“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” - John 6:67,68
For twenty-six years of my life, those words imprisoned me. I grew up in a different world than most of you, even as I went to school with you and worked with you. I was physically with you, but mentally I might as well have been on another planet or another universe.
I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. All most people seem to know about them is from their door-to-door ministry of which they are famous. Misconceptions and assumptions abound, with few even realizing or understanding just how sinister this organization is and how cognitively imprisoned its members truly are.
There are a lot of myths about them floating around, but it is the truth about the organization that is the most alarming. Perhaps the most destructive and harmful belief of the organization is its policy of shunning and excommunication, what they call “disfellowshipping.” This is the mental trap that prevents many from leaving. There is no honorable way out, for once one is baptized into the organization, the idea of him or her continuing to research outside of the information sources it prescribes, and/or coming to the conclusion that they no longer wish to be a Jehovah’s Witness, is unthinkable, immoral, and evil. The idea is that one has done all the researching he needed to do before joining, and once he’s convinced initially, continuing to view the organization with a critical eye is considered sinful. Doubts are tolerated, but the only acceptable inquiry or criticism of Jehovah’s Witness theology is one that results in a confirmation of Watchtower teachings. This causes Witnesses to be swept into the illusion that they have freedom of inquiry. Most of them do not see or understand that this so-called freedom is only allowed in the walled garden the Watchtower Society has set up.
Joining the religion also requires one to purge all non-JW relationships from his or her life, so leaving it often involves the complete destruction of all friendships and familial bonds. Yes, even family members of the expelled are discouraged from having any contact with them except in cases when it is absolutely necessary. Many teenage children who end up violating one of the sins on their long list and are judged “unrepentant” by the local elders are kicked out of the house by their parents.
So why did I stay as long as I did? Why didn’t I leave as soon as I could? Why did I leave when I did? One must understand that it is perfectly possible to be happy and content in the Jehovah’s Witness faith. Many do find hope and fulfillment in the words of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Despite all of its negative consequences, there is a powerful draw. For one, it offers a sense of exclusivity. They are the one true faith, so they claim. They also often point out the harmful and negative behavior of other religions and their leaders–the politicization of religion and its participation in wars, for example–contrasting it with what they believe, and people are hooked. Why do you want to go to heaven? What are you going to do there? Play the harp and sing songs for eternity? Boooooring! We believe you’re going to live forever on earth in paradise where you can have a nice big house and lots of land and just live the good life for eternity! Doesn’t that sound much better? For a lot of people, it does. It makes sense to them. It turns the Bible into an epic saga, with God’s original purpose restored and the faithful all end up living as God intended us to live in the beginning.
Aside from the exclusivity, there is the intense feeling of community. Perspective new recruits are often love-bombed from the instant they walk through a Kingdom Hall’s front doors. Jehovah’s Witnesses do destroy your social life, cutting you off from friends and family who don’t see their point of view, but in most cases they do endeavor to replace it. In the organization, friendships are almost too easy. Members are very nearly under orders to be friends with everyone. It’s a brotherhood. If you get baptized, you instantly gain over six million friends who are doctrinally obligated to be willing to put their life on the line for you, to shelter you in need. It doesn’t matter how annoying, socially inept, or downright unfriendly you are. As long as you are a “brother” or “sister,” you will likely have friends, almost no effort required. This of course has occasionally led to tragedy when con-artists enter the congregation and prey on the trusting nature of their religious peers.
I had a bittersweet relationship with the organization. It was all I ever knew. It caused many difficulties in school, putting up a wall that didn’t allow me to have a meaningful connection with any of my peers. They were going to die if they didn’t convert, and they probably won’t, so why make friends at school? I was obligated to preach, but rarely did. Every Thursday night there would be a series of skits that were supposed to mirror real-life situations to train us to place Watchtower literature with people at school, at the workplace, and especially from door-to-door. I learned early on that very few people really respond the way they the weekly skits portray them. By the time I was in fourth grade I stopped preaching to the kids at school. This caused a lot of conflict in me because I was told that if I didn’t preach I was embarrassed of Jesus, and if I was embarrassed of Jesus, he was embarrassed of me.
Things improved as I hit my early teens and my parents separated. I moved to another town and thus attended another congregation with my mother. I never really got along with most of the kids in my first congregation, but I made many friends in the second. As I began to drive and become more self-sufficient my social life bloomed. I had friends all over the state, and not just because we belonged to the same religion.
Once on my own I began to struggle to attend the three weekly sessions at the Kingdom Hall with any regularity. My door-to-door stats were slipping, and I was a chronic “irregular publisher.” All Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to be active in the faith, proselytizing from door-to-door each month, and attending every single meeting at the Kingdom Hall if possible. They believe Armageddon is coming soon, any year now, any month now, any day now, and to be caught being “inactive” when Jesus arrived meant certain death at his hands. We believed there would be a “great tribulation” before the final battle, in which those of our faith would be victims of intense persecution on world-wide scale. Talk of the tribulation always frightened me. I would hear accounts from elderly Witnesses about their experiences in Nazi concentration camps, and would be told to expect the same if not worse treatment in the future. When it came, we would all be given instructions on where to go and where to hide. That is why it was so important to make every meeting. If you missed the wrong one, you might miss out on those instructions and be killed by the persecutors.
Despite the threats, something in me refused to take them seriously, at least not seriously enough to make myself attend the meetings with any regularity. It was when I became involved in the online community, specifically social news websites like Digg and Reddit, that questioning my beliefs would lose its taboo status. I began to watch conversations between atheists and theists. Since I wasn’t the typical theist, a lot of the atheist arguments didn’t really apply to me, so this made me feel safer in those conversations. I didn’t believe in eternal torment in hell, the trinity, or even in the immortality of the soul, so when atheists would specifically target those doctrines, I felt safe listening to them and reading what they wrote. But eventually, I began to chip in, and found that a lot of the arguments that I had thought were damn near irrefutable were easily dismissed by those more educated than I. The atheists’ answers made more sense, and I became more and more interested in the subject.
Gradually I found myself becoming more and more sympathetic to the atheist side, seeing them as those who had been misled by “false religion.” But when what I considered “the truth” didn’t work on them, either, it made me think. I looked up information on evolution and especially criticisms of the JWs Creationist book Life, How Did It Get Here? — By Evolution or by Creation? I was astounded by what I found. When I was growing up this blue book was a major anchor for my faith. The arguments made so much sense to me. It convinced me that there was logic behind this, it wasn’t the “blind faith” of other churches. But I could not ignore the facts, especially the quote-mining and downright misrepresentation of the subject throughout the book. It turned out that every single argument in the Creation book had been hashed out and rejected by scientists long ago…either that, or they simply just didn’t apply to the subject. This was a major, major blow to the foundation of my faith. I know that it’s possible to believe in a god and accept evolution, but this view is not supported by the Witnesses. Without God being needed as the explanation for speciation–or even the origin of life–it took the wind out of my sails of faith. I was never much inclined to believe for emotional reasons, so when my logical reasons disappeared, there was nothing left for it to stand on.
I actually began arguing against other theists who were making bad arguments, and in one of those conversations, I typed the words “I’m an atheist.” I stared at them for a long time. I questioned myself. As soon as I typed it out, I knew it was true, but I didn’t want it to be true. If it was true, then I would lose everything, my family, my friends, my entire social network. I would be alone. Could I really continue as a Jehovah’s Witness just to keep my relationships intact? What would happen when I got married (JWs encourage marriage only with other JWs, which is a route I would have likely taken) and had kids? How long could I live the lie? How long could I sit through those meetings where the man on the platform would say the most ridiculous and untrue things and keep a straight face? If I needed a blood transfusion (which JWs forbid), would I be willing to die for the lie?
I decided I couldn’t lie any longer, and clicked “OK” on the comment. I had announced to the world my nonbelief. Now came the hard part…
After a few days, I told my mother I no longer believed what she considered to be “the truth.” We had a series of long and ultimately unfruitful talks after that, but eventually things calmed down, and I stopped being active in the religion. Every so often I would get letters from my mother, pleading with me to come back, but I would leave them unanswered. It wasn’t until I started dating a non-Witness woman that the shit really started to hit the fan.
I had sex for the first time at the age of 26. The experience wasn’t quite what I had built it up to be, but it was an incredible relief. Being a virgin in my mid-20s was a major concern for me. I was preoccupied with sex, and the older I became without experiencing it the more concerned I was. Once I had had it, the preoccupation disappeared. It was the first time in my life I truly felt like a normal human being. I know it sounds silly, but to me it was incredible relief, and I was finally able to stop worrying about it. I had considered hiring a prostitute before, but I’m happy it turned out the way it did.
I continued dating the woman, and added her as my “in a relationship” on facebook. My JW friends were instantly curious. “What congregation does she go to?” asked one of them in World of Warcraft chat. I told her she wasn’t a JW, and the conversation took a nose-dive. She eventually assumed we had had sex, because I refused to confirm nor deny it (I repeatedly told her it was none of her business), and that’s when it finally came crashing down. She was angry at me for being “deceitful.” I told her what I do in the bedroom is none of her concern. She disagreed and went straight into Orwell mode. That night my parents were called and my behavior reported. I had begun living my life according to my own rules and now everybody knew it. I was no longer simply a “lost sheep,” but a full-fledged pariah.
I was ready for it. I had broken off contact with most of my JW friends anyway, and had begun socializing with non-Witnesses. I was dating my girlfriend at the time, too, who lended me a lot of support. I eventually proposed to and married her, and when my mother heard the news she reacted like I had just told her someone had died and asked me if I was coming back to the organization. Only the members of my extended family who weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my wedding. My parents did not attend, nor did my brothers.
Things have gotten a little better now. My parents have expressed a desire to have more than just a casual relationship with me, and when we talk we leave religion out of the discussion. I know it will never be the same, and I think that’s a real shame, but it’s their choice, not mine, though they believe otherwise.
As for me, it was the best decision I ever made. The Witnesses would often ask me, in light of the passage in John I mentioned at the beginning of this post, where else could I go but the organization? What other group could offer me everything the Witnesses do? What would I replace God with in my life? My only answer to that is this:
What matters is not what an organization promises you, but what the organization actually gives you. Promises are easy to make, but following through on them is what counts. The organization gave me a sense of belonging. It gave me the skills to speak in public. It gave me the desire to read and research. It promised me a blissful, eternal life in paradise, and it has been promising this to its members for the last 150 years or so. Every day the end doesn’t come, the promise is broken just a little bit more. A mere promise has no substance, no weight, and the potential cost of this promise (vast amounts of time and resources given to the organization, demanding that I preach the organization’s message even if I don’t agree with it, lack of relationship with unbelieving family members, possible needless death due to the blood doctrine) was too high.
The good things the organization gave me weren’t things I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere through secular means. We don’t need religion to hope, to dream, and to wonder. We don’t need religion to love and build relationships. Those are the things that count. Everything else is a tumor, a worthless lump of flesh, and when tumors are removed, nobody objects and asks what we will replace it with.
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