The difference between “religion” and “cult” can often seem slight.
These days, many are apt to describe believers as one big community of faith, but the fact remains that there are very important differences among various belief systems, says Richard E. Kelly, a self-described “survivor” of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“On the spectrum of faiths, I put the Watchtower Society – Jehovah’s Witnesses – closer to the (Charles) Manson Family cult than I do, say, the Lutheran Church,”
says Kelly, www.richardekelly.com, author of “Growing Up in Mama’s Club – A Childhood Perspective of Jehovah’s Witnesses” and “The Ghosts from Mama’s Club.” The books detail his experiences growing up in a Jehovah’s Witnesses household, the ensuing family disharmony and how the cultish legacy contributed to his sister’s murder.
The following beliefs should be considered cult constructs, he says.
• Certainty that the world will end in one’s lifetime: This is a crucial pill to swallow for a subsequent list of cult beliefs, which keep followers in a perpetual state of fear. If only one holds true enough to a strict set of rules – like avoiding pledges of allegiance at school, for example – then they may be spared at Armageddon.
• Social manipulation: For Jehovah’s Witnesses who are not observant of all rules, ostracism and shunning is used. How to handle someone who questions policy? Make sure their family ignores them!
• Cripple half of the members (women): For Jehovah’s Witnesses, women are seen as creatures trapped somewhere between men and animals in God’s hierarchy. No woman can have a position of authority, which means it's men only for preaching, teaching and praying. If there’s an official meeting and a woman prays she must cover her head out of respect for the angels who might be there.
• Scorning education: Who needs advanced learning when the world is sure to end in a few short years? Kelly’s sister, Marilyn, had very little education, so when she was finally able to leave home, she had few coping skills. She ultimately met an abusive third husband, who later murdered her.
• Sexually repressive: Jehovah’s Witnesses are thoroughly indoctrinated in how to harness the power of the sex drive to please God. It’s obsessive compulsive when it comes to creating rules about sexual do's and don’ts, from masturbation to the role of women; from conception to sexual pleasure. Sex before marriage is an onerous crime, punishable by shunning and death at Armageddon.
Richard E. Kelly grew up as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At 20, while working at the religion’s headquarters, he left the group to live with his wife, Helen, in New York City.