Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A brush with Jehovah's Witnesses

I'm at home all week. I have a new job starting in San Antonio next Monday, but for now I'm just cooling my heels. I've been living in my sister's house for a while, planning to move to an apartment in a couple of months.

Anyway, this is build up to explain why I was enjoying a nice nap today after an exciting round of healing Heroic Oculus on my level 80 priest, when the doorbell rang. I answered it and was confronted by a smiley woman in her forties or fifties, and a twenty-something middle eastern looking young woman.

They were looking for "Katherine," and when I said there was no Katherine here the older lady said that perhaps they had the wrong house. I said "You might be talking about my sister, Keryn." Then she asked if we were believers in God in this house, and I said "No, we're pretty much all atheists." She lit up and said "Well that's great, we love talking to people of all religions and, uh... people of none. I am sure this is the house I was at before, she told me to come back later." At that point I asked if they were Jehovah's Witnesses, they confirmed it, and we were off.

Now, I know some people who would try to get rid of JWs as quickly as possible, but I love them. I've only had one other encounter with them, which I documented here. They are so full of confidence that their book holds all the answers, yet generally pretty ignorant of basic facts. So I decided to pass some time chatting.

I was introduced to the younger woman, who pretty much never spoke the whole time, as a converted Muslim. I had to explain the whole "Jewish atheist" upbringing thing, which the lady interpreted to mean "Oh, so you read the Bible but you never actually got to know the Lord." I told her I didn't see it as getting to know anyone, but rather as not being raised to believe that their god existed.

The woman eager to start reading from the Bible, so I patiently refrained from calling it a book of fairy tales, or a big book of multiple choice, and she proceeded to gush happily about how the Bible is full of stuff that she finds inspirational. She asked me permission to read me one, and I consented.

To be honest, I don't even remember which part she picked. I just remember that at some point shortly after, we were talking about Adam and Eve, the first people, and she brought up how they defied God and ate the apple. So I asked whether they had the knowledge of good and evil at the time when he ordered them not to eat the fruit?

A little evasively, she said that they didn't know good and evil, but they understood that it would be disobeying God. But I persisted, did they really? How did they know that it was wrong to disobey God if they didn't know good and evil? What did they learn from the fruit of knowledge if they had that much understanding about not disobeying God?

She started to read what God said about how the day that Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they would die. So I said "But they didn't die that day. So God was wrong." And she said no, they certainly did die, in the sense that they became mortal. Then we talked about how the word "day" is sometimes a metaphor, and I brought up young earthism, so she said that she dismisses young earthism. "Yes," I said, "but there is no indication in the Bible how long those 'days' of creation actually were. Science had to figure it out first, before you could take credit for her." I also had to fill her in on background history of Bishop Ussher, since she didn't know how widely accepted young earthism once was.

I asked how, with all the non-literal stuff in the Bible, she can tell the difference between what's meant to be taken seriously and what's not? The Bible has no key to interpreting itself -- she pointed out that "in the beginning" from Genesis could be an indeterminate length of time and I pointed out that there is no way, without the insight of scientific examination, to actually determine that this is meant to stand for exactly 14.5 billion years.

But then she said that yes, the Bible has lots of original scientific knowledge, such as the order of creation matching up perfectly with what science says. "Oh reeeeally?" I asked, because this is one of my favorite claims to respond to. "Show me this ordering of creation please, that's fascinating!" So she skipped back to Genesis and started running through the separation of light and darkness, and then plants, and then... "Where was the sun at this point?" I asked.

She had an answer for me: "Oh, this verse doesn't mean that the sun was CREATED there. It just means that the sun was REVEALED at that point." Then she started to explain to me about the vapor canopy hypothesis, where the firmament water that would eventually become the water of Noah's flood, was blocking out the visibility of the sun.

"So," I said, "you believe that when plants came into existence, there was no visible sun on earth." "That's right." "And you believe this is in accordance with what modern science says? Seriously? How do you think plants get their energy? Ever heard of photosynthesis?" She put it to me that plants were getting energy straight from God.

So I said "I'm sorry, but you originally said that you think this information matches up with current scientific data. I know a lot of scientists, and I think it's safe to say that only a very tiny minority would give any credibility whatever to your version of events, including the vapor canopy hypothesis." She insisted that she had all kinds of literature she can bring back proving its scientific accuracy. I replied that I'm well aware that lots of creationists believe in that, but that doesn't make it in agreement with scientific thinking.

