Anthony R’s Story
A Long Haul
Eight hours is a long time to spend sat in a chair without moving. Oddly enough, being raised as a JW and sitting through 3-day religious conventions does prepare you for the challenge, so my eight-hour flight home from Chicago to Manchester in September 2010 was child’s play. At least I was able to watch an interesting movie or two to take my mind of the difficult matters which were weighing on my mind.
What was not child’s play, however, was the ensuing jet-lag. I arrived home on the Friday lunchtime, fatigued by the fact that my body-clock was showing the time to be late night. The matters weighing on my mind were not, at this point, religious in any way. In fact, I was a firmly believing Jehovah’s Witness, a Ministerial Servant, and – in my opinion- a top bloke. I will admit of course that I had had the odd doubt creep fleetingly through the mists of my subconscious; sometimes questions like “what if we’re wrong” will pop up into the mental landscape of any Witness. But as a good JW, I would quash those thoughts. Why? Because they are scary. Who wants to think about his entire life being a lie? Who wants to lose the hope of eternal life in paradise? Who wants to give up all their family and friends, and go off into a world they have been taught is inherently evil and doomed to destruction? I digress.
The matters weighing on my mind, at 1:30AM on a Saturday morning at my parents house in the rolling hills of Yorkshire, were about my dying Grandfather. At the time he had been terminally ill for months, and had been moved to a hospice to live out his final days, right while I’d been on a work assignment in America. I visited my unconscious relative as soon as I returned home (the hospice was a two-minute drive from my Parents house) and said what I guessed would be my goodbyes to my almost motionless friend. The jet-lag had forbade me from sleeping, so here I was, 1:30AM, sat in the living room lit only by the glow of the television. That’s when the phone rang. He was dead. And thanks to my jet-lag, I was the first family member to know.
What followed was a harrowing series of conversations with each of my family members. I drove my mother to the hospice, and greeted each of my relatives as they arrived to see our grandfather for what would be the last time. There is a point to this rambling opening story. You see, you’re probably expecting me to say “how could a loving God allow such horrific suffering? The pain of losing him made me question everything!”. Well, no. This is not the case at all. It was something far more subtle, and telling.
My uncles are all Elders, and devout Witnesses. One of them, a renowned assembly and convention speaker, took it upon himself to say a prayer for the entire family. He found a copy of the New World Translation, and read from the Psalms. I remember the exact moment it happened: he said, in the prayer, “[Grandad] is only sleeping, and we will see him again soon in the paradise”. At that moment a rational voice in my head simply said “No”.
That was the first moment when the floodgates of rationality in my mind buckled under the force of logic, allowing a small flow of refreshing reason to wash over me. And I didn’t like it. You see, sitting there with my entire family around me, coming to terms with death suddenly became real. Previously, it was a hypothetical situation; I would comment in witness meetings about how Jehovah comforts the depressed ones, and about how our hope of a paradise is so sure.
Unfortunately, however, my mind has a need for logic, so when put to the test in a real scenario, the fictional notion of a paradise could not help but bow under the pressure of reality. I’m not saying that in that moment I disbelieved entirely, but it is most certainly the start of my journey out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The life of a Jehovah’s Witness is a demanding one- hours spent preaching, attending meetings, researching Bible passages- and that’s before I became a Ministerial Servant. At the time I worked in a City about an hour’s dive away (with traffic), so I spent over 2 hours per day commuting to and from work. This took a toll on me, in the already demanding lifestyle I was living. So, I decided to move out of my parents house, and get a place of my own in the city. Cue an ‘interesting’ discussion with the elders.
It was a shepherding call, about a month after the death, with my service overseer, and coordinator (presiding overseer). I will try to recreate the gist of the discussion here: –
Them: So, Anthony, how do you think you’re doing at the moment?
Me: Well, not as well as I should be. My ministry is not very strong, and I am struggling with my routine.
Them: Yes. Well, what do you think can be done to help rectify this?
Me: Well, my job requires me to spend 2 hours travelling each day, which is the only bad thing about it. So, I was thinking of moving to the City, and joining the central congregation there. Not only would this solve my routine problems, but it would get me out on my own two feet; help me to make the truth my own again. (I really meant this at the time)
Them: (Pause for a moment) Well, we really think this is a bad idea. If you leave the protection of your parent’s house, you will find it harder, not easier. Also, you have a lot to work towards in this congregation. Look at this Bible principle: (Shows me the verse in Matthew about “calculating the cost”, and the one in Proverbs about the “plans of the diligent one”)
Me: Well, it’s funny you mention that. I have been planning to move for a couple of months now, and have all of my affairs in order. I have fully planned it financially, and even researched congregations. I’m still going to wait until the end of the year, as I want to do it properly.
To cut the rest of the story short, they strongly disagreed. But I really needed a change, so I went ahead and moved out in late December 2010. I’d now like to pull you into the final meeting I had with my elders, in the final meeting I attended of my home congregation.
Them: Well, we have the details of your elders from your new congregation. We feel, however, that you may not want to serve as a Ministerial Servant there, so we won’t recommend you continue. We will put that you have no problems, however, and that you need time to prove yourself.
