I Left the Jehovah's Witnesses

Jesse Otto

In 2015 I decided to leave my religion.  You may think this to be a fairly unremarkable life change and not worthy of an article. People change religions or leave faith entirely fairly often.  In general, this is not a difficult decision or transition to make, and the reasons are varied. It may be as simple as a geographical relocation. Perhaps the theology of a new church now aligns more closely with one’s values.  Usually individuals can make these choices freely. A decision to leave a church, while a significant life change, usually does not adversely affect their ties with friends and family. It does not change their employment or their politics or their general disposition towards humanity and the world they inhabit.  For me, this was by far the most significant event of my life, a true watershed moment.

I spent most of my life in a fundamentalist religion known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.  If you had told me then that I was in a fundamentalist religion, I would not have understood and would assume that you were attacking my faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a millenarian restorationist religion with roots in 19th century following on from Adventist preachers.  They understand their faith to be a correct modern form of Christianity, restoring the beliefs and practices of Jesus’s first century followers. The implication, and sometimes overt statement, therefore is that other forms of Christianity are not acceptable to God and a righteous person must abandon these religions to pursue truth.  They believe the Bible is breathed by God, that scripture should interpret scripture and should generally be read as literal history and scientific truth. The religion often abandoned beliefs that arose after the first century in the church.

As a young man, I felt privileged to be part of this organization and to have my eyes open to the supposed error of other Christians sects and the other faiths of the world.  I spent many hours in the well known activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses - knocking on doors in our community, motivated by love of God and neighbor and a desire to share lifesaving knowledge before God decides time is up for this world and destroys those who have not acted on this knowledge in a fiery Armageddon.  I can’t say this won me any popularity contests, and between preaching on weekends and church attendance three times a week, I really did not have much time for time with schoolmates or extracurricular activities, not to mention that association with non-believers was discouraged.

I had dedicated my life to serving God at age 15 and was baptized.  Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that baptism must be an informed conscious decision, not something an infant is capable of.  While the dedication was certainly directed toward God, it was implicit that this was a commitment to remaining one of Jehovah’s Witnesses for the rest of the my life.  While I had my struggles with accepting various facets of belief at times, I never entertained the thought of leaving the organization at any time. It was really unthinkable.  To do so would mean that I had proved unfaithful to God. It would mean that I had allowed the Devil and the world to corrupt my thinking, that I was no longer a spiritual man but a physical one, concerned with “earthly” things.

 It would also mean abandoning the only social structure and family I had ever known.

It was also a fearful thought; I believe that remaining in God’s one true organization was a protection in many physical ways, in that God was guaranteeing that I would not find myself lacking for food and shelter, that my spiritual brothers would assist me if destitute, and that I would not find myself ever in despair or without hope.  

But I did leave.  And it was difficult.  But it was my choice. My doubts that this was the one true religion with leaders who were under direction of Jesus Christ had been eroding for some time.  There were numerous statements made in publications or at conventions that were niggles to my rational side. Usually the strongest were around attempts to put a new explanation on prophetic scripture concerning the coming of Armageddon, which I had been anticipating at any moment since I was a child.  

I had chosen not to attend college because there probably was not enough time left to finish, and the direction from the church was to not be seeking material advantage in a world that was about to be wiped out.

Scripture had often been interpreted in ways to show this end would come by a certain date or within a certain time frame.  When these were reinterpreted to allow more time, I had a certain punch-to-the-gut reaction, but I kept my opinions to myself.

What in the end pulled the trigger on my exodus was not this.  It was due to my other love, science, which I shared with my father.  I had long believed and accepted the old-earth Creationist teachings of the church.  I had given presentations in science class defending special creation and explaining supposed fatal flaws of the theory of biological evolution.  I had written a letter to the editor of the Reading Eagle when another article had denounced intelligent design theory and warmed-over creationism.  However, with doubts compounding and my curiosity regarding the science of evolution piqued, I did something that felt treasonous and blasphemous - I read the book “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne and I was enthralled.  The information and logic, pulling from various fields of science, overwhelmingly convinced me of the “truth” of biological evolution. This hit me like a ton of bricks. My religion, which internally was referred to in conversations as “the truth” had taught me something that clearly was not “true” in the sense of what actually most likely happened in reality. For the first time, I felt released from the mental trap of believing that I must always accept that this organization was the authority I must accept to be right with God.

From that moment, I began plotting my exit.  

I initially did not reveal to anyone the thoughts that were swirling in my head, because I knew that my decision would not be well received by my friends and they would likely try to “assist” me to stay in the fold.  Eventually I did inform my family and closest friends and wrote a letter to the congregation to formally request that I be “disassociated” from the organization. My friends did try to convince me that I was weak spiritually and needed help, but my mind was made up.  

It is a bittersweet memory now.  I was now disconnected from the habits and patterns of religious life. I lost association with nearly all of my friends and some of my family, as Jehovah’s Witnesses are admonished to not have contact with those who have disassociated or been disfellowshipped.  With additional reading and study, I adopted fairly atheist and even anti-theist ideas. I had a certain feeling of trepidation in the thought that I did not have God’s protection from life’s pitfalls. At the same time, I had intense excitement in knowing that my mind was completely mine.

 There were no religious dogmas or ideologies to prevent me from asking any question that I like and seeking any and all sources for answers, which I proceeded to indulge.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my exploration of various political views, which I was never able to do as the church directed to remain neutral in world affairs.  I have since changed my views and political party several times I also voted for the very first time. I have also moderated my anti-theist views and recognized that religion can be a force for good in the world and that belief is very important to many.  I have enjoyed finding new interests and ways to engage with the local community.

Instead of knocking on doors advocating conversion to a fundamentalist religion, I have knocked on doors to get candidates on a ballot, cleaned up waterfronts and parks, helped city youth build a cycling community and learn safe riding skills while increasing awareness of bicycle transportation infrastructure needs.  I am also pursuing my undergraduate education which I had turned down so many years ago.

I have also met some amazing people that I never would have had the opportunity too.  I had lived most of my life with the understanding that the world, the media, the governments, the business world, the schools, and people were under the devil’s control, and I was protected from harm by seeking friendship within the church and remaining dubious of worldly culture and ideas.  But the vast majority of people I have met have been interesting, kind, diverse in views but largely accepting of diverse views as well. I would say my ethic and moral value system is much more humanistic than it ever was, and I think this has made a better person than I was before. I am optimistic for the next half of my life to unfold and I hope to grow in many ways.

If you have been part of my journey, whether as one of my Christian brothers or sisters, or you have been a friend or colleague in my new life, I thank you for shaping who I am today and wish you peace and joy.

Here In My City

Reading, PA | 484.668.1147

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