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The Film Apostasy and Religious Dogmatism

Walter G. Moss: While viewing the 2017 film Apostasy (now on Amazon Prime), I kept thinking of how the Jehovah Witnesses (JW), especially its elders, depicted in the film lacked sufficient humility.

[dc]“B[/dc]lessed are the Humble” we read in the Bible (Matthew 5:5), but too many religious true-believers are insufficiently humble. In a 2013 sermon Pope Francis urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.” He also warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith. . . . But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. . . . [the] attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.”

Apostasy

While viewing the 2017 film Apostasy (now on Amazon Prime), I kept thinking of how the Jehovah Witnesses (JW), especially its elders, depicted in the film lacked sufficient humility. How in Pope Francis’s words they were too “rigid, moralistic . . . without kindness.”

While viewing the 2017 film Apostasy (now on Amazon Prime), I kept thinking of how the Jehovah Witnesses (JW), especially its elders, depicted in the film lacked sufficient humility.

The movie’s director is a former JW who attempted to produce a realistic but compassionate film. It is primarily about a modern English mother, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran, who was excellent in the Netflix series Happy Valley) and her teenage daughters, Alex (Molly Wright) and Luisa (Sacha Parkinson). Mom is a devout Witness, even handing out her religion’s magazine on the street, and her daughters occasionally go together and knock on doors, telling people such things as, “according to the Bible, you can choose where you will spend eternity. And it tells you everything in this leaflet. So, you can have a look” (all quotes taken from the movie script). JW dogmatism, rigidity, and lack of kindness show up most consistently when the church elders disfellowship daughter Luisa after they discover that the unmarried young woman has become pregnant. When Ivanna asks them how she should relate now to Luisa, they tell her “Jehovah's direction is clear about avoiding any contact with wrongdoers.” When Ivanna objects that her pregnant daughter “needs help and support now,” one elder replies, “We realize it's tough. You must keep any necessary contact to a bare minimum.” Another adds, “It's true, Ivanna.The less contact, the more it'll help Luisa realize her error quicker.” Like religions in general, that of the JW has its dogmas that affect its practitioners’ actions. At one point Ivanna tells Luisa, “The problem with this world is that people let things like art or music take over their lives, and it becomes a religion to them. Imagine when Jesus comes back at Armageddon to destroy this world. How is he gonna feel when you're at college instead of with his organization at the meetings?” There is also much talk in the movie about the “New System” that Jehovah will institute after Armageddon brings history to an end.

Late in the film after doing some online research, Luisa begins to doubt JW teachings. She tells her mother, “You know, we believed Armageddon was supposed to come in 1975? Some Brothers even sold their houses that year, and they took their kids out of school.” Her mom responds, “Some brothers misunderstood the message back then and got carried away. It's okay to have doubts, but we have to be humble. If you don't understand something, talk to the elders, pray to Jehovah. Deep down, you know we're God's people. There's no other religion out there that is as true to His word.” Thus, Ivanna does recommend a certain type of humility, but it applies only to individual believers, not to the elders, and it does not extend to a person being humble enough to realize a religious belief is only that—a belief, a faith, and not a certainty.

One of the most significant JW beliefs is that individuals should not have any blood transfusions. The film begins with daughter Alex, who has an anemic condition, praying to Jehovah [God]: “I'm sorry, Jehovah. I'm ashamed really. The doctor went on about my condition. . . . It's a big deal to her now I'm turning 18, 'cause it's my decision now, undefined. . . . She was convinced that the hospital saved my life when I was born and that my congregation tried to stop it.” Influenced by her mother and JW teachings, however, Alex refuses to agree to any future transfusions—a decision that will eventually prove crucial. Another recent film, The Children Act (2018, also available on Amazon Prime), deals with a similar case. Based on an Ian McEwan novel of the same name and starring Emma Thompson, it is another thought-provoking film in which a judge (Thompson) has to decide whether a JW minor (17 years old) and his parents can be allowed to refuse a transfusion for him. The movie, however, raises many other questions besides humility and dogmatism and would require a separate review.

JW believers and officials are far from alone in being too dogmatic. Growing up Catholic, I often witnessed this failing among priests whose sermons claimed things they could not possibly know, for example, that such-and-such “dearly departed would be with God in Heaven now.” Protestant evangelists like Billy Sunday (1862-1935), later televangelists like Jerry Falwell (1933-2007), and many of the Trump-supporting Evangelicals (over 80 percent of white Evangelicals supported him) also have lacked sufficient humility.