"What I'd really like to see is some kind of mainstream, peer reviewed, scientific journal that seriously advances the ideas that you're talking about." She promised that she would do the research and come back with it later. Asked what time would be good for me, and we agreed on Saturday at 11. The whole conversation lasted about 15 minutes, I think.

Personally, I'm betting they won't be back.


  1. cool post. thanks!

    That is awesome. Personally, I have a hard time getting past feeling sorry for them because I know they will not be able to convince me of anything, so I avoid it. Something about looking them in the eyes is sad...

    I bet they will be back. Don't make any plans. And when the come back, please do write more!

  2. I had a couple a few years ago, and I was probably more blunt than you were. I told them that I thought the Bible was just nonsense. They gave me the scholars-who-tried-to-disprove-the-Bible-and-were-converted and I countered with examples of the exact opposite. They then started to get into prophecies and I was trying to explain to them that for something to be a prophesy it has to actually predict something in advance (compared to chance, given the number and specificity of the prophesies). They were going to bring me a book explaining all the wonderful prophesies, but they never came back.

  3. My experience with JWs was pretty much arguing about the authority of the bible. They told me that they had this great news and started reading from the bible. I quickly told them that I didn't give the bible any more authority than any other book. They tried to convince me of their claims, but kept refering back to the bible and I'd stop them again and ask them how I could trust that the bible is authorative in this. That was about as far as we could get.

  4. Last time they came to my door, the spokes person was an African American woman. She had her bible and I asked if she had read it. She said she had read the whole thing. I asked her what she thought about the part that said I can sell my daughter into slavery. She said she had never heard of that. So I told her the verse (Exodus 21-7) and she said she would look it up and discuss it with her teacher. She didn't have time right then because they were busy fund raising for their convention.

  5. Minor note: Non literal interpretations of the first few sections of Genesis did occur well before science had an old Earth. For example, there are views in the Talmud which give an old age of the Earth. However, it is quite clear that those views were always a minority among Jews and even more rare among Christians.

    Also it is interesting to note that some strains of Hinduism have the opposite problem with their texts. While Jews and Christians have too young an earth, some Hindu texts seem to give an Earth which is too old by orders of magnitude. Almost seems like a failure of imagination on the part of the Abrahamic religions.

  6. Your sisters going to love you when these Yahoos come back (after you move out) armed with their "facts" :-)

  7. They might be back actually, JW are a persistent kind. Anyway, I had a few brush with them now and then, usnowadays I usually cut it short with "I don't believe in God so find your mission utterly irrelevant". The worst thing is, I could even get the upper hand of an argument when I was a good little Catholic boy. I think it is because even though they claim the Bible is true, they know close to zilch about it. It is very easy to have them contradict what they just said before. When I was a child, my neighbour, who was a Catholic theologian, could argue for hours and hours with the JW who were foolish enough to knock at his door. We were grateful to him, as they usually didn't bother us after spending time with him.

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  9. The only experience I have with talking to them at a door is when I lived in FL. At the time I was Church of Christ, when they came over for their appointment, I ripped into the history of their organization (founded by a conman who was arrested for selling "miracle wheat" before he started the religion). They left quickly and not only did they never come back, we actually stopped getting visits from that day on (and they had been coming regularly for quite awhile).

    I'm curious to see if Kazim can permanently scare them off. But if they said they'd be back, I'm betting they'll be back at least for the agreed-upon appointment.

    Also, just to note, some family of mine are JWs. But I haven't ever confronted them as an atheist. I was a theist at the time of any discussions. Too bad. Would be interesting to have that chance now. But they don't bring it up with me really anymore.

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  11. Oh, I'll bet they'll be back. Going into someone else's home would put you at a disadvantage, I'd think. A normal person would be very restrained and respectful. Who could be confrontational in that situation? Actually, I guess the same type of person who would go door to door as if you had never heard about this "god thing" before.

  12. @Minus

    "I asked her what she thought about the part that said I can sell my daughter into slavery. "
    "She didn't have time right then because they were busy fund raising for their convention."

    Maybe you shouldn't have mentioned that until after their fund raising was finished.

  13. Let us know if they come back or not.

  14. The younger woman did not speak as she was being "coached" I guess you could put it. The older sister was taking the lead.

