This article from November 11 2001 appeared on the site members.aol.com/beyondjw/nowwhat.htm and was written by Timothy Campbell.
Leaving Jehovah's Witnesses
August 1997 Edition
Copyright (C) 1995, 1997
CP386, Mount Royal, Quebec, Canada H3P 3C6
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What Bothers You?
Why is it so Hard to Leave?
Commentary by Alan Feuerbacher
Commentary by "Robin"
What is a High Control Group?
It's Your Decision
This booklet is written for Jehovah's Witnesses or ex-Witnesses who are trying to deal with the emotional turmoil that is common among people who have left, are thinking about leaving, or have been forced to leave.
This booklet has the following goals:
- To let you know that you are not alone
- To help you feel better about leaving
- To help you get on with your life
This booklet can not, by itself, ease your burden. For that reason, I encourage you to consult the "Recommended Reading" and "Other Resources" sections to locate additional information that you may find valuable.
Although this booklet is copyrighted, the author hereby grants you permission to distribute copies as long as you do not add or remove any text. If you believe there are important omissions, please contact the author so that your information can be considered for the next edition.
WHAT BOTHERS YOU?
In preparing this booklet, I asked a group of ex-Witnesses the following question: "What bothered you most when you were leaving Jehovah's Witnesses?" The group included people from the United States, Canada, England and Norway.
Some editing has been done for clarity and brevity. I do not attempt to give solutions to the problems expressed here, nor do I necessarily agree with all the points raised. I present them to you in the hope that you will identify with some of these people, and appreciate that doubt is a normal, healthy human quality.
"At school, I had seen kids 'sent to Coventry' -- an english expression that means that the child is ignored by the rest of the class. It's childish and hurtful. When a disfellowshipped Witness started attending our congregation and the same happened to him, under the direction of adults, then I could not accept that this was right."
"I noticed a ubiquitous self-complacency that caused a lack of willingness to help distressed people."
"When I left, I lost my social life and friends."
"I had nowhere else to go for spiritual association."
"I was distressed by their habit of shaming those that are disfellowshipped by not speaking to them."
"Going to all of the required meetings, field service, elder's meetings, and preparation for all of this, created a great deal of stress in my life. I was trying to plan my life around the Watchtower requirements -- and it was never enough. Providing for my family, personal growth, time with my family and friends -- these things always took second place to the demands of 'Jehovah's Organization'."
"I didn't like their thinly veiled propagation of hatred towards others."
"I had an ever growing spiritual void as a Witness. Usually I was too busy to notice the spiritual emptiness, but it kept growing. I would try denying it to myself, and could never talk about it with a trusted friend in the Kingdom Hall (for indeed, one can never really trust the confidence of one who is owned by the Watchtower). I was experiencing a spiritual emergency with no one to offer first aid."
"We switched congregations because of the very bad spiritual milieu. The presiding overseer beat his wife and children, but he was a working machine and did so many good things for the congregation, so no action was taken against him."
"I am not satisfied with the excuse that 'Jehovah will take care of things in His own time'. This is used to justify unethical, illegal and immoral practices within the congregation, especially when pioneers, elders or ministerial servants are involved."
"I observed a total loss of love and care for each other inside the Witnesses. For the first time, I can see what unconditional love means. The loss of this kind of love makes a foundation for slandering, which is very common in the Witness congregations."
"I worried about losing my family, since they were all Witnesses. I had to decide whether to disassociate myself or try to fade away. I worried about what to do with my life."
"My self-disassociation had a terrible effect on my family life. I was disowned by my mom."
"When I disassociated myself, I wrote directly to the Society, informing them of my decision, asking never to be contacted again in regards to the matter. For the next year, I received calls from elders I had never even met, from various congregations that I had never been a part of -- they asked me if I was 'sure' and they wanted to give me another chance. I was harrassed for a year until they finally announced that I had been disfellowshipped, not that I had disassociated myself."
"I noticed the ease with which brothers and sisters can turn off their 'love' if you dare to question the Society or if you point out what appears to be hypocrisy within the congregation."
