This article from April 26 2004 appeared on the site members.aol.com/beyondjw/nowwhat.htm and was written by Timothy Campbell.
To Whom Shall We Go?
Ex-Witnesses, and Witnesses with grave doubts about the Society, often ask the question, "If the Witnesses aren't the true religion, what is?"
Some people who have disconnected from the Society refrain from asking this question. They adopt the uncomfortable position that the Witnesses are indeed the True Religion, but due to some inherent flaw in themselves they can not participate. These people understandably suffer from feelings of guilt and inadequacy. They may continue to identify themselves as "inactive Witnesses" rather than "ex-Witnesses", even if they've only attended a few meetings in the past year. They are forever on the verge of leaving. In a way, their difficult situation is similar to the story of the donkey who was positioned exactly halfway between two stacks of hay: he couldn't make up his mind which way to go, and starved. In much the same way, these people end up being spiritually hungry, never able to choose or find a viable source of spiritual nourishment.
Other ex-Witnesses reject the Watchtower Society outright, but believe that they must now seek out the real True Religion. Sometimes such people jump aboard the first religion that resembles the Witnesses -- usually fundamentalist in nature -- and become "born again". Some ex-Witnesses search for a while, become frustrated, and give up on religion altogether. Such people may become atheists or agnostics.
A few ex-Witnesses may actively seek out a religion that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the one they left. They may find satisifaction in following a non-Western way of thinking, such as Buddhism, Daoism or Hinduism. A few others may embrace New Age religions which are hybrids of Christianity, Eastern mysticism, and (in some cases) shrewd marketing.
Randomly Biased Choices
Nobody picks a religion completely at random, but random effects do affect our choice. For example, if you lived next door to a Lutheran church, you would be slightly more likely to become a Lutheran than to join a church which required you to drive for two hours to get to meetings.
Your choice can be influenced by your parents and forebears. Their influence is echoed in the famous song, "Gimme That Old Time Religion", which looks far into the past as it declares, "If it was good enough for Moses, it's good enough for me." Those who came before certainly have an effect on those who come after. If your parents were Jehovah's Witnesses, it's unlikely that you'll start out in some other religion.
Your choice is also based on what you've heard -- particularly from people you respect. Such people are "giving a good witness" for their particular belief system.
One of the strongest influences on your choice of religion is culture. It is rare for people raised in an Islamic country to suddenly become Christians. Such people are seldom exposed to the message of Christianity. Also, in countries where Islam is fundamentalist, a potential Christian would have to face social stigma. As for people growing up in Communist China, their chances of encountering Western ideas about religion are extremely limited.
To turn things around a bit, people in Western countries tend to have a negative view of Islam, for political reasons. They also do not have access to expressions of Eastern religions that have been tailored to fit the West. For example, someone who wishes to learn about Zen Buddhism is frequently required to adopt Japanese ways which are not really integral to the message of Zen. These Japanese affectations can make the philosophy inaccessible.
Our choice of religion can be biased and constrained in many ways.
Nonsense Versus Benefits
Some people maintain that there is no true religion because (they say) religion is a fundamentally nonsensical idea. This is the position taken by some (but by no means all) evolutionists. One notorious example is Richard Dawkins (author of the ground-breaking book "The Selfish Gene"). He seems to have a rather mechanistic view of things, and maintains that religion is the intellectual equivalent of a virus.
As such, a religion would be merely another process trying to survive. By reducing the question of religion in this way, we focus solely on the benefits of religion to a group of people (and the religion itself), but say nothing about "truth". This is not as bad as it may sound.
If we accept the view taken by people like Dawkins, we are compelled to shift the emphasis from "truth" to "utility" (i.e. benefits). That is to say, we are assuming that for a religion to survive, it must provide benefits to its adherents. As such, a religion may be nonsensical (or incomprehensible) but its survival proves that it is not useless.
Given this point of view, we might judge a religion subjectively, asking, "Does it make me happy?" or objectively: "Does it satisfy a large number of people?"
What is Truth?
Is it possible for a religion that is utterly false to provide actual benefits? That depends on what you mean by "false". A religion's doctrines may not stand up well to its critics, but its rituals and social milieu may address basic human needs. The specific doctrines may not withstand scrutiny, but since they reinforce the social milieu, they gain a measure of validity. The believers may not be interested in a deep analysis of their basic beliefs, because they can plainly see that it "delivers the goods". If we argue this point, we may find ourselves in the absurd position of telling somebody, "You only think you're happy!"
Since the religion has shown that its doctrines can successfully strike a resonant chord in its members, it can be considered at least "relatively true" even if it can't be considered "absolutely true". That is to say, the basic machinery of the religion produces positive results, so it must accurately reflect something about its members.
What is True About "The Truth"?
Ex-Witnesses, since they were once Witnesses, may have the idea that a religion must be true in the absolute sense. Indeed, it takes some ex-Witnesses a long time to stop referring to their former religion as "The Truth".
Yet the Watchtower Society's "New Light" doctrine is based on the idea that even the Society isn't infallible. Despite falling short of perfection, the Society has provided many people with a satisfactory religious experience. They must be doing some things right: several million people are perfectly happy to be Jehovah's Witnesses.
What is "true" about the Witnesses? For one thing, it is true that people like to have a sense of being one of the elect few, having a sense of certainty, and delving deeply into mysteries that baffle others. Whether or not Witness teachings are true in the absolute sense does not change the fact that Witnesses gain the benefits just mentioned -- and many more, besides.