    Belive it or not there is a high probability that she will be back as actually engaging someone at the door qulifies as a Return Visit. Only the next time she comes back it will probably be with a Elder or another Brother who is seen as being strong in the faith. The fact that you had a time established is a good sign if you are actually looking forward to this.

    I warn you though, the effects of the indoctranation are quite apt at producing apologists of the Ray Comfort caliber. This woman does not want to engage you in intelegent discourse. She does not care about evidence or what is most likely. She has talking points that she has been trained to use by the Society, further expanded by whatever Circuit Overseer they happen to have. If you let her get enough of them accross it is considered a successfull Return Visit. If there is something that you can refute, it is generaly pushed aside in redirection of the conversation. They will return as long as they feel there is a shot at convincing you of one of the core belifes.

    If I had any advice for you, assuming of course you wanted to engage them with this in mind, I would suggest picking one and only one talking point that can not be ignored and making sure that it is understood by whoever returns. Dont let them brush it aside. It doesnt even matter what it is to tell you the truth. The Society preaches that they MUST have all the answers. If you can successfull show that they do not, regarless of what it is, this is enough to shake their faith. Ive seen it happen on the most trivial of biblical matters. Its strange its almost like you are shattering some illusion if you are successfull.

    Im not saying that you have a magic phrase that will turn a JW into an atheist, but what will follow is a time of questioning by the lost sheep during which she will go to the elders or turn to someone elese she trust for guidence. Usually the elders reassure the person and it's buisnness as usual. If you happen to be that person -somehow, this is the only time they are sugestable to new ideas, like maybe slavery is never moral.

    But anyway good luck, and dont be too agressive. I know its hard but if you are we were trained to run for the hills.

  15. I had a couple of them come to my house one Saturday morning several years ago. The more verbal of the two told me that the Bible was a book of hope, to which I retorted along the lines of "No, the Bible requires death and destruction in order for its End Times prophecies to be fulfilled. What is so hopeful about that?"

  16. I typically just give the reply "Wiffit" ala carnies would give to each other in the early 20th to let each other know they were in on the con.

    I'm honestly curious to see what would happen if one rings ont he bell of a Mormon on mission or the like. It'd be an unstoppable force vs unmovable object scenario!

  17. @Kazim...

    Sorry to nitpick, but latest estimates based on WMAP puts the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years

  18. She came by again -- just the older lady this time. Unfortunately, she came an hour late, I was in the middle of doing something else, and she was running late for something else. She handed me a stack of printed creationist literature and asked if I would read them and try again later.

    I'll probably skim them and comment briefly. But basically, rather than respond to my request for mainstream peer reviewed literature, she gave me a printout of something citing things like "The Genesis Flood (1961)" and another printout on how science is just like a religion.

    Funny, arguing against using science AFTER claiming that her religion matches up with scientific knowledge. :P Sadly, she has not left any other way to get in touch, so I'll just have to wait and see if she comes back.

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  20. I had a landlord who was outspokenly gay. He told me of a time when JW's came to his door. He was in the shower when the door bell rang. He jumped out and grabbed an apron on the way to the door that read "This is no ordinary housewife you're dealing with." He gets to the door and sees through the spyhole that it's JW's. He yanks open the door, dripping wet and buck naked under the apron and yells "I'm queer and you won't stand up for the national anthem! We have nothing to talk about!" and slams the door. Funnily, they never came back.

  21. "Funny, arguing against using science AFTER claiming that her religion matches up with scientific knowledge."

    That's always the way. They want to cop the credibility that science has by calling their stuff scientific. But when you press them on it, they say that science is just another religion.

    I guess that means they think their religion is just another religion, since it's scientific.

  22. They might come back, just not with the peer reviewed journal that you requested and she promised to look up, because one doesn't exist. If it did, we would all know about it already. Expect to have to rain on their parade and explain that opinion pieces don't count as peer reviewed science. Then expect them to tell you that you have to accept God's word on faith.

  23. >Interesting interaction.

    >You are correct.

    >Most people who claim to know the Bible do not read it but only sections to prove their point.

    >Obsession with something you believe in is a life passion.

    >Obsession with something you don't believe in is a great way to spend your free time.


  24. Interestingly, all those who commented have done nothing but give their OPINIONS, funny that!

  25. @ adriano73
    For this type of post, other than give your opinions, what else do you suggest we comment on?

  26. Great post as well as the previous one. As a former Jehovah's Witness turned atheist I have to say there's no better way you could have handled both conversations.

