Home > JWs vs. the World > Stigmas and Stereotypes: Child Custody Decisions and Jehovah's Witness Parenthood

Stigmas and Stereotypes: Child Custody Decisions and Jehovah's Witness Parenthood

August 3rd, 2002 Leave a comment Go to comments

Biased and incorrect opinions among the general population concerning beliefs and practices of JW’s, no matter how controversial, are widespread. It appears that in some cases these sentiments are reflected in the administration of justice.

RICHARD SINGELENBERG (University of Utrecht, The Netherlands)

For members of religious minorities, social stigmatisation and stereotyping is part of everyday life. Biased and incorrect opinions among the general population concerning beliefs and practices of these movements, no matter how controversial, are widespread. It appears that in some cases these sentiments are reflected in the administration of justice.

The present paper highlights the application of a specific area of law involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. Analysis of two court cases focusing on child custody disputes among members of this religious movement indicates that misconceptions about religious tenets, consideration of pseudo-scientific claims and emphasis on the ideological realm rather than individual circumstances may influence judicial decisions. It should be noted, however, that certain statements that have emanated from the umbrella organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses might have contributed to these misinterpretations.

VOL 1 (2000) #1, PP 41-59

One of the areas in which the state is able to penetrate the domain of the family is the well-being of children 1. Ill-treatment by adults through physical violence is the most obvious reason though in some cases the state assumes that certain religious practices may be harmful for the child’s body and mind. Particularly when the parents are involved in divorce proceedings and subsequent custody disputes, it is clear that unpopular or uncommon religious convictions of one of the parents may play a major role in the decision making. In many cases, these convictions are part of the ideological views of religious minorities; in fact, data from the United States indicate that a predominant feature in the majority of cases is that the dispute is between a member of a mainstream religion and a member of a minority religion. These statistics also indicate that the minority adherents are more likely to lose custody or receive restrictions on their religious practices during periods of visitation 2. In this respect, sociologist Bryan Wilson poignantly remarked: ‘Paradoxically, when both parents are sectarians of the same persuasion, the law does not see religious commitment as sufficiently injurious to the well-being of the child to interfere’ (Wilson 1990: 38).

But how do concerned parties define what expressions of religion are harmful and what methods are being used to examine these possible harmful effects? In this paper, I will focus on two custody cases, both involving a parent who is a Jehovah’s Witness 3. The cases have been selected because they include aspects, which are characteristic for similar discussions. Rather than detached fact finding, it appears that in these and comparable cases religious bias and social stigmatisation of a religious minority play a major role in the advisory and decision making process.

Case I The Netherlands, 1991
A husband initiates divorce proceedings against his wife. The woman has joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses a few years before. The husband strongly opposes his wife’s conversion and subsequent involvement with this religious movement. Her new faith is the main reason he wants to divorce. The couple has two children, aged 10 and 8 years. Pending an evaluation of the Dutch Child Care and Protection Board, the court grants temporary custody of the two children to the mother. This is mainly because of the irregular working hours of the husband, an airline employee. Among the children, there is no clear preference to reside with either the father or the mother. Evaluating the situation, though, the Board recommends granting permanent custody to the father. The argument is as follows:

[1] Concerning upbringing by the mother, there is less continuity. Until 1989, the children had a normal upbringing and now they have to comply with the rules of the Jehova-faith [sic]. [The Mother] makes the impression to have little confidence in herself. Joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses gave her a number of certainties. However, the faith appears to be a condition to stand her ground in life. Of course, the Board does not render an opinion about the religious conviction of the mother. However, the Board cannot ignore the fact that mother’s active involvement in this community will have consequences for the upbringing of the children (My emphasis).

The woman is highly critical of the report, particularly with respect to the remarks about her faith. The Board recognises some shortcomings and decides to implement an additional evaluation. It concludes that it is unable to render a sound and solid advice to the court, in spite of the observation that

[2] (…) though mother is able to put herself in the experience of the children, it remains to be seen if she, from her univocal view on the world and on mankind, can give the children enough opportunity to form an opinion of their own and enable them to unfold and develop their talents.

The Board instructs outside consultants on the field of child psychology to set up further expert examinations. Again, the focus of the inquiry is on the well-being of the children. Following the initial recommendation of the Board, the consultants conclude to grant custody to the father. Part of the argument is as follows:

[3] It remains to be seen if [the mother] can give enough room to the children, so they can unfold according to their nature. The fundamental as well as the relational anchorage of the children in the group of Jehovah’s Witnesses give reason for some concern, because B in case they react against this belief B there is a danger they end up in a social vacuum (My emphasis).

The Board accepts the evaluation of the consulting agency, which is passed on to the court. The court adopts the recommendation and grants full custody to the father. In the argumentation of the court, the consultant’s suggested possibility of faith rejection by the children and resulting ’social vacuum’ problem in a later stage of their life, is emphasised. However,

[4] ‘The court explicitly wants to advance that it does not subscribe to the disadvantages with relation to the children’s involvement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, brought forward by the consultants. These considerations did not play a role in the decision to grant custody to the husband.

The woman decides to appeal to a higher court. The appeal is rejected.

From this example, four elements are characteristic:

First, the observation by the Board (quote 1) about the woman’s faith and psychological well-being is remarkable. In this case, this relationship is implicitly considered questionable, probably because of the unpopular image of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The truism, though, that for a large part of humanity a religious conviction is a sine qua non for personal comfort and security, is ignored. In this context, the remark that no opinion is rendered about the mother’s religious conviction is hollow. Furthermore, the embarrassing and popular misnomer ‘Jehova-faith’ indicates that the Board fails to recognize some basic notions about the belief system.

