Putin’s Russia has something of a history when it comes to harassing, intimidating and threatening to ban my former religion: Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Many are the reports of literature confiscated, of meetings disrupted and of incriminating literature planted by uniformed rent-a-thugs with the aim of framing the Witnesses as enemies of the state.
The latest news is that Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are making a last ditch attempt to persuade the Kremlin to relent from any moves to shut down their organization. Vasily Kalin, described by the press as the “leader” of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, has reportedly appealed to the country’s human rights council to this effect.
At this point I should probably make it clear that though I have a great deal of compassion and affection for Jehovah’s Witnesses as individuals, I am not a fan of the religious hierarchy that leads them – not by any stretch.
Readers of this website will be only too familiar with my disgust at Watchtower’s heinous policy of shunning, which serves to needlessly break up families – including mine. Neither do I need to spell out my contempt for the deadly prohibition on blood transfusions, nor the systemic covering up of child rape.
With all that said, I want Jehovah’s Witnesses who may stumble on this website to be aware that I wholeheartedly support them in repudiating any attempts to ban their religious activities. If they were to arrange a protest against the Russian government tomorrow (since they are apolitical, this is unlikely) I would stand at their side and serve them hot coffees.
Why? Because even though I no longer believe that an invisible Jesus swooped down and chose Joseph Rutherford and his colleagues to be the inaugural “faithful and discreet slave” in 1919, I am a firm believer in human rights. And make no mistake: the human rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are being trampled.
According to article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (believed by Witnesses to be the wild beast of Revelation!) in 1948, all homo sapiens have been guaranteed as follows:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
An inconsistent approach to human rights
In a sad irony, despite repeatedly appealing to the above entitlement when defending their own religious freedoms (i.e. conscientious objection, freedom to preach without restriction), the leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite happy to flagrantly violate this article when it suits them. For example, my wife and I are among countless ex-members who are being continually punished by means of shunning for our decision to walk away from our religion.
On a day-to-day basis, punishment is visited on us by a religion we no longer believe in because our JW family members are coerced into avoiding all contact lest they too are deemed evildoers destined for fiery destruction at Armageddon. One of the many disturbing side effects of this open denial of our right to “change [our] religion or belief” is that our daughter, Jessica, has yet to meet her grandfather – my father – who, as an elder, feels he must put loyalty to the “faithful slave” ahead of his paternal instincts.
Despite the infuriating hypocrisy of the Jehovah’s Witness approach to human rights, I refuse to count myself among some of the more embittered ex-Witnesses who believe JWs deserve to be similarly deprived of their human rights by thugs like Vladimir Putin.
I cannot, in good conscience, complain about my freedoms being violated while insisting that a group of people in Russia – whom I have never personally met and can only assume are decent, honest people – be stripped of those same freedoms. To behave so cynically and vindictively would make me just as hypocritical as the religious leaders I protest against.
Accusations of extremism
That is not to say that Russia is entirely wrong in labelling Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists.” When most people think of religious extremism, they think of the Islamist terrorist who ignites himself on a crowded bus, or the black-masked barbarian who beheads journalists and aid workers in the name of Allah – but you don’t need to be violent in order for your views to be extreme.
Is it extreme to dismantle a family because one or two of its members no longer believe your dogma? I would argue, yes.
Is it extreme to expect someone to die rather than accept a routine medical treatment that you consider an abomination on religious grounds? Yes, is the answer.
Is it extreme to cover-up child rape because you are not satisfied there are enough people who can attest to the abuse? Most definitely.
Make no mistake – Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremists. It’s just that most people don’t know they are extreme because the unfathomable body count from the blood prohibition is unknown, and most people don’t have to personally deal with the gruesome reality of having their family needlessly dismantled, or seeing their molestation as a child swept under the rug.
So, with all that said, how should a democratic society approach an abusive religion that extolls and imposes extremist teachings and policies? There are three possible routes to take. Allow me to spell them out for you so that you can decide which one sounds most reasonable…
1. Support the abusive religion
In this approach, a government would indirectly promote and support an abusive religion by making it tax exempt, so that the movement can rake in donations unfettered by the normal financial constraints under which non-religious businesses and organizations operate.
