I was genetically designed to be a Jehovah’s Witness. I say that because, unlike so many others, I did not join the religion at the behest of a smiling face knocking at my door one morning but rather because my parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses. And they were both Jehovah’s Witnesses because their parents were Witnesses. There was no other route—no other reality—in my world than that of the Witnesses and the publishing company that dictates their doctrine, the Watchtower Society. I was taught from an early age that the Watchtower’s teachings were the truth, even to the point of calling them “the Truth.”
Witnesses are strongly encouraged to engage in extensive personal Bible study. They are told to prepare for the five congregational meetings held every week by reading the Watchtower articles in advance and looking up the cited scriptures. They are instructed to be different from “the world.” In order to do so, they must refrain from celebrating birthdays and holidays and limit their association with non-Witnesses. Above all, they are directed to visit their neighbors, uninvited, by knocking on their doors and sharing their faith with them.
I went door to door, tagging alongside my parents quietly until, at around age seven, I began delivering my own doorstep sermons. Witnesses hold three assemblies during the year in which several congregations meet together in a large auditorium. During these assemblies, elders interview exemplary members of the local congregations. When I was eight years old, I was interviewed. The next year, I was interviewed again. In fact, there was scarcely a year that went by when I was not interviewed. Peers in the congregation joked that I was “Assembly Boy,” as if it was not a bona fide assembly unless I was on stage being applauded for my zeal.
At age sixteen, I began Pioneering, which meant that I committed to going door to door for one thousand hours a year. Combined with the meetings and other religious assignments, Pioneering left no time for college or full-time work. I got by on part-time employment. At age seventeen, I was appointed as a Ministerial Servant (deacon) in the congregation, a privilege usually reserved for men over twenty years old.
A few years later, I moved to my fiancée’s congregation. The elders there often made arbitrary rules, and when they decreed that a limousine and a “Just Married” sign hanging from the back of the vehicle would be inappropriate at a Witness wedding, I was too disheartened to continue there. A week after our wedding, my wife, Jennifer, and I moved to a new congregation. The elders wrote a letter to the elders in our new congregation saying that they felt I should not continue as a Ministerial Servant. They said I had been too presumptuous—that I had my “own agenda.” I was embarrassed and crushed. I had made it my goal to do as much as I could for the religion, and my eagerness—my zeal—had been interpreted as presumptuousness.
I prayed fervently for forgiveness, but I couldn’t shake the overarching discouragement that resulted from being criticized by the very elders who were supposed to be viewed as “hiding places from the wind” (Isaiah 32:2). Additionally, Jennifer and I were having financial difficulties. If I worked extra hours one week, I fell behind on knocking on doors. Conversely, when I took a few days to catch up on the door-to-door work, we found ourselves short on cash. I believed that God would care for his servants, and I wondered why he was not caring for me, especially when I was donating so much of my time to him. Soon, we had to stop Pioneering.
In an effort to bolster my faith, I began studying the Watchtower’s teachings in greater depth than before. I was particularly fascinated with the idea of becoming an expert on Noah’s Flood. I read everything the Watchtower Society wrote on that topic, and I soon discovered that they are woefully silent on one key subject: which animals boarded the ark. As I thumbed through their publications, I realized I had never given this matter much thought. If Noah needed to bring two of every species of land-dwelling animal onto the ark, he would need to make room for over a million animals. Noah, even with the help of his seven family members, would be unable to even visit every animal every day, much less provide food and sanitation.
Anticipating this dilemma, the Watchtower’s bible encyclopedia Insight on the Scriptures provided a tantalizing answer: “Some investigators have said that just 43 ‘kinds’ of mammals, 74 ‘kinds’ of birds, and 10 ‘kinds’ of reptiles could have produced the great variety of species of these creatures that are known today” (327).
I disliked the ambiguity of the word kind. Is it a species? An order? Something in-between? The text didn’t say. So I wrote to the Watchtower Society requesting clarification.
