Adam Scarth, Apostasy, Charles Taze Russell, Church of Scientology, Daniel Kokotajlo, Flying Spaghetti Monster Church, James Quinn, Jehovah's Witnesses, Molly Wright, New Religious Movements, Robert Emms, Sacha Parkinson, Siobhan Finneran
Not long after I retired, I started writing non-technical books. The first, The Religion Business: Cashing in on God, was published in 2012 and was an exploration of the commercial aspects of religion and an explanation of why I am an atheist. I spent at least a year researching this book. I summarised many religions, ancient and modern. I expounded Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection. I went deeply into the history and development of Christianity and Islam. And I offered up reasons why some people feel the need for a religious crutch even though there is no credible scientific evidence that a god, one or many, exists or has existed. Essentially, I questioned the evidence for the existence of God and challenged the beliefs, doctrines and practices of the world’s major religions.
My conclusion was if you make the assumption that all gods, including God, are the inventions of fertile, imaginative and in some cases, manipulative minds, and then take a look at any specific religion, you see it for what it is—a business like any other commercial business, marketing and selling a product in exchange not only for money but, in many cases, mind control of a large group of people.
During the course of my research, I unearthed a raft of what are called New Religious Movements (NRMs), also known as religious cults (defined in many different ways but used here to mean a system of religious devotion directed towards a particular figure or object; a relatively small religious group regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members (Oxford Dictionary).
I chose one NRM, in particular, to expand upon – Scientology (read my review of Ron Miscavige’s book here), but found many other NRMs that I would have liked to explore deeper. The Flying Spaghetti Monster Church, also known as Pastafarianism, came into that category. As did Jehovah’s Witnesses. I mentioned Jehovah’s Witnesses in the book, summarising them as Christian in origin, believers in Armageddon, and well-known for their door-to-door proselytising and life-threatening views on blood transfusion. And I well remember the attractive young lady who knocked on my door just after I’d got married and who refused to take off her clothes even though the day was warm and the Bible said it was okay to go naked if you were pure of intention and free from all sin, as I attempted to prove I was! She called me a goat (meaning a lecher) and left, fully clothed. My wife forbad me to speak to any further Jehovah’s Witnesses should they come knocking in the future. “Ah well,“ I mused, “such is life and it’s probably best that I avoid further contact, cerebral or physical.”
I suspect we all have some knowledge of Jehovah’s Witnesses but before I get to the heart of this blog, here is a short summary sheet I’ve assembled about the cult. You can discover more here (BBC summary), here (Wikipedia article), and here (the official Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website).
With all this as background, I would like to comment on a movie I watched recently. The movie, called Apostasy and released in 2017, features a mother and two daughters who are practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’s no father present or mentioned. The reason for this is not given but one can surmise that he left because of differences of opinion with his wife. There are no significant spoilers in the following discussion.
The mother, Ivanna, played by Siobhan Finneran (Coronation Street, Happy Valley, Benidorm…), is a devout Witness and has raised her two daughters, Alex (Molly Wright) and Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), within the strict disciplines of the cult. The younger daughter, Alex, is anaemic and had a transfusion at birth despite protests from the Elders at the time. Alex is now eighteen and, in a chilling scene early on in the movie, has told her doctor that she forbids any further transfusion should the need ever arise. The older daughter is studying at a local further-education college, much against her mother’s wishes, and mixing with secular friends, one of whom has made the girl pregnant. The film tells what happens when, inevitably, the younger girl encounters a medical emergency and the older girl decides to keep the baby.
The story is told without any overt criticism of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrines. There are no philosophical discussions between those who follow the faith and those who don’t. There’s no implied judgement of the actions of either the mother or the two daughters. And yet, it’s probably the worst horror movie I’ve ever watched. The film’s director, Daniel Kokotajlo, a 37-year-old Mancunian, was himself raised within the boundaries of the religion (his mother converted when he was eight) and he served his time attending meetings, standing on street corners handing out Watchtower magazines, and knocking on the doors of strangers. His gradual withdrawal from the cult started when he reached the age of eighteen and was stimulated by his attendance at an art college and the realisation that his ability to form an opinion or make a judgement was shackled by the belief that the answer was always in the Bible and was always correct. In fact, Kokotajlo’s own life story would make a fascinating movie and events in his life and in the lives of other Witnesses, some now disfellowed (cast out), some still in the cult, and some dead, have served to bring an outstanding air of authenticity to his movie.
Back to the film. The strength of the film lies in both the story and the acting of the three protagonists. This is a character-driven movie. We watch the mother’s face as she is consumed with the conflict between a mother’s natural feelings for her daughters and the doctrines of the cult forcing her down an alternative path. We share in the inner turmoil of Luisa, the pregnant daughter, as she faces up to what disfellowshipping means to her personal relationship with her mother. And we are repulsed by the younger daughter’s blind acceptance of the no-blood-transfusion doctrine even if it means death. All three actresses perform at the highest levels and the cinematography (by cameraman Adam Scarth) frequently includes close-ups of the protagonists’ faces where no words are either said or needed to portray what thoughts are happening inside the head. Even the supporting cast, particularly the two Elders, Elder Brian (played with terrifying calmness and conviction by James Quinn) and the novice Elder Steven (Robert Emms), play their parts with devastating effect. The movie is just incredible, revealing the true horrors of brain-washing mind-control cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’s no gore, no jump scares, no explicit supernatural beings, nothing designed to cause instinctive fright or alarm, and yet the film is terrifying in its exploration of what it means to belong to and be controlled by a religious cult such as this.
I suspect Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden to watch this movie for, if they did, there would be an exodus even greater than that of the Israelites out of Egypt or, since the biblical Exodus has never been proved, that of all the recent asylum seekers from the Middle East and North African countries into Europe. I cannot understand why anyone with any intelligence would choose to stay in a cult such as this once they have learned to think for themselves.
If you have an interest in extreme mind-controlling religions, I urge you to watch this movie. It’s no longer on general release, nor accessible on Netflix, but it is available on Amazon’s Prime Video or as a DVD. But, be warned. This movie will seriously mess with your head and leave you horrified at the controlling effect of extreme mind-control religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.