A Desperate Search
Ex-Witnesses have to deal with the shock of finding out that the religion they thought was True is, in fact, just another religion with a particular set of benefits and flaws.
Some ex-Witnesses acquire a compelling urge to find the One True Religion -- the one that knows all and reveals all. Even after they leave the Witnesses (which they once thought was nearly perfect), they may retain the feeling that the ideal religion is out there -- if only they could find it.
The Challenge of Change
Most mainstream religions (specifically, those not centred around a single person) are run by people (usually men) who are fine, upstanding folks with motives that are basically good and pure. That may not have been the case in earlier times, but what with the separation of church and state, plus the eagle eye of the media, a religion wastes less energy and takes less risk by running a clean operation.
The trouble is, no person (or group of people) can know everything. They can not fathom every subtle nuance of every possible doctrine. For this reason religions hold councils, or gatherings, meetings of a governing body, or convocations of elders. Matters that were previously cast in stone must be examined from time to time -- and sometimes changed. The Watchtower Society calls this "New Light". Other religions may call it something else. To quote a popular saying, they seek "Progress, not Perfection".
All religions have to progress to keep pace with the secular world. That is to say, religions in the modern world are constantly subjected to tests of their interpretations. For example, there once was a time when people thought that lightning was a sign of God's disapproval. This is rather hard to square away with the easily observed fact that lightning prefers hitting the tallest object in the area -- which is frequently the steeple of a church! (Well, perhaps ardent Witnesses wouldn't find that so surprising...)
A religion that tries to resist the march of science or fashions in liberal thinking must expend more and more energy to hold back the tide of contrary ideas. Keeping this in mind, even the staid Catholic church has recently admitted that evolution is more than "just a theory". (Hardly a ringing endorsement, but nevertheless a significant change.)
So Who's Perfect?
There is no religion that has never made a mistake, because there is no religion run by perfect people. So it is, and so it has been. This is seen in the words of the Old Testament prophets, who frequently pointed out the failings of the Israelites and (in some cases) their rulers.
Of course, some religions try to withstand the battering-ram of science and -- to some extent -- try to seem "perfect". Such religions must expend enormous energy trying to keep their members in line with the current "understanding". The more energy a religion must expend in this task, the more totalitarian it must become. In such cases, difficult questions and open inquiry are not encouraged. Access to information must be controlled, or at least channeled. Ex-Witnesses know this all too well. While the Society does not "blacklist" specific books and web sites, Witnesses implicitly know that they should not read anything critical written by an ex-Witness. Such writings are condemned under the general banner of apostate propaganda.
Who Owns You?
We've already established that no religion is perfect. So how do you choose which one to follow? Is that a fair question?
There is no rule written across the sky in blazing letters which says that you have to pick a particular religion and condemn all the others. Perhaps, if somebody asks you, "What religion do you belong to?" you could reply, "None. But why don't you ask me what my religion is?"
What your religion is doesn't have to have a name. You can decide (to the best of your ability) what constitutes your religion. You might believe, for example, that "You should love your neighbour as yourself". That single statement would be a solid foundation for your personal religion -- and quite frankly it wouldn't be an easy rule to follow faithfully.
There's nothing wrong with going to a Catholic mass in the morning, a rollicking Evangelical meeting in the afternoon, and a meditation center in the evening. There is something good about all three. The question is: are you going to let one group "own" you? To put it another way: do you really want to be in a position where you are given a list of beliefs that you must accept to avoid censure?
A Slice of Truth
If you had been raised as a Presbyterian, you might still be one. You might find that it suits your needs, and you're not overly concerned about the small details. It gives you a taste of the divine, along with a social setting. There's nothing wrong with that.
However, if you have rejected the Jehovah's Witnesses, you are likely to probe more deeply into matters. You already know what it is like to believe something is "The Truth" when in fact it is only a small slice of the truth, adorned with abstruse chronologies and myriad rules.
Applying What You've Learned
You may choose a particular church as your "home base" -- preferably one without a list of absolute doctrines that you can't fully accept. But since you've learned (the hard way) just how easily our understanding can be confused and undermined, you have a skill that few people acquire: you have the ability to say, "Oh, really?" You have dared to ask difficult questions, and you have dared to listen for the answers.
Sometimes, though, the answer to a difficult question is silence. This is hard to take, and this is where everybody -- even atheists -- need faith. We need to believe that the silence will eventually be broken. Maybe not in our lifetime, but surely at some time.
As you pursue the answers to your questions, don't be frightened by occasional silence. It is preferable to the noise and flash with which many religions fill in the unknown areas. True religion is not a fireworks exhibition.
We dare not to know, in order that one day we can truly know.
The Religious Process
You are responsible for finding your own salvation, however you define that term. You can benefit from the input of wise men and (hopefully) reject the blathering of fools. But ultimately, you are the one who chooses. It is up to you -- and only you -- to pick for yourself the wise course of action.
True religion is not a single choice. It is a never-ending series of choices -- sometimes because we've made mistakes, and sometimes because we've entered new territory. Religion in general is about Purpose, but true religion is also about flexibility. To be part of true religion is to be teachable, and that requires both honesty and humility.
True religion lurks everywhere. It's around every corner. Wherever there are people who are earnestly searching for answers, who are willing to give up cherished notions if necessary -- there you will find true religion.
True religion resides in each of us. The challenge is to set it free.