The response, arriving five months later, referred me to an article in a 1951 issue of their Awake magazine, which simply restated the above quotation. However, it also provided a reference to Clarke’s Commentary, an eighteenth-century book written by a minister. He did not list the animal “kinds” either; he merely offered the numbers without any rationale.
I was discouraged at discovering this, for it meant that the Watchtower Society’s claim regarding the ark’s passenger list was unfounded and outdated. I researched the Flood further. I concluded that it could not have been global. This belief ran contrary to the Watchtower’s oft-repeated claims,1 so I wrote to them again, supplying references to the original Hebrew word for “Earth” such as those found at Exodus 9:33 and 2 Chronicles 36:23 and pointing out that the word need not always indicate the entire planet.
Their response included a reference to a 1956 New York Times article postulating the former existence of a Europe-to-Greenland land bridge. This was offered as proof that the animals could have ventured from the ark to the thousands of land masses on Earth today. Additionally, they lifted text from a 1960 Saturday Evening Post article, using it to bolster their teaching that mammoths died a watery death. My nine-page response detailed these and other issues and culminated in five questions I implored the Watchtower Society to answer.
Worse than their insistence that the Flood was global was their devious nature of providing support for their claim. In Benefit from Theocratic Teaching, the Watchtower Society states: “Make sure that your use of quotations and statistics harmonizes with the context from which they were taken” (225). And the February 1, 2004, issue of The Watchtower exhorts readers to conduct research and provide “accurate information so that others might know full the certainty of the things that he had written” (30). I wrote them again with further evidence against their claims. They did not respond.
By this point my wife and I had concluded that a worldwide deluge was impossible. We kept this to ourselves. Dissenting opinions are prohibited by the Watchtower Society, and we did not wish to be shunned by our family and friends.
Accepting that the Watchtower Society did not have a monopoly on truth was distressing. I did not want to think that I had risen early in the morning, donned a suit, and knocked on doors all day for nothing. I did not want to think I had submitted to the authority of the elders when I could have dismissed them as powerless. I wanted the Witnesses to have the truth lest it invalidate decades of hard work.
I likewise wanted my belief in a future paradise to be true. Living forever on a beautiful Earth in perfection was far more appealing than lilting on the clouds playing the harp, going through an endless cycle of rebirths, or having no hope of an afterlife at all.
Above all, though, I assumed it was not hurting anyone if I remained a Witness.
This is what I told myself, sometimes multiple times a day. I continued repeating it as a silent, stupid mantra, even after a good friend was shunned because of his homosexuality, even after my cousin was wrongfully expelled from the congregation on baseless charges, and even following the news that some young boys in the congregation had been molested by an adult Witness who had often been touted as an exemplary member of the congregation.
But after five years of such self-repression and hypocrisy, remaining a Witness was becoming taxing. During our son’s birth at the county hospital, the nurses and midwife treated my wife callously; her needs were not taken into consideration and the attending midwife rudely overrode the plan my wife had set out for the birth. In the midst of labor, Jennifer had to fight against the bureaucratic hospital staff—an especially challenging task for a woman raised to be submissive.
We left the hospital with a healthy, beautiful son but a gloomy countenance. During the following days and weeks, Jennifer spiraled down into a world of post-traumatic stress disorder and a depression worse than any I had ever seen. The Watchtower’s cure-all for depression is to pray more, to attend all the meetings, and to do more in the door-to-door work.2 But this had no positive effect. Indeed, we often left the meetings more frustrated and saddened than when we arrived.
My wife suggested seeing a therapist to help her cope, but I nixed this on the basis of the Watchtower’s frequent criticism of mental health professionals. In time, however, there was no other recourse. Eventually, her depression lessened to the degree that she was able to function and enjoy life somewhat. But as her depression waned, anxiety seeped in to fill the gap. Witnesses teach that a massive destruction is imminent, during the course of which God will murder 99 percent of the Earth’s population. This destruction is to be so complete that not even all Witnesses will survive, and Jennifer felt certain that she would be among those killed. Following each meeting, I spent an hour or more calming Jennifer down, assuring her that her fears were unwarranted. But she countered my condolences by arguing that if the religion’s teachings were true, then her fears were valid.
