Walking Away from the Watchtower

Last week, I posted a link to my review of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the Watchtower’s 1920 apocalyptic misfire, on Facebook. It got a comment from Vanessa Sampson, an ex-Jehovah’s Witness who said that her own discovery of the Watchtower’s fallibility was a major factor in her ultimately deciding to leave that religion and become an atheist.

Vanessa gave me permission to use her name and to share her story, which I think is an outstanding example of the courage and intellectual honesty required to walk away from religion. That’s especially true when, as in this case, the religion in question is a cult that commands its members to cut off all contact with anyone who leaves, even if that person is a dear friend or a family member. But as unjust and outrageous as that policy is, their loss is our gain. Join me in extending a warm welcome to Vanessa, and if you have a deconversion story of your own, feel free to share it in the comments.

I had been studying for one of the meetings, and they wrote to address the problem of false prophecies. The explanation was, “Jehovah’s Witnesses do not claim to be inspired prophets. They have made mistakes. Like the apostles of Jesus Christ, they have at times had some wrong expectations. —Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6.”

I remembered reading that before, but I was inexplicably struck with a question, as sudden as a lightning bolt: If the Governing Body are not inspired prophets, why are we listening to them? Witnesses are expected to accept the Governing Body’s interpretations of scriptures and prophecies without question; failure to do so is a disfellowshippable offense. But, if they are not inspired, then why did I follow them? How were they any different from the Pope or the leaders of the LDS Church, all of them muddling their way through their understanding of scripture. Sure, they all believe that they are guided by God, but why should I agree?

I immediately decided that I simply misunderstood. Perhaps it was speaking of the great crowd of Witnesses, we ordinary run-of-the-mill folk. Of course, new light is always being shed, as more and more Biblical prophecies are being gradually fulfilled. If the first-century Christians, who were most certainly inspired, didn’t understand the prophecies, then how could I expect the Governing Body – made of anointed, and therefore inspired, men – to be perfect in their understanding?

I resolved to settle the matter, which seriously bothered me. After all, this wasn’t just a simple disagreement over what constitutes modesty or whether this or that person should have seen that movie or whether my room was clean enough. If the Governing Body wasn’t inspired by God, then why the hell was I putting my faith and trust in them? And something else bothered me: if I hadn’t misunderstood the meaning of the quoted paragraph, then it was a glaring contradiction in Watchtower teachings.

It has been published in the Watchtower – and ingrained in the minds of all Witnesses – that “it should be expected that the Lord would have a means of communication to his people on the earth, and he has clearly shown that the magazine called The Watchtower is used for that purpose” and that “the Watchtower is not the instrument of any man or any set of men, nor is it published according to the whims of men. No man’s opinion is expressed in The Watchtower.”

It was clear to me that those statements are blatant lies if the members of the Governing Body are not divinely inspired.

I knew, as I was doing the research, that this was a turning point in my life. I had grown up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I didn’t view it as simply my religion; it was my core identity. If I decided to no longer be a Witness, all of my closest friends and family would be required to stop speaking with me or face expulsion. This was not something I could push aside, so – as the hours went on – the list of things I researched grew extensively.

Before going to sleep that night, I had to admit that whenever the numerous prophecies and Biblical understandings that the Watchtower Society purported – such as the various years that Armageddon was supposed to come, and the “new light” that comes – later failed to happen and needed to be changed, the Watchtower Society always defaulted to their “but we’re human and we make mistakes” excuse. That was unacceptable for me. If the Governing Body is claiming to be Jehovah’s sole channel of communication on Earth, how could they make such mistakes?

Once my faith in the Governing Body had dissolved, I began to question everything. I was not angry, and did not feel intentionally deceived by anybody who had shared “the truth” with me. It seemed to me like just another example of a child that grew up in a religion and discovered it to be different than believed.

But, still unable to accept the idea of leaving everyone I loved and had grown up with, I told myself to just wait and see if anything happened to make me change my mind and decide that I could remain a Witness. I knew that I couldn’t just pretend to believe and continue on as before; the thought of it made me sick to my stomach. Within a few days, I accepted that I had to disassociate myself.

