from The Coast, Vol. 11 #17 September 25-Oct 2, 2003
After getting burned by a
religion they trusted, former Jehovah’s Witnesses get
together to share the work of spiritual healing.
by Anna Quon
Joe used to do drugs, before he found the religion that he says probably saved his life. Now clean-cut, 30-something and fiercely non-denominated, he sees that same religion as a mind-controlling cult. “I went from LSD to Watchtower drugs,” he jokes. People like Joe who have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses call their former religion the Watchtower, shorthand for the Witness organization’s official name, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society—and though the drugs it dispenses are figurative, not literal, they may be just as damaging to the lives of some of its followers as any addiction.
In several in-person and phone interviews, Joe comes across
as a bit of a hot head. He gets excited, speaks loudly and
guffaws at his own jokes, but at the same time, he’s clearly
intelligent and has thought a lot about his beliefs. Leaving
the Witnesses, he says, is like leaving prison. “You’re out,
free, but you realize the repercussions of that freedom.”
Perhaps the most painful of those repercussions is being
considered spiritually dead, and invisible, to people who
were once your closest friends and family.
Today, Joe chalks up his “14 miserable years” as a Witness to another life experience, but even six years after leaving the religion, he attends a local support group for ex-Witnesses. He wants to talk about “rebuilding lives,” including his own, since his marriage of 13 years to a Jehovah’s Witness failed as he underwent the process of leaving the religion. “I was undercover at that time,” he says of his two years as a disaffected but still connected Witness, who no longer believed the religion’s claim to have the exclusive Truth. Today, he’s still undercover—he doesn’t want to mention where he came from, and speaks more often off the record than on. And, like the other former Witnesses in this story, he agreed to talk as long as his name and other identifying details were changed.
But despite his secrecy, he’s happier now. “You’re trapped in a life that is just horrendous,” he says of his Watchtower days, spent in the Kingdom Halls where Jehovah’s Witness congregations meet. “You’re told to put on that Kingdom smile.” For Joe, that smile was a cover for a tormented mind, and the fear that his growing doubts in the Watchtower would be discovered. At a meeting of support group members who came together for an interview, Joe says he’s not interested in joining any church. “It would hamper the freedom that we cherish now,” he says, getting a nod of agreement from Jane and Fred, an ex-Witness couple.
Despite their reluctance to join another organized religion, Jane and Fred still feel the need for spiritual healing, many years after having left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “We believe in a Creator, we probably accept Christianity, but we’re not denominated,” says Fred, the quiet and logical one-time elder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “It’s very, very difficult for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses to associate with a church in an organized manner.”
“It ruins you for other religions, it sort of kills your trust,” says Jane, a motherly woman whose emotions are close to the surface. If she ever attended another church, she says, “I feel like lightning might come down and drop me dead.”
That may sound like an extreme belief, but one that’s not surprising: Jane explains the Jehovah’s Witness teaching that it is the only true religion, and that all others are instruments of Satan. Simply attending a service in any other church is, according to Fred and Jane, worthy of “disfellowshipping,” the Witness practice of shunning members of their congregation who have committed an “immorality,” such as smoking, drinking, gambling or adultery, or other offense determined by the Watchtower organization.
Starting a support group for people who have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as Jane and Fred have done, would “mark” them in the eyes of practicing Witnesses, Jane believes. The couple, who drifted away from the Witnesses without formally “disassociating” themselves, are afraid of their identities becoming known, in case members of their families who are still Jehovah’s Witnesses cut off ties with them altogether. “Families are destroyed” by the Watchtower organization, says Joe, all in the name of “loving discipline.”
Support groups for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses have sprung up all over the world. The local group started in January of this year and now has up to 15 members who meet monthly, with rotating locations in the works. While Fred says individuals who have left any “mind-controlling” organization are welcome, and they hope to attract some former Mormons and ex-cult members to the group, almost all current members are ex-Witnesses.
The group advertises (quietly) through public service announcements, and on bulletin boards in malls. A pastor, Les Skonnard of the Grace Church (Lutheran) in Dartmouth is the contact person for the group (he can be reached at email@example.com or 434-8114), but Joe is adamant that they do not discuss doctrine or dogma, and that it’s not a hate group or one that is trying to start a new religion. “There’s no agenda to get someone into something else,” he says. “It’s for emotional support. We’re just sort of feeling our way along.”
At a recent support group meeting, held in a school building in the Halifax Regional Municipality, Jane and Fred led four other members and Pastor Skonnard in a round of self-introductions. There was no coffee, no name tags, but plenty of hurt apparent in their briefly told stories. Ellen, a quiet, young woman, had been with the Witnesses for five years, but didn’t think she was “doing enough” to survive Armageddon, and disliked the control the Witnesses had over her. Gerald had once belonged to the Divine Light Mission and the Mormons, and was planning to become a Witness, but had not yet been baptised, when he saw the ad for the support group in a flyer. He says with a laugh that he “escaped” the Witnesses just in time.
