Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian denomination with 7 million practicing members worldwide.
The group is well known for their door-to-door preaching, non-participation in politics (i.e. not voting), objection to war and military action, and refusal to accept blood transfusions.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that blood is a sacred representation of life and that God forbids its use for purposes other than atonement for sin (sacrifice). They have thus forbidden their followers from eating meat from which the blood has not been drained, food products containing blood, and from receiving blood transfusions, regardless of its medical necessity and of the consequences to their life or health.
Specifically, they are directly forbidden from willingly accepting a transfusion of stored whole blood, red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and plasma, on penalty of excommunication and the threat of God's disfavor. Preoperative extraction followed by postoperative re-transfusion of their own blood is also banned, though certain intraoperative re-transfusion procedures are allowed.
They are directed to follow their own personal conscience in deciding to use other components of blood, or other products derived from or produced in blood (such as antivenins).
One of the controversial aspects of their refusal to accept blood transfusions is in that, against the advice of their doctors and surgeons, they often hold their critically ill minor children to the same rule, who are themselves not mature enough to decide to follow the belief willfully.
In some cases, the religion threatens parents with excommunication, demanding they prevent their child from being given a blood transfusion. In this situation, the parents are generally charged with negligence, and the children become wards of the state. Witnesses have been known to kidnap these children in order to allow them to die, rather than accept life-saving treatment. Parents who refuse to cooperate with the plot to return the children are again threatened with excommunication.
Jehovah's Witnesses claim that, while most churches count their membership by total annual or occasional attendance, they count their membership only by active participation in their ministry. Their membership numbers do not include children too young to participate officially, new members not yet qualified to participate, ex-members, or occasional members who do not submit monthly reports of time spent in the ministry.
While this is perhaps technically true, the statistics made available by the Jehovah's Witness organization are not limited to active membership alone. The statistics emphasized to members of the religion include:
- The number of active Witnesses submitting monthly ministry reports.
- The average number of studies of the Bible being conducted weekly.
- The annual attendance at the observation of the Last Supper.
Notably, the number of Bible studies quoted in the report includes parents formally teaching their children, and the observation of the Last Supper includes anyone who attends.
It is difficult to assess actual worldwide membership of Jehovah's Witnesses, given that none of the statistics provided specify usual or even annual church attendance.
The practice of excommunication, known among Witnesses as "disfellowshipping" and to some as "shunning", is used as punishment for breaking the tenets of the religion.
Members are prohibited from speaking to excommunicated members of the church, even when the outcast person is a member of their immediate family. Speaking regularly to an excommunicated person is itself a basis for excommunication, though more often (especially in the case of family) the penalty is exclusion from holding leadership positions and from some church activities.
Some exceptions are allowed where regularly speaking with the excommunicated person is required for other reasons, such as between married couples, for the care of minor children, child visitation and financial support, and for shared financial ventures and businesses.
Though an exception is made for existing business ties, the church discourages continuing such ties except as required by law.
Controversies About Jehovah's Witnesses
A cult is popularly defined as an individual or organization which employs intensive methods to control behavior, thinking, and emotions of its followers. Included in these methods are isolating the group from standard social interaction and limiting the information available to the group.
While this can apply to many religious groups to some degree, it is not commonly applied to call a religion a cult unless the behavioral control results in harm to the members.
An example of this type of behavioral control within the Jehovah's Witness religion is requiring members isolate themselves from social interactions outside the religion, and then excommunicating ones who do not follow their tenets. The harm caused by this isolation is in that subsequent excommunication causes an almost total collapse of that person's social support structure.
Another example of harm is in their policy forbidding blood transfusions, and their limiting and misrepresenting information about them. This policy has often resulted in the death of the member or a member's child who refused to have (or was prevented from having) a transfusion.
Due to these methods of control being employed and the result sometimes being harm to the members, some consider the Jehovah's Witness religion to be a cult.