I grieved in private over God’s complete disregard for my pleas on behalf of my family. Jennifer, meanwhile, slipped further into a sinkhole of anxiety and, by the following summer, she was unable to function. She resolved to start over; if she was going to spend all her energy panicking over the teachings of the religion, then she felt that it was incumbent upon her to check the facts. My wife recalled that the elders and Watchtower Society had given repeated warnings against going on the Internet to research the religion, and she wondered why they were so scared about their members fact-checking. So, while I was at work and our son was napping, Jennifer went online. She wanted to verify whether the things that she had been taught were true (Acts 17:11).
Within a matter of hours, Jennifer reached the conclusion that her religion was not true. Her anxiety dissipated on the afternoon breeze.
When I arrived home, I was nervous. I had spent the whole summer fretting that our hold on our religion was growing dangerously tenuous. I feared that we would drift away from the Watchtower and lose everyone we loved. I did not want to talk about anything but the most mundane topics. But when we went for a walk that evening, Jennifer asked: “How would you feel if I said that the religion wasn’t true and there was no paradise?”
I thought about this. The answer was simple enough—after all, I had contemplated it for years. But expressing it verbally, out in the open, forced my cognitive dissonance to collapse. I had to answer Jennifer as there was no way of ignoring the question.
So I told her that I would feel very sad. And for the next four hours, we spoke about the religion freely. Jennifer confessed to visiting websites that exposed the falsehood of certain Watchtower teachings. Though I balked at her insubordination, I could not mount any defenses to her arguments. Indeed, I knew most of what she was telling me already. I knew the religion was wrong.
Jennifer concluded that she would no longer be a Witness. I grew nervous at her declaration: What would become of our relationships with our family and friends? Jennifer pointed out that even more important than those relationships was that we not live our lives hypocritically and not subject our son to the same harmful teachings to which we had been subjected. “I want to go to college,” Jennifer said, “I want to live my life the way my conscience tells me, not the way some old guys writing the Watchtower tell me to live it.”
That Sunday, my alarm clock went off, waking me up as it faithfully had every Sunday of my life. But something was different. For the first time, I couldn’t picture myself getting out of bed, putting on a suit, and heading off to the meeting. Of course, I had known for years that the religion was not true, but only that weekend had I finally and honestly acknowledged its falsehood.
I rolled over to discover that my wife was already out of bed. I hobbled into the living room, rubbing my eyes into focus. Jennifer was sitting in the rocking chair reading a magazine and nursing Owen.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Hi,” I said, yawning.
“So are you going to the meeting?”
I sniffed and put my hands on my hips. “No,” I said. Jennifer let the magazine droop in her hands, and she looked up into my eyes. She raised her eyebrows, and I took that as an indication she wanted more than a simple “yes” or “no.” “I don’t want to do it anymore,” I explained. Instead of spending another morning in Watchtower indoctrination, we devoted the time to discussing my slow realization of the facts and the largely pernicious nature of our religious upbringings.
Jennifer and I kept our new lives secret for several weeks as we processed our new awakenings. Soon, we divulged our apostasy, first to our non-Witness relatives and then to our Witness friends and relatives, nearly all of whom summarily shunned us, most without inquiring about our reasons or even saying good-bye.
In time we reconnected with former friends: people we had shunned for years after they had left the religion. They welcomed us, literally, with open arms. They held no grudges. They were empathic to our plight and understood that all Witnesses, especially those who were genetically designed to be Witnesses, just need a little time and knowledge to come to the truth.
1. For example, see The Watchtower, August 1, 2001 (p. 14); January 15, 1983 (p. 22) and February 15, 1981 (page 19).
2. See the September 8, 1981, Watchtower article “How You Can Fight Depression.”
James Zimmerman lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his wife, son, daughter, and cat. He works for a major medical device corporation and volunteers his time as editor of The Minnesota Atheist and host of the Atheists Talk television show.