Secondly, the rearing of the children – see quotes 1, 2 and 3 – allegedly gives reason for concern. No doubt, the involvement of the mother with the Jehovah’s Witnesses will affect the upbringing of the children – as any involvement of parents with whatever ideology or religion will affect child socialisation. The relevant question is, will this effect be harmful? The wording of the Board suggests so. However, the Board, the consultants and the court fail to present any solid arguments such as assessment data of the children or results from scientific research in support of this assumption.

Third, the conclusion of the consultants and the court (quote 3) that reaction against the faith may lead to a ’social vacuum’ shows the same problems. There may be a reasonable chance that the children will react against the faith of their mother during adolescence or puberty. In fact, it is rather natural that children at a certain age react against their parents, including their ideology. As will be shown below, the fact that the offspring will somehow distance themselves from the faith is thinkable. If this will lead to a ’social vacuum’ – this undefined concept probably refers to a state of social isolation – is quite another matter and rather unfounded. Only if the children are excommunicated from the organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses because of violation of basic rules of the belief system – such as involvement in premarital sex – and show no sign of remorse, the resulting process of shunning will impede association with former fellow believers.

Finally, the argumentation of the court is highly confusing. Though the children’s current involvement with the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses is considered harmless, their possible future reaction against the faith is regarded as harmful. Obviously, it does not occur to the court that the latter is inextricably intertwined with the former.

These assumptions are common property in the discussion of controversial religious movements. The facts, though, mostly derived from the results of social scientific research among religious movements, render a different view. In this case, the conclusions are not the result of consistent analysis of available data. Rather, it appears that they are founded on the often heard assertion that membership of closed groups is harmful because it excludes participation with the rest of society. It is assumed that if membership is terminated, traumatic effects will be the inevitable result since the only social network of the former member consists of fellow-believers who have orders to shun the apostate. Let us first discuss this specific issue and dwell on the issue of disaffiliation.

Regularly, the outside world is confronted with distressing experiences of disgruntled Jehovah’s Witnesses who are extremely disappointed or frustrated with their religious community. Usually through the media, they step forward and portray the movement as a dictatorial and brainwashing Moloch, which has caused psychological harm. But how many individuals have actually been affected? In order to answer that question, we need to do some simple calculations.

In 1988 the Dutch branch of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the umbrella organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, had slightly more than 29.000 active adherents, i.e. those who regularly participate in house-to-house evangelising. These members are called ‘publishers’. Ten years later, in 1998, this active membership consisted of 30.200 publishers, a rather moderate increase of 1.200 individuals. However, in the same period, approximately 9.900 new members were baptised. This yields a gross ’shortage’ of 9.900 – 1.200 ‘ 8.700 adherents. (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society: 1989 through 1999) Accounting for mortality (approximately 2.900) some 5.800 are ‘missing’ from the movement’s statistics. Why are these baptismal figures not reflected in the growth of the amount of publishers? What has happened to those new converts?

It is assumed that this shortage can be regarded as a quantitative indicator of disaffection towards the movement (Cf.. Franz 1994: 31), of which marginalization is the first component. The discrepancy between the increase of publishers and the baptismal figures is a clear sign that a large part of the new membership does not participate in the movement’s core religious activity, the house-to-house preaching. A proportion of this inactive category may still be partly involved with the movement but these dormant believers refrain from involvement in the evangelising practices. Others may have stopped all activities, having cut off existing ties with fellow-believers, without officially having announced their withdrawal from the congregation. As long as they do not seriously offend against any of the basic rulings of the movement, severe sanctions such as expulsion will not be applied. Such ‘paper’ members may still adhere to the belief system or parts thereof, with the exception of the movement’s doctrinal obligation to proselytise.

The extreme consequence of marginalization is apostasy, the second component of disaffection, which can be distinguished in overt and covert apostasy. The first is characterised by ex-members who violated one or more of the major doctrines or announced their voluntary withdrawal from the movement and therefore have been excommunicated (In the jargon of the Watchtower Society, this expulsion is called ‘disfellowshipment’; voluntary withdrawal will lead to the same sanction). In The Netherlands, in the 5-year period 1992-’96, just more than 1.300 individuals have been disfellowshipped 4. So, during the 10-year period in question it is assumed – based on the fact that the worldwide average annual rate of excommunication is stable, around 1% of the active membership – that approximately 2.600 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been excommunicated.

The covert category consists of those who do not agree with the movement’s belief system any longer. However, they refrain from advertising their dissenting viewpoints among their ‘fellow’-believers because the effects of the inevitable disfellowshipment procedure may seriously hamper continued participation in the social network of the movement. I personally know of several dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including local leaders, who profoundly disagree with the major body of doctrines of the movement and the organisation’s policy. They prefer not to discuss their feelings among co-religionists out of fear that the resulting sanctions will most probably obstruct familial contacts and association with relatives.

