NEW LIGHT: OPENING THE DOOR TO BELIEF REVISION IN JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES
By David Hancock and Kyle Bouchard
Tough nuts to crack?
We practice Street Epistemology because we consider those locked into religious belief to be in need of help. While followers of mainstream faiths can be very closed in their beliefs, we don't necessarily consider them victims, but followers. Those trapped in cults are, however, under constant and intense indoctrination, often from birth, and so we have no hesitation in calling them victims.
One organisation that has many characteristics of a cult is the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), also known as the Watchtower Society (Wikipedia). While JWs are well known for their door-to-door proselytizing, and more recently “cart witnessing”, the general public knows very little about the inner workings of the Watchtower Society and the level of control it has over its members. The slightest suspicion of a critical word against their organisation can automatically trigger an inner defense mechanism that slams the shutters down on the conversation. This can make engaging in Street Epistemology with Jehovah’s Witnesses a daunting task. Even Dr. Peter Boghossian has stated that JWs are the most difficult challenge for producing glimmers of doxastic openness. So, how can we penetrate far enough to provoke thought without springing the interlocutor’s fight/flight reflex?
Addressing the challenge
When engaging in SE with JWs, focus on cordiality and curiosity. In fact, we advise speaking as if completely ignorant of all things related to JW, while presenting a child-like curiosity. This approach is strongly recommended by ex-JW and SE enthusiast Kyle Bouchard. Kyle was indoctrinated into the organisation from birth, but managed to deprogram himself in his mid twenties through a love of science and a critical study of the Bible without church supervision. “I cannot stress enough the importance of playing the fool. JWs are conditioned to distrust anyone who comes across as intelligent or educated, or anyone who might suggest they re-examine their beliefs. They are required to limit their interactions with non-members as much as possible, and while witnessing, will only interact with a ‘worldly’ person (anyone not in the organisation) if they deem there’s a chance that they can be recruited.”
Let’s suppose one of us spots a JW cart on the street. With the same curiosity that prompts me to ask for a magazine, I open a conversation, aiming for 15-20 minutes maximum. I say that I'm not strongly committed to any particular set of beliefs but am interested in finding out how others have done so. I introduce myself and establish where they are on the 0-100 scale, invariably 100. I mention how believers in different faith traditions are also strongly convinced by their particular scriptures and gods. When pressed on this point, the IL may respond that ‘We don’t judge the beliefs of others’. I may reply, ‘I’m not suggesting you should judge. I just wondered how you account for so many different convictions. What convinced you to become a Witness?’ Hopefully, their answer contains a reference to living by the (true) principles of the bible or that they believe the Witness (Watchtower) interpretation of scripture is the true one.
The light gets brighter
Now I focus on separating their adherence to Watchtower teachings about scripture from scripture itself. These start out inextricably bound in the IL’s mind but the doctrine of the ‘new light’ can help untangle them. Watchtower uses the terms ‘new light’ or ‘the light getting brighter’ to justify revisions or changes to official dogma, and most importantly, failed prophesies, of which there have been many. I prompt the IL to open up regarding ‘new light’ by asking, ‘If any new information came to light regarding a particular teaching, and that teaching was revised, would you be prepared to accept the revision or would you stick to the original teaching?’ I may get an obfuscation, a Yes, or No or, ‘It depends on the teaching’.
If Yes, I reply: ‘That’s great. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to move a little further down on the confidence scale in order to accommodate further revisions?’ I find this a difficult point to get across, but press the idea that one can’t hold absolute certainty in the current teachings if those teachings are subject to revision. The specific goal here is to get them to move off 100% certainty in the current teachings.
If No, I reply: ‘So you wouldn’t accept the revision, even if the vast majority of your fellow Witnesses went along with it. Wouldn’t that mean you were distancing yourself from Witness teachings?’, or ‘Do you feel the people who formulate the teachings have a reliable way of interpreting scripture?’
If ‘It depends on the teaching’, I may take a chance and pinpoint an example of Watchtower policy based, not explicitly stated in scripture, such as refusing blood transfusions or military service. I go with blood transfusions as it's a sensitive subject, it makes JWs stand out from other Christian groups, and Watchtower has been quietly revising its stance on transfusions; perhaps with a view to scrapping the prohibition altogether.
SE: 'Oh, is it you guys who don’t have blood transfusions?’
IL: ‘Yes. It’s forbidden in scripture.’
SE: ‘That’s the Witness teaching?’
SE: ‘If there was new light shed on that scripture, and the teaching was changed so that it was now okay for Witnesses to receive blood transfusions, would you be prepared to accept that?’
Barring obfuscation or a refusal to answer, the reply should be a Yes or No.
SE: ‘Wouldn’t that suggest the current teaching on blood transfusions is wrong?’
SE: ‘So, you’d regard that revision as a false teaching?’
I'm encouraging the IL to consider the reliability of the process used by those at the top of the organisation in dictating what can and can’t be believed. I've had more success imparting doubt about the human component of revealing ‘The Truth’ than in questioning the Bible itself. Many accounts by ex-Witnesses say they began to doubt because of teachings they couldn’t reconcile with their own reason or personal understanding of scripture.
I'm likely to hear in response that the (exclusively male) humans comprising the Governing Body are directed by the Holy Spirit, which can lead to a tangle, but I counter with the Outsider Test for Faith: ‘There are so many people who claim the Holy Spirit guides them to beliefs that differ from yours. Can’t the guidance of the Spirit be interpreted in different ways?’
Example 1, Clip 1
Example 1, Clip 2
Consider the above excerpts from a conversation between myself and a JW husband and wife team manning a cart in central London. I recorded this before I'd fully thought out this approach, but you can hear that they’re encouraged to focus on the importance of belief revision in the light of new information. In the second clip, Stephen opens up about the ‘new light’ concept and even volunteers the idea that Watchtower has made revisions in the past due to mistakes in interpretation. As a result, he and his wife seem to accept the idea of dropping to 99% to accommodate changes at the end.
Example 2, Clip 3
This is the first conversation I struck up with the intent of using the ‘new light’ strategy. The interlocutors didn't volunteer the expression, but I managed to bring the idea of changeable JW teachings to the fore after around five minutes. Though quite evasive, both ladies admitted doctrine had been changed in the past and claimed there was no way they would accept Watchtower lifting the ban on blood transfusions, a hallmark belief. I took the opportunity to press them on discrepancies between their personal understanding of scripture and what is taught by the Organisation. One IL also mentioned how the attitude towards Christmas changed in the 1920s, but we didn't go into detail.
I've linked to further audio samples at the end. While many Witnesses eschew any possibility of revising beliefs, others are more pensive.
I hope we have provided some direction for engaging JWs. Our goal is to provoke reflection on strongly-held beliefs to plant a seed of doubt. With JWs we consider it a success if the IL moves down from 100% confidence in the truth of current Witness teaching, after accepting the contradiction between being absolutely certain, while claiming to be open to accepting revisions.
Remember to maintain the cordiality and curiosity all the way through. Also to 'play the fool' and use generic language about religious beliefs, avoiding JW terminology such as 'Watchtower', 'Governing Body', 'Kingdom Hall', 'Pioneer', 'Publisher', 'Elder' etc. Be aware of how discomforted the interlocutor is in deciding how far you can go in pressing the ‘new light’ intervention strategy. As you develop experience you can become more adept at delivering a seed of doubt before the lockdown reflex can kick in.
For more of David Hancock’s interventions with Witnesses, go to:
To learn about JW beliefs and how they have changed over the decades, go to: