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.