"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. Some believe they can't eat meat or dance, but both are permissible (although there are some restrictions on the latter, dancing considered to be "immoral" is heavily frowned-upon). But 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 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.

The end result of all of this is that there is no honorable way to leave the organization. Joining the religion 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. Even family members of the expelled are discouraged from 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 often point out the harmful and negative behavior of other religious leaders, 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! 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.

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 meetings 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 persecuted 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. But eventually, I began to chip in, and found that a lot of the arguments that I had been taught 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 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 use the most fallacious arguments and have 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.

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. 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, possible needless death due to the blood doctrine) was too high.

The good things the organization gave me were easily replaced. 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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Incredible story!
It wasn't more than a couple days ago that I had a door knocker practically begging to speak to me about their faith.

I didn't understand at the time why they seem so desperate. It made me feel sorry for them, but I wasn't sure what it was that I should feel sorry for them about. You've shed allot of light onto the subject.

I merely told them "friendly word of advice; don't debate with Atheists unless you want to be one", and "You're welcome to come in, but your god and your faith isn't."

Makes me sad to see such exclusivity being forced upon anyone.

And, they really believe they're going to be persecuted? Like the nazis persecuted the jews?
In answer to your question, absolutely they do! In fact, in Nazi Germany Jehovah's Witnesses were among the groups hunted by the Nazis and thrown into concentration camps. They have been the target of similar persecution in the old Communist-bloc nations of Europe (East Germany, USSR, Czechoslovakia to name a few) and are currently either under direct ban or are enduring intense harassment (their Kingdom Halls have been the target of multiple arsons and bombings in Georgia--the country not the state) in several countries. France and Germany have actually revoked their tax-free status. Even here in the U.S. JWs were often tarred and feathered during World War II for their refusal to join the military or salute the flag. Of course, during that time they were also publishing hate literature about the catholic church, which generated a lot of anger in some communities.

Needless to say, the JWs have a lot of fodder for their siege mentality and persecution complex.
Aside from the concentration camps of old Nazi Germany, it sounds like they're almost asking for persecution. To turn your back on the nation you share the benefits of during WW2 was practically begging to be treated as a traitor.

Man oh man, they really do have a talent for pissing off the wrong people.
It seems it was actually very easy to get out of a Nazi concentration camp if you were a JW: you only had to pledge to not proselytize (source: Margarete Buber-Neumann, Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler).
These stories always intrigue me. I have generally found it not useful to argue with those who have a faith system. You are giving me reason to question that idea because it seems we never know who else is listening. On the other side it is a reminder that we never know who is listening; so if we do engage we should be accurate and ethical about it, if it is something that concerns us.
Do you have any suggestions for responses to those who come to our door? It has been a long time since we have been door knocked by anyone. The last time was in Las Vegas and they only spoke to my husband, in Spanish, and completely ignored me. I guess there is a white people quota and they didn't need more of us. (that last line is a joke, I think)
The last time one came to the door it was a youngish woman. She looked really nervous while giving her shpiel, and I didn't feel like being rude to her. I figure they get people cursing them out all day--and I used to have a phone surveying job where I got cursed out all day. Usually if they ask my beliefs I won't lie but if they really want to give me a magazine then fine.

I had a friend who was JW. She was interesting b/c she would go from being a lesbian and trying to stay away from men, and then getting back into religion again and suddenly being straight and having nothing to do with lesbianism. She went back and forth several times. We used to write letters when we were teens and one day she wrote me a letter about the most amazing thing happening to her...I was intrigued until I realized it was religion, then I was turned off. She was my friend for awhile but said that JW believe the righteous have nothing to do with the wicked.

Aren't there some who are not so serious and still associate with the outside world? She seemed to be like that for awhile but I guess she got more serious. I had neighbors that were JW too and they didn't seem too reclusive.
It's complicated as every JW has a different level of strictness about their religion. My story is based on my experience and it followed pretty closely in line with official doctrines and guidelines.

For instance I have a friend I grew up with in the religion who ended up getting expelled because he slept with his girlfriend and his parents found out about it (he had written her a letter in a notebook and his parents found it when searching his room). He ended up marrying the girl and they now have a daughter. His mom is very paranoid about him coming over and refuses to eat a meal with him (1 Corinthians 5:11). She even refuses to take food from him even though they're not eating together. His sister, however, lives 1000 miles away and when they visit her and her husband they have no problem having a meal with them and socializing. The elders there also have no problem with it.

So I guess my answer is that it depends on where you live. Even if there are JWs who associate with the outside world, it's most likely done in secret or they are ostracized in the congregation. They're looked down upon as "fence sitters."
I don't know if you're familiar with Russell Glasser or not (he's a commentator on the Atheist Experience), but in his blog he chronicles two excellent conversations he had with Jehovah's Witnesses.

http://kazimskorner.blogspot.com/2007/05/my-first-jehovahs-witnesse...
http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com/2009/10/brush-with-jehovahs-w...

I think Russell took the right approach. I highly doubt he reached the people he was talking to, but if I were in their shoes, I would have walked away at least having a good idea what atheism and evolution are. Honestly, there are some Jehovah's Witnesses you have no hope of ever reaching, but there are some in the right place mentally where a conversation like that will make something "click" inside them, even if they don't realize it right away.

I was able to "put 2 and 2 together" for two reasons. The first was because my basis for my faith was evidence, logic, and reason. It may have been cherry-picked evidence, fallacious logic, and biased reasoning, but I had respect for their concepts and knew what they were. The second was because I cared whether or not my beliefs were true, and demonstrably so. Some people honestly don't care if their information is factual (e.g. American neo-conservative philosophy) or not. I did, and that was the catalyst for breaking out.

You never know at what place mentally the JW knocking on your door is, so trying to engage him or her in a conversation like Russell's can't hurt.

They only spoke to your husband because they were likely doing a targeted foreign language ministry that day. Congregations are broken up according to languages, and it's common for multiple congregations to share a single building. So they were ignoring you because you didn't speak spanish, not because you were white.
Thank you for clarifying, it was kind of weird. I actually understand about 1/3, sometime more and other times less depending on the dialect, of the Spanish people speak.
Las Vegas has what we refer to as the beige generation. There are many couples that are one person of western European decent and one person of Latin American decent with children, my son included. This makes this make even more sense.
Also, thank you for the links, I will be looking into it. It just seems to me that anytime anger can be reduced instead of increased it is a good thing.
I have never heard of our mix being called "beige" before. I may have to start using it. XD Although, my sister is more beige while I'm still white.
Very interesting story. The only thing I really knew about JW was that they refuse blood transfusions, and that they managed to find our door even when we moved to the boonies and had only 2 houses on the entire dirt road! Congratulations on attaining your freedom.
"The good things the organization gave me were easily replaced. 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. "

I'm so stealing this paragraph, great quote

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