Because I was a wreck emotionally – feeling like a dead woman walking, mourning my former self and all of her friends and family – I pushed myself to base my decisions on logic and rational thought. Having decided that I could no longer be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I felt that I had to at least get an idea of what I now believed to be true. A comment from the August 15, 1981, Watchtower, convinced me that mainstream Christianity might just be correct after all:

“From time to time, there have arisen from among the ranks of Jehovah’s people those, who, like the original Satan, have adopted an independent, faultfinding attitude…They say that it is sufficient to read the Bible exclusively, either alone or in small groups at home …But, strangely, through such ‘Bible reading,’ they have reverted right back to the apostate doctrines that commentaries by Christendom’s clergy were teaching 100 years ago…”

What I gathered from was that if you just read the Bible, without the input (and mental manipulation, in my mind) of the Watchtower Society, you’ll believe what most Christians do. It seemed like they were actually discouraging Bible study! That was one of the realizations that just blew my mind. I felt so stupid, so gullible. But at the same time, I reminded myself that these were the things I had been taught my entire life, by every adult I loved, trusted, and respected who loved me back. What reasons did I have not to believe them?

I mentally noted that I needed to resolve my thoughts on conscientious objections to military service, and just how Biblical the doctrines of the Trinity, immortal soul, and hellfire were. I didn’t think I could ever accept the idea of hellfire, and couldn’t quite grasp the concept of the Trinity, but if my going over the other Bibles convinced me that those were correct, I’m sure I would have accepted them. I refused to not accept any idea just because I’d always been taught not to.

I had also decided not to just be searching for a new religion to join. If I couldn’t find one that matched my to-be-discovered beliefs, then I would become one of those people that reads the Bible privately at home. If the right religion wasn’t obvious to me, I couldn’t see how a loving God would punish me when I was obviously searching.

I clung to my faith in the Bible because I was firmly convinced that Biblical prophecies had been consistently proven right, and that it had a harmonious message throughout and its scientific comments – such as the earth being round, how the universe was created, and the water cycle – were obviously ahead of its time and divinely inspired.

However, once I realized those were the reasons why, I immediately sought to confirm those reasons in my mind. I wanted to question every assumption I had. I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was believing what was right!

I didn’t even want to believe in the Bible, or Jesus, or God, without reaffirming to myself that I had solid proof – or at least, beyond a reasonable doubt – of doing so.

But as I peeled away the layers of my belief, I never found sufficient explanations. An online friend of mine, an atheist, correctly explained evolution to me. (Witnesses only accept the Watchtower’s skewed explanation.) He spent a good two hours answering my questions – ranging from “How could the world have turned out so perfect for humans to live on by mere accident?” to “Then what’s the meaning of life?” – and even though he never once pushed me toward atheism, that laid the concrete foundation. By the time I left home, less than a month after my deconversion, I no longer felt that one must believe in God to live a happy, ultimately good life.

Because I was already 18, once I “came out,” I would’ve been required to move out. I was the oldest of four, raised by a single mother, and I couldn’t bear to have to make her choose between Jehovah and her eldest daughter. She wouldn’t have wanted to kick me out, and I just couldn’t put her in that position, so I moved out first. I was emotionally fragile, so I felt that I couldn’t handle the elders meetings for my disassociation, so I left letters and moved out while my family was at the meeting. I made sure to leave them various ways of contacting me so they wouldn’t worry, and immediately responded to anything I received.

My mother – who has a mental health history – emailed me and thought it might be best if I went to the hospital, because she believed that I was having a psychotic episode. My best friend IMed me to ask me if I was on drugs, but once I convinced her that I was entirely serious in disassociating, she said that she had to go and I never heard from her again. Another friend e-mailed me to convince me to stay, at least for another year or two, and said that my decision to leave was worse than suicide. But, after about a week, my mother was the only one who would correspond with me, and that lessened to about once every three months, just to make sure I was okay.

Over the next two years, I shed my “Witness subconscious” – as I call my knee-jerk response to view certain things as immoral – and became unrepentantly pro-choice and a staunch supporter of marriage equality. Last year, I started donating blood. I enrolled into college, which is discouraged by the Watchtower Society. I ended up taking a women’s studies class as an elective, which helped me gain confidence in myself as a woman, not having to view myself as a subordinate in the “headship arrangement.” I gained perspective by having an atheist roommate for one semester, and then a Southern Baptist the next. I feel like a more ethical, rational, tolerant and loving person now that I no longer believe in God.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BJ Marshall

    Welcome, Vanessa, and thanks for sharing such an inspirational story. Peeling away from a religion with such a strong hold is no easy feat – congratulations on doing so!

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    Wow. Just Wow. Vanessa, you’re incredibly brave, and I found your story both encouraging and scary. Encouraging because you found a way to separate yourself from the church, scary because of how deep their claws are dug into each and every individual. The whole shunning of apostates concept is the most evil aspect of these religions in my mind.

