WHY DO PEOPLE JOIN A RELIGION? And once they’re in a religion, why do they stay in that religion? From personal experience, I was born into a religion, and I suspect that is the case with many people. When I reached a certain age it was expected of me to make a decision as to whether I would follow in my parent’s footsteps or not and I chose to do so, but why? Why did I become a Jehovah’s Witness?
For me, there were a number of reasons. First of all, Jehovah’s Witnesses was the only religion I knew. All my family and friends were Jehovah’s Witnesses, so if I had decided I didn’t want to be a Witness it would have no doubt affected the close relationships I had with them. There was a feeling of wanting to belong to the group I was familiar with, to be approved and accepted by those I cared about.
Was there a spiritual reason? Yes, although I wouldn’t say it was particularly well thought out at the time. I’d been taught from birth that there was a God, Jehovah, and a Devil, Satan, and only one true religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses. All other religions were false, I’d been taught, and I had no reason to disbelieve that. From the small amount of research I’d done into other religions I could see obvious things that I didn’t feel were right: pagan doctrines, immoral religious leaders, their support of wars, politics etc. Again, these were largely opinions I’d been brought up to believe were wrong, and to be honest, I didn’t really think outside of the box I’d been born in.
Was Jehovah’s Witnesses “the truth”? Again, I had no particular reason to think not because I’d never really considered the question outside of the framework I was familiar with. I just attended meetings at Kingdom Hall three times a week where I heard over and over that we had “the truth”, and all other religions were false, so that’s what I accepted.
It wasn’t really until my thirties that I started questioning things properly. By 34 years old I’d determined a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrines were false. When I questioned these I was disfellowshipped for apostasy. Three years later I chose to go back and get reinstated as a Jehovah’s Witness. Why? Was it because I believed Jehovah’s Witnesses were “the truth”? No. It was primarily for the sake of my family who were all Witnesses.
I did still believe in God at the time, and I honestly thought God was using Jehovah’s Witnesses, however flawed, to accomplish a purpose by means of the preaching work, and I felt the organisation was as close to truth as was possible when compared with other religions. I also think I cared about my reputation among my family and friends. I didn’t like to be viewed as an apostate. I wanted the approval of those I cared about. To be a Jehovah’s Witness was, quite frankly, the easiest option with the least stress. Obviously, there was a degree of cognitive dissonance in not believing everything I was being taught. That was quite painful, but the benefits of having my family and a network of friends around me more than made up for that.
As far as spirituality was concerned, I formulated my own beliefs on things. These were largely based on the Bible. I read the Bible without the input of Watch Tower publications and figured out what I believed it meant. In doing so, I feel I adopted a Christian faith. Now, it may not have been the same as other Christians. For example, I didn’t believe in the Trinity, but I also didn’t believe in the Witness version of Jesus being the angel Michael. I saw Jesus as more of a manifestation of God, a human body in which God indwelt. I also had my own ideas about what being “anointed” meant. For example, I didn’t believe the 144,000 doctrine, or that the anointed as a class (or the governing body later) had been appointed as Jesus’ “faithful and discreet slave”. I didn’t believe in 607 or 1914. Basically, I had my own set of beliefs, some of which matched Jehovah’s Witnesses, some that were more “born again” Christian-like in nature, and some that were completely my own thoughts based on the Bible.
So, why did I remain a Jehovah’s Witness? Not because I believed all the doctrines, but again because of my family and friends. I felt like I belonged there. I had a role to play in encouraging people in the congregation, teaching the Bible, which I was quite good at, and generally just keeping the show on the road, the show I had been familiar with ever since I was a kid.
I don’t know why other people choose to remain with the religion of their birth. It could be for similar reasons as me. Or maybe they do believe what they’re being taught is true. However, I would imagine that most people stay with what they know because it’s familiar. Their family share the same views. They have a social network within the church which they have possibly been in since childhood.
The real question I’ve always pondered is: “Why would a person join a religion that they weren’t born into?” Why would you decide to become a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Catholic, or a Muslim, or a Hindu? Obviously, I don’t know the exact reasons for every person joining a religion, but I just thought of a few.