    Granted, your logic probably didn't appeal to them, and they probably walked back to their car shaking their heads over how "sad" it is you're going to die at Armageddon. If you have a nice house they might have been talking about how they're going to move in after the world's been destroyed (yes, I've actually been with Jehovah's Witnesses out in the "field" who call dibs on houses to live in after their God has killed the occupants).

    It's funny they were so quick to deny that they believed you were going to be destroyed, too. But I've seen this all too often. JWs often will deny something they believe as a knee-jerk reaction to hearing an unfavorable phrasing of that interpretation. Their organization clearly teaches that all non-Jehovah's Witnesses will perish at armageddon. I don't think they're denying it for any malevolent reason, it's just that what keeps them in their belief system is an emotional tie. I've brought up similar beliefs to my JW mother and she will have the same knee-jerk reaction "we NEVER taught that!" despite the fact I can show her the exact citation that proves they did.

    What I liked most about your method is that you attacked the Bible itself. The Bible is the sacred cow to Jehovah's Witnesses even more than a lot of mainstream Christian religions. If you've ever read their literature, they almost always argue from the assumption that the Bible is correct. Challenge that assumption, and their entire position falls like a house of cards. They become confused when their "the Bible is all true because it says nice things" tactic doesn't work.

    Everyone reading this should do what Russell did. I know it's annoying and I know you probably don't care, and I know you probably won't convince most JWs who come to your door. But I know that if I were to knock on Russell's door during the last few years of my time in that organization, it would have really forced me to re-evaluate my position.


  27. continued from previous comment...

    JWs are not an easy religion to leave, in fact they are a harmful cult through-and-through. When you join, you are expected to sever all relationships outside of the church. They do not demand it, but put you under intense social pressure--almost to the point of bullying--to do so. Once that is accomplished, you are in their control. If you leave or show any dissent with their "governing body" (a 9-man council at the headquarters in New York), you are labeled an apostate, an enemy of God, and are disfelloshipped (excommunicated) and shunned. This tactic is (by their own admission) designed to browbeat unrepentant "sinners" back into the fold, because no Jehovah's Witnesses can even speak one word to them, even contact with family members not living in the same home is limited to occasions of absolute necessity, such as a death in the family. Their entire angle in recruiting you is to isolate you from the world, replacing your friends and family with the "family" of Jehovah God, and if your real family shows any objection to this, you are to cut them off as best you can.

    Being born into the religion it was extremely difficult for me. I had to go to public school every day having to either alienate my peers or preach to them (I wasn't brave enough for preaching).

    Anyway, I'm rambling here. I just want to say again that I think any atheist reading this should endeavor to have a dialog with the next JWs who knock on your door. It very probably won't go anywhere, BUT there are others, many others who are in the same position now that I was back then: struggling desperately to form some sort of logical defense for my beliefs. For me, it was dialog with atheists on social networking sites like digg and reddit that got me truly ready to start questioning the beliefs I had been raised with. It was that dialog that revealed to me that what the Watchtower Society was saying about atheists and evolution wasn't right.

    That's why I'm a huge fan of Russell and Matt and everyone down at the Atheist Community of Austin. You guys are proving to people that what their religious leaders are saying about us isn't true, and for some people, that's all they need to make the leap to the "dark side."

  28. "(founded by a conman who was arrested for selling "miracle wheat" before he started the religion)."

    Just wanted to correct this statement.

    The "miracle wheat" debacle actually happened a few decades after C.T. Russell, the founder of the religion, well, founded the religion. Basically he put an ad in the Watchtower (yes, it used to have ads, back then it was more like your typical religious periodical) selling this wheat seed for $1.00 a pound (the equivalent to over $20.00 today) that was supposed to yield at least 5 times the normal amount of grain.

    Russell wasn't arrested. In fact, he is the one who dragged the courts into the matter when a newspaper called the Eagle printed a cartoon lampooning his sales pitch and he sued for libel. Government tests proved the "miracle" wheat was no different from regular wheat, and Russell lost the libel suit.

  29. I used to have a co-worker that was JW. Hearing him and his wife rattle on and on about their particular worldview was annoying like a scorching case of herpes. I was an agnostic theist at best at the time and the little "debates" helped me on my way to being a full blown atheist because it forced me to look into what I was defending and what position I should take when talking to these people.

    Anyway, I really enjoy the show and the podcast, and I'm lamenting the fact that we don't have any organizations like yours in Oklahoma City.

