A Jehovah's Witness Discovers His Atheism

(Via Brian Stilson)

My story begins in the dawn of the 1980’s. Vietnam was becoming a distant memory, Ronald Reagan was almost to his 2nd year in office, and Blade Runner was defining “fail” at the box office. I was my parents first child, though I had two half-brothers from their previous marriages. They were much older than I was, both 11 years old when I was born. My mother was pregnant with me at the same time as half a dozen of the other mothers in the local Jehovah’s Witness congregation. We were all born within a span of two months; a fresh “crop” of babies. Needless to say, I had a lot of peers my age.

My first memories are as a three-year-old toddler playing in the park with a friend. We were at a campground with several other families, who had traveled with their campers in tow to attend the District Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Pontiac, Michigan. I don’t remember much about the conventions those days. I liked to look up at the cloth roof and see the silouhettes of workmen balancing on the thin, skeletal frame like acrobats.

My dad was an elder in our congregation, one of the first. Back before the 70’s, each congregation had one overseer, called (naturally) the “congregation overseer” or “congregation servant.” My father was married to the daughter of the congregation overseer for a time, until their marriage ended in divorce and she was disfellowshipped (another term for excommunication). When the arrangement was changed and the job of the overseer was delegated to a group of men instead of an individual, my father was one of these men appointed to be an elder, or shepherd of the congregation.

We lived in a small, white house my parents rented until my brother came along. When I turned 4, we left our little white house and moved to a larger home on 7 acres, the home my parents still live in today. I was raised as a typical Jehovah’s Witness child. We attended 5 meetings in 3 nights every week, plus field ministry on Saturdays. I started commenting quite young with simple, one-word answers like “Jehovah” and “Jesus” as the congregation awwed in approval. I didn’t like it. In fact, I found it insulting, patronizing. Despite my incredibly young age, I wished people would take me seriously.

As I grew older, I began to realize I was different from the kids in school. My parents prepared me for my first day of kindergarten, warning me not to participate in the flag salute. I was determined to make them happy, so I didn’t, even though another student tried to force me to stand up. From that moment, my life was centered on making my parents and the people in the congregation proud of me.

I was different in other ways from my peers as well. Early on, my school performance was higher than average, and in 2nd grade I was reading fluently while most other students struggled to form difficult words. This plus my lack of candor about my religious beliefs ruffled a lot of feathers. I would not hesitate to tell all my non-witness classmates that they were going to die at Armageddon. At the time, their hostile reactions were baffling. “What did I do wrong?” I thought. “They always show people talking about ‘the truth’ (what Jehovah’s Witnesses call their religion) to worldly people (what Jehovah’s Witnesses called those who do not share their faith) on the stage and nobody is ever upset about it!”

I became an unbaptized publisher–the first “level” in the church–at the age of 6 and joined the Theocratic Ministry School, a public speaking course for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Each week, three students enrolled in this course would give a lecture on a prescribed biblical topic, with a focus on one aspect of public speaking such as gestures or volume modulation. The elder in charge of the school would then critique the delivery, and mark a “scorecard” for each student with a “G” for good, “W” for “work on this,” or “I” for “improved.” If the student received a “G,” he or she would move on to the next aspect. When all the speech aspects were passed, they were started again. I always found it a odd that one could be enrolled in a school that’s impossible to graduate from, but the whole point was that our speech assignments refined and improved our speaking skills, and the lectures were practice to keep us sharp.

Though I did well academically, my social skills were sadly lacking. Over the years, I withdrew myself further and further from the main body of my peers. I began to identify with the outcasts, the poor and unpopular kids. I’d perceive hostility in anyone else and preemptively “respond” with hostility. Even the kids in the congregation that were in my grade distanced themselves from me, and some even joined in when other children ridiculed me.

When I was 12 I met one of the best friends I’ve ever had. He was 14, but we liked a lot of the same things. It was him that sparked my interest in science fiction, computers, and electronics. I was always drawn to computers. Throughout elementary school I longed to use the dusty old Apple II each teacher had tucked away in the back corner. I hated sports, so “computer day” was especially fun for me.

During my early teens I started changing, becoming more moody, and begun to hate living with my parents. My home life wasn’t happy. When I was 5 or so my dad and an older half-brother got in a fistfight. My brother ended up moving in with a couple in the congregation, and my dad stepped down as an elder. I don’t remember the fight, and was told about it later. At the time my dad told me he was tired of having the stress of everyone’s problems in the congregation weighing on him, but he never mentioned the fight. Maybe the fight was a culmination of that stress, and made my dad realize that he just couldn’t keep going like that. Either way, he didn’t get along with my brother, who tended to be a know-it-all and openly defiant.

When I was a 14-year-old freshman, a girl asked me to be her boyfriend. I accepted, and was quite excited by the whole venture. I tried desperately to fit in with my worldly peers, but years of being that well-behaved young boy that always told on everyone couldn’t be overcome. The relationship didn’t last long, either. When my mom found out about it and my loss of desire for “the truth,” she took me to a neighboring congregation.