Me: I completely agree, in fact, I was going to ask that you do this. I feel that I need time to get my routine in order.
I felt a huge sense of relief at this point. I did not know why, but I was so very glad that I was able to stop serving without any embarrassing announcements. When I arrived at my new hall, the new Elders made clear that they wanted me to start serving again as soon as possible. I found myself feeling more and more reluctant to ‘reach out’ by commenting, going on field service, and associating with others. I told myself (and them) it was just a phase, and that I’d get it back together. Deep down, I think I knew I was lying.
Over the first quarter of 2011, I became very comfortable having my own place. I also became a very ‘generic’ Witness; I was at most meetings, and my ministry was slightly below par, commented maybe once per meeting. I became the kind of witness that used to frustrate me when I was a Ministerial Servant. This made me think carefully. You see, why was I so much more happy doing less in Jehovah’s Service? That’s not what the Bible really teaches! Was I being controlled by the organisation? What was really going on?
At this time, and admittedly unwisely, I met and started dating a witness girl. She was a devout witness who expected us to get married, and her to pioneer and me to become an elder at some point. But my life was quickly taking a very different direction.
Over the following months I did more and more studying. I had recently finished an Open University course in astronomy and astrophysics, and read a lot online. Some of the things I had learned had confused me, and I began to search more openly for the answers. My problems worsened. I learned facts like the human race being at least 50,000 years old, if not 250,000. I learned that the Genesis account really doesn’t sit with reality. The flood seemed impossible, the creation story laughable. My world was falling apart. So I researched yet more. I looked in Watchtower Library for satisfying answers, and left empty handed. I started checking the ‘scientific sources’ the watchtower use for their support, and found that they were unfailingly dishonest. I read the God Delusion, which also made a lot of sense to me. I started watching debates with Dawkins, and Hitchens, and found myself mentally (and often physically) nodding with their every word. This made sense! An embrace of pure logic.
During this downhill slide from faith, I had a flashback. March 2010, almost exactly a year ago. I was at a Witness wedding in Manchester, and having a discussion with a gentleman the same age as me (22 at the time) about the truth. That brother asked me some very pointed questions about the creation story, and about why Jehovah commanded wars in the Hebrew scriptures. Because I was a Ministerial Servant at the time, I remember giving typical witness half-answers, like “Jehovah has his reasons”, or “we don’t have all the answers, but enough to know He is loving.” The conversation ended there. Until now.
I had a ‘testing the water’ chat with him on Facebook, it being the first time I had spoken to a fellow-believer about my concerns. The water proved to be a good temperature fairly quickly, and we realised we were both on the same page: seriously doubting if the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or indeed the Bible at all, were the truth. This friend of mine proved to be a very good companion for the following weeks and months. We would bounce ideas off of each other, talk about doubts from all angles, and be frank and open about the consensus we reached. And that consensus was more and more void of supernatural intervention, or faith or superstition of any kind. Suddenly, I found myself realising I was an atheist.
Telling my Fiancée
What should I do? By this point my girlfriend and I were engaged. How could I tell my now fiancée that I was rapidly becoming an atheist? Testing those waters was far more scalding, it seemed that each conversation we had about the truth upset her more. I tried discussing things like the blood issue, or creation, or evolution with her. She just wouldn’t have any of it. It was not that she couldn’t understand, but more as if she did not want to understand the facts.
For example, one issue that I discussed with her was that the pyramids were built before the flood, according to secular history. The society provide a date of around 2,000BC for the flood, meaning that, unless the whole Egyptian Empire sprang from Noah’s loin-cloth mere instants after he disembarked the ark, the pyramids could not have been constructed before, say, 1,000 or 1,500BC. A simple Google search reveals that the pyramids were in fact built as early as 2,600BC – 600 years before the flood happened, and more than a full millennium before the Bible story would make it physically possible for them to be built. Given that the flood would crush the pyramids under its billions of tonnes of water, not to mention that the mummies would be utterly destroyed, the flood simply cannot have happened. At least, not at the time, nor on the scale that the Witnesses claim it did. To an honest, open mind this, is a fairly logical progression of thought. However to my Jehovah’s Witness fiancée, this was mind-blowing. So much so that she simply could not bring herself to even acknowledge what I had said.
The typical response from her would be, “well it is the best way of living”, or “how could our kids not be witnesses? It gives a good routine”. Again, by the time we began having these discussions I was more than well equipped to counter these arguments, but I did not. To admit and advance that I absolutely DID NOT intend to allow my children to be brought up as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that to do so would sicken me, would likely end the relationship. But there was only so long this game could continue. I could not in good conscience marry her knowing that I was an atheist, and hated her religion. Then, Christmas Eve 2011 came.
She took me to one side, and demanded the truth (how ironic). I had said so many “concerning things”, and she said she had a right to know what she was marrying. So, I came clean. Feeling I had nothing to lose, I proceeded to spend about an hour or so completely destroying the religion. From its morals and teachings right through to its history, I left everything about the JWs in tatters. Then, I left it with her.