"The principle of 'submission' requires Witness sisters to tolerate verbal, emotional, physical and mental cruelty even from their Witness husbands in good standing. They are not able to separate from them without being viewed as the 'problem'. I know of one couple (now divorced) where the husband treated the wife like a doormat. He belittled her publicly, wouldn't allow her to use the phone, drive their car, or let her have money unless she detailed what she would be spending it on. When she spoke with some elders, they recommended that she 'wait on Jehovah', 'persevere in prayer' and so on. She had a breakdown, was in hospital (I was her only visitor) and when she went home, her husband treated her just the same. She left him, and the elders disfellowshipped her. One told us that she was 'immature' because she abandoned her husband -- that she was wrong not to stay and try to make things better. I disagreed, on the grounds that if he loved her 'as he loved himself' he would treat her accordingly. I said that nobody -- male or female -- is scripturally required to put up with abuse of any sort. Some time after she was disfellowshipped, her husband was appointed as a ministerial servant."
"My parents' continual arguments and the tension in the house did not reflect what we had been taught about 'god is love'. The gloom and despair of the house was smothering. My parents spent more time, and valued higher, their religion than their family -- they rejected me when I showed signs of 'falling away'. This situation continued over 20 years later -- it's only in the last eight years (at my wife's insistance) that I have had any contact with my family."
"Even after I left the Witnesses, I was afraid I'd die at Armageddon -- deep down, I was conditioned to believe it would come."
"I was bothered by the pressure of living under the threat of Armageddon in 1975. I never thought that I would live to be 21 and that psychological weight almost froze my brain. I realise now that I was severely depressed and remember standing on my bedroom windowsill on occasion, ready to throw myself off."
"I thought I would be destroyed at Armageddon."
"I couldn't accept the idea that good people would be destroyed. I knew a lot of nice people, and if I was given the decision, I never would have wanted them dead."
"I felt evil and dirty before I left the Witnesses. I continued to feel that way for years afterwards."
"After I left, I had low self esteem. Leaving made me feel inferior to Witnesses."
"I was constantly distraught over not being able to keep all commandments."
"It seems that only loyal Witnesses are valuable and worth helping. We are always compelled to do more field service, more regular meeting attendance, more personal 'study' as remedies for every problem."
"The total lack of love between the people 'inside'. Spreading of rumours, talking behind everybodys backs, the whole idea about the elite-thinking."
"I thought I was sinning against Jehovah by leaving."
"I never felt 'saved'. I never felt good enough. I never felt like I had put in enough hours. I distrusted my thoughts and sexual urges. Frankly, I had grave doubts that I would get through Armageddon. Now that I'm out of the Witnesses, I see that there was nothing wrong with me. I was a good person, but I never knew it."
"I was turned off by the judgmentalism. I, and others, also describe this as black-and-white thinking. The organization divides everything up -- Jehovah's/Satan's organization, godly/worldly, theocratic/untheocratic etc. This allows for no middle ground at all -- no balance. In the organzation 'balance' meant being fully 'theocratic' while moving ahead at the speed of light (keeping up with that fast-moving chariot God rides in the book of Ezekiel!). I now believe that this definition of balance is closer to 'compulsion'. Anyway, the division of everything into these tightly defined dualities allows Witnesses to find no common ground, no way to really grasp the mystery of life on earth, no room for the ineffable. This is a critical flaw of the organization, in my view."
"Within the Witnesses, initiatives are seldom taken; waiting for organizational directives is preferred."
"The double standards. One rule for some -- quite another for other members of the congregation. What was allowed was a question of who you were."
"I disliked the lies, the hypocrisy, and the changing 'light'."
"I didn't like the hierarchical nature of the organization with its nasty circuit overseers."
"I couldn't tolerate the fact that the organization was controlled by unbelievably stupid individuals."
"The meetings were so boring!"