The group watched a video called Children of Jehovah, taped
from CBC’s Rough Cuts, in which young Witnesses and
ex-Witnesses shared their stories and views of the religion.
It featured a fresh-faced, idealistic Witness named Andres,
who, although no more than 12 years old, was zealous in
door-to-door service. Andres in particular seemed to trigger
memories among the support group members.
When Andres admitted that at first he was nervous about proselytizing and hoped no one would be home, the members of the group laughed and someone said, “I know that feeling.” When he left the school classroom as the other students sang the national anthem, because Witnesses are not allowed to “worship” their country or flag, Fred remembered, “I used to do that.” After the video was over, the group agreed that Andres was something like a little “robot,” and one group member said watching the program was “almost like a refresher course” in why he left the Witnesses.
Joe knows what its like to feel like a Jehovah’s robot. He joined the Witnesses in the early ‘80s at age 17 and left the religion in 1997. Before he joined, he was feeling like a “bad person” for his wild lifestyle, sure that he was bound for the Hell that his mother, a Catholic, believed in. With his absent father in trouble with the law, and Joe himself into marijuana at age 11, then LSD by age 13, he says he was “every parent’s worse nightmare. I was pretty well uncontrollable.” He had his own problems with the law for breaking and entering and for stealing cars, and spent some time in juvenile detention centres and a half-way house, where some born-again Christians tried to turn him on to Jesus.
He didn’t take to it. “I find that mainstream evangelical born-again Christian fundamentalists are very simplistic,” Joe says, noting that one appeal the Witnesses had for him was their in-depth study of scripture. So his wild life continued, and his LSD trips became worse and worse, until one night, after two and a half hits of Red Dragon Acid at a party, he found himself down the road at someone’s house, tearing pictures off the wall as a terrified mother locked her children in a bedroom. The police put him in the drunk tank overnight. When he woke up the next morning and realized how low he’d come, Joe began what he calls a “search for life.”
A friend’s mother, a Witness herself, gave him the Watchtower book The Truth that Leads to Everlasting Life, and he thought he’d found what was going to save him. It attracted him with its denial of the existence of a fiery hell, and what he calls his “aggressive personality” was drawn toward the moral militancy of the Watchtower’s teachings. He became, he says, a “fanatical” Jehovah’s Witness, who was held up as an example to other young people at the assemblies he attended at the various Kingdom Halls. He had his long hair cut and for the first time in his life wore a tie and shoes. “I was the star of the show,” he remembers, and a couple months after joining the Witnesses he was proselytizing door to door and taking Watchtower literature with him whenever he visited friends. “They thought I was nuts,” he says. “The conversion for me was quite extreme.” He ended up losing most of those friends, in part because Witnesses were not supposed to associate with “worldly” people (ie. non-Witnesses).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses official website (http://www.watchtower.org) says “some 6,000,000 persons today who are telling the good news of Jehovah’s Kingdom by Christ Jesus in over 230 lands feel that they properly refer to themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses.” It claims that from a small Bible study group in Pennsylvania back in 1870, the Witnesses grew to some 90,000 congregations worldwide by 2000. In the Halifax-Dartmouth area, there are about 800 Jehovah’s Witnesses in numerous congregations.
One of the longstanding teachings of the Witnesses is that Armageddon is imminent—the first predicted date was 1914. “Not all that was expected to happen in 1914 did happen,” says the Watchtower’s website, and notes that 1914 was indeed the end of the “Gentile Times” and a significant date in the history of humankind. However, it does not say that several more times in the course of its history, Armageddon was predicted but did not happen. The last time was 1975, and this non-Armageddon became a major plot point in Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth.
In real life, when nothing supernatural occurred in 1975,
many Watchtower adherents, as well as some of its
leadership, left the fold. But thousands more since 1975,
including Joe, have joined the organization thanks to the
zealous proselytizing of its members, and the volumes of
religious literature that the Witnesses distribute door to
But for Joe, eventually, the Watchtower lost its shine. He describes his increasing disillusionment with the Witnesses when the Armageddon that was always supposedly around the corner never came, as he saw how the Watchtower organization “flip flopped” on other doctrines, and how some Witnesses around him seemed more interested in raising their families and building businesses than preparing to meet their Maker. He began to skip meetings, pretending he was manic depressive, even going so far as to get a prescription for medication that he never filled, to fool his wife. “When I was a kid I was a con man, I guess some things stay with you,” he says. He pretended he had “all kinds of phobias” and that his mood went “up and down like a yo-yo” to convince people he couldn’t stand the stress of going to meetings at the Kingdom Hall.
