I Found Somewhere To Go
"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
If there is one passage that can sum up my upbringing, it is this one. My name is Brian, and for the first twenty-six years of my life, I knocked on your door every Saturday morning to give you the chance to live forever on earth. I was one of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Jehovah's Witnesses aren't your typical church. Unlike most churches, you aren't allowed to leave, at least not without severe consequences. Once you are baptized into their organization, the very idea of changing your mind is repulsive, unthinkable, even evil. After all, you did all the studying you needed before you got baptized. You committed to this. Now you want to leave Jehovah? After all his organization has done for you?
You can't just leave the organization and continue worshiping the same God in their eyes. The organization is God (of course if you state it this way they will vehemently deny it), and leaving the organization is to leave God. To Jehovah's Witnesses, the above words in John ring truer than for most. For nearly all of them, there is literally nowhere else to go, at least, that is what the Watchtower organization wants them to think.
I was born into this atmosphere; constantly looking over my shoulder in a figurative sense. Armageddon is coming soon, I was told. Any year now, any day now, any hour now. It will come when you least expect it, and when it comes, you have to be ready to obey the organization's instructions COMPLETELY if you want to survive. You can't miss ANY of the three weekly meetings, or else you might miss the one where the instructions are given out. The reward for this obedience? Eternal, blissful life on a paradise earth. Jehovah's Witnesses do believe some go to heaven, but only 144,000 of the most faithful Jehovah's Witnesses, and they are going there because they have a job to do: rule over us in paradise. No more political turmoil, wars, disease, or even old age. All instruction will come directly from heaven! Our hope wasn't heaven, but heaven on earth. I remember driving around the neighborhoods while doing our "life-saving" door-knocking and the people in the car with me would point out a house they like and say "oooooh I got dibs on that house after Armageddon!" If you didn't convert we were going to move in and take your stuff after God killed you. Fair is fair.
On my first day of kindergarten, my parents prepared me for the big, bad world of public school. "Don't salute the flag! They're going to try to force you, so be prepared to resist and fight as much as you can!" What kind of awful place was I going to where they would try to make me do something I didn't want to do and was wrong to do anyway? (JWs are strictly politically neutral and do not allow their members to have any political devotions, thus displays of patriotism such as flag salutes and national anthems are punishable by expulsion and excommunication) They say your perceptions color your attitude, and I'm living proof of this. Whenever I was sent to school, I was supposed to "stand up" for my beliefs. If I didn't do so, that meant I was ashamed, ashamed of God and Jesus, and if I was ashamed of them, they were ashamed of me! I couldn't make friends with anyone. If I did, they might invite me over to their house, and then I'd have to explain that I couldn't go because my religion says they're "bad assocation" (1 Corinthians 15:33). They might turn me away from Jehovah and ruin my chance at everlasting life! So it'd just be easier if I snubbed them all now. No sense in building their hopes up.
As the years progressed I grew more and more distant from my peers. The other kids from my congregation went to school with me, but I didn't seem to fit in with them, either. For the first few decades of my life I was completely alone. I eventually made friends in other congregations, and was able to network state-wide, having friends all over Michigan. My social life among the JWs exploded when I turned 14, and this prompted me to get baptized, now that I had seen what the organization was "really about." I knew the doctrines like the back of my hand, and passed the three examinations easily. I made my life-long commitment to the Watchtower organization on May 10, 1997, when I was almost 15 years old. Once a Jehovah's Witness hits their teen years, the pressure to get baptized increases exponentially. The questions start coming, especially when the assemblies and conventions (JWs get baptized at these events) approached. "So when are you going to take the dip?" well-meaning older folks would ask. "Soon, soon" I assured them.
Unbaptized Witnesses are not subject to the disfellowshipping/shunning policy, even if they commit a sin that would otherwise be worthy of it. The list of sins worthy of expulsion is a long one, and include the major sins like adultery all the way down to what you and I would consider innocuous offenses: smoking tobacco, open disagreement with the organization, or even speaking a single word to a disfellowshipped person. Once disfellowshipped, your world is torn down before your eyes. No Jehovah's Witnesses are allowed to speak to you any more, and when you've been careful to make sure your only associates are Jehovah's Witnesses, this prospect is frightening. Even your JW family members are supposed to limit contact with you, speaking to you only when absolutely necessary (such as informing you of a death, birth, or marriage). Thankfully, many Witnesses in practice bend this rule and have regular contact with their expelled children, parents, and siblings.
Baptism is serious. According to the Witnesses, it is a public statement of commitment to God and his "visible organization" a.k.a. the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. God and the Watchtower come as a package deal, and you can't separate the two. Abandoning the organization is abandoning God, period. I accepted this and took the plunge in the lukewarm pool.
When I moved out on my own, it became apparent that something was "wrong" with my spirituality. Deep down, I always hated the rigormorol of three weekly meetings at church as well as door-knocking every weekend. Once I was out of an environment that forced me to do it, I simply stopped. I put in just enough time not to be considered "inactive," and went this way for years.
I became involved on the internet as soon as I got my hands on it. I loved talking to people. So when the Web 2.0 revolution happened and social media sites like Digg and Reddit became available, I jumped on the bandwagon. I never really thought about atheism or atheists until my mid 20s, when I started to run into them on those social news sites. I had heard the standard arguments about evolution before (JWs have a somewhat famous blue book that supposedly refutes it), and thought they were irrefutable. It was in fact a big reason I remained a Witness for so long. The book "Life--How Did It Get Here?" really cemented in me the idea that this wasn't just a religious belief, but it was grounded on fact, reason, and common sense as well. The Watchtower society to me was so smart, so wise, that even the smartest academics in the world couldn't hope to match the society's intellectual prowess. The "Life" book was so simple, so plain, how could anyone formulate an argument against it?
Then I started to read them, and they made sense. They made MORE sense than what I believed. Could I have made the wrong choice? The more I looked into it, the more I started to realize that A) much of what the Watchtower was telling me about the outside world was not true, and B) my entire basis for faith was grounded on it being true. For so many years, it was emphasized to me that we were Jehovah's Witnesses because we cared what was TRUE. We even called our religion "the truth." We'd ask each other "How long have you been in the truth?" "Is your family in the truth?" Were you raised in the truth?" All that mattered was TRUTH, and we were the few people on earth who had it. But as I started asking questions and looking into things, I realized that what Jehovah's Witnesses and most religious people mean by "the truth" is not necessarily the dictionary definition. To Jehovah's Witnesses, the truth is what their organization teaches. When then organization changes its teaching, it's okay because the "light gets brighter" (Proverbs 4:18), and the "truth" they taught before becomes "old truth." What they teach now is "current truth." It became more and more apparent to me that the word doesn't mean what the Watchtower thinks it means.
As I researched topics like evolution, logical fallacies, and basic critical thinking, I came to the realization of what I was deep down for all these years: an atheist. I remember responding to a Christian making a poor argument about atheists online, and I typed the words "I'm an atheist." I sat there and stared at those words staring back at me in the comment box. I went to my room to think about it. I asked myself if I was really a Jehovah's Witness, or someone just going through the motions because I didn't want to lose my friends and family? After a few hours of deep contemplation, I realized that I could no longer pretend. I clicked the "submit" button on my comment, and from that moment forth I was out of the closet.
My parents now have limited contact with me. I survived the transition and am slowly rebuilding a social life. I married a wonderful understanding (non-JW) woman last year and my life is happier than I could have ever imagined it. I am no longer a hamster running in a wheel after a piece of cheese I'll never get. My life is no longer ruled by a carrot-on-a-stick. I am free, truly free, and I couldn't be happier.