religion is petty, bloodthirsty and selective in his love.
Will The Real Chosen People Please Stand Up
Religion, like other long-standing institutions, has survived by demanding strict conformance of its followers. Conformance requires written precepts – along with rewards for obedience and punishments for deflection. Oral traditions can only go so far with this sort of thing. If a religion’s practices are to become standardized and there is to be growth outside of its place of origin, the rules must be portable. And this is where holy books come into play.
From Christians to Muslims, from Mormonism to Scientologists, each religion claims divine authorship of their holy writings. Yet for every reason put forward in support of divine authorship there seems to be just as many to cast doubt. Making matters even more difficult, the commonly used holy books came into existence only after a particular religion was established.
Even with a positive assumption that these books do have divine backing, those in power have always been more than willing to interpret, or when necessary, alter the words of these books to support their worldview. In the case of the Bible, since the oldest extant manuscripts only date to about 300 BC, no one knows the full extent to which passages have been added, removed or altered. In the modern age the New World Translation published by Jehovah’s Witnesses is an excellent example of how even small modifications to the text can have a major impact on the thrust of a citation.
From the ancient Samaritan comes a particularly interesting case of a small variation with huge consequences. Their holy book, the Samaritan Pentateuch, appears to be a derivation of the Jewish Pentateuch. The Samaritan people however remain convinced that God first authored their version giving it to Moses along with the 10 Commandments. They consider these five books to be the complete canon of their holy writings and exclude every other book of the Tanakh. Not surprisingly they call their version of the Pentateuch “The Truth.” Sound familiar?
When comparing both works scholars have found that, although plentiful, the differences between the two texts are of a minor nature. However one difference is significant. In the Samaritan Pentateuch, the 10 Commandments authoritatively identify Mount Gerizim as the official place of worship. What is the likely reason behind this alleged change? Opponents of the Samaritan’s beliefs allege that the alteration is intended to advance the narrative that they are God’s true chosen people – not the Jews. This accusation is corroborated in Book of HistoryKitab al-Ta'rikh, a chronicle of Samaritan secular history, which discusses not just the well-known two way split of the nation of Israel but a three way split: “At this time the Children of Israel split into three factions. A loyal faction on Mount Gerizim; a heretical faction that followed false gods; and the faction that followed Eli son of Yafni on Shiloh.”
This game of ‘will the real chosen people please stand up,’ played between the Samaritan’s and Israelites, is a true to life case of the sun worshipers versus the moon worshipers.
If there were ever a subject needing a clarifying voice from heaven, it would be which of the holy book(s) has God’s backing. In the absence of this, humans have generally put their impassioned support behind whatever book is the most common in the land in which they were born.
The Bundling of the Religious Experience
So examining the pieces thus far we can identify:
- Spirituality which a person can possess without prompting from an outside source
- Community Movements to share spiritual experiences and somehow explain them.
- From community movements Holy Books to codify and perpetuate the purity of what has now become a bona-fide religious movement.
These are the key elements that have evolved to become the religious experience.
And the so-called spiritual leaders, either for power, money, influence or all of the above, quickly figured out that bundling the experience puts them in a superior position. If one truly desired a relationship with the Supreme Being they would no longer be able to pursue it on their own. No, an individual would need to join a specific religion, follow that religion’s specific holy book and obey that religion’s spiritual leaders. They became the gatekeepers that either elevated a person to heaven or doomed them to hell (salvation now the fourth element in the bundle).
Other than suicidal cults like Jim Jones’ People’s Church, there are very few religious organization like Jehovah’s Witnesses that have so thoroughly, masterfully and detrimentally insulated their follower from a personal relationship with God.
But really how successful can any relationship be when there is a go-between? Will a friendship deepen if one is always conveying their love for the other friend though acquaintances? Will the friendship blossom if, instead of talking to that friend, a person is given an endless stack of books purporting to explain how to successfully engage him/her? Will a friendship flourish if others are constantly advising what to say to that friend, what to wear when with that friend or emphasizing how friendship with that person is only due to their ‘undeserved kindness’?
Although Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the worse offenders, religious bundlers through out history have convinced billions of people this fragmented, distant approach is the right way to have a relationship with God.
Unbundle … First
When one of Jehovah’s Witnesses comes out as gay the experience is very much like cancelling the cable subscription. I have heard the phrase, “If this isn’t The Truth, then nothing is.” This sentiment is not surprising. A large part of the JW experience involves debunking every other religion. So once a person’s association with JWs is finished, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the screen goes blank. Spiritual darkness.
