Image by Dan Patterson via FlickrII was almost 18 when I attended my first meeting at a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. Or I would have attended it if I had found the Hall before the meeting started. I had been talking to a girl at High School about The Watchtower Society's teachings for a few weeks when I asked her for directions to the Hall. Her directions were wrong, so I was late.
I sat in the Kingdom Hall's parking lot for an hour that night because I didn't want to interrupt the meeting. The Witnesses were already leaving their book study when I finally walked up to the front door. The conductor was just locking up when I stepped into the light. He was a congregation Elder. He shook my hand as the girl who'd invited me came over to say hi. Then he accused me of attending the meeting just to get into her pants. A few minutes later, he was handing me a couple of magazines to read. I came back two days later.
Things went OK for a while. Everyone wanted to meet the kid with the strength to "do the right thing" against his parent's wishes. But this changed once the congregation got used to having me around. There was a lot of pressure to start proselytizing and to get baptized. They began to disapprove of everything about me, even my clothes and hair. I began conforming to their standards one at a time and even got baptized. That only made it worse.
I didn't blame God for any of this. It wasn't his fault or the Society's that the Elders at my Kingdom Hall were jerks. I had to stay loyal to the organization if I wanted God's approval. You can't live forever in a paradise Earth without that. Trouble was, did I really want to be a part of the New System if people like these were going to run the show? After nearly 6 years, I realized that the answer was no. For the first time, I wondered if I should take the Society's word when it claimed to be the one and only "True Religion." I wanted to get away from it all so I could sort out how it had gone wrong.
I stopped going out in field service, a big no no for one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Then I stopped attending meetings. I hadn't given up on God or religion, mind you. I actually prayed about it, hoping God would understand. I thought I would return if the Society became less haughty and its Elders less authoritarian. That never happened. But I digress.
No one was bothered by my absence from the Kingdom Hall for about two weeks.
The Dam Bursts
I remember coming home that first night and finding about 40 messages on my answering machine. Most of them were from people I hardly knew. This continued for weeks. It was a small town and I had been part of a congregation of nearly 250 people, so I couldn't go anywhere without bumping into one of Jehovah's Witnesses. "Haven't seen you in a while," they'd say as they snuck up behind me at the grocery store. Then they'd hassle me about my meeting attendance without a care for the attention they were drawing. I finally got my wife to run all of our errands so I could avoid them.
This was not an easy journey. There was a lot of pain and misery along the way. But it has been worthwhile. It made me who I am today. They began stopping by my home--always two or more at a time--to preach at me. My wife was eager to let them in. She was a Jehovah's Witness too and hoped they'd straighten me out. Instead, all they did was make me angry as they quoted scripture or the Society's literature. Both are deemed irrefutable by Jehovah's Witnesses, and both always "proved" that I was wrong. Years passed before the visits from Elders ceased. Other Witnesses continued dropping by