Dear Professor Dawkins,
I don't know whether the place to post this is here or under the 'converts corner,' but it seemed as though this could be a better venue. I have received a great deal of support at some other online communities, but having just finished The Greatest Show On Earth, it seemed fitting for me to come here and tell my own story.
I was raised as one of Jehovah's Witnesses, along with my entire family. I have served in a wide variety of areas within that organization over the years, and am in my mid-thirties now. Last year I was appointed as an elder, and quickly started to feel my belief waste away. I can't say that I've never had doubts; in everything I was always one to check sources and compare quotes to check on their authenticity and their context, but I never did that with the Watchtower's literature. I just accepted it at face value because that's what was expected. When I eventually did decide to look into something that struck me as odd, just around the time of my appointment coming through, I did it in secret, and I felt guilty and ashamed. But what I found made me feel more anger and frustration than anything else, and as time went on I began to look deeper and check into any source or quote to see that it was a property reflection of the original.
What I found was appalling. Not only were quotes taken completely out of context, but they were even edited, removing the elements that did not support the Watchtower's perspective. One of the most notable to me was a reference in the Reasoning from the Scriptures book, under the topic that discussed whether Jesus died on a cross; the Watchtower had chosen to include a portion of a paragraph from a bible dictionary that basically said that at one point in time a certain word referred to a stake or a pole; but looking at the actual reference it then went on to say that by the time of Christ, the word generally always referred to the use of a pole with a cross piece; I believe that it makes the statement that any time after about 100 – 200 BCE the word almost exclusively referred to a cross.
Of course then that opened the door to many of the other areas that I had believed Witness theology was unquestionably accurate; specifically in areas having to do with the theory of evolution. Over the summer, at our district convention they released a new DVD about the wonders of creation, and I was excited and hopeful that this would clear up some of the nagging doubts I had about the idea, and would present a strong argument to solidify proof of creation by a higher power. I knew we were different than the conservative Christians; we had to be. But the video did nothing but quote scriptures that offered no proof, and the few arguments it made were essentially all arguments of complexity or negative attacks on evolution. Nothing was presented that offered positive evidence of creation.
Again digging in, I read and studied, with a growing dread of finding the truth, the actual truth. Because I knew that if the actual truth was different than the “Truth,” as I had come to believe it, I was in for a difficult ride. I dug deeply into the articles that dealt with evolution, creationism, intelligent design (as we had hopped on that bandwagon as soon as it appeared), and I found quote after quote taken out of context, information without any sources, and some blatant untruths, such as indicating that there was a scientific movement to discard evolution.
Of course evolution was not the only area that I dug deeply into, I looked into the history of the organization, I started reading old publications written by Charles Taze Russell, and other early Witness accounts, and I found that these did not gel with what we were saying in our own history books, such as the Proclaimers Book, which is a supposed history book of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Not only did they not stack up against current writing, but they were filled with the same sort of 'prophesies,' now clearly unfulfilled, and completely rewritten and recompiled to fit our time, since their fulfillment never happened. Also I started digging deeply into the history of the bible, and began, for the first time in my life, a true study of the scriptures – considering both sides of the argument, attempting to look with an open mind.
Even as I started down this road, I still clung to the idea that Witnesses are somehow better people, higher morals, greater integrity than the “world.” And just because evolution was true wasn't going to be enough to cause me to leave this utopia within but removed from society. Even if the bible wasn't as reliable as I had hoped, I was certain that we were doing things right. But that's where my appointment came in. As an elder, I sat on judicial committees, I was a part of several investigations of alleged wrongdoing, and was of course made aware of much that transpired in our congregation as well as those around us and across the country. As an elder I found out how little we were trusted to make right decisions; that our decision to disfellowship or reprove was already made for us based on what the elder's book had to say, and if there was any question on our part a quick phone call to the service department delivered what our decision would be, or risk being removed from the position ourselves.
It had been my hope that, even though over time I grew to not believe that the bible was the word of God, that as elders we were there to help people cope with their problems, help people look past themselves and contribute to others. So although I was dealing with some doubt, I plunged forward, trying to serve in every way I could, to rebuild the belief that I had that the Watchtower Organization was the right place to be. But when I found out that a few men thousands of miles away could decide to disfellowship based on a few of the facts, without even seeing the person, let alone hearing them and the heartbreak they felt for violating a commandment of the Watchtower (because many disfellowshipping offenses are found only in the Watchtower, and not the bible), it just broke my heart. It didn't matter how many mental problems they had, or if they had been abused in the past, or were being abused at present.
Although my doubt had started to grow, I couldn't imagine the Jesus I had read about in the gospels, who cured a woman with a life-long ailment despite her choosing to break the law for that chance, I couldn't imagine that man choosing to disfellowship someone from across the country based on a set of rules defined by a group of men. And after several other committee meetings where again and again, regardless of the individual's mentality or often even the nature of their “sin,” the decision was handed down either directly from New York, or indirectly by following a flow-chart-like outline in the book that prescribed how judicial committees would happen.
And of course there was no transparency, there were no checks and balances apart from doing something that the leadership didn't like, whether it was a circuit overseer or the service department in New York.
All of this bothered me greatly, I lost sleep night after night as I tried to justify the process. But then I started to look at the statistics of those that were dealt with through a judicial committee, that two thirds never returned after having been disfellowshipped, that Witnesses have the lowest retention rate of any organized religion; I started to think about the problems people had that I knew that were witnesses compared to those that weren't, the number of people I knew that were on anti-depressants that were witnesses, compared to those that weren't. The percentage of marriages between witnesses that fail compared to those that were not, and there simply was no difference. There were more problems and issues within the congregations than there were outside of them, and people were not happier by any stretch. It's not that it didn't provide a great social environment; there were great parties and I have many that I consider to be wonderful friends. In fact Witnesses are in general very honest and decent people; but so are most people that aren't witnesses.
Right now, I have stopped serving as an elder and am in the process of just trying to fall under the radar – hard to do once you're appointed. My family is upset about this whole thing, my friends are all trying to track me down and get me back in. I have basically minimal relationships outside of the Witnesses, and I'm working on strengthening those that I do have. I'm trying to find new friends, but it doesn't come together as easily as all that. The internet has been a wonderful thing for me, and I have derived much strength from being able to talk about what I'm going through with some degree of anonymity. I do worry that someone might find this and do the math, figure out who I am and then see to it that I'm disfellowshipped.
I am also upset that I have to worry about that; that many don't feel that I have the right to believe as I choose, that if I don't agree in lockstep with them that I shouldn't have the privilege of speaking to my family or any of my friends. I'm upset that I can't tell my friends why I am making a change; at least not without them turning me in and destroying my relationship with my family. I have become such an adamant opponent of religion as a result of this combined body of experience that I don't even know where to start.
But I am very thankful that forums such as this exist, and that the people that contribute to it are here. I am thankful for people like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and a host of others that present reason and logic, and provide the scientific, verifiable (and testable) information that helps people to think. So I guess that's my story, obviously there has been much more to the process than just these highlights. I look forward to learning about others here, and thanks for giving me a place to share. I appreciate it.