That single word has defined my existence from birth until this moment, and will likely continue to dominate it for as long as it lasts. I was born into a devout Jehovah’s Witness household. My father was a church elder, I gave my first sermon when I was eight years old, and I became a full member of the church at fifteen when I got baptized (unlike other churches, baptism and confirmation are not two separate things).
It wasn’t until school however when I realized I was different than the other kids. My first day of kindergarten, my parents warned me not to stand when it was time to salute the flag, even if the teacher or other students tried to force me to. That frightened me. Why were my parents sending me to a place where people would try to force me to do something I wasn’t supposed to do? Moreover, if saluting the flag was so wrong, why did everybody else do it? Someone did try to force me to stand that same day. I can’t remember who–I was five—but I remember it was the very first time I felt alienated from my peers. In preschool, we didn’t have the pledge or any other activity deemed taboo by the Witnesses, so of course I loved it. But in the years following I started hating everything not Witness-approved: holidays, birthdays, school spirit celebrations, even school elections were off-limits. I resented my religious beliefs a little, but only privately. Open criticism of the Witnesses’ beliefs is not allowed, of course. So I learned instead to resent the world around me, along with the people in it. Just when I thought people would forget my religious beliefs and I could maintain some sense of normalcy, somebody’s birthday would come up, or the holidays would roll around. And instead of participating, I had to go to the library and read.
That’s where I learned to love reading, which is great if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, because you have to do a LOT of it. Study is heavily emphasized in church. Members are admonished to spend as much time as possible reading and studying the Bible and the literature published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the Jehovah’s Witnesses parent organization. The subject of science and biology fascinated me, so when I got my hands on the book “Life–How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation?” I couldn’t put it down. I am the kind of person that needs to be convinced of the logic of my beliefs, and that light blue hardcover book was the publication most responsible for keeping me in the faith.
Jehovah’s Witnesses like to use the word “truth” a lot. And they mean it completely in the empirical sense. They even refer to their religious beliefs as “the truth” in private company, and will often ask each other “how long have you been in the truth?” or “were you raised in the truth?” Reading the organization’s books on scientific subjects convinced me that God existed and could be proven by objective, empirical means. I was enamored with the anonymous authors who write their articles. I saw the Watchtower Society as the only truly unbiased source of information in the world. The rest, of course, was tainted by Satan. I put so much stock in creationist arguments that creationism literally became the linchpin of my faith.
It wasn’t until I was twenty-five or so that I hit a breakthrough. One night, I was studying with a small, organized group of Witnesses. We were studying a Watchtower book on the book of Daniel, specifically the prophecy of “the king of the north” and “the king of the south.” I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say the Watchtower Society has an unhealthy obsession with Daniel and constantly tie its symbolic language in with real events in the modern world. But that night, the logical leaps were just too much for me to ignore. It was the first time I ever even considered that my religion might be wrong.
I repressed the doubts, but after that I couldn’t take the religion as seriously as I had up to that point. In the following year, I witnessed numerous conversations between atheists and Christians online. One day in the spring of 2007, I flipped Book TV on and saw Richard Dawkins talking to a group of people at Randolph-Macon Women’s College about his new book The God Delusion. When he read that famous opening paragraph that inaugurated the second chapter, I was stunned. No one had ever, in my life, put the horrors of the Old Testament so squarely and bluntly in my face like that before. As a Christian my peers and I had always tiptoed around it, and whenever we encountered a difficult passage, we shrugged our shoulders and assumed there must be a reason God did it, and we’re not to question his purpose. But part of me never stopped questioning. I call this aspect of my personality “the real me.” It’s the personality that I am today. My entire life was a constant battle between Real Me and Jehovah’s WItness Me. But watching Richard Dawkins on Book TV that one afternoon distracted JW Me long enough for Real Me to give it a right hook it would never, ever recover from.
A few days after that, I was typing on some forum and I absent-mindedly typed the words “I’m an atheist” in the comment box. I stared at those words for a long time. In fact, I left them on the screen and went to bed. I asked myself if I was only staying a Jehovah’s Witness so I wouldn’t be shunned by everyone I had ever cared about. The answer, of course, was yes. I got back up, clicked the “Submit” button, and an incredible feeling of relief washed over me. I had just told the world that I was an atheist. I no longer had to hate gay people. I no longer had to keep everyone who wasn’t part of my tiny subculture at arm’s length for fear of corruption. I no longer had to feel guilty about reading a book or novel I wanted to read because I wasn’t “caught up” on Watchtower literature. I no longer felt anything stopping me from going to the nearest book store and purchasing a copy of The God Delusion, which is exactly what I did the next day (strangely enough, I found it in the Judaism section).
I didn’t leave the faith straight-away. I knew I couldn’t take being alone. So I planned a slow fade. I spent the next few years building up friendships and support structures to replace what I would soon be losing. During that same period, I withdrew from Jehovah’s Witness life, participating less and less until when people finally found out I had committed one of their serious sins, I was so far gone their shunning really didn’t matter anymore.
There are far more details in this story, of course, but they could fill a novel if I’m not too careful. Suffice to say, I’m an atheist because being free to believe and live leads to a far happier life that one of remaining in a closed community to maintain family ties.