Eventually, Joe was so demoralized, he didn’t care what
happened to him. He went to the library and took out the
copy of Apocalypse Delayed by former Witness elder Jim Penton, a professor emeritus of religious history at the
University of Lethbridge, that he’d seen on the shelf for
three years. Despite the fact he says he could be
disfellowshipped just for having that book in his
possession, he started to read it, and within a couple
hours, he says, he knew. “Why would it take someone like me
14 years?” he asks. “There can only be one conclusion, that
I was absolutely brainwashed.”
Despite its erroneous predictions and what mainstream Christians might consider some of its “unusual” interpretations of scripture, Joe says “there’s a lot of highly intellectual minds in the Watchtower organization.” He describes being convinced by the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine on non-existence of hellfire, based on their interpretation of many Biblical scriptures, citing the fact that hell or Hades actually means “grave.” And he remembers the ease with which he was convinced of others that followed.
“The Watchtower is like a slithery snake,” he says, which uses seemingly logical arguments to support even its reversals on doctrine, such as whether the term “Lord” in the Bible refers to Jehovah or Jesus. These reversals are termed by the organization as “new light,” and Witnesses, who have been counselled against independent thought in the Watchtower’s magazine of the same name, are taught to “adjust their point of view” in accordance with its new pronouncements. According to ex-Witness Timothy Campbell, software consultant and web master of the website “Beyond Jehovah’s Witness” (http://members.aol.com/beyondjw), followers of the religion are taught that the Watchtower organization is “the sole channel of information between God and humanity,” and Witnesses disobey its teachings at their peril.
But Mark Ruge, director of public information for Jehovah’s Witnesses (Canada) in Georgetown, Ontario denies that the Witnesses are a cult or a mind-controlling organization. “Outstanding is a ruling [of a] few years ago from the European Court of Human Rights,” he says in an e-mail. (At his request, questions about the Watchtower organization were submitted in writing.) “It declares that the Witnesses should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience and religion and that they have the right to speak about their faith and teach it to others. This would hardly be the case if Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to use deceptive and unethical techniques to recruit members or if they used manipulative method to control the minds of their followers.”
Joe might agree. “It’s so easy to say it’s just a cult,” he says. “But there’s a lot of things that they teach that are probably right.” For example, he still disbelieves in the triune nature of God (what most Christians call the Holy Trinity) which the Witnesses teach is a Satanic fancy. He still doesn’t believe in Hell, and he believes every religion manipulates scripture for its own ends. “Nobody has a patent on the truth.”
In his e-mail, in which he wrote at length about why the Witnesses are not a cult, Ruge welcomed “unbiased and honest news coverage,” and addressed several questions regarding doctrine. He also offered to mail out a copy of Jehovah’s Witnesses: Proclaimers of God’s Kingdom, highlighting the modern history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But he avoided the question of why ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses might feel the need for a support group, saying that was best answered by those people in the support group.
For Fred, the biggest problem with the Witnesses is not doctrinal but that “there’s no graceful way to exit the religion.” Ruge denies the Witnesses have a policy of shunning those who leave the faith, but support group members say they have experienced it. According to pastor Skonnard there are fundamentalist Christian sects, including some Mennonite sects, which practice shunning but no mainstream Christian church that he knows of reacts as harshly as the Watchtower to a member of their congregation leaving their religion.
Fred did not, and has never officially, disassociated himself from the Witnesses, but stopped going to meetings several decades ago, after reading through back copies of the Watchtower magazine and determining that much of it was “pure nonsense.” His wife Jane continued as a Witness for many years after that, although she felt there wasn’t much love for her in the congregation, and plenty of gossip, after Fred dropped out. According to Ruge, Witnesses have received “worldwide commendation” for their “moral character and exemplary behaviour,” but Jane started to feel she was viewed as “contaminated” by her fellow Witnesses.
With a young family, she still had to attend five meetings a week, plus do door-to-door service and Bible studies, a routine that simply wore her out. The elders of the local Kingdom Hall also began to “harass” her, she says. “After Fred left, they sort of looked at us as a dangerous family,” she says. “They told me seven demons would come in on my husband.” These demons included adultery, drunkenness, smoking, drugs and gambling. The elders tried to probe her for evidence by which they could disfellowship Fred, but it never came to that—she quietly left the Witnesses. However, even today after many years outside the fold, Fred still feels he cannot reveal his identity.
Neither Jane, Fred nor Joe blame the Witnesses themselves for what they consider the sins of the organization. “Most Jehovah’s Witnesses are good people, but they are dreadfully misled by the leadership,” says Jane. They should know: As Witnesses, they too shunned people from their congregations that had been disfellowshipped, or who had disassociated themselves from the religion, although Joe admits that it always made him feel “silly.” Jane has family members who do not feel free to invite her to their homes, and who would not attend her childrens’ weddings. The experience of being shunned herself continues to be “very painful” and even “unbearable,” and in the beginning left her so depressed, she spent days in bed even though she had a toddler at the time.