  30. I think Coelecanth's story is absolutely hilarious. Interesting post, too. Jehovah's Witnesses are not nearly as adept at defending their beliefs as they think they are.

  31. As a former JW, I can tell you that you handled this perfectly. If you are argumentative or rude, they’ll just leave and won’t come back. I had an encounter recently; here are some points anyone can use if engaging in discussion with witnesses. This shows that they fail their own requirements. I’ll try to make this brief; more detail to all of this can be found online.

    I ran into some old friends (current JW’s) at a football game a few weeks back. They were asking why I left the religion. We’d all been drinking at the game, so I did my best to avoid talking about it. This is also dangerous, because I’m not officially disfellowshiped (disassociated) and anything negative I say about the organization, could get relayed to elders and result in my being disfellowshiped. I would then loose the association of friends and family.

    After much persistence I finally gave in. I stuck to two basic areas. As “L” commented, you need to limit the talking points. What happens (and did happen) is that they just brush off things they don’t like, without admitting error. Most JW’s are very poorly educated, so it’s very time consuming to explain to them how dialog works (or should work), what logical fallacies are, how science works, etc. I have an advanced degree and work as an aerospace engineer. One of the people in the group had a BA; he proved to be the only person I could converse with any meaning with.

    The main point I stuck with is the validity of their claim of divine inspiration. Without divine inspiration, they are no different than any other religion, and everything can be brought into question at that point.

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses make a few major claims which separate them from other religions of the world. They claim that Jesus made an invisible return as king in heaven in 1914, and kicked Satan out of heaven (Satan caused WWI to hide this). In 1918 Jesus inspected all the religions of the world and found the JW’s “eagerly awaiting his return” and the only ones giving “the proper food at the proper time” as prophesied in the bible. In other words, they were the only “true” religion. So in 1919, Jesus elected them as the messenger, from Jehovah, to humans on earth. This is what gives JW’s their divine authority. They come up with these specific dates by taking unrelated scriptures, out of context, applying the “thousand years equals a day” concept, and applying them to secular dates for events in the bible. So their entire theology is founded on this 1914 date.

    First, they claim that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem occurred in BC 607, and then by taking the above mentioned scriptures—and a lot of mental gymnastics—from that date, come up with CE1914. I pointed out that every single source on the planet refers to this occurring in 587/586. So by using this start date, you can’t possibly arrive at 1914. So that means that 1918 and 1919 are also wrong, and the society has no more divine inspiration than any other religion on the planet.

    Second, when you go back into the history of the JW’s, you notice that in 1914, they were claiming that Jesus came in 1875 and that Armageddon started in 1914. So they couldn’t be “eagerly awaiting his return” as prophesied, because they thought he was already here; therefore, they couldn’t have been selected by Jesus.

    Third, were they giving the “proper food at the proper time”? No. I have a copy of the book “Millions Now Living Will Never Die”, written in 1918 by Brother Rutherford (President of the Watchtower Society). The book repeatedly states that Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, King David, etc, would be resurrected in the year 1925, to “perfect earthly condition”, to rule as “princes on earth”. They even built a mansion in San Diego, called “Beth Sarim” translating to “House of the Princes”, to be their headquarters. If Jesus was inspecting them, there’s no way he could have considered this “proper”.

  32. Continued...

    This didn’t seem to bother any of them. One even said “shame on you for letting something so minor stumble you”. My jaw dropped. This is their claim to authority, and by their own requirements, they fail! Shame on me?! I told them to do their own research and see what they come up with. Verify the 607 date; prove it to me; prove it to yourself. They promised they’d research it and get back to me.

    I’m not surprised they weren’t shocked. When hearing things contrary to what you’ve been taught, your first reaction is “there must be an answer to this”. After all, “so many people can’t be so misled”. I’ve heard similar statements before, like “I wish my mom was here; I know she’d have the answers…” It’s not until you do the research for yourself that you find out there isn’t an answer.

    So for anyone out there, next time JW’s come to your door, ask: What’s up with this 1914 date? Ask them to prove the date to you. They’ll probably come back with the answer found on the JW website. They say: We don’t use secular dates to prove 607BC. But you have to use secular dates, since there aren’t any dates in the bible! And in fact the JW’s do use a secular date! Then they use math to derive their 607 date. In other words: All the dates that say 587/586 are unreliable; however, we use one of these “unreliable” sources to derive the 607 date.


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