Summarised, in the 10-year period 1989-1998, approximately 2.600 members have been excommunicated which leaves around 3.200 who terminated their core activities with the movement. The Watchtower Society’s annual statistics do not present these figures. No doubt, this is the result of the problematic existence of the ‘inactive’ Jehovah’s Witness. From a strictly doctrinal point of view, this is a contradictio in terminis since ‘Each Witness is a Minister; one not preaching is not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses’. (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society 1953: 197) Consequently, the designation ‘paper’ or ‘dormant’ adherents, as mentioned above and the usual description of uninvolved membership is erroneous: as far as the Watchtower Society is concerned, such category simply does not exist.

The social profile of inactive and excommunicated members is unclear. However, from observation at baptismal rituals it can be inferred that new members are largely second, third and fourth generation Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since those receiving baptism do hardly contribute to the amount of publishers, it is assumed that the younger generation is the largest group within the disaffected category.

If the presumption is correct that former Jehovah’s Witnesses will be the victim of mental health problems such as psychological trauma’s after forced expulsion or voluntary withdrawal from the movement, it is highly unlikely that this relatively large group with such characteristics would go unnoticed. Distressing reports from national mental health services or social welfare sectors indicating requests for counselling from a steady stream of rebellious children from Jehovah’s Witness families suffering from psychological problems, are nonexistent. Neither does scientific research indicate any widespread problems among children who left the faith of their parents. Though it has been suggested that these postinvolvement problems require specific psychiatric diagnostics and treatment (e.g. Langone 1993), contrary evidence indicates that this process is in many ways similar to marital disengagement (Wright 1991). Any mental problems former Jehovah’s Witnesses may show, are caused in large measure by long-standing membership and substantial involvement in a close-knit group rather than by its sheer religious identity. As such, suggested special therapy for former members of religious movements is considered superfluous.

This is not meant to downplay the problem of possible consequences of disaffiliation. I am familiar with some cases of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who suffer from severe mental problems, partly due to their religious upbringing. It concerns individuals who were raised in a strictly orthodox environment where, for example, involvement in proselytising was demonstrated to such an extent that daily life was totally dominated by this activity. These adverse consequences suggest that the belief system contains elements that may harm individual well-being. Based on the next case, this issue will now be discussed.

Case II Germany, 1993
The wife is a Jehovah’s Witness since childhood, the husband has been disfellowshipped – the reason of his expulsion is unknown. Initially, both parties agree that the mother will take care of the child, aged four years. The court agrees and custody is granted to the woman. About a year later, the husband wants reversal of the custody, accusing his former wife of ill-treating the child. Before the court, eyewitnesses confirm these charges. It has been observed that the mother regularly beats the child. According to an eyewitness, the mother dealt heavy blows with her hand or with a ladle on the child’s buttocks. Occasionally, the mother hit the child in the face. The woman does not deny the charges. She states that the ill-treatment is caused by disappointment and frustration of the divorce. She further explains that ‘in my youth, I was hit with a ladle also. It did not harm me’. She has the impression that her son is getting ‘more and more like her husband’ – obviously, an undesirable prospect. ‘By giving these blows, I wanted to cast that out’. One time, an eyewitness found the child unconsciously in the hallway. The mother was unable to give an explanation. The child had to be hospitalised.

To the court, the woman’s religious conviction as a Jehovah’s Witnesses turns out to be an elementary and crucial disadvantage. The court makes clear that the child, brought up with these views, will probably be mentally harmed for the rest of his life. Individuals who are ‘indoctrinated by the educational rules of this community and apply them uncritically in the upbringing of their children, endanger the mental well-being of their offspring and offend against the legal rulings of proper parenthood’. In fact, the religious views of the woman are in ‘outright conflict with the German constitution’, according to the court. The magistrates particularly attach value to the expert testimony of the representative of the (dominant) church, the expert on ‘Cults and World Views’ from the Evangelical Lutheran Church. He states that problems concerning the upbringing of children within the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses are ‘confirmed by scientific research’ (My emphasis). Allegedly, from this research it can be concluded that:

[1] The educational target of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is subordination by coercion and uncritical acceptance of religious doctrines and teachings, in order to break the free will of the growing child and to mould it into an uncritical and dependent individual.
[2] It should be made clear that the outside world is a hostile environment, which has harmful effects on children of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But more than that, Jehovah’s Witnesses should fear a vengeful God and an imminent Armageddon. Unbelievers, including unbelieving children will be victims of a ‘bloody liquidation’ in that final battle.
[3] Children should be raised in a disciplined way, the proverbial and biblically founded rod should not be spared. Spanking will have very good results if applied with the hand, a stick or a cane. Then the child will be shown who is in charge. ‘The parents should firmly hold the rod of power, authority and responsibility because childhood is the best time to start the process of self-renunciation.
[4] The organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses claims control over family affairs. When, for example, the child is being cast off from the community, family members are not allowed to have any spiritual contact with the child. The relationship between parents and child will be strictly limited to satisfy the biological needs of the child. The child will be treated as an outcast.
[5] Children of Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to participate in extracurricular events such as class trips and school parties because such occasions will stimulate sexual contacts. Secondary education is looked upon with suspicion because ‘it has been proved that this will lead to a preference of satanic material things’ and a gradual withdrawal from the religious sphere. School politics, such as form representation, is a forbidden activity because in that way children learn to actively participate in politics, which is part of the satanic world.
[6] Jehovah’s Witnesses reject state and society. They do not participate in state institutions like politics – there is a ban on voting, the army and trade unions. Any positive token towards the symbols of the state such as national anthems and flags is prohibited.