  • Erik

    Excellent story – thank you for sharing =)

  • Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

    Thank you, Vanessa, for sharing your story.

    And, for naming yourself and claiming yourself.

    Every time an ex-JW shares his or her story we chip away at the myth that the Governing Body attempts to propagate in the public consciousness.

    We expose this cult of child abuse for what it really is.

    We stop the religious gas-lighting being perpetrated upon members and upon the public.

    Thank you. We need brave ex Jehovah’s Witnesses like you to tell their stories.

    To spread the Real Truth. The Real Good News of a life outside of that cult.

  • Paul

    It’s hard for me to understand just what it must have took for you to de-convert. You are incredibly brave. There must have always been something inside you that valued logic and reason. You have that to thank, at least in part.

  • Ben Laughter

    Vanessa,

    I am an ex-Pentecostal atheist. Pentecost is a zealous religion filled with fine people, much like The Witnesses, and I expect I wrestled with many of the same pressures and fears as you during my exit from religion.

    I just celebrated my tenth wedding anniversary with my wonderful wife, who was born and raised in a Jehovah’s Witness family. I must say that, in our near-perfect marriage, religion is the only sticking point she and I have not been able to overcome.

    We don’t argue about money, parenting, who gets to drive the cooler car, or home decorating taste. We both want to eat better and maybe lose a few pounds. We both want to raise an intelligent and productive son. And yet, even though we are in agreement on almost every practical matter, my wife says (direct quote) that she “would give it all up if I would just see the truth of Jehovah.” I find it an amazing thing to prefer to live in a miserable marriage, so long as your husband has the same superstitions.

    The frustrating part is that, while brainwashed to believe whatever is printed in those damnable magazines, she has a less than elementary understanding of the Bible itself. She is incapable of a simple debate and refuses to have an honest, intellectual discussion on the facts. It always becomes a heated argument of blind faith-based ignorance versus my stubborn rationalism. So we avoid the topic, and the silence is eating us alive.

    I just want you to know that I appreciate you sharing your story. While Witnesses have proved to be some of the finest people I have ever met, it is vastly encouraging to me to think that my wife might have a catalyst moment, much like yours, that would lead her away from this nonsense and greatly improve our marriage.

    I wish you the best in your life and pursuits.

    Ben Laughter

  • Ritchie

    Thanks for telling your story, Vanessa.

    I genuinely admire your courage. It’s not easy to swim against the tide of popular opinion, and I do wonder whether I’d have had the determination to break away if I’d been as heavily indoctrinated as you were.

    As for your “Witness subconscious”, don’t beat yourself up if it never goes entirely. I don’t fly particularly well and even now whisper up a hushed prayer as the plane starts trundling down the runway. The rational part of my brain tells me I’m being silly, but it’s also not the rational part of my brain I’m trying to calm. I consider it a harmless quirk, a ritual, an eccentricity of mine.

    May you find true happiness in the life you’ve been brave enough to begin.

  • Nathan

    Wow.

    Vanessa, my husband was trapped in the Jehovah’s Witness for … afar too long, and I have a good idea of just how hard it is to leave and free yourself from the many mental shackles the cult puts on you. Let me congratulate you on your personal integrity, and wish you great success in rebuilding your life.

  • jack

    Vanessa,

    Welcome to the clear air of atheism! Your story was impressive and inspiring, and I hope we get to hear more from you as a guest writer on Daylight Atheism, or elsewhere. It took real courage, integrity and strength to do what you did, and at such a vulnerable age.

    If you haven’t already done so, you might consider reading Dan Barker’s book, Godless, which tells his deconversion story. He was not a JW, but a fundamentalist evangelical Christian preacher who had to deal with separation and loss of friends. An important point he makes is that people who shun you because of your sincere effort at truth-seeking probably were not such great friends to begin with. He lost his first marriage over it, but found a new, more honest and happier one. His parents refused to stop loving him, and ultimately discarded their own religious beliefs after listening to his reasons for leaving.

    I hope your mother eventually comes to accept you for the good and honest person you are.

  • Vanessa

    Thank you all for the warm welcomes – I’m really touched that my deconversion is inspiring, especially since I’ve been constantly encouraged by others’ stories. Your comments have made me smile and blush. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since leaving, it’s that Witnesses do not have a monopoly on loving kindness – thank you again.

    Jack’s comment also reminded me to share this pleasantly surprising news I received last year. I was going to add it into the blog post, but I didn’t want to go off on tangents near the end.

