Our ancestors understood that hunting, gathering, and building huts was easier within the tribe than doing it alone. When enemies approach, there’s also more security within a group than standing alone. And the survival of any group is dependent on some agreed upon structure. Therefore, groups often organize and unify under a belief system, deity, or common ideal. So religious ideals throughout history can be appreciated as a necessary force to unite a group of people for survival, but history’s pages are also full of examples that when groups gather in the name of their god, horrendous things can happen. As I was discussing this with a gentleman in a class I’m taking on “the history of religious intolerance,” he posed this question:
When the need for the group ends, does the need for the belief system also?
I thought that was an interesting observation so I posed it to the members of our Meetup support group asking how that relates to their exit out of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What were they ready to give up first: the group or the belief system? We left one group known as Jehovah’s Witnesses and with it the belief system. As we gather on the Meetup as a group, however, we each come with very individual beliefs. We are not unified under any common god or focus, but do share the fact that we’ve all been affected by the Watchtower. Recovery might be considered our ideal, but the path to it looks different for each of us and none of us are in position as leader to say “here, follow these steps for you must do/believe this to stay part of the group.”
As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, my group was my belief system. They were inseparable. In fact, while in the group one is considered to be “in the truth.” Once you leave the group, you are assumed to be “out of the truth.” So from the very beginning, there is a set up for the scheme that if you leave the group, you also lose your beliefs. Knowing the Watchtower’s version of truth gave me a sense of security believing I’d come into a family who would be there when I couldn’t do it on my own. That’s why it was so devastating to be told to ignore a “weaker” sister and “look out for number one” instead. This elder was prescribing independence to me when I had joined a group to be free of that. When my vision of the group changed, my security in the belief system came into jeopardy. So back to the question: When the need for the group ends, does the need for the belief system also? Yes, as a convert to the Watchtower who was now questioning it, I fit that theory. But what about now? As a Christian, why do I believe what I believe, is it to be part of a group? No. I can honestly say that is no longer the case. In fact, I came to believe before I was part of any group to persuade or confirm my beliefs. Though I am part of the body of Christ, this group spans generations past, present, and future and can not be defined as a group on which I must rely for daily sustenance or survival. And I also know the plethora of interpretations of the Bible within the Christian faith that make conformity of belief on every minute issue impossible at a local level. I am a social creature, however, and an extrovert at that, so I enjoy the social aspect of visiting local churches. However, I don’t belong to any particular one and having a group to confirm my belief is of little importance to me now. My belief system remains intact regardless of affiliation in any group.
What about people in general? Do we need groups? We live in a time and culture which encourages independence. Mobility allows us to migrate away from family into whatever new groups we want or none at all. And if a person has the resources, they can obtain housing, food, protection and entertainment to suit themselves and give no heed to a group, so does anyone need a tribe?
The November 2016 issue of the AARP Bulletin published a conversation with Sebastian Junger featuring his new book “Tribe,” in which he also tackled this same thought.
He spoke about the culture shock soldiers experience in returning to society. They have to transition from such a close knit communal existence to the individualized unconnected society we have here in America. He notes this is psychologically hard on humans. Here is an excerpt from that interview….
So being part of a group is important regardless of whether you’re a civilian or in the military?
We’re a social species. This is where we get our physical security. Primates don’t survive in the wild on their own. We get our emotional needs met from the group. The unit cohesion that you find in the military is reinventing the wheel for humans. But modern society is wealthy enough that it allows people to live a life where they don’t need other people.
The interviewer then asked, “How can we promote a sense of connectedness?”
I grew up in a pleasant, affluent suburb where I didn’t know my neighbors. I sure as hell wouldn’t have died for them. How do you change that? You can change it with an earthquake or the army coming over the hill. But we don’t want that.
Notice how he truthfully stated he had no connection to his neighbors. He would not die for them. We are, after all, a very individually minded society. But upon an emergency, people tend to go into high gear and help their neighbors. That made me think of the many groups formed now to help traumatized ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Watchtower created us in a sense. They provided our “earthquake” and as a result support groups were formed. But, how do they rally people to their own group, the Watchtower? They invent the fear of an “earthquake” approaching and keep the trauma going. Did you know when Jim Jones moved his People’s Temple to Guyana, he isolated them from being able to hear actual news and events happening in America and instead ran a continual tape of his voice warning them of impending doom? That cult leader employed the same tactic as the Watchtower being the supposed mouthpiece of God and only true source of reliable information. In the tribe of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Armageddon’s always just around the corner and the only haven of safety is of course the Watchtower Society. Members submit to this and stay because they believe Jehovah is there… and ONLY there. The message is: Do not leave the group, for you will lose your beliefs.
For those who do leave, the transition to civilian life can be overwhelming. If soldiers are recognized as having Post Traumatic Stress, it’s no wonder that former Jehovah’s Witnesses are also diagnosed with it. When asked for advice for older vets who have never felt fully integrated back into society, Junger responded,
I think feeling like you are not part of society is probably a healthy reaction to a society that has high rates of suicide and depression and alienates most people. I talked to a Vietnam vet who felt so out of place when he came home that he went back over and married the daughter of a Viet Cong commander. The problem isn’t with the vets, it’s with society.
Interesting observation. It’s true for many ExJWs that they too can’t fit into society and fall prey to depression and even suicide. Some run back to the place from which they came. But Junger’s point is about being confronted by the reality of our individualized society. When former cult members seek a community of faith, they may tend to think they’ll find the same intense, enforced unity of their cult in the new group and be disappointed by the lack of “love bombing.” But many churches are reflective of the culture now: very “come as you are” with no commitment to stay. Some ex-cultists may be like that transitioning soldier expecting the intensity of comrades in a fox hole, but if I experienced that at a church now, I’d take it as a red flag to leave. I would aptly be described as an American Christian now I suppose because I honor individualism over the group. I’d leave the group before I’d let go of my beliefs.
Keep yourself in God’s love,