Around that time, my mom also left my dad. I went with my mom to the neighboring town and congregation, where I had already made many new friends. These new people acted differently. I felt like part of the group, while in my first congregation I was always left out of everybody’s plans. Instead of wanting to leave, I dove right back into the religion.

After a year in my new congregation, I decided to get baptized. Baptism is a major step. It can only be attained after three rounds of questioning by local elders, to prove your knowledge of the Watchtower Society’s teachings. Baptism is done at Circuit Assemblies and District Conventions, large regional gatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was baptized at age 14–eleven years ago now. I really believed it was the truth, and I held fast to that belief for years.

Soon after baptism I began pioneering. Pioneering is a commitment to spend a certain amount of hours in the field, preaching from house to house. Auxiliary pioneers make a commitment for 50 hours for one month. Regular pioneers make a commitment for 70 hours per month for one year. I joined the Auxiliary Pioneer ranks several times before becoming a Regular Pioneer. The two experiences we worlds apart. When regular pioneering, I worked with the same people every day, and all conversations inevitably turned to gossip. The pioneers were the most judgmental, prideful people I’ve ever met. I’m saddened to admit that the attitude rubbed off on me as well.

After I lost my part-time job, money became tight, and I was not always able to share in the custom of donating money to the driver of the group each day to reimburse him or her for fuel. One day another pioneer said aloud how she thought it was just awful people would only donate $1 for gas, especially with the prices going up the way they were (keep in mind this is when we were outraged at $1.40 a gallon). I often did this, as it was all I could spare. I asked to be taken off the pioneer list shortly thereafter, citing my need to work full-time in order to pay for family expenses.

In the years after, many of my friends either moved away or “fell away” from the witnesses. I ended up moving to Detroit myself after a few years. The depression I had fought all my life worsened. I struggled in my new congregation. For the first time in my life, I started taking anti-depressants. They worked somewhat. I went from being neurotic and clean to being apathetic and messy. I gained 30 lbs. I decided that it was my environment that was causing my condition, and when a friend offered to let me live with him in his small town in the country, I jumped at the chance.

I lasted a little more than a year there, and eventually moved back in with my parents, and finally to the city in West Michigan where I currently live. It was when living with my parents that my first true seeds of doubt began to germinate.

We were studying a book called Pay Attention to Daniel’s Prophecy! That night’s particular lesson was about the “king of the north” and the “king of the south” in the book. The publication insisted that those kings were not individuals, but more than one person, and proceeded to name the kings of the north and south throughout history. It seemed pretty far-fetched to me. The actual book of Daniel gives no indication that these kings are multiple persons. It appeared more like a literal reading of Daniel was inconvenient for the Watchtower Society’s predetermined doctrine, and this “interpretation” was meant to cover up the discrepancy.

I didn’t address the doubts right away. I pushed them aside and told myself “Jehovah will clear it up in due time” like I imagine most Jehovah’s Witnesses do when confronted with a teaching that doesn’t make sense. Shortly thereafter I found a full-time job in my field of work and moved from my parent’s home to the city.

I spent a lot of time on the internet, and in particular the arguments many atheists were using. I began to watch YouTube videos by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I was vaguely familiar with Dawkins–he was quoted extensively by the Watchtower’s creationist book Life–How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation? Later did I learn how extensively misquoted he was.

Eventually, I started making atheist arguments myself. I laughed at the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” internet meme and the “Go God, Go!” episode of South Park without thinking too much about it. Finally, one weekend I came to the realization: I was an atheist. I had learned more about evolution from resources on the internet than I had from any book the Watchtower Society had published. I realized that all these years I was just passively accepting everything I was taught. I didn’t question anything about my faith. I didn’t even question the existence of God. I saw that all the Society’s answers for these questions were canned, avoided the issue, and were utterly without substance.

After a week, I told my mother. She chalked it up to my mood, and told me I was just saying that because I was depressed. Shortly thereafter, I had a “debate” with my father. He said the reliable prophecy was why he believed the Bible. I nodded my head but inside I was just giving up. I knew beforehand my parents wouldn’t understand. I just wanted to give them the satisfaction of trying. I reminded my mother that it was my decision, and she agreed, even though she said “we won’t lose you without a fight!” It was amazingly two-faced, but my mother has always had a problem letting me make my own decisions.

Now, I am in one world, desperately trying to break into another. My college-going younger brother moved in with me. He was recently baptized and I feel like a prisoner in my own apartment. He’s not a bad roommate or anything like that. I just can’t live the life I want to live without upsetting my family.

I feel my best option is to do what many former Jehovah’s Witnesses call “fading.” By building up relationships on the outside, I hope to minimize the damage if the day comes where I’m officially “outed.”

I keep a blog about my experiences at http://www.godless-heathen.com.