A position of “hear no evil, see no evil” can be maintained, in which the abusive religion does not need to be transparent, is accountable to no one, and the leaders can get on with their cultish business without any checks or balances when they inevitably stray into visiting harm on people.
An especially supportive government might even extend charitable status to the abusive religion, imbuing it with the same kudos and respect as organizations like the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières. In this way, the abusive religion can project pain and suffering on members and non-members alike while benefiting from the public perception that its work is “charitable.” It can also rake in extra money through incentives such as “Gift Aid,” whereby the government effectively supplements all donations received.
2. Ban the abusive religion
If you’re not feeling quite so generous, you might consider flat-out banning the abusive religion altogether.
Under a ban, members of the religion would not be able to meet together. They would not be able to print their literature. They would not be able to practice their faith if this involves preaching or proselytizing.
Members of the banned religion would get to feel vindicated that theirs is the one and only true faith because, especially in Christianity, persecution by the authorities has always been considered somewhat a badge of honor that is worn with great pride.
In addition to fuelling the religion’s pre-existing persecution complex and lust for isolationism, a total ban has the knock-on effect of bringing your country into violation of human rights per article 18.
But, meh! If you’re a ruthless dictator who thinks nothing of annexing sovereign states, blowing up passenger airplanes, hacking the elections of other countries and assassinating rogue agents with fatal doses of radiation as they convalesce in their London hospital beds, who gives a [insert Russian swear word] about human rights? Right?
3. Hold the abusive religion accountable
If the above two options are not to your taste, there is a third option that involves neither supporting the abusive religion, nor banning it.
You can simply hold it accountable.
You can allow yourself the epiphany that there is no good reason for ANY religion to be tax exempt. They are all, at their very essence, businesses. Their products are a giddying array of competing, conflicting brands of religious faith that, like cigarettes, fake jewellery, pet snakes and garden gnomes, are non-essential to human existence.
If you happen to crave the product, you get to donate to your church, mosque or synagogue, which must be allowed to flourish or flounder depending on how you and your brethren decide to support it. But your donations should be taxable because, bottom line, you may feel you need this product in your life but many, many others don’t.
The upside to the “accountable approach” (apart from the fact that it just makes total sense!) is that no government who adopts it would end up inadvertently making itself the benefactor of any abusive religion. It goes without saying that the same would be true if governments (such as the government of my own country of birth, the UK) stopped extending charitable status to abusive religions.
If a religion wants to set up a charity that ONLY does good for non-members with no strings attached and no attempts to evangelize (or sell) their product to a captive, vulnerable audience, this could be deemed a tax-exempt charity – but only so long as there is full transparency and everyone is absolutely sure that no charitable donations can trickle their way into the religious arm of the organization.
Once you have buttressed your country against any involvement in supporting abusive religions, you can then start to think about proactively policing them and making it hard or impossible for them to inflict harm. And you can do this without any need to start throwing around bans.
You could, for example, criminally prosecute organizations found to cover up child abuse. You could also make it illegal for a religion that forbids certain medical procedures to send representatives to surround a believer’s hospital bed with the aim of coercing them when their life is in the balance. You could make it impossible, through legislation, for any kind of scenario in which a child dies from being deprived of certain medical procedures simply because this appeases the delusions of its parents.
For all the other detritus associated with abusive religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as religious books and magazines urging shunning and dissuading young people from pursuing higher education, you at least have the satisfaction of knowing that your tax dollars are not indirectly subsidising such backward propaganda.
If you want to be really progressive, you can take action to offset some of the harm caused by dangerous elements of the religion by funding resources for would-be apostates (such as safe houses and community support) thereby making it easier for them to leave. Another way of taking positive action is to implement critical thinking as part of the syllabus for all school children so that they can understand how abusive religions operate and how to insulate themselves against brainwashing tactics.
Do all of the above, set your watch, and see how quickly abusive religions wither and die. They are already operating in an asphyxiated environment in which, thanks to the internet, it is harder than ever for them to thrive. The last thing they are clinging to, their final crutch, is the undue deference lavished on them by governments bewitched by a legacy and tradition of religious reverence. It is this last pillar that needs to be removed – not the religions themselves.
Banning religions, however abusive, achieves nothing. But dragging them into their proper place by holding them accountable to the law and basic values of democracy and humanity would be a game changer.