"I got bored with the meetings, and the 'spiritual food'. I was exposed to the Witnesses from the age of ten, and was baptized at 18. For 20 years after baptism, I put my heart and soul into the Watchtower faith. I really believed it, and questioned very little. I pioneered, was a ministerial servant, bible study servant (thus committee member), elder (presiding overseer). I don't see how anyone could have believed it was the 'truth' any more than me. Slowly, though, boredom with the meetings started to set in. Eventually, nearly all of the meetings became a bore. The 'spiritual food' became cold leftovers. I faked illness to stay home. I watched a little TV while home from a meeting, and received more spiritual food from some of the educational programs than I was getting from 'Jehovah's table'."
"I disliked the whole disfellowshipping system. The secret ways of the tribunal. The total lack of religious freedom that forces believing Witnesses to shun their friends and family. I guess that the fact that my mother-in-law was disfellowshipped years ago and we should (but couldn't) shun her made me see that there was something wrong there."
"There is a great abuse of power by elders, Circuit Overseers and the Society in general. The real problem is that things that are done are attributed to God. They assume that God would not 'permit' abuse of power, so there are no control mechanisms as there are in other organizations. Nobody checks if the elder tribunals follow the Society's own laws. Almost by definition, what is done by someone who has 'scriptual' positions of power (Governing Body, Circuit Overseer, elder, husband, father) must be regarded as having God's blessing. So they blame the victim. I've heard and confirmed stories about horrible disfellowshippings, abusive husbands, sexual harassment from elders, sexual assaults from fathers who were upstanding members of the congregation. These things made me want to blow up something. It's not a few bad individuals inside a good organization. It's a few good individuals inside an organization gone bad!"
"I gradually came to the realization that the Society had told deliberate lies. I saw that the Society had misled me because its writers were intellectually dishonest, either deliberately or by Orwellian doublethink. Most Witnesses virtually worship the Society, so they are not open to discussion about these things."
"When there was an announcement that I had been publicly reproved, there was no description of my 'crime', leaving folks to ponder and gossip about the nature of my indiscretion. The blanket 'public reproval' was used on people of all sorts, from child molesters to drunks. I was none of those things."
"After leaving, I had no idea how to live, or why I should behave in a moral fashion. All of the reasons I'd been given ("Jehovah said so") were now inoperative, so I had to start from the beginning."
"I couldn't stand the ubiquitous double-think, double-speak and double standards that affect every aspect of the Witness life. I also disliked the Society's consistent distortion of their own history to make it fit present teachings and self-image."
"I was raised as a Witness, and that taught me everything about how to live. When I left, it was like having the universe pulled out from underneath me. When I no longer believed in the Society doctrine, I had to figure out all of life's moral issues from scratch. I was a like a new-born baby. It took me years before I started to get a handle on the problem."
"For years after I left the Witnesses, I felt 'bad' or 'evil'. I felt that I had left because I was weak -- that I didn't measure up. Intellectually, I couldn't explain the feeling, because I found plenty of holes in Witness theology once I widened my research. But the years of conditioning had affected me. I didn't realize I had an emotional problem, not an intellectual one."
"I was bothered by their insistence on not thinking for yourself or reading 'unapproved' materials."
"One thing in particular was what happened when I refused to place Watchtowers telling that humans were not using their brains for thinking, but their hearts."
"Dates and prophetic failures were a sore point with me. I see the date compulsion among Witnesses as an outworking of the dark side of judgmentalism, as if they were saying, 'Since these dates and time dispensations have been revealed only to us, this proves how right we are and how wrong you are.' After coming to see the degree of absoluteness of previous Watchtower predictions, such as the 1844/1874/1878/1914 series, I got to the point where, when going to a meeting, I would become filled with rage every time I heard a date. My inability to listen to dates -- or to teach anything about dates -- was crucial to my stopping meeting attendance."
"Watchtower thinking is shallow at best. I now consider myself a psychological polytheist, a concept psychologist James Hillman coined to describe the movement toward 'the many' from 'the one thought'. This also describes a movement toward perspective (as in many perspectives) and imagination. This psychological perspective is the home of all artists, who understand the world poetically and musically, movements toward deliteralization. The Watchtower worldview is literal: dot all the i's and cross all the t's. It is a religion for psychological children who still want mommy to tell them how to tie their shoes."
"They lied to us. I had always been so proud that my religion admitted its mistakes. Yes, we did make mistakes in the past but these have been corrected, so that means it will get better and better. Right? Wrong. I did my research and discovered all the misquotes, distortions, past errors, false prophecies covered over, and direct lies. It simply blew away all the respect I had for Brooklyn. I looked at them with new eyes, somewhat cynical, and I lost the blind trust I had in those old men who held the whole system together. When this trust disappeared, there was nothing left for me in the Witnesses."
"I was bothered by the whole blood issue. Yeah, I was one of those who probably would have died rather than take a transfusion. But when I could see how dishonest and stupid the whole argumentation was, it got me real angry. I threw my 'no blood' card away, and suddenly I understood why ex-Witnesses often get bitter. The other lies were bad, but this thing could have killed me, and it has killed perhaps hundreds of Witnesses."
WHY IS IT SO HARD TO LEAVE?
It is not easy to leave Jehovah's Witnesses. I asked two people (one an ex-Witness, and one on the way out) for their observations on the process. This is what they wrote (edited for clarity)...
Commentary by Alan Feuerbacher
Over a period of many years, I found more and more examples where the Society had changed its position, replacing old understanding with "New Light". It bothered me, but what were the alternatives?
If a Witness decides that some doctrine is wrong, what does he do about it? By far the easiest choice is to ignore the problem and go about his business as if nothing happened.
I think that most new Witnesses learn very quickly that this is required of them. Those who cannot conform quickly leave. Those who have been Witnesses for a long time are experienced in the art of pulling the wool over their own eyes, so the latest proposal of "new light" is often welcomed as a fine opportunity to learn something new.
What if a Witness decides to protest? He won't get very far because the entire organization is tuned against dissent.
What if a Witness decides to quit? Usually, after many years in the religion, a Witness is so tied up with social contacts that it's almost impossible to leave.
What happens to a Circuit Overseer who sacrificed his career for the Society? If he happens to land in Bethel, he and his wife have a fairly easy time; all their material needs are taken care of. If they leave, they have to worry about earning a living, paying rent, buying food and all sorts of things Bethelites take for granted. How many people would willingly put such a comfortable position in jeopardy?
Commentary from "Robin"
NOTE: "Robin" did not wish to reveal his name because he is worried that it would lead to being disfellowshipped. Since he wishes to retain contact with his family, he is using a pseudonym.
Logic is not quite sufficient to break away. In basic rhetoric, there are three forms of argumentation: logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos is obviously logic, facts, and so on. Pathos is the emotional appeal, and ethos is your "air of authority" -- how much your listener trusts you.
Obviously, anyone branded an apostate would lack in ethos to a Witness, but can be convincing with the other two (logos and pathos). I think what helped me was that at the same time I learned certain important facts, I also experienced the dark side of the Society, such as elders who took advantage of their position. Though elders are bound by rules and some good principles, there are few checks on their power. A "sheep" must submit to the elders' actions; anything else is considered resistance to Jehovah's arrangement.
When Witnesses feel that the doctrine is seriously flawed, they fall back on the idea that this is a "spiritual paradise", and there is no where else to go. "I must stay at all costs," they say, "it means my life". They may also say, "I can't be disloyal" or "Satan is trying to break my integrity".
These are emotional responses. So strong is their attachment to the Society that facts alone aren't likely to help. They are happy with their friends. They feel righteous in their works. They are in awe of the smooth operation of the organization. Most of all, because they believe this is God's organization, they are sure that all the problems will be taken care of when God decides to act. They consider it haughty and presumptuous to want the problems solved before then. They repress their doubts and look forward to better days.
Even when we look at extremist cults, we see people armed with plenty of facts, who are intelligent, yet still do crazy things if the emotion is powerful enough. They use their mental facilities to justify the course that has been chosen emotionally, to make it sound rational.