- They could be looking for meaning in their lives, perhaps during times of uncertainty.
- They don’t like the idea of dying or losing their loved ones in death.
- It provides a moral framework—they get told what is “right” and “wrong” by a source that is seemingly more knowledgeable than themselves.
- They like the social aspect, the feeling of belonging to a group.
- They like the atmosphere. It might be the great architecture of a church or the emotion of a megachurch with the music.
- It might solve a guilty conscience—maybe you’ve lived a bad life and you are seeking redemption, redemption you may not be able to get from humans.
- In religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses, it might be that you like the position of serving as an elder, a ministerial servant, or a pioneer.
All these reasons have one thing in common. They all benefit the person joining, or staying in, the religion. They provide something, whether that’s meaning, hope, a set of rules to live by, a social network, an emotional connection via the music, a good conscience, approval, or recognition from others. You know the one reason I have rarely if ever heard a religious person give me for the reason they belong to their religion? That they appreciate what God has done for them and just want to praise him.
As a Jehovah’s Witness, the number one reason I heard for joining the religion was that it gave them a hope for the future, a hope of living forever on a paradise earth, or the hope of seeing their dead loved ones again. Or it was the love they experienced being part of a worldwide brotherhood, the joy of attending assemblies and conventions and being with the brothers and sisters. I honestly can’t remember ever hearing anyone say to me that the reason they were a Jehovah’s Witness was that they genuinely loved God and wanted to praise him by telling him he was brilliant in song or prayer. It was always, always, what benefit it was to them. Now I’m not saying those reasons are wrong. They’re perfectly valid reasons for belonging to a group, but I do think it’s important that the reasons are given honest consideration. I also don’t know if these are the reasons that other people belong to or stay in their chosen religion, but I’m guessing they probably are for a lot of people.
The thing is, you don’t need to belong to a religion to get many of the same benefits. For example, you could join a club, or you could just make friends with people at work. That would give you a sense of social connection. You don’t need to belong to a religion to have a moral framework. You could spend some time thinking about what you believe to be “right” and “wrong” and then create your own moral compass to live by. Guilty feelings over past wrongs can be absolved by apologising to the person you hurt and, if possible, making reparations. It may just be that you need to forgive yourself, which can be difficult, but it’s possible with therapy. Religious or not, no one truly knows what happens after death and I suspect it makes no difference whether you are religious or not. If there’s a reward for being good then just be good. I doubt very much there is a fiery hell awaiting anyone. At worst, there’s possibly non-existence. If your reason for religion truly is to tell a God you believe in that he’s amazing then great, but again, I suggest you don’t need a religion to do that. You could just believe in God and tell him he’s brilliant. It really does seem to me that religions are just groups that people join because it makes them feel good.
I suspect for most people it has very little to do with whether what they believe is actually true or not. As a Jehovah’s Witness, belonging to a religion that called itself “the truth” I was always surprised at how fluid truth was. The governing body, which was responsible for saying what was true, would change its mind just like that, and immediately 8 million people would change their belief. That really does not sound like “belief” to me. That sounds like a group of people just agreeing to accept the same thing is true, whether it is or not. I even heard it said on more than one occasion by Witnesses that even if it wasn’t true they would still believe it because it was a nice way of life. Truth really doesn’t mean much to most Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I suspect that is the case with many religious people. They just want something that works for them, a framework of beliefs and practices that help them to make sense of the world and their place in it, that provides comfort when they’re sad, and that gives them a sense of belonging and approval. That’s it, and if that works for you and doesn’t harm anyone, I applaud you.
Unfortunately, my experience of religion is that it is harmful. Religious leaders use the idea of God, the Bible, salvation and so forth to control other people. It stops people from thinking for themselves. It even causes people to hurt other people because they think they’re doing what God wants them to do. That might be by killing them in a religious war, or as a Jehovah’s Witness shunning them for not believing the same things as them. I personally will never be religious again. I will never join a religion. I will continue to explore my spirituality, to do things that nourish my soul. I’ll think about God and what, if anything, he wants me to do, and most important of all, I’ll just try to be nice to people.