Noomi (22) grew up in Jehovah’s Witnesses: – It took a long time to get rid of the fears that I was living in the devil’s world.
Originally published by Dagbladet in Norwegian by Mathilde Lea and Madeleine Hatlo
“It makes the demons happy when people do things that are forbidden by Jehovah. For example, the demons like it when a boy and a girl play with each other’s penis or vulva. We don’t want to make the demons happy, do we?”
The excerpt comes from the book “Learn from the Great Teacher,” one of the children’s books of Jehovah’s Witnesses. 22-year-old Noomi E. Pilot was born into the religious community and knows the message well.
“Growing up in Jehovah’s Witnesses was strict. If you do something for yourself, think for yourself or try to be critical, it is the devil who is behind you”, she tells Dagbladet.
This methodology is well known to Inger Lise Lien. She is a researcher at the National Knowledge Center on Violence and Traumatic Stress (NKVTS). In 2008, she and several other researchers conducted a study on fracture processes in religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“There is great power and control in this with doom, devil, paradise and hell”, says Lien to Dagbladet.
She describes it as a fear culture, in which the threat of doomsday contrasts with a more positive and modern child education oriented around reward systems.
The devil and doomsday
“Learn from the Great Teacher” was once among Noomi E. Pilot’s own children’s books. In a Facebook post, she criticizes the books, and thinks they create unnecessary fears in both children and youth.
Jehovah’s Witnesses scare children with the devil, she writes in the post.
To Dagbladet she elaborates on what she believes:
“You should not be so hard on children. That’s how you are as a youth, you might want to explore sexuality. That’s how we’re made. Then one should not say that it is the devil behind it. One should rather explain why that happens”, she says.
- According to official figures, the religious community has just under 12,000 members in Norway, and over 8.5 million worldwide.
- Founded in the United States in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell.
- Regards the Watchtower Translation of the Bible as the only infallible word and the only necessary guide in all life’s questions.
- Strong end-time focus. Celebrate no holidays or national days (except for Jesus’ death), deny military service and are politically neutral.
- Known for doing active missionary work at home visits.
- Expel members who renounce the doctrine or who repeatedly violate God’s commandments without repentance.
Facts: Large Norwegian lexicon, jw.org, NKVTS
Pilot is the youngest of five siblings. Today, they have all left Jehovah’s Witnesses while their parents are still members of the congregation. They no longer have contact with them. When she looks back, she thinks the fear of demons and the devil has been there since she was tiny.
“Ever since being a baby in the belly, you got to hear Biblical literature. And from the first breath we were told how to live, and that everything else was dangerous”, she says.
Pilot is one of several who have contributed to the report “Small Shoes, Great Faith“, which was released in February. It is a collaborative project between Save the Children, the Relief Source and Birth Free, which deals with children and young people who grow up in strict religious environments.
Because many children learn that it is only within the congregation that they can attain security and happiness, and that there are evil forces on the outside, it is often difficult to participate in society, according to the report.
Several say they were told that God would punish them if they did not serve, or that they had felt an inner duty to warn non-believers of doom or hell.
“What she talks about is quite good with what we learned in the work on the report. What is coincidental with those we talked to, regardless of which of the religious environments they grew up in, is that they experienced a great deal of social control. It also came to light that they did not know their rights and called for knowledge about it”, says Thale Skybak, section leader in Save the Children ‘s Norwegian Program.
Noomi E. Pilot describes scary books of the devil and doomsday – and colorful, strong illustrations. As a little child, she didn’t see anything wrong with what was in the books, and did not dare question it. She thought she was like that because God had decided it.
“I well remember a picture where I imagined that the devil sat and ruled all the people as puppet dolls. I totally get chills thinking about it”, she says
Right to be protected
Skybak is clear that children have the right to be protected from harmful information.
“This constant talk about doomsday does something to children’s mental health that can be harmful and is not in line with the children’s convention. Parents also have a responsibility for what messages their children are exposed to”, she says.
As a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pilot grew up with narratives about the destruction of the world and Paradise. The Christian “hell” did not exist, but anyone who was not Jehovah’s Witness would end up dead in Armageddon. It was a frightening fate to think of for a little girl.
“I was very fond of those I went to class with, and I tried to save them. When they didn’t want to listen to what I had to say, I thought they would never survive. Then I was so sorry because I couldn’t save everyone”, she says.
She brought books to school and showed them to her friends.
“It ended with that I would not establish new ties with others, because I knew they were going to die. It was a great responsibility to have and at the same time perform at school. It was too much, and I think it would have been much better if I had just been a student.”
Broke with the congregation
There are not only negative aspects of growing up in these religious environments, explains Inger Lise Lien, but it is often in adolescence that the challenges begin to arise.
“When you come into puberty, get other stimuli and start questioning the inner culture, that’s when one can be motivated to explore other ways of living. Then it is tough when the environment reacts with total exclusion”, she says.
When Pilot, as an 18-year-old broke with the congregation, she had been afflicted with anxiety and depression from early teens. She had gotten her boyfriend and decided that she would live as she wanted.
“It took a long time to escape the fears that I was living in the devil’s world. I remember closing my feelings: Now we start again, now I think for myself. I worked hard with it, talked to others and went to a psychologist.”
She emphasizes that it was a long process to lay off the horror. It happened gradually, as she formed her own opinions about what she had been told over the years.
“It was very good when I managed not to be afraid to die anymore.”
According to Lien, the fracture process can be perceived as very painful for many, at least as serious as a marriage offense.
“You have not had so many people other than those in the church to be with. It is a great sadness to be expelled or withdraw from this environment, and this is a traumatic experience for many. One can be perceived as a traitor of the group. One can become lonely, and in addition it is painful to lose faith in God.”
She and Skybak agree that more knowledge is needed about the challenges these children face among professionals working with children.
“We need knowledge from teachers and professionals so that they can give children and young people knowledge about what rights they have. They should be able to understand what is right and wrong. Many children do not know this, and react with ‘Huh, no one has told this to me,'” Skybak says.
Does not know us again
Today, Pilot wants Jehovah’s Witnesses to have greater opportunity to feel free.
“My childhood was very heavy when I had to carry so much on my little shoulders. This is not about destroying their faith, as they may think I am doing. I want every child their best”, she says, and elaborates:
“The thing is that you have to believe in what you want, get what you want. But you are as vulnerable as a child, then you should have the freedom to think for yourself and choose yourself.”
Noomi E. Pilot’s father does not want to comment on the criticisms that appear in this case. He refers us to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“In general, we do not want to comment on her perception or experience, but we do not feel that we are using scare tactics on the children,” said press spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Norway, Tom Frisvold, to Dagbladet.
“However, we want to emphasize what is positive and good for the children, and we believe, among other things, that one’s sexual life belongs within the marriage arrangement. Children should not be encouraged to explore this outside of marriage.”