In Carl Sandburg’s 1915 poem about Billy Sunday, he lambasts this most famous preacher of the time, a man who preached against alcohol, southern and eastern European immigrants, card-playing, and movie-going. The poet wrote, “You come along. . . tearing your shirt. . . yelling about Jesus. . . . You come along squirting words at us, shaking your fist and calling us all damn fools . . . . You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to fix it up all right with them by giving them mansions in the skies after they're dead and the worms have eaten 'em. . . . You tell poor people they don't need any more money on pay day and even if it's fierce to be out of a job, Jesus'll fix that up all right, all right—all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.”

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In 2001 Jerry Falwell, founder of the earlier Protestant Moral Majority and an early supporter of Ronald Reagan, claimed that God had allowed the terrorists to succeed on 9/11 because the United States had become a nation of homosexuality, abortion, secular courts and schools.

The presumption that Sunday or Falwell or any other religious believer, Christian or not, can know the mind of God is hubristic, smacking of too much pride, long considered as one of the “seven deadly sins.” Being a big fan of the texter’s IMHO (in my humble opinion), I especially appreciated “The Good Wife” judge (the Hon. Patrice Lessner) who insisted that lawyers in her courtroom end their arguments with “in my opinion.”

The judge admonishing lawyers to display some humility reminds us that it is not just religious believers who often lack that quality—although it is ironic, since many religions consider it a virtue—but non-believers, including agnostics, can also be too dogmatic and know-it-allish. In our present era of political polarization, such a climate is all too prevalent.

In 2005, Democratic Congressman David Price (N.C.) stated: “Humility is out of fashion these days. Political leaders, advocates, and pundits often display an in-your-face assertiveness, seeming to equate uncertainty or even reflectiveness with weakness and a lack of moral fiber.” Price quoted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr about the spiritual pride demonstrated by claiming “divine sanction" for one’s actions. Since 2005, the situation has become much worse with President Trump, perhaps our least humble president ever, setting the tone.

This is unfortunate because humility is so important in the political realm. Tolerance and compromise are dependent upon it, and both are necessary for democracies to operate effectively. Know-it-alls tend to be intolerant. If, however, we are willing to admit our own limitations, we are more likely to recognize that others may have insights, perceptive abilities, or knowledge we lack. This recognition and genuine truth-seeking should make us more tolerant, and even welcoming, of other people’s views because what should be most important to us is not protecting our own fragile egos, but using all the means available, including the ideas of others, to arrive at truth. Humble people are also more tolerant of other people’s failings because they recognize and admit their own. Because humility has often been lacking in the political realm, so too has tolerance. And this lack of tolerance has hindered effective compromises and working for the common good, which should be the primary aim of politicians such as our members of Congress.

Apostasy

Many conservatives, as well as liberals and progressives, used to understand this. Take the example of Russell Kirk, who died in 1994 and was sometimes labeled “the Father of American Traditionalist Conservatism,” In his essay on the “Errors of Ideology,” he wrote that “Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. . . . Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. . . .[but] the prudential politician . . . is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats. When ideological fanaticism rejects any compromise, the weak go to the wall.” (See also here for a comparison of Kirk’s ideas with those of Pope Francis.) Now, however, with the spirit of Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump triumphant in the Republican Party, aided by an Internet that has exacerbated political polarization, humility, tolerance, and compromise are barely visible at the national political level.

There is an old parable about blind men and an elephant. In the Buddhist version they all define an elephant differently depending on which part of it they touched. They quarrel, shout, and come to blows. Buddha's point was that reality is much larger than most of us can grasp, and like the blind men who only felt a tusk, a trunk, or a tail, we are wrong to think that reality is limited to the small portion we think it is.

This bit of wisdom from one of the world’s major religions alerts us to the fact that even though some religious authorities and believers may be too dogmatic and lacking in sufficient humility, the great religions can also offer us important and wise insights. Moreover, religious faith can and has helped produce many good works, and helped some lead better lives. Finally, as we have seen, pride, dogmatism, arrogance, know-it-allness display themselves not only in the religious realm, but also in other arenas such as politics. Thus, Jehovah Witnesses knocking on our door are not the only dogmatists of whom we need be wary.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss