"Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!" typed my Baptist friend during a computer chat when I confessed to her that I had stopped believing in the claims of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the main organization of Jehovah's Witnesses), but "worse" than that, stopped believing the claims of the Bible itself. I haven't had a conversation with her since. She was pleased I had left the Watchtower nonsense behind, but disappointed I had chosen to "throw it all away." I find this attitude in a lot of Christians. Not all of them, but definitely a majority. Their reactions to my complete rejection of all religion range from casual acceptance to morose and sadness. They usually assume I'm an atheist because my experience in the organization caused emotional scarring so deep that I just cannot be close to their god. Atheism, they conclude, isn't a conscious choice I made after spending a great deal of time thinking, it's an emotional reaction to "spiritual abuse."
Here's the kicker. I don't feel "abused" by the Watchtower, spiritually or otherwise. I don't have an amazing and fantastic story to tell, filled with exciting revelations and whisper-worthy closet skeletons. I was never molested by an elder. I was never emotionally traumatized because I couldn't celebrate my birthday. I never knew anyone who died from not receiving a blood transfusion. Sure, I experienced my fair share of difficult people in the organization, but I never, even to this day, felt that their behavior affects the truthfulness of what the organization teaches. My life as a Jehovah's Witness could be summed up in a single word: uneventful. I apologize in advance for not being a more exciting apostate.
So if I'm not an atheist because of trauma inflicted by the Watchtower Society, why did I embark on a religion-free lifestyle? The main factor in leading me to my eventual decision was interaction with other people via the internet. I was and still am a fan of social news sites like Digg and Reddit, and both had a very robust atheist community. Like most Jehovah's Witnesses and I venture to say most Christians, I never really thought deeply about why I believed in god. God was just something everybody believed in, because to not believe in God was to believe everything came about by blind chance. At least, that's what I was told. And because I never actually had a conversation with an atheist for the first few decades of my life (aside from the occasional encounter when knocking on doors, which never resulted in anything more than superficial pleasantries as they asked me to leave), I assumed it was true. Atheists were this interesting subculture that seemed almost mythical to me. All I knew about them was what believers told me about them. Since there was no internet back then, hearing their point of view and their arguments was extremely difficult if not impossible. They seemed to be simply a collection of stuffy old college professors who had bought into the Darwin religion that was evolution. It seemed so sad. If only they could see the beauty of creation, the complexity of life, surely they would abandon their atheist ways, so I thought.
My parents bought a computer in 1993. It was used, but only a few months old. What thrilled me the most was that it was "multimedia." It had a CD-ROM drive and could play video. Until then, the only experience I had with computers was with the Apple II's from the 70's that sat in the corner of every classroom. On a good day, I got to play with a Tandy. But now I had a computer that could take me to the San Diego zoo or play Chessmaster 3000. It was amazing.
So when that first America Online demo diskette came in the mail, I begged my parents to give it a try. This was back when they charged by the hour, and the disk gave us ten free hours. My parents relented, my dad reluctantly put his credit card information into the computer (which must have been scary for him since buying stuff on the computer being a routine thing was about another decade away), and we experienced the world wide web. I chatted with a 12-year-old from North Carolina for a bit, and ever since then I had "internet fever." My parents couldn't come up with a good cost/benefit ratio on having the internet. In addition to the charges, we had to tie up our phone line with a long distance call. It wasn't until college when I would get a chance to experience the web again.
For me, being deprived of technology at home only made me more obsessive when I did get my hands on it outside. I never had a Nintendo as a kid, so when I'd go over to my friends' houses who did have one, I would drive them nuts because it would be the only thing I wanted to do. My friends, who were naturally already bored with it, always wanted to do something outdoors. So when I started attending community college, the internet foreshadowed everything. I got a C in one class I could have done better in just because I spent every session surfing the web instead of listening to the instructor. I took an online class and was finally able to justify having it at home, and I had access to it ever since.
I never really sought religious discussions when I was online. By the time I started to have regular exposure to the web (late 1990's), the warnings from the Watchtower organization were already coming about this potentially dangerous new technology. I was told of people who had left "the truth" (what Witnesses call their religion) because they had typed "Jehovah's Witnesses" into a search engine and had read apostate literature. I was never once tempted to do so. Although I had a borderline technology addiction, I was devoted to my god and my church. I had gotten baptized at the age of 15, making a lifelong commitment to the Watchtower Society, and I never once thought of myself being outside the organization. I never had the desire to go out to bars or associate with non-witnesses anyway. I had been treated poorly enough by them during grade school. College was a lot better, but my public school experience hindered my social progress for years afterward. I never wanted to have a birthday party because to me a birthday party meant it was time to ostracize myself from my peers. So naturally I preferred the company of those who didn't celebrate their birthdays, or any other holiday. People talk about what a boring place the world would be if everybody had the same opinions about everything, but in a way I disagree. Being in that "us versus them" environment really solidified the bonds I had with my Jehovah's Witness friends, sort of like being part of military unit. It doesn't matter what personality quirks the other people have, you all have a mission to accomplish, you are all part of a team. That's not to say there weren't cliques in some Kingdom Halls, there were, but once I started traveling to surrounding halls and making friends there (The Watchtower calls this "widening out"), I noticed that behavior less and less.
In my late teens I moved out on my own, living in various places in Michigan. I never stopped surfing the web and never saw myself as having a problem. It wasn't disrupting my life or anything, but my family was extremely concerned...until I got cable internet. With dial-up, they would call me and if the line was busy they knew I was online. With cable, it didn't matter. Still, it wasn't until a few years ago when I really started looking into this atheism thing.
