Ability to Reason
Leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses can be a daunting task, even for a Witness with very deep-rooted doubts or who sees things happening in the congregation or organization that truly bother his or her conscience. The words of Peter: “Lord, who will we go away to,” ring loud in the ears of a troubled Witness, and this mantra of “Where else will you go?” works wonders at keeping people inside and afraid.
Here are four things that were absolutely essential for me in leaving the organization, and landing on my feet when I did so.
Ability to Reason
What I write here is not meant to offend anyone with a religious outlook. Leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses takes different forms for different people. Some leave and start attending a church or join another religion. Some still believe in God and choose to worship and study in the privacy of their homes. Others leave without a belief in God or the supernatural.
Many ex-Witnesses do seem to go down the non-religion path, perhaps because Watchtower does a very good job of showing what is wrong with other religions. If you’re having serious doubts and are reading something like this, you no doubt have started to see the things wrong with JW teaching and practice as well.
The problem is, it’s not necessarily enough to just feel like something is wrong, without going through the effort to understand why it actually is. The reason for this is that if we don’t have good reasons for this change in our beliefs, we’re very susceptible to going back to them, or to being taken in by other flawed arguments or teachings.
How can we learn how to think, how to reason? As boring or esoteric as it might sound, philosophy can really help. More specifically, epistemology can help one learn how to separate fact from fiction. As the Google dictionary defines it, epistemology is “the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.”
Humans have been thinking about thinking for a very long time, and we know quite a bit about it. This does not mean that we will all come to the same conclusions on every matter, but epistemology and the other levels of philosophy can at least equip us with a framework for thinking that can help prevent us from being easily mislead.
There is some key reading you can do in the philosophical realm that includes names like Aristotle, Socrates, Descartes, and Hume and there are plenty of online resources to learn more about the contributions such thinkers made to our understanding of logic.
If actually reading the works of these men seems like a bit more than you’re ready to do at this point, I would highly suggest that you watch episodes of The Atheist Experience on YouTube, particularly episodes that feature Matt Dillahunty, Tracie Harris, Jen Peeples, or Russell Glasser. They make good use of epistemological methods when examining the beliefs of their callers, and Matt in particular often brings up some of the key teachings of the great philosophers. Start watching to get a feel for the format of the show and then look for episodes that deal with subjects that concern you. It is useful to hear the hosts deal with arguments that are raised by people in other religions that Witnesses also view as being false. I have only ever heard one Witness call in and he never identified himself as such, so you don’t have to worry about having your specific beliefs examined.
Matt also has his own YouTube channel where he deals with a lot of the common arguments and fallacies that are used to justify, defend, or promote religion. These arguments include Pascal’s Wager, Argument from Contingency, Who Are You To Question God, Burden of Proof, and Appeals To Faith. It’s nice to be able to have someone lay out some of these difficult concepts in a clear and concise way and it may be the boost you need.
Whatever method you decide upon in order to educate yourself, stick with it. Find what works for you and work at honing your thinking skills. Knowing how to think logically is only going to help you in your life, whether in the workplace or at home.
Check my links at the bottom of the page for additional resources.
Concerning The World
If there is one thing, just one thing, that you learn as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is that “the world” is terrible. It is awful, no good, dangerous, filthy, worthless, wicked, ruined, falling apart, dying. It will chew you up and spit you out. It has nothing to offer you.
The fear of “the world” that is instilled into Witnesses is strong and it is effective. It can cause Witnesses to see the bad in everything outside the organization and to see good only inside of it. This mindset stokes fear and can keep someone in for a very long time.
The antidote to this is to get a good grasp on reality and to realize that there are no perfect answers and no perfect systems, period (full stop for you Brits). The fact of the matter is, good things and bad things, kind people and mean people, problems and solutions, exist all over the earth and at all times. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a monopoly on good, neither “the world” on bad.
Truth be told, I think that most people don’t desire to harm others. That’s why people who commit crimes stand out and can be reported on. Additionally, there are people all over the world right now working hard to combat humankind’s most difficult problems. And despite the problems unique to our current society, we as a species have made massive strides in the direction of progress.
I would highly suggest doing your own research to see that the 21st century is a great time to be alive. One really doesn’t have to read all that much history to know that being an average human being, at almost any other time and place in history, would be measurably, and often miserably more difficult.
I would suggest Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature to see that even in the last 100 years, violence has been on the decline. His newest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is geared towards helping us get the big picture on just how much progress we have made.
Also, a side point, earthquakes aren’t happening more today than at any other time period in history, so let’s just stop saying that and not bring that into the conversation. Check here for more information.
Being raised a Witness can also do a lot of damage to one’s self-esteem and sense of purpose. If you have grown up believing that Armageddon is perpetually just around the corner, you may not have learned or cultivated some of the skills needed to thrive in a world that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Many questioning Witnesses find themselves without long-term goals or the skills they feel they need to accomplish them.
This is where you need to find some things that will help put you in a positive frame of mind. Leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses is like ditching your computer’s operating system (OS). Every choice you’ve made and every future thought you’ve had for yourself probably involved “the truth.” It’s a part of your identity. You are going to need a new OS to leave the organization successfully.
While each person needs to find what motivates them and puts them in the right frame of mind, the following things really help me.
Tim Ferris is a blogger and podcaster who focuses on self-improvement and living an optimized, intentional life. I would highly suggest listening to his podcast. He regularly interviews people who are top performers in their fields to find things that can help anyone to improve various things in their life.