The following weeks were spent in surprisingly reasonable discussion between us. I had fully braced myself for the end of the relationship, but she was perfectly open to talk about all of things I had raised. And slowly, but surely, she began to agree with me. She raised doubts of her own, and asked really great questions which lead to even more issues with the Witness teachings. She was now on the same slope that I was on, albeit a few feet behind me.
While this sounds like good news, it did leave me with a strong feeling of guilt. It is one thing to lose your own faith, but to actively destroy someone else’s is a horrible thing to do, no matter how justified it may be. That guilt lives with me to this day. And with it, it brought a sense of dread. Because at some point we both knew we would leave the religion, which would mean that at some point my guilt would be realised and people would (quite rightly) blame me for her leaving. One day I would have to look her parents in the eye, all parties knowing exactly what I had done. So you can see why her realising ‘the truth’ is not quite so was a bittersweet triumph for me.
One does not simply ‘leave’ the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because the religion demands isolation for children and adults alike, an average JW in his early twenties will find himself trapped in a bubble where everyone in his life, all of his friends and family, are Witnesses. So to leave would be to commit suicide, to a large extent. It would mean loosing all friends and all family, just because you believe something different than they do.
And leaving is never easy, it is always messy. We couldn’t simply say “sorry, we will not be attending meetings any more,” because (a) everyone would refuse to come to the wedding, and (b)all of our friends/ family would stop talking to us. So our only option seemed to be to ‘go along’ with the religion for about 4 months more, and then perhaps move away, or ‘fade’ after the wedding. Sounds easy! Well, in practise, it proved to be an insurmountable challenge, for two reasons.
Firstly, the dishonesty was too much for her. I lived on my own, so I had nobody really to answer to. If I don’t want to go to a meeting (which was frequently), I don’t have to. Nobody to answer to, no excuses to be made. I just crack open a beer, order a pizza, and put the Xbox on. For my fiancé, life was not so easy. Every day she had to go home to a lie, and pretend to believe what is really an outrageous, and frankly dangerous set of religious dogma. It made me uncomfortable that she was walking around the busy city with a no-blood card still in her purse. As I pointed out to her, she was carrying around her death warrant. The dishonesty was killing her, she cried every day and could not bring herself to go home in the evenings. Not a good way to live.
The other problem was with me. I am a rather enthusiastic individual, and normally very upfront with what I think. So I kept, “slipping up”. For instance, on one occasion we were watching a movie at my cousins house, with all of our witness friends, and someone made the comment that we should change it due to there being a ghost in it. I replied “being worried about ghosts/demons attacking you because you watched a ghost film is like being scared of aliens invading if you watch Independence Day.” Needless to say this did not go down well.
My bucket continued to leak, so to speak over the following week, until my best man asked me to go for a drink with him. We met at a bar in the city, and he proceeded to ask me what was wrong. I began with a dismissive, guarded response, but eventually (due to the beer, I think) the floodgates burst open. I launched off on a complete demolition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, one that left him visibly shaken. He simply responded, “you can’t say that and get away with it”, and never spoke to me again. The cat was out of the bag.
It only got worse from there. I knew it was a countdown to us leaving, as my very strong objections to the Faithful Slave had been voiced with resounding clarity to my big-mouthed best friend. That countdown only lasted for about four weeks, when my fiancé finally caved to her emotions and told her parents that she didn’t want to go to meetings and doesn’t believe any more. My greatest fears were coming true all at once, and I knew it was too late to stop it by this point. As this was happening, my best man had told everyone my stance on the truth, and I became an apostate in the eyes of the circuit overnight. One week, I was a loved and respected brother, a family man, and a good person. The next week, I had lost everything and everyone except my fiancé, and I was Satan incarnate.
As you can imagine, the Elders were livid. I was hit with a barrage of phone-calls and text messages demanding my presence, all of which I ignored. They would wait outside my apartment building for me to return home, so I would use different entrances, and even wear a disguise. Living in a city centre apartment block I felt safe separated from the general public by 2 security doors requiring swipe-cards, the elevator, and my front door. My confidence was false.
One night in February 2012, I was sat in my living room enjoying a delicious stuffed-crust pizza and playing on a delightful video-game, when there was a knock at the door. My front door. And the handle turned. Two elders had broken into the building, got past both security doors, and were trying to gain entry into my home. This was an offensive breach of both British law, and of human rights, and made me feel physically ill at the time. I reported the incident to my landlord, and the next day the building supervisor informed me that on reviewing the CCTV footage he had seen the two elders not only breaking in, but also trying to gain access to my mailbox in the lobby. A notice was then put up in the building warning prosecution of unauthorised incursions, and the message got back to the local elders to leave me alone.
To this day I have not (yet) been disfellowshipped. My fiancé and I cancelled the wedding (as nobody was going), and are moving in together this week in a new place in the city. Leaving the JWs can never be an easy thing to do- that’s one of the few reasons the religion keeps going. But it is the right thing to do, so I do not look back. The friends we lost were not real friends, but conditional ones. And this is not the end of a story, but the beginning.
Many thanks Anthony for sharing your experience with us. Anthony and Holly’s story was recently broadcast on BBC Three, and can be seen by clicking on the link below – Chris (may not work outside the UK)