Partly based on this evidence, the court concludes that prolonged upbringing by the mother will result in a harmful personality development of the child, the more so because the woman indicates that she wishes to continue this method. Therefore, custody is granted to the father. It has been arranged that relatives of the husband and a nursery school in turn will take care of the child when the father is at work.

The woman appeals and more than a year later a higher court partly reverses this decision and grants custody to the mother. The father, though, is given the decision about surgical treatment while the youth welfare officer has the right to determine residence of the child 5. Finally, in 1997, the local court grants the rights to determine residence to the Witness parent.

Though in this case the physical ill-treatment of the child, particularly the resulting hospitalisation, stands out as a clear sign for questionable parenthood, the 22-pages argumentation of the court is almost completely focused on the religious-educational aspect.

In essence, statements 1 and 3 refer to conservative notions of socialisation, characteristic of many (Christian) fundamentalist religious groups. These include clear understandings of authority, particularly in family situations. For that matter, it is remarkable that the expert expresses concern about the alleged habit of spanking in Jehovah’s Witnesses families, when, according to a recent survey, 61% of the German population considers this practice useful when raising children. 6 Furthermore, hollow utterances such as ’subordination by coercion’, ‘break the free will’, ’self-renunciation’, and similar pointless terminology lack any scientific foundation. They serve as mere rhetoric, feeding existing stereotypes and fail to provide any insight in these specific sub-cultural socialisation methods.

Nevertheless, some autobiographical accounts suggest adverse effects of upbringing in Jehovah’s Witnesses families. Rather than doctrines as such, however, it appears that these narratives raise questions about the effects on family life in case of rigid adherence to religious scriptures and excessive involvement in organisational policy by one or both parents. This assumption corresponds with Bergman’s observation that ‘that it is more difficult for a child raised as a strict Jehovah’s Witness to be well adjusted in society (Bergman, 1996: 1488. My emphasis). In addition, from my own research I came across persons who were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses and who, during childhood, were not allowed to get involved with ‘dissenters’, i.e. non-Jehovah’s Witnesses children, to set eyes on reading matter other than that published from the Watchtower Society while the outside world was portrayed as a place of Ultimate Evil. To a large extent, their social world was restricted to the life of the religious community. Life in the outside world was mainly confined to evangelizing, accompanying their parents on house-to-house calls while envying the leisure activities of their peers. This atmosphere is partly reflected in statements 2, 4, and 5. For example, the constituent parts of statement 2 are correct from a strictly doctrinal point of view. However, few present-day Jehovah’s Witnesses will wholeheartedly support the blunt phraseology, that ‘unbelieving children will be the victim of a bloody liquidation’ while many consider it bad education to instil fear of the apocalypse into the mind of their offspring. The same discrepancy between movement precepts and individual experience can be perceived in cases of disfellowshipped children; though procedures dictate that contact is strictly limited to satisfy the biological needs of the children, many parents ignore these rules and associate with their children at will.

In addition, it can be observed that obsolete doctrines or policies are quoted regularly in support of harmful elements of socialisation. Statement 5 concerning secondary education is an example. No doubt that the higher education phobia of the first leaders of the Watchtower Society has characterised the mediocre intellectual climate of the movement for a long time (Kosmin & Lachman 1993: 258, 272)7. Among some of the orthodox members of the movement this attitude can still be discerned and until recently secondary education was in some cases rather bluntly discouraged. The next fragment from the Watchtower Society’s printed matter, dating back to 1973, was meant as stimulant to increase the missionary activities of the adherents. In this example, secular education is clearly at odds with religious commitment:

An elder in Korea encouraged his four children to pioneer [to increase proselytising activities, RS]. At a circuit assembly [a regular regional gathering of Jehovah's Witnesses, RS] he and the children were interviewed. The oldest daughter related how she had been the highest scholastically in her high school. She herself wanted to go to college at one point. However, her father informed her that, while she was free to choose such a course, she could not expect financial support from him. She changed her mind about college, and now she is enjoying many blessings as a pioneer. The next oldest, a son, told how he also at one time wanted to go to college and follow a worldly course. But his father sat down and reviewed the Scriptures with him. His father also told him that, if he insisted on following a worldly course, he would also have to find another place to live. He heeded his father’s counsel and is very grateful that his father was kind but firm in his stand. The two younger children explained that they were impressed by what happened to the two older ones. From the beginning they planned to become pioneers. The youngest son gave up his high school education to pioneer8.

Following Wah (1999: 115) that ‘Religion, perhaps positive in itself, can have a negative effect on a person’s mental health when it is misused, abused, or excessive’, one is tempted to categorize this course of action, propagated by the Watchtower Society, as such. In spite of Wah’s somewhat idealized description of the practice of proselytising – certainly in relationship with the applauded example of the Korean paterfamilias – she is basically correct in her characterisation of evangelizing as a harmless activity:

‘Participation in dissemination of thoughts and exchange of religious or political ideals in the marketplace is the cornerstone of American democracy. Why should the child be denied an opportunity to observe and participate firsthand? (…) going from door to door talking about the Bible is certainly no more harmful than selling Girl Scout cookies (…)9.

