Mentally it is a traumatic moment when you realise that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not of god. While you may think your first thought is of freedom, to think for yourself and not be told what is right, and to celebrate life without constantly thinking of the pagan significance of symbols, your first reaction is one of abject horror that your belief is false. Because it felt so much like truth, and the mysteries of the world you understood.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the cage you were in felt comfortable. Your life was dedicated to Jehovah’s will to share the good news and save as many people as you could before Armageddon. Which was as real an event to me as tomorrow’s sunrise. When you step out of that cage you are seeing the world through new eyes. The framework by which you judged social interactions, based your daily routine is gone. You have to reinvent yourself. You have to understand the world anew.
The shock is that you find out who you are – rather than who you thought you were, a serf of god. I had been out of Secondary School since the first year learning at home (which is to say I read text books – home schooling sounds like I had teaching resources and a teacher) having prepared myself for a life of ministry work as a pioneer. Which is to say a missionary. Blown out of the water, with two years of secondary school left I realised that to have any opportunity in life I needed qualifications – I needed to go back to school. Back where I had been bullied as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Yet despite all this, the instincts you develop die hard. For example I still considered Christmas and birthdays incompatible with Christian teaching – and the Trinity and divinity of Jesus to be in error. The one good thing about that skepticism of other Christian teaching is that it stopped me and my mother joining the born again Christians or Mormons who were waiting in the wings to snap us up. I would wish to say we were wary of being fooled again, but the reality was we just wanted to come to terms with things for ourselves without someone trying to guide us to an answer. We wanted to figure it out for ourselves. In essence we believed in Jehovah, not the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
That helped me because the reason why we left was my inquiry into the past teachings of the Watchtower – designed to furnish me with answers on life the universe and everything, which instead revealed false prophets and changed doctrines. Now I was free to read books that were not published by the Watchtower Society, prevented because they would mislead you from the truth and also the time it took up reading Watchtower publications for meetings. As I have mentioned, I read Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in secret because elders considered it inappropiate reading. It got me thinking how the earth came into being and how you would prove god was the cause.
Part of getting over the horror was to learn about the world, and to reason for myself rather than be told this is the truth and that doubt is wrong. Time is an important healer. Going back to school, and joining a tennis club meant that social interactions which had been limited to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past became more natural. Especially when trying to save people was not going to be part of the conversation.
Taking part in the school play gave me an adrenaline rush I had only ever experienced giving a talk in the congregation – but I felt part of a community. It was possible to be in a social network, even with people with different backgrounds and beliefs to yourself. Hard as it may be to believe about adolescents, sinning and having a good time were not the only considerations of people my own age – people did volunteering, others were getting over dysfunctional families with a dignity and strength that I thought only the holy spirit and not human will could give.
Down to the bookshop, while studying at 6th Form, I decided that what I needed to know was why there was life in all its variety. I had been taught to be a creationist, that evolution was wrong and how Satan took people away from the truth. Now I had an opportunity to actually read a book on evolution by a scientist – and the only one I knew was Dawkins thanks to Adams. The store assistant suggested Richard Dawkins “Blind Watchmaker” – which was perfect because before the Jehovah Witnesses (we started studying when I was eight) I had been into computer programing on my old Spectrum, so the fact that Dawkins was running programmes to understand evolution fascinated me.
There was considerable anger about how I had been taught to observe the world, and a recognition that one reason for belief had been terror about what the world would do to me without god and the need for approval from the congregation. It would be fair to say that the congregation was my surrogate father, with my parents divorced, teaching me right and wrong and being my role model. This anger was the final thing that made me burn that bridge to nowhere which accepted the dogma without the faith in organised religion. It broke the tethers of affection that I had as a child.
Yet I wanted it to be true. So while being agnostic going into University, I still hankered for a benign all powerful being that may yet make the world a better place – I just did not see the evidence for such a being. Because whilst I now appreciated the human spirit, I still considered civilisation to have been a failure in the problems facing humanity. Reading Bertrand Russell helped with that. Education is a wonderful thing – while expectations may make us feel that the world is a miserable place that does not live up to them, when you consider where we have come from the human story is one of hope and resilience against the odds. Finally there was a sunset on the delusion of a god that could, but not yet.
Yes there are grave dangers and social problems, but that is nothing new. We are best placed to face them like never before. There is an alternative to a benevolent hand from another dimension saving us. We actually do not have a choice in this regard – which may just make us realise that science, technology, research and education are vital for human survival as they are for bettering ourselves and our way of life. Religion should not get in the way, either by diverting our attention or corrupting the education process.
Me and Douglas Adams (outline of life in the Jehovah’s Witnesses)
What was it like with the Jehovah’s Witnesses? (a week in the life of a Jehovah’s Witness)
Mothering Sunday – Mother’s Day (an example of how you deal with a celebration you cannot partake in)