I think that is why endless conversations with the same person quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. That person may have some emotional attachment that is not stated explicitly, and if that is not dealt with, inconvenient facts can be forgotten. The Society provides a world-view that is simple and certain. Such security is difficult to abandon, so Witnesses usually retreat mentally when it is threatened by facts. Unless the person has a deep desire for truth, or a great respect for reason, the emotional hook must be removed before a Witness can make the frightening decision to break free from the dictates of men.
WHAT IS A HIGH CONTROL GROUP?
The word "cult" has often been used to describe Jehovah's Witnesses. Unfortunately, the word is overused. Many people use it to describe any religion they don't like, or which they find a little strange.
When I discuss groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses, I prefer to use the term "high control group" (HCG), instead of "cult". These groups are characterized by the methods they use to instill ideology and maintain obedience.
These techniques are well documented. They apply to Jehovah's Witnesses and countless other HCG's. Here are some of the better known methods...
- Simplistic Thinking: Issues are expressed as polar opposites, with no gray areas. Things are black or white, us or them, good or bad.
- Time Pressure: You are given so much to do that you never have time to stand back and think objectively about what you are being taught.
- Peer Pressure: Your conformity is attained by exploiting your natural need to belong.
- Isolation: You are separated from society, friends or family, either physically or psychologically. You are led to believe that you made the choice yourself, to avoid "bad influence".
- Insulation: Facts at odds with what you are taught are explained away by saying that they are lies created to mislead you. You are taught that people outside the group conspire to ensnare you. If you continue to be concerned, you are referred to the group's reference material rather than outside sources.
- Demonization: Groups or entities are identified (e.g. "Evil Slave Class", Satan, Christendom) as an object example of the evil outside the group. Some of these groups or entities might not actually exist.
- Special Status: You are told that you belong to a group of chosen ones with a special mission.
- Elevation of Persecution: Any negative actions taken against the group are taken as proof that the outside world is trying to destroy it.
- Guilt: You are made to question your worthiness, and your past sins are exaggerated. You are consistently led to believe that you are not "doing enough".
- Fear: Your loyalty and obedience are maintained through warnings of serious physical or spiritual repercussions if you do not conform.
- Authority: You are discouraged from expressing doubt or questioning the words of the "higher authority" (a charismatic leader, elders, or the organization as a whole).
- Apocalyptics: You are taught that everything will work out well because a magical solution is coming. The solution usually involves the destruction or subjugation of those outside the group.
- Scrupulosity: You are taught explicit rules concerning conduct, appearance, and behaviour. Spontaneity is discouraged.
- Uncompromising Discipline: Disagreement is dealt with harshly, which discourages open discussion of alternative views.
- Conditioning: You are taught to react instantly to situations with approved responses, rather than acting thoughtfully. For example, you are taught to answer questions instantly by quoting from approved sources rather than thinking about the question.
- Thought-Stopping: You are discouraged from thinking along lines that are not in accord with what you are supposed to believe. Eventually, this becomes a habit, and you lose your ability to think critically.
- Subjugation: You are taught that the group's goals outweigh your needs, and that your personal problems are mere weaknesses which can be ignored if you are strong enough.
Your best defense against these techniques is knowledge. Once you are aware what is being done, you can start to resist. Eventually, though, you may find it necessary to distance yourself from the group, because your doubts will become evident, and the group will react accordingly.
In the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses, often the best approach is to slowly withdraw. This may save your friends and family from the pain of seeing you disfellowshipped -- and being told they can not speak to you.
Different congregations have different levels of tolerance. Some congregations will disfellowship you at the first sign of doubt. So before you withdraw, take care to set up some outside contacts, so you don't find yourself alone if you are ejected from the group.
If you are thinking about leaving the Society, you are already questioning the doctrines. Although this booklet is a stepping-stone to help you get away, I do not have room to provide detailed deconstructions of Society doctrine (see "Recommended Reading" for this kind of material). I can, however, give you a short list of questions that Witnesses find hard to answer.
1A) Has the Society ever taught anything scripturally incorrect?
1B) Might the Society be teaching anything scripturally incorrect now?
1C) Are Moslems as certain their religion is right as Witnesses are?
2A) At Armageddon, will ALL non-Witnesses die? (If not, who lives?)