Today, the text about the Korean family affair would be unthinkable in the movement’s literature. As the taboo on higher education is rapidly decreasing, more and more Jehovah’s Witnesses are earning college and university degrees. Furthermore, many parents do not object to school outings from their children and encourage associating with non-Witness children. Homans (1988) reports that children of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK are well integrated into the school’s community. Usually, the child refrains from celebrating birthdays, activities relating to Christmas and other holidays, though this depends on the individual stance of the parents. Many compensate for possible effects of exclusion. For example, the child treats his or her classmates to sweets or snacks on other occasions, not being the child’s birthday or similar celebrations. From the fact that The Watchtower of November 1, 1999 indicated that voting – until then understood to be a prohibited practice because politics is considered corrupt – is from now on a matter of ‘individual conscience’, members may construe that involvement in school politics is an authorised practice.10

The tension between the movement’s traditional views and pursued advancement is clearly visible in the publication Preparing for Child Custody Cases. The booklet, distributed in the US and for a restricted audience only, is ‘designed to help the [Jehovah's Witness] and attorney prepare for the difficulties Christian parents often face in child custody disputes’ (p. i). It presents recommendations such as how to deal with psychiatric evaluations and judicial cross-examinations. In some cases, the authors present a scenario as guideline for what is considered to be a favourable response from the Jehovah’s Witness. For example, the interviewer’s (a counsellor, lawyer or social worker) impression of a Jehovah’s Witness child should be that the youth is ’spiritually minded, but also enjoy the normal healthy things that young people do’. When role-playing this situation in the congregation, the elder is advised to ‘Be careful that [the children] don’t get the impression that they are in a demonstration at the circuit assembly when they would show that the first things in life are service (…)’ and furthermore ‘Be careful they don’t all say that they are going to be pioneers’ (p. 43). 11

The book evoked widespread comments from critics and adversaries because some of its contents were apparently at odds with standard literature from the movement. Regarding the downplaying by local leaders of children’s possible aspirations of doing ’service’ and becoming ‘pioneer’, one may conclude that such suggestions are noteworthy indeed in view of the organisation’s continuous appeals to its followers to do just the opposite. The Korean family affair quoted above is one example. Numerous others can be found:

‘If you are a parent, are you, by word and example, encouraging your children to pioneer? If you are a youth, are you responding appreciatively to the encouragement being given you? Is it your desire to add to the joy of your parents by exerting yourself in the pioneer ministry? Has your love for Jehovah and for fellow humans grown to the point where you want to spend as much time as possible in Kingdom-preaching?’ 12
‘PIONEERING is worth far more than a successful secular career. (…) For a young person, there is nothing finer than remembering Jehovah and walking in the way of the truth. (…) Yes, pioneering is a fine way for youths to demonstrate their love for Jehovah and closeness to him. Parents, are you instilling in your children the desire to pioneer? Pioneers, do you endeavor to kindle this desire in others? Elders, do you support the pioneers in your congregation and help to build a pioneer spirit in others? May more and more of Jehovah’s people be moved to reach out for such rich blessings as they engage in the pioneer service.’ 13

Opponents asserted that such inconsistency would harm the children psychologically or at least incite them to be dishonest to outsiders (Cf.. Bergman 1996: 1493). Though, in the context of the world view of the movement the ethics of some recommendations in the booklet are remarkable at least, is also possible to conclude, albeit cynically, that role playing in different social situations happens to be a matter of everyday life.

Until now, there is no support from current scientific research that any harmful effects will ensue from being raised in the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Occasional reports indicating harmful effects of Jehovah’s Witness socialisation lack elementary methodological rigour (e.g. Singelenberg 1998) Though some anecdotal data point to ‘psychological adjustment’ problems, confirmation from clinical evidence is lacking. So, generalised assertions such as ‘(…) some [of the Watchtower's] teachings have clear negative influences on child development’ and ‘(…) it is very difficult for a child who is raised as a Jehovah’s Witness to be socially well adjusted (Bergman 1996: 1488, 1505) are unfounded, particularly because the exact nature of this ‘maladjustment’ remains indistinct. It should be realised that irrespective of religious or ideological contents, any socialisation in a sub-cultural environment of which the values are at odds with those of the dominant society may involve cognitive reorientation when the individual disengages himself from the minority group. The suggestion that this will lead to serious psychiatric disorders (Bergman 1996: 1488,1489) is unfounded. The author refers to studies, which allegedly indicate a high incidence of mental disorders among Jehovah’s Witnesses, implying a causal relationship between socialisation into and membership of the movement and psychiatric problems. Opponents of the Watchtower Society often refer to an Australian study, which found that Jehovah’s Witnesses are three times more likely to be diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia and nearly four times more likely from paranoid schizophrenia than the rest of the population at risk (Spencer 1975). The article received serious criticism on account of its unsound foundation: ’serious errors of facts and method’ (Beckford 1975), ‘thoroughly unsatisfactory methodology’ (Penton 1985: 291) and ‘questionable findings’ (Rothberg 1975). Another example of dubious methodology is Bergman’s initial study (written under the pseudonym Montague) on psychiatric problems among the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The author, a former Jehovah’s Witness and notorious adversary of the movement, concludes that ‘the mental illness rate among JW’s far surpasses that of the population as a whole’, (Montague 1977: 146) and without any argument he advances ‘that [this] rate (…) is approximately 10 to 16 times higher than the rate for the general, non-Witness population’ (ibid.: 139). These statements are illustrative for the questionable methodological basis of the paper. The article is riddled with unfounded assertions such as ‘the high murder rate among the Witnesses’ (137), the rate of mental illness is significantly higher than the rate for the population as a whole’(138), ‘the writer has worked with a large number of JW’s who were clearly psychotic’ (139), about 10% (…) are in serious need of professional help’ (ibid.), et cetera. Furthermore, Bergman quotes from obsolete sources, since to support his argument he refers to psychiatric studies from the 40s through the early 60s among Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors. The author seems not to realize that in that period, society considered conscientious objection against the military a mental problem which had to be evaluated as such. No wonder that Jehovah’s Witnesses, who constituted the largest segment among conscientious objectors were highly visible in these studies. Even Penton, a fellow-adversary of the Watchtower Society, casted doubt on Bergman’s findings. ‘Some of the statements in their analyses of Witness men are so extreme that they raise questions regarding their objectivity’ (Penton 1985: 290, 291). 14