As I wrote above, I first noticed atheists when I was on Digg or Reddit. For a while I didn't really pay attention, rarely getting involved with arguments between them and theists. So often, their arguments would address something I didn't believe anyway, such as hellfire or the immortal soul, so it felt like a "safe" environment for my faith. As I read, I became more and more sympathetic to the atheist side. Their arguments made sense to me, but I still felt like my faith wasn't being challenged.
But it was. As I kept reading, my thinking process began to change. I realized that I had been approaching the issue regarding the existence of God with a presuppositionalist mentality. I had approached every question with the conclusion already determined. For every verse in the Bible that seemed barbaric, contradictory, or just downright wrong, I had laid out only two possibilities: the verse is either literal or figurative. My religious upbringing prevented me initially from considering the third possibility: the verse is incorrect. Because the verse couldn't possibly be incorrect. It was correct, its meaning just needed to be understood in the correct way. The burdensome and sometimes cruel regulations enforced by the organization that I didn't understand were simply waved away. I assumed they must have a good explanation. God must have a reason for requiring two witnesses to disfellowship someone for child molestation. God must have a reason for not allowing people to have a blood transfusion. After a while, I realized that I never really thought about why I thought there was a God to have a reason to begin with. I had just always assumed that there was. What if all this stuff in the Bible really was just a bunch of disjointed writings of various desert tribesman over the span of several centuries? It seemed to be a much simpler explanation for things like the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter or the general evil behavior of the Old Testament god. I started to read the Bible as if I had never heard it before, and every so often I'd ask myself "if I had never heard of the Bible before, never heard of Christianity before, would I find any of this stuff convincing?" The only answer I could muster was "no." There really was no good reason to believe any of this stuff.
That was when I realized I had become an atheist. It tore me apart. I knew I was going to lose everything. But now that I didn't believe what the society was teaching, could I fake it? I tried, but failed miserably. At first I almost became a believer again after spending time with some friends still in the organization, feeling that I couldn't possibly give up such good relationship, but eventually, it became too hard to compartmentalize my disagreements. It's one thing when you're with people you call "brother" and "sister" who agree with you on almost every religious subject, but when you're on the outside, it becomes very, very hard to be comfortable in that environment. I spent less and less time with Jehovah's Witnesses, and when the September 2007 issue of Our Kingdom Ministry was released, containing an article that admonished Witnesses not to study the Bible independently or study Hebrew and Greek to confirm the accuracy of the New World Translation, I made my final decision never to return.
I don't hate the organization or those in it. Religious organizations are like viruses. They propagate and grow, even when there is no clear beneficiary. The men who make up the ruling council of the Society--known as the "Governing Body"--aren't living in mansions and spending their summers on yachts, but they do rely on the organization because in a very literal sense there is nowhere else for them to go. The primary beneficiary of the organization's activities is the organization itself. The machine exists solely to feed itself.
I see a lot of talk about how so many Jehovah's Witnesses are becoming atheists. To many Christians and other theists, these ex-JW atheists are seen as pity cases. They're weaklings, emotionally damaged, and lost. For many Christians, I suspect the very existence of atheists is insulting. So many of us grew up and lived our adult lives thinking that everybody believes in God, and if you don't, there must be something wrong with you. That's what I thought. If you look at the Watchtower's canned response in the field manual Reasoning From the Scriptures, the chapter that covers Atheists works from the assumption that the householder is an atheist because he/she was slighted by a religious authority in some way. But not all of us are damaged goods. We don't believe because we are unconvinced of the reasons put before us for the existence of god.
What I find funny about religion is that the vast majority of them work from the same premise a dubious "snake oil" product does, namely that you are inherently deficient in some way, and only with Belief X/Product Y can you cure yourself of this deficiency. And like most dubious "cure-all" products, the pitch is complete horseshit. Very few people actually need vitamin supplements, and very few people actually need religion. I am not deficient. I do not have a longing for something to "fill the hole" religion used to occupy. I am not "spiritually malnourished." I still have an active imagination. I still love life, my friends, and family. I still have an excited sense of awe and wonder when I think about the universe. I only believe in what can be reliably demonstrated to me, and take nothing based solely on that cognitive totalitarianism known as "faith."
Nevertheless, I have noticed a trend in the ex-Jehovah's Witness community toward atheism. I can only guess as to why that is, or if it even is a trend. Unfortunately there are no statistics that lay out whether or not most Jehovah's Witnesses who leave their religion become non-believers. It seems to depend on which message board one is looking at. Some have a clear majority of non-theists. Others have a majority of theists. I can only speculate that if this is indeed a growing trend, it has more to do with what's going on outside of the community. It seems to me that a long time ago, when apostate activity was relegated to underground newsletters, books, and telephone hotlines, most Jehovah's Witnesses who left their religion took up another form of Christianity. When Ray Franz was ousted from Bethel in the early 1980's, it was a different time. It wasn't until recently with the rise of what some call "new atheism," that being an atheist was really an option for most people. Often, the prospect of being an unbeliever meant that one would be the only unbeliever in his community. With the rise of the internet, people who would have otherwise been isolated had the opportunity to have contact with other like-minded people. According to the United States Census, "none" is the fastest-growing religious group in the country. Naturally with the rise of the internet and the increasingly viable "option" of being an out atheist without destroying ones social life, it is not surprising at all that this trend is becoming visible in the ex-Witness community as well.