The first couple years after I left the religion I was born into — the Jehovah’s Witnesses — I was still worried I might die at Armageddon. That was the punishment for those who left. Actually, it was the fate of anyone who wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness. Any day now, God would kill all non-believers, and the faithful would live in paradise on Earth.
Some of the Witnesses’ beliefs didn’t stand up to scrutiny when I began to have doubts in my 30s. I had come to understand that, contrary to what I had been taught, the Witnesses didn’t have “the Truth.” But what if they were partially right, I still wondered. What if they were right about the end of the world?
My first boyfriend outside the faith listened patiently one day when I told him of my fears. I realized I might sound crazy, but I had to tell someone. He didn’t laugh. He opened up his computer and googled “cult survivors.”
That seemed a little drastic. But then again, I was talking about Doomsday.
Over the course of a long winter in an unheated loft in Brooklyn (the place I had moved to after leaving my missionary post in China), we worked our way through blurred ’70s footage of Jonestown survivors (which was the first search result returned). As the snow got deeper and the room colder, we progressed down the YouTube sidebar to interviews with other escapees of controlling religious groups across the spectrum. From the crazy to the more moderate, there was one common thread: They all sounded like I did.
“I stayed as long as I did because I believed that basically he was right, that we were doing the right thing,” one survivor of Jim Jones’s massacre told a man with a silver microphone. “There were so many good things going on,” said another man, looking shell-shocked.
I had said words like these to myself many times, whenever a doubt crept in as I performed my ministry. When a child died after her parents refused a blood transfusion, I ran through a taxonomy of all the good things in my religion. When a person in our tight-knit community committed a sin and was disfellowshipped — cut off by everyone they knew — I reminded myself that shunning was a loving act. And when a man we shunned for one of these sins — being gay — hanged himself in the forest near where we preached all day trying to save lives, I numbed my feelings and reminded myself I was in “the Truth.”
My rationale for staying in, for handing over my powers of reason, for obeying eight men in Brooklyn no matter what they said, were the same for me as they were for those men in Jonestown. I saw what I wanted to see. I was so invested, I had to. This had been my only community, from childhood on. The religion was my world.
Of course, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the Peoples Temple. But, like the followers of Jim Jones, they are taught to unquestioningly follow their leaders, a Governing Body of eight men in New York, no matter the dictates. The Governing Body never told us to kill, but they did tell us to let people die rather than take a life-saving blood transfusion for a cancer treatment or for a medical emergency.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are also not Mormons, but a month after publishing a book about my exit from the religion, I opened my e-mail to this message from a young ex-Mormon man:
“Your experience of leaving your church and mine of leaving mine were intellectually and mentally identical. How could either of them be God’s true religion?”
After describing the pain and family ostracization he had endured after researching his own faith and realizing it was a fraud, the man added, “I had to keep reminding myself as I read your book that I was not reading about a Mormon woman’s life, but a Jehovah’s Witness’s. Each aspect of indoctrination and programming that you worked your way out of has an exact parallel to Mormon indoctrination and programming.”
Indeed, the mechanisms used by both of these religions to keep people “in” are uncannily similar. I may scoff at the idea of wearing sacred underwear as a protective device, and a Mormon may ridicule the idea that a Great Tribulation is coming in which the world’s governments will wipe out religion, but the authoritarian, patriarchal infrastructure of these faiths, like that of many other high-control groups, is the same.
In my old religion, we were forbidden from reading anything that criticized our religion. We were told to ignore news reports about child sexual abuse in our ranks as “apostate lies.” Friendships with “worldly” people were not permitted, and questioning the Governing Body’s authority was equated with challenging God — worse on the scale of sin than being a murderer or child abuser. There was no forgiveness possible for the believer who no longer believed.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are nice people, for the most part. So are Mormons. So were the members of the Peoples Temple. Good people. “The people were very loving, conscious of the suffering and inequities in the world,” said one man who escaped drinking the cyanide at Jones’s hand. “They didn’t like the world the way it was and wanted to do something good.” My Witness friends and I had similar good intentions.
Yet, a Jehovah’s Witness will refuse to speak to his or her own child if the child abandons the faith or is disfellowshipped for committing a sin. They are counseled by their leaders to not answer the phone if their child calls.
Why would people who believe themselves to be loving perform the most unnatural act of love — ignoring their own child?
Unbelief, for people not allowed to question, is a grave threat. Someone who no longer believes in the religion can infect others. Thus the leaders label people like me — someone’s child, or parent, or friend, or spouse — as mentally diseased, depraved, a dog that has returned to its own vomit, lower than a snake, poisoned, like gangrene that needs to be amputated.
Fear is stronger than love when your entire existence relies on obedience. But maybe it goes deeper than that. It is also about belonging. To leave the group is a betrayal. To leave the religion threatens the group’s continuance, its form, its identity, its very Truth.
The sociologist Emile Durkheim said, “Religion is a society worshipping itself.” And my religion had become its own society, a world of our leaders’ making. What had started out as a search for God and answers to life’s disturbing questions had, over the course of 100 years or so, turned into control and conformity — complete allegiance to the group became all that mattered.
When you leave a religion like this, you are accused of becoming an enemy of God, but the intolerable sin you are actually committing is insubordination. The supremacy of the religion, of the belief system, is of the foremost importance. God is secondary, Jesus’ words about love and humanity are superseded. The people who can no longer believe and conform are carnage kicked to the side of the road to everlasting life. When you have been taught, commanded even, to build your entire life around a community, the cost of unbelief is considerable.
An article in The Watchtower magazine a few years back warned of a time coming imminently when Jehovah’s Witnesses would “come under attack” from the world. The passage, studied and discussed in Kingdom Halls around the world, went on to admonish the Witnesses: “All of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether these appear sound from a strategic or human standpoint or not.”
I don’t anticipate that one day the Jehovah’s Witness leadership will order mass suicides. But the organization’s efforts to keep adherents believing it is them vs. “Satan’s wicked world” seem to become more intense the longer Armageddon delays. A recent video put out at an annual summer convention depicted some Witnesses in what appeared to be an underground bunker, with a SWAT team breaking down the door.
The intended meaning of this video is murky. But to me, the question here is not what will the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ leaders ask of their membership. In my mind, allowing children who could be saved by medical treatment to die is already asking too much.
The question I ask myself these days is: To what lengths would I have gone, had they commanded me to? And how much influence should we allow a religion to have over us? At what point do we openly acknowledge that unquestioning obedience to an organization is immoral, and wrong, no matter what other good it is doing?
I recall the atrocities that have been committed in history when people handed over their morality to the group. Those who stayed in the Peoples Temple for the loving community or for its work in social justice surely never imagined where they would have ended up. The dangers of giving up one’s moral judgment to a group are incalculable.
Amber Scorah is the author of “Leaving the Witness.”