In general, scientific research of socialisation practices in religious movements is still in its infancy. Although specific data from Jehovah’s Witnesses are lacking, results from similarly controversial religious movements such as Hare Krishna, the Rajneesh Movement and The Family (the former Children of God) indicate that child-rearing practices in these groups have no adverse effects on the child’s general well-being (Lilliston & Shepherd 1994; Palmer & Hardman 1999). Concerning the question whether religious movements in general and teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular are adverse or beneficial to individual mental health, it is clear that ‘contemporary research does not offer an unequivocal answer’ though ‘75% of the studies tend to show that the psychological profiles of individuals tested fall well within the Anormal@ bounds’ (Saliba 1993: 106, 110; Cf. Wah 1999: 128, fn. 15).

Both cases show that the decision making processes that led to the custody were hardly based on solid evidence. In the Dutch case, the notions of the consulting agencies regarding the faith and world view of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were based on negative stereotypes. The same applies to the decision of the court. Though the German court consulted an expert on the field of religion associated with a mainline church, it is clear that his opinion was similarly biased. In essence, the court accepted his point of view. Regarding the tense relationship between mainline churches and minority religion in Germany, the initial outcome of the custody dispute is hardly surprising (Cf. Besier & Scheuch 1999).

As shown, the controversial character of many of the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses has played a crucial role in these decisions. The nature of the debate focuses on the problems of social isolation from the surrounding society and resulting psychological trauma’s and – although it was only a marginal issue in the cases discussed – the medical issue of blood transfusion. With regards to the issue of social isolation, it is interesting to quote Bryan Wilson who approached this concern from the framework of the lenient society:

‘Paradoxically, although recreation is in every sense an area of voluntary choice, it is precisely because sectarians do not choose what others choose, holds themselves apart in their use of leisure time and (…) associate only with each other rather than with non-members, that sects elicit some of the strongest reactions from the general public. The child-centered society is inclined to see prohibitions respecting children’s play activities as wilful deprivation. These tensions may, however, also be fired by latent feelings of guilt on the part of parents who find it easier and pleasanter to indulge their children than to exercise discipline’ (Wilson 1990: 59)

In a similar fashion, in 1975, an English magistrate reconstructed the problem essentially to a minority-majority conflict:

‘We live in a tolerant society. There is no reason at all why the mother should not espouse the beliefs and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses (…) There is nothing immoral or socially obnoxious in the beliefs and practice of the sect, in overplaying the dangers to the welfare of these children inherent in the possibility that they may follow their mother and become Jehovah’s Witnesses (…) It does not follow that it is wrong or contrary to the welfare of the children that life should be in a narrower sphere, subject to a stricter religious discipline and without parties on birthdays and at Christmas. (…) It is essential to appreciate that the mother’s teaching, once it is accepted as reasonable, is teaching that has got to be considered against the whole background of the case and not as in itself so full of danger for the children that it alone could justify making an order which otherwise the court would not make’ (Quoted in Wilson 1990: 37, 38).

It is rather cynically to note that more than 10 years after this comment was made, an expert witness testifying in an American case confirmed the underlying uneasiness in the statement of the British judge. Speculating about the prospects of a four-year-old girl raised by her Jehovah’s Witnesses mother, he advanced:

‘Living in this society, she needs to adapt herself to the mainstream culture. She’s growing up and it is not a country of Jehovah’s Witnesses. If the majority of the country was Jehovah’s Witnesses, we would not have any problem, except for physically (…) the philosophy of practicing the religion does not allow Rebecca to benefit and be safeguarded and living in this culture’ (Quoted in Wah 1997: 1437, 138).

In order to avoid custody decisions that have been influenced by biased opinions or questionable expertise, it is of primary importance to evaluate the condition of the child rather than the contents of the religious convictions of the parents. Concerning the nature of the harm that allegedly threatens the child and supposedly results from the religious beliefs, the American Supreme Court made clear that:

‘(…) governmental intervention in the parent-child relationship would only be justified when there exists a substantial threat of harm. (…) no inference of harm can be based on mere surmise, guess, speculation or probability … conjecture, speculation as to happenings, or the suggestion of a possibility cannot be made to take the place of evidence’ (Quoted in Wah 1994: 274).


‘(…) the immediacy of the harm must also be examined (…) Any speculation about remote and future harm is irrelevant. These principles are consistently applied by all state courts that have considered criteria for admissibility and use of religious testimony in best interest hearings’ (Ibid.: 275; my emphasis).