Sadly, because most JWs have outsourced not only their spirituality to Watchtower but, also their opinions on morality, they may quickly find themselves adrift. They may discover that they have rarely ever formed a significant independent thought. They may realize that with ‘The Truth’ gone from their lives they don’t actually stand for anything in particular. They may face the rude awakening that during their involvement with ‘The Truth’ they did what they did only because the Organization told them to. And without the Governing Body’s endless edicts, too many ex-JWs seem to leave the religion and ‘go crazy,’ falling into physically and mentally unhealthy vices and lifestyles.
When I came to the conclusion that Watchtower’s teachings were anything but ‘The Truth,’ the next thing on my mind was “Is the Bible true?” At the time, I was not emotionally ready to retrieve that brick from my life’s foundation for closer examination. Along the way I also grappled with the idea: “What kind of God would allow someone, who genuinely wants to serve him, be in the wrong religion for decades.” This thought was particularly distressing. If considered as one package none of it made sense and the only logical answer was to discard every last piece.
Eventually I came around to this idea of unbundling. Now that I had cancelled the cable service maybe an a la carte approach was the more appropriate way forward. I asked myself: “Even if one feels they are able to prove religion is a construct of society, does that necessarily mean God does not exist?” No. “Even if doubt is cast on the divine authorship of holy books does that mean that a Supreme Being does not exist?” No. It does not. But bundling all of these concepts together forces one to except all or nothing. Once the straps of the bundle are dissolved one is free to explore a personal relationship with the Supreme Being according to personal understanding. As it was before monolithic, big box religions wedged themselves into the relationship.
Up front I will say that the process of unbundling is not without its challenges. On the surface it is much easier to follow rules and traditions. They’re comfortable. Personally I had become very accustomed to talking to Jehovah about every major decision in my life. He had been what I thought was a constant companion. When the full duplicity of the Organization became apparent I recall one night, in tears, pleading to Jehovah to help me understand “Why?” After many long months of no calming response of any kind I slumped into one of the loneliest, demoralized states of my life. Eventually though those feelings passed.
Unbundled from the concept of religion I can now have a relationship with God that is more fulfilling and truly does give me a sense of freedom. The Supreme Being that I know is not going to brutally destroy billions of his creations just because they didn’t live in a country that favored the Bible. The God I am working to discover doesn’t require me to complete a certain amount of hours in ‘field service’ or rate my spirituality based on meetings attendance.
I must also admit that the Supreme Being I know hasn’t promised me an earthly paradise or heaven. There have actually been no promises at all. But I’m okay with that. Making every effort to have a happy, fulfilling life right now and ACTUALLY helping the less fortunate with the problems they are facing right now, keeps me plenty busy.
Oh and I should also mention, the God that I know does not hate me because I’m gay. For the first time in my life I have zero guilt. Zero.
Avoiding Phantom Pain
A few years ago a gay JW acquaintance of mine moved out of state, left ‘The Truth’ and started a same sex relationship. He did it. He got out and pursued what would fulfill his needs. But there’s a melancholy twist to the story. I was talking to his brother (who was not aware that I too am gay) and he made this unsolicited comment: “My brother is driving himself crazy because he doesn’t know if this is The Truth or not.” Often when a gay JW abruptly leaves ‘The Organization’ they are plagued by phantom pain. In medical parlance phantom pain can occur when a limb is amputated but the individual still feels the sensation of pain, as if the limb were still attached.
It’s like disconnecting the cable service but still paying the bill.
If you are a gay JW desperate to leave the faith, I would encourage you to take the time required to ‘unbundle.’ First, don’t leave just because you want to pursue your sexuality. Leave because you have done sufficient research to convince yourself that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have The Truth. Once that process is complete unbundle religion. If you conclude that there is a Supreme Being start figuring out howyou intend to engage this entity. If you want people with whom you can share your spirituality start a search for groups that appeals to your sensibilities. If you decide that the words of holy books encourage you, by all means, keep reading them.
By unbundling and finding out who you are and what you stand for, you will put yourself on a solid footing to move forward in life after the JW nightmare. You will avoid ‘going crazy’ and becoming a smug JW’s example of why leaving ‘The Organization’ only leads to pain, sadness, drug abuse and sexual immorality.
Bluntly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion as well as any other religion, is not required for spirituality, nor for a relationship with God. Neither does spirituality require one to swallow the entire hook-line-and-sinker of the religious experience. Choose the pieces that work for you. And for the first time in your life YOU will be fully responsible for the quality of any relationship you decide to pursue or not pursue with the Supreme Being.
That is how it should have been all along.