By James Zimmerman
One of the most effective tools a religion has at its disposal is shunning. Fear of being shunned is what keeps many members loyal to a religion they no longer fully believe. And for those few who are vocal about the hypocrisy they've discovered in their former religion, shunning is a form of damage control, a preemptive maneuver that prevents the faithful - the ‘sheep' - from associating with those who may cause their faith to waver.
In religions, and other groups propped up by unverifiable claims, the need for shunning is apparent. Should a member come across damning information about the group, it is imperative to ex-communicate that individual hastily, lest they divulge their findings to others. Of course, merely erasing a former member from a religion's roster does not shut them up, but it does squelch the curiosity of members in good standing. Simply inform the faithful members of a cult, sect, or religion, that their best friend, brother, sister, father or mother has been disfellowshipped and - violá! - suddenly, and without dissent, all in the congregation are now under theological mandate to ignore, demonize and otherwise demean their former companion.
The word "shun" brings with it images of a by-gone era; of women in bonnets in the back woods physically turning their back on former members; of zealots crying out that their family member is "dead to them". But far from being relegated to by-gone books and plays, shunning is vibrant and thriving in twenty-first century America.
Case in point: my wife and I have the pleasure of being shunned by dozens of friends and relatives. We left the religion of our upbringing with no grudges, and without having committed any of their so-called "sins" (these include the usual, such as extra-marital relations and interfaith activities, but also mundane activities such as voting and smoking). Still, Witnesses are trained to believe that any dissent is worthy of complete shunning and, as the months went on, we regularly received letters, phone calls and emails from family members curtly explaining they would no longer have any contact with us.
For example, my wife's sister felt compelled to say in a recent email: "...you and James are no longer Jehovah's Witnesses. Based on this, combined with the abusive talk about my beliefs and religion to others, I am making the decision to cease all association with you and James." (The hypocrisy of a Witness condemning another for sharing their beliefs with others is nearly humorous.) And from her brother: "Due to the fact that you and James are no longer witnesses [sic] along with your outspoken veiw [sic] about our beliefs, we had to make the dicision [sic] to cease all association with you."
Thankfully, this is a watered down interpretation of the stance the religion's members wish they could take. Jehovah's Witnesses, in particular, have a palpable nostalgia for the days when conscientious objectors, instead of being shunned, were simply killed: "We are not living today among theocratic nations where such members of our fleshly family relationship could be exterminated for apostasy ... Being limited by the laws of the worldly nations in which we live and also by the laws of God through Jesus Christ, we can take action against apostates only to a certain extent, that is, consistent with both sets of laws. The law of the land and God's law through Christ forbid us to kill apostates." (The Watchtower, 15 Nov 1952)
This relational aggression is immediate and total. Even my wife's response, wherein she explained that our three year-old son has gifts he wishes to give to his cousin, met with silence. Witnesses believe that toddlers - and even infants - are equally culpable with their parents, a teaching they base on that ever-loving book, the bible, and hence they see no reason to associate with the condemned children of apostatized parents.
The next time a clean-shaven, smiling face shows up at your doorstep to push their religion, ask them whom they are shunning: their childhood friend? Their cousin? Their mom? Their grandson? Then ask them if they believe theirs is a religion of love. Then ask them to reconcile this dichotomy. They may squirm, they may run. Either way, they'll think. It's never too late to start.