Losing My Head
About a year earlier, Jennifer and I abandoned our faith in the Watchtower's teaching of Noah's Flood, and in another year I would come to accept that the Witnesses were wrong to deny evolution. I continued as a Jehovah's Witness even after these personal revelations, figuring the religion's leaders were simply misguided in the scientific arena. But dissenting from their patriarchal requirements implied, at least to me, that their errors were more pervasive. Was the religion wrong, not only about science, but about gender equality as well?
In the years that followed, I was acutely aware of the religion's inherent sexism. My wife was not allowed to deliver speeches; she could not pray aloud; she could not assist with the congregation's literature or accounts departments; she could not even help pass the microphones during the question and answer discussions simply because she was a woman. The only activities women were given full latitude in were the most unpleasant works the religion required: cleaning the Kingdom Hall and door-to-door preaching. When the elders visited our home to encourage us, they spoke predominantly to me. When we missed a meeting, they approached me to ensure all was well. They paid Jennifer the same amount of attention as they would a small child—a brief hello and then on to the head of the house.
My wife grew tired of the pointless door-to-door work. She allowed first one month, and then two, to pass without preaching at all. Only then did the elders take notice. They approached me—not Jennifer—one evening after the meeting and advised that if I wished to be appointed to greater positions in the congregation, my wife would need to begin regularly participating in the preaching work again. I nodded politely, ignoring the inconsistency. Many Witness men were elders despite being married to women who were not even in the religion. Besides, it hardly seemed fair that my faith be judged on my wife's congregational activity. I later related this conversation to Jennifer, and she was enraged. "If the elders think I need to do more, why don't they come talk to me? Don't they want to encourage me? Instead they just use me as a bargaining chip. They don't even notice women unless they're not falling in line. It's so stupid."
And I agreed. When she asked me why I didn't say something like this to the elders, I told her I just wanted my conversation with them to be over. "I don't even want to do more in the religion," I said. "It's too frustrating. So I don't care what their reasons are for not giving me more responsibility. I don't want to do that stuff anymore, regardless."
Neither did Jennifer. Our days in the religion were coming to a close.
When finally we ejected theism from our lives, there was little change in my behavior toward my wife. My final decree as head of the house had come years earlier, and it had been to declare our relationship equal. Leaving our faith behind cleared up all the contradiction regarding science, history, cognitive dissonance, and the afterlife. No longer would we have to use tortuous rationales to defend our egalitarian marriage; being atheists meant such equality was now a given. It was so obvious, we spent no time talking about it.
Indeed, it was not until years after we left the religion that I was truly confronted with the ridiculousness of headship. During a bright spring afternoon, my mother called to inform me that the invitation to her wedding—the invitation we had just received in the mail two days earlier—was now revoked. Though the wedding was scheduled to occur in her future-husband's backyard, the congregation elders decided it would be inappropriate to permit me to attend.
James Zimmerman is editor of The Minnesota Atheist and frequent host of Atheists Talk television show. His writings have appeared in several secular periodicals, including The Humanist and Free Inquiry. His book Deliverance at Hand! is being published by Freethought House in the fall of 2013.