    I was shocked when, about a year after I left, my mother also walked away. She was frustrated with the audism she experienced in the congregation, so she and a couple other deaf members agreed to stop attending at the same time. Since the beginning of the summer, we’ve spent a lot of time together. We’ve talked – and cried – about my leaving, and it’s nice to be close again. My siblings are still Witnesses, though, and get picked up for meetings, but we’re still hopeful that they’ll end up leaving as they get older.

    And, another happy story, the same friend who desperately tried to get me to stay for another year or two later contacted me. He has been struggling with his atheism for years, hoping that if he just stayed longer, he would gain the faith that others around him had. He’s now building up the courage to leave himself. We’ve both been able to get back into contact with others who left before us, which is a great encouragement.

  • http://foxholeatheism.com Mike Gage

    I love hearing stories like this. I wrote something a few weeks ago and someone commented about how they loved the argument, but the reasoning would be lost on Christians. But I was once a fundamentalist Christian, and so many of us were once religious. There are people who will listen to reason, so we can’t simply group them all together.

    I think it’s more accurate to say that you probably won’t argue anyone into your point of view. They probably will have to come to the realization on their own. But here’s the kicker: You may not be able to convert the person with whom you’re arguing, but you might leave a positive influence in someone else reading the exchange. You can help to plant seeds so that people like Vanessa, and like me, and like so many of you will have that chance in the first place. Congrats and welcome, Vanessa.

  • Lagerbaer

    A very inspiring story indeed!

  • Daria

    Until the last few years I’d never known a Jehovah’s Witness socially; this story wouldn’t have meant as much to me if I’d read it pre-2009, when my Catholic father married my Jehovah’s Witness stepmother.

    Having now seen how completely indoctrinated they are, and how their religion infuses every single thing they see, think and do, I’m blown away by the courage and strength of character it takes for people to turn away from that, especially in light of how many relationships are affected by doing so. My hat is off to you all.

  • Paul

    That’s absolutely great that your mom and you can be together with each other, however much or little that is.

    I just can’t imagine how it must be to walk away from what, after you walk away from it, must seem to be the biggest pile of you-know-what that you once believed was the biggest truth that could ever be.

    What a change! What a transition! I can only hope that I could experience that; that I could be shown the error of my ways for such an important issue.

  • Polly

    JW is a cult, but if you pray to the real Jesus he will show…OKAY I can’t even finish that as a joke.

    You should be proud of yourself for the intelligence, independence, and courage you demonstrated in walking away from a cult at the green age of 18 with so much to lose and so much indoctrination filling your head. Good for you and Reasonspeed!

  • karen

    Congratulations, Vanessa!

    As an ex-evangelical I too experienced one of those “thunderclap” moments when rational thinking seems to shine through the b.s. and make one start questioning all previous assumptions.

    The thing about arguing with believers, for atheists, is that we never know where they are at in their thinking. They may be die-hards or they may be working through an attack of rationality – like you had – and open to hearing some logic.

    So wonderful to hear about your mom and your friend. There’s hope for everyone, right!

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    Vanessa,

    It is because of people like you that I personally never give up hope that through rational argument and pointing out the lies and fallacies, there is a real, but invisible effect on the dogma. I believe it’s like watching a building collapse from the outside. You don’t see the cracks in the beams, but they’re there. You don’t see the eroding foundation, but it’s steadily disappearing. All you do see is when it finally does collapse, and from the rubble a new person is formed.

    It’s the same with North Koreans, Catholics, Moslems, Homophobes, racists, Evangelicals of every stripe, and even conspiracy theorists. They ALL deserve our help through debate, argument, facts, proof, and yes, even satire. It’s our duty as loving human beings to help people like Vanessa escape their mental prisons and let them be freed.

  • http://purl.org/NET/JesseW/SundryStuff/ Jesse Weinstein

    That’s a moving and inspiring story. Thanks for your courage and willingness to share it! I’m going to ask the JW’s who come to my door about “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” next time they come.

  • Charles Black

    It’s such stories like these that help me remember that there is hope for reason & rationality in the long term.
    We must soldier ourselves on no matter how hopeless it may seem.

  • Cerus

    Thanks for sharing your story, Vanessa.

    My deconversion from fundamentalist protestantism wasn’t nearly as oppressive, I only wish I’d done it sooner, and less quietly.

  • Leon Baradat

    Welcome in from the cold, Vanessa! I’m glad you found your way to the path of reason.