Clearly, the latter clause is important in view of the fact that in many custody cases the matter is raised of the controversial blood transfusion ruling (Singelenberg 1995; see note 5). Concerning the latter, if such necessity arises and parents refuse to consent, in most cases children are made wards of court on a temporary basis so the treatment can be administered. Yet, in view of the speculative nature of the question whether or not a child is prone to future accidents or to illnesses requiring blood transfusions, Wah advances that the blood transfusion issue is ‘not a valid consideration’, quoting from a case in which the court stated that it ‘cannot decide this case based on some hypothetical future accident or illness which might necessitate [blood transfusion]‘ (quoted in Wah 1997a: 118; see also Wah 1994: 276, 277). 15

Furthermore, expert testimony should be based on peer reviewed scientific theories. This would effectively rule out questionable pseudo-expertise from biased professionals. The same goes for former members. Scientific research demonstrates ample evidence that the credibility and liability of former members, particularly those who disaffiliated in discordant circumstances, leaves much to be desired (Bromley 1998). For example, in a case in Holland, a court-appointed family guardian attributed the problematic situation of the family to the parents’ involvement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She also asserted that the belief system would not be beneficial for the children. As it turned out, the guardian was brought up in a Jehovah’s Witnesses family herself and left the faith at a later stage. 16

Additionally, generalized conceptions concerning the religious behaviour of Jehovah’s Witnesses should be considered carefully if applied to individual cases. Many members do not strictly follow the organisational and doctrinal precepts of the Watchtower Society. From my own research, I met Jehovah’s Witnesses who do celebrate birthdays, vote for political candidates, sit around Christmas trees (albeit with the closed curtains), have premarital sex, let off fireworks at New Year’s Eve and smoke an occasional cigar after a good meal. So, drawing conclusions from the movement’s literature (particularly back editions) to evaluate the day-to-day practices of a specific family may render an inaccurate picture of their proper religious involvement (Wah 1997b: 306). Although I have no knowledge of similar cases in other European countries, the most recent data from Germany and The Netherlands indicate that in court decisions on custody cases which involve one of Jehovah’s Witnesses bias is decreasing gradually. Even in Russia, disreputable for its current stance towards religious minorities, in July 1999 the Supreme Court annulled three lower court decisions that denied custody to a mother based solely on religious grounds.17 It is to be expected that as the Watchtower Society is gradually renouncing its typically sectarian world-rejecting stance, the surrounding society will be more accommodating towards the movement’s practices of socialisation. Until then, child custody disputes should focus on the real issue: evaluate the individual, not the religion.

1 Part of this paper was published in the Dutch journal Tijdschrift voor Familie en Jeugdrecht [Journal of Family and Juvenile Law], September 1992.
2 Annotation ‘Religion as a Factor in Child Custody and Visitation Cases’, American Law Reports, 971(1983). Quoted in Wah 1997a: 112.
3 In 1990, an official of the American Bar Association’s Child Custody Case Committee concluded that Jehovah’s Witnesses were probably responsible for half of the contested custody cases that are in courts of review around the country. Quoted in Bergman 1996: 1488.
4 Personal communication Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Dutch Branch, letter June 3, 1997.
5 In case the child requires a blood transfusion, a prohibited practice among the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
6 Reader’s Digest, German edition, April 1997.
7 According to the founder of the Watchtower Society, education among the masses would lead to discontent and discontent to anarchy (Russell 1897: 450).
8Our Kingdom Ministry, May 1973, p. 6, US edition. This monthly periodical, distributed to members only, focuses on proselytising strategies. ‘Pioneers’ are Jehovah’s Witnesses who voluntarily commit themselves to proselytise at least 840 hours annually (In 1973 it was 1200 hours).
9Wah 1994: 283, my emphasis. Some of those familiar with the practice of proselytising – which would be only former and current Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as the occasional social scientist employing the research method of participant observation – may wonder about Wah’s characterisation of this activity as an ‘exchange (…) of ideals’. From my own observation of the practice, I noticed that the interaction is rather unidirectional, i.e. from the publisher to the house dweller and seldom vice versa. As a matter of fact, the concept of ‘exchange’, implying some form of dialogue, appears rather incompatible with the sacred assignment of preaching an urgent message originating from supernatural powers. Carolyn Wah, to whose papers I regularly refer, is a Jehovah’s Witness and practices law from the Watchtower’s Society’s headquarters near New York. She has published extensively about the relationship child custody and religion.
10 It also suggests that the sixth statement from the expert is obsolete. However, the ‘change’ is strictly cosmetic. From reading the text, one is tempted to conclude that the ban on voting has been lifted because the conceptual foundation of the doctrine has been transformed from an organisational precept into a matter of ‘individual conscience’. Nevertheless, a Jehovah’s Witness who takes the view that his conscience allows him to vote will still be subject to disciplinary sanctions, a consequence that has been omitted from the text. It is clear that by stating explicitly that the teaching is a matter of ‘individual conscience’, the Watchtower Society attempts to neutralize previous and current accusations of imposing undemocratic principles on its followers. In this respect, a former high ranking official of the Dutch branch remarked: ‘We are not a rigid cult telling people what to do and what not to do’.
11 So-called ‘demonstrations’ are role plays in which Jehovah’s Witnesses enact real life situations, varying from a rebellious child who clandestinely smoked a cigarette to house-to-house proselytising in a Muslim neighbourhood. This method is one of the pillars of the movement’s educational program. In essence, ’service’ is being active as a publisher, for ‘pioneers’, see note 8.
12 Our Kingdom Ministry, December 1972, p. 6, US edition. .
13 The Watchtower, 15 January 1994, p. 23.
14 My emphasis, RS. This questionable methodology may be one of the reasons that Bergman’s book The Mental Health of Jehovah’s Witnesses – an extended version of the ‘Montague-paper’ – has been printed by adversaries of the Watchtower Society rather than by any of the accredited academic publishers. 15 In a case in Germany, this line of reasoning was used in a custody decision: ‘(..) a threat to the children’s welfare as a result of a lack of consent to a blood transfusion on the part of the appellant is rather improbable and hypothetical. The danger would arise in a very improbable case, which would normally not materialize. Under the above mentioned circumstances it would be unreasonable, because of this truly small risk, to divide the custody. (Neue Juristische Wochenschrift, 44, p. 2962, 1997). In Hoffmann v. Austria, however, a Jehovah’s Witness parent from Austria appealed at the European Court of Human Rights against the decision of the national Supreme Court to grant custody of the child to the non-Jehovah’s Witness parent. By a narrow majority (five votes to four) the case was decided in favour of the Jehovah’s Witness parent, though from the dissenting opinions it emerges that the issue of blood transfusion refusal carried a lot of weight in this divided outcome (ECHR 15/1992/360/434).
16 By permission of the parents, this information was provided by the family’s attorney.
17 Press release Watchtower Society, New York, August 16, 1999. .