2B) Do you believe a loving God would kill over 5,000,000,000 people?
2C) Why has the Society said the end is "soon", every day since 1884?
3A) Why would a "just" God punish billions for Adam and Eve's error?
3B) Why would a "just" God give all women extra punishment (birth pain)?
3C) If Adam and Eve didn't know evil, why blame them for being fooled?
3D) Why would God insist that Jesus be murdered to cancel out sin?
3E) Jesus taught forgivness; why couldn't God just forgive us?
4A) Where did smallpox and leprosy come from? (Did God create them?)
4B) If life is sacred, why is our immune system designed to kill germs?
4C) Do you really believe lions were originally designed to eat grass?
5A) Who besides the Society says the temple was destroyed in 607 BCE?
5B) Why do Witnesses say "Jehovah", when that pronunciation is wrong?
5C) The Bible is full of miracles; does it say why they stopped?
I hope these questions help you in your quest to free yourself. Please remember, though, that the intellectual process is only the first step. If you have been a Witness for a long time, your main challenge is to overcome the conditioning -- and that is an emotional issue rather than an intellectual one.
Once you are intellectually free of the Society, you need to reach out to others to help you rejoin the mainstream world. I wrote a poem about this...
Long ago, a child-like time: the Tower set my stride
I'd bellow out the Kingdom songs; my heart would fill with pride
Of knowing I was on the path to righteousness and life
Looking forward to the end of misery and strife
Then one day I looked around and found myself alone
My faith was dry, my hopes had fled, serenity was gone
The ones I loved had turned their backs and heartlessly refused
To speak, so by their silence I was bitterly abused
In the menace of the world, I stumbled to and fro
Seeking here and searching there, but nowhere could I go
'Til at last I found my place, and joy beyond compare
Where no-one cares just what I've done; where people simply care.
If you are seriously thinking about leaving the Society, you should seek out help from others. Keep your options open -- don't get tied down to the first "solution" that presents itself. Beware of "critical love"; if people can't accept you for who you are, just what do they want?
The world is full of warm, wonderful, caring people. You will find them if you look.
If you can not find these books in your book store, ask them to order them for you. Orders typically take three or four weeks. Some of these books are out of print, but you can sometimes find them at your local library. If they are not available there, try contacting your local cult information center.
Crisis of Conscience by Raymond Franz. Commentary Press, Atlanta. A Governing Body member's experience in coming out of the Witnesses. If you read no other book about leaving, you should read this one.
In Search of Christian Freedom by Raymond Franz. Commentary Press, Atlanta. A former Governing Body member's analysis of how the Witnesses go wrong in the application of Christian principles.
Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses by M. James Penton. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
The Sign of the Last Days: When? by Carl Olof Jonsson and WolfGang Herbst. Commentary Press, Atlanta. A detailed study of how the Witnesses go wrong in claiming there are biblical "signs of the last days" evident since 1914.
The Gentile Times Reconsidered by Carl Olof Jonsson. Hart Publishers, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. A commentary on the the Society's chronology about 1914.
The Orwellian World of Jehovah's Witnesses by Heather and Gary Botting. University of Toronto Press. Available in cloth ISBN 0-8020-2537-4) or paperback (ISBN 0-8020-6545-7).
Deadly Doctrines by Wendell W. Watters MD. Prometheus Books.
Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. Simon and Schuster (out of print). A well-written book by an ex-Bethelite that explores the emotional toll of breaking away.
IT'S YOUR DECISION
If I can leave you with a final thought, I'd like it to be on the subject of truth. What follows is something that I wrote in 1991. It appeals to both theists and atheists alike. I hope you find its message helpful.
The Generic Prayer
I find that with greater understanding comes deeper satisfaction.
I find that gaps and dead ends in my understanding discomfort me.
I find that if I'm afraid, further seeking reveals misunderstanding.
I believe that it will always be thus.
This is my faith.
I desire to seek truth
Not for fear of loss
Not for want of gain
Not for need of words
And will endeavour to pursue it
No matter what it is
No matter who says it
No matter what I already believe.
This I affirm.
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2022