Other Witnesses who have been disfellowshipped obviously feel the same way. “The belief structure of the Watchtower adherence makes suicide an above-average method of escape,” says Fred. Joe and Jane nod their agreement, and later Joe reveals that, as a Witness, he often had suicidal thoughts which “common sense” prevented him from acting on. He believes that it is usually people who have been disfellowshiped, or who have a family member who has been disfellowshipped, who commit the act. Jane claims that over a 30-year period, she personally knew 14 disfellowshipped Witnesses who took their own lives, most of them in Nova Scotia.
Mark Ruge doesn’t have the statistics on Jehovah’s Witnesses who have committed suicide, but says he wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were “extremely low in comparison to the rest of Canada. We feel that suicide is murder. Our life is a gift from Jehovah,” he says by way of explanation, and notes that the Witnesses have “quite an organization in place” to help Witnesses who are depressed or suicidal.
Members of the support group Joe attends with Fred and Jane are not in favour of banning the Watchtower from operating, as happened in Canada from 1941 to 1943. Jane says some people are happy as Witnesses, and the support group is not aimed at them, but at those who have left the religion and are hurting. The support group allows them to vent, and share their personal stories. “It’s like a form of therapy,” Joe says. “There’s been a lot of spiritual healing,” Jane agrees.
Ruge, who comes across as friendly and accessible over the phone, says “we feel bad when anybody feels hurt or angered.” He says there is no policy of shunning people who have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses because they stopped believing. Individual Witnesses, he says, may behave more coolly toward their friends or family members who have left the faith, but that is their personal choice. Unless of course the ex-Witness is “bad news, like a thief or a fornicator,” says Ruge, but those would be grounds for disfellowshipping, and shunning would likely follow.
Near the end of his time as a Witness, Joe’s cover was finally blown when his wife called a phone number of someone he was supposedly visiting on a business trip, and discovered that person was an “apostate,” or one who has renounced their religious faith. She called the Elders, who advised Joe that he should come back to Kingdom Hall meetings, and to pray to Jehovah if he had doubts about the organization.
Though Joe was never disfellowshipped, he says he was blacklisted and his best friend was told not to associate with him. One day he sat down with his wife, and told her he couldn’t live like that any more. “The only thing that kept me there was her,” he says. They agreed to part ways, and to this day Joe has had no contact with her. “I got burned and I lost 14 years of my life in the Watchtower,” he says.
Pastor Skonnard has heard such stories from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses many times during his 20 years ministering to a variety of churches. “As I met people here, I met people who had spun out of the group who were really hurting,” he says. Skonnard’s role in the support group is to be a resource, says Fred, to give “a little more even-headed approach to religion.” Although Joe’s position is that the world is a pretty “messed up” place and that organized religion has helped to make it that way, Skonnard answers him graciously, “Spirituality is like fine wine, it’s better when it’s aged.”
“It’s a lifetime of stories and heartache,” Joe says of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He, Fred and Jane say they have seen young Witnesses rebel against the strictness of the doctrine and the organization, and leave empty-handed, without the internal moral resources and critical thinking skills to carve a new life for themselves. According to the former elder James Penton, perhaps 50 percent of children of Jehovah’s Witnesses leave the movement, and some of these end up being taken in by other, perhaps equally, controlling groups.
As for Joe, when he first left the Witnesses, he says he “dabbled” with other religions. But his experience in the Watchtower has made him something of a “spiritual detective,” which has given him an edge when it comes to evaluating belief systems he comes across. “I took a chance. I would still have been in there if I hadn’t read that book,” he says.
His anger is passionate, and palpable, for the years of fear he endured. But it’s the officials in the Watchtower organization who are the cowards, he says, pointing to their refusal to be interviewed on-camera by programs like the Fifth Estate, which recently re-ran a program on paedophilia in the Watchtower. Ruge says the Witnesses offered to answer any questions from the Fifth Estate in writing, but cites the “sensational and outrageous” nature of much television journalism as a reason for refusing to appear on camera. In fact, Ruge states in an e-mail, Jehovah’s Witnesses “do not get involved in disputes with people who are only interested in tarnishing the Witnesses’ reputation.”
“How can you fight an opponent who won’t fight?” Joe asks.
If he had the chance to debate, live and on national TV,
with anyone from the Watchtower organization, he says he
would, “bring them to their knees,” despite the fact that
he’s no Biblical scholar.
But today it’s the pursuit of freedom and happiness that occupies his time. He has a new partner, a new job, and has bought his first house, with a sign that says, No Witnesses Allowed. “I have my own personal beliefs but don’t feel the need to join an organization with a hierarchy.” God, he says, “is a mystery. And I’m content with that.”
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