Tim a routinely makes reference to Stoic philosophy, and has even curated a three part volume on it, The Tao of Seneca, which you can download as PDF files for free here.
As the author states in the introduction, “Stoicism…can be thought of as an operating system for thriving in high-stress environments. At its core, it teaches you how to separate what you can control from what you cannot, and it trains you to focus exclusively on the former.”
This type of thinking is essential for those coming out of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and indeed, I would argue, for people in general. It can also fill a gap left by scripture if you were one who enjoyed having a daily routine of reading or listening to something of substance to center your thinking and emotions.
Now that you’re focused on the things you can control, you need to feel positively about what you, yes you, can do. For this I suggest The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz. Dr. Schwartz’s book will make you chuckle as you read and helps you to analyze how you carry yourself and what effect that has on your success, primarily in business but also in dealings with others in general. I will admit, you will have to get past a little ’50s era misogyny (he assumes that every business person is a male with a homemaking wife waiting for him at the end of the day), but the read is worth it.
Additionally, start focusing on your passions in life. When you leave the organization, you’re going to have a lot more time to pursue the things that you love. So find those things. What makes you tick? What gets you excited? What do you find beautiful and inspiring? What is that thing you’ve always wanted to try but never could because it was on your meeting night or it was considered not quite kosher for a Witness? Find those things and get excited about them again. Build up your excitement and optimism about the things you want to experience.
We have all seen it happen. A friend or family member leaves “the truth” and their life goes down hill fast. Perhaps they get involved with a habit or group of people that quickly takes them into a living or financial situation that you would really rather not be in.
None of us want to end up in a bad position in life. We want to be “good people.” We want to be happy, healthy and productive, whatever that may consist of for us as individuals. But when we stop looking to Watchtower publications and the bible to teach us how to handle life’s challenges, we might feel like we’re floating a bit. What is good? What is bad? How do I feel about abortion, drugs, alcohol, interpersonal relationships, sexuality, etc? Watchtower consistently teaches that the moral mantra of “the world” is “anything goes.” This couldn’t be more wrong.
First off, “the world” is not a single, monolithic thing. The actual world is made up of many and varied cultures, societies, groups, religions, clubs, teams, families, and individuals. Some of these do a lot of good for people and the world, some don’t. But very few of these would respond that their moral system is merely “anything goes.” Anyone who does live their life this way, leaving their morals to chance, is liable to hurt themselves or others.
The fact is, even Witnesses and Christians don’t get their morals entirely from the bible. If they did, slavery would not be considered morally repugnant in modern society. We’ve come a long way in human and animal rights since the holy books were written. So, how can we figure out what actually constitutes moral and immoral actions and viewpoints?
I would suggest starting with examining humanism.
One definition, from americanhumanist.org:
Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.
– American Humanist Association
In other words, humanism focuses first and foremost on the wellbeing of other humans, and affirms that this is ethical. We really don’t need any sort of deity or outside source to tell us a great deal about what is in the interest of our own species. We can use science, observation, and empathy to continue learning these things.
Once we realize that the basis of morality must be the wellbeing of conscious creatures, we can then start finding the correct answers to difficult questions. As Sam Harris states in his book The Moral Landscape, (italics mine):
Human well-being is not a random phenomenon. It depends on many factors – ranging from genetics and neurobiology to sociology and economics. But, clearly, there are scientific truths to be known about how we can flourish in this world. Wherever we can have an impact on the well-being of others, questions of morality apply.
I would highly suggest reading The Moral Landscape to get a good grasp on why well-being really is the start of morality and how we can come to answers on moral questions.
Realizing that we do not have to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be a “good person,” and that, in fact we can most likely be better people outside of the organization, we have shaken off another lock binding us to it.
As I mentioned earlier, upon leaving the organization, it’s easy to find oneself without long term plans and goals. The fear of not knowing what to do with one’s life can cause a person to stay in the organization and suffer in silence. Creating a new plan for your life is essential.
So, how can you make a plan. The answer to that is probably more individualized than anything else we have discussed. Positivity and morals are something that everybody needs to carry out their plans. What those plans actually are is entirely up to each person.
Some of the same questions from positivity apply though. What are you passionate about? What makes you tick? What inspires you? What is something you always wanted to try but never could? What would make us feel that lived a fulfilling life? Answering these questions can help us start to form ideas about what we might want to pursue.
Next we have to consider our circumstances. A single person leaving the organization in his or her twenties is going to have very different options from a single mother or father of two in his or her forties or a married couple in their sixties. No matter what our situation or age though, there are so many ways to form a plan and start working towards the things that are going to make us happier and fulfilled. It is never too late to start. No matter how many decades we have spent inside the organization, it is never too late to use our remaining time the way we see fit.
Once you know why you don’t believe Watchtower teachings are true, you can visualize what a successful life outside of the organization looks like, you feel positive about yourself and your ability to make forward progress towards that life, and you realize you can be a good person without Watchtower or the bible dictating to you what that means, the organization’s power to keep you in is nearly obliterated. These three things are going to help you weather the social storm that will come when you decide to take your first step out and move on with your life in a productive way.
Ability to Reason
- The Moral Landscape – Sam Harris
- The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule – Michael Shermer
- The Better Angels of Our Nature – Stephen Pinker
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress – Stephen Pinker
- The Magic of Thinking Big – David J. Schwartz
- The Tao of Seneca – Tim Ferriss —also on Audiobook