Beckford J.A. (1975) ‘Correspondence. Psychiatry and Sectarians’. British Journal of Psychiatry, 127: 414
Bergman J. (1996) ‘Dealing with Jehovah’s Witness Custody Cases’. Creighton Law Review, 29: 1483-1516.
Besier G. & E.K. Scheuch, eds. (1999) Die neuen Inquisitoren. Religionsfreiheit und Glaubensneid [The new inquisitors. Freedom of religion and envy of faith]. 2 Vols. Zürich: Interfrom.
Bromley D.G., ed. (1998) The Politics of Religious Apostasy. The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Franz R. (1994) Crisis of Conscience. Atlanta: Commentary Press (2nd ed., 2nd printing).
Homan R. (1988) ‘Teaching the Children of Jehovah’s Witnesses’. British Journal of Religious Education, 10: 154-159.
Kosmin B.A. & S.P. Lachman (1993) One Nation under God. Religion in Contemporary American Society. New York: Harmony Books.
Langone M.D., ed. (1993) Recovery from Cults. New York: Norton.
Lilliston L. & G. Shepherd (1994) ‘Psychological Assessment of Children in The Family’. Sex, Slander, and Salvation. Investigating The Family/Children of God, pp 47-56 (Lewis J.R. & J.G.Melton, eds.) Stanford CA: Center for Academic Publication.
Montague H. (1977) ‘The Pessimistic Sect’s Influence on the Mental health of its Members: the Case of Jehovah’s Witnesses’. Social Compass, 24: 135-147.
Palmer S.J. & C.E. Hardman, eds. (1999) Children in New Religions. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Penton M.J. (1985) Apocalypse Delayed. The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press
Rothberg M.A. (1975) ‘Correspondence. Psychiatry and Sectarians’. British Journal of Psychiatry, 127: 414-5
Russell C.T. (1897, 1976) The Battle of Armageddon. (Part IV of the reprinted series ‘Studies in the Scriptures’). East Rutherford, NJ: Dawn Bible Students Association.
Saliba J.A. (1993) ‘The New Religions and Mental Health’. Religion and the Social Order. The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America, Vol 3, Part B, pp 99-111 (D.G. Bromley & J.K. Hadden, eds.) Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Singelenberg R. (1990) ‘The Blood Transfusion Taboo of Jehovah’s Witnesses: Origin, Development and Function of a Controversial Doctrine. Social Science and Medicine, 31: 515-523. (Reprinted in D.C. Thomasma & P.A. Marshall (eds) Clinical Medical Ethics. Cases and Readings. Pp 297-309. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995).
ibid. (1998) Book review of ‘Die Sekten-Kinder’ [Children in Cults] by K-H. Eimuth. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 13: 110-111.
Spencer J. (1975) ‘The Mental Health of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ British Journal of Psychiatry, 126: 556-559
Wah C. (1994) ‘Religion in Child Custody and Visitation Cases: Presenting the Advantage of Religious Participation’ Family Law Quarterly 28: 269-287.
ibid. (1997a) ‘Religion as a factor in best interest hearings’. Chapter 6 in Wiley Family Law Update, pp 111-138. New York: John Wiley.
ibid. (1997b) ‘Evaluating ANontraditional@ Religious Practice in Child Custody Cases’. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 35: 300-316.
ibid. (1998) ‘The Role of the Mental Health Care Professional in Evaluating a Minor’s Capacity to Select Religious Affiliation’. American Journal of Family Law, 12: 229-246.
ibid. (1999) ‘Religion and Minors. Evaluating Potential Benefit and Potential Harms’. American Journal of Family Law, 13: 115-132.
Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (1953) Make Sure of All Things. New York: WTBTS.
ibid. (1988) Preparing for Child Custody Cases. New York: WTBTS.
ibid. (1989 through 1999) Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses. New York: WTBTS.
Wilson B.R. (1990) The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wright S. (1991) ‘Reconceptualizing Cult Coercion and Withdrawal: A Comparative Analysis of Divorce and Apostasy’. Social Forces, 70: 125-145.

© Richard Singelenberg, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. May not be reprinted without permission.

Categories: JWs vs. the World
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.
Subscribe to comments feed Note:To prevent comment-SPAM it's not possible anymore to post links in comments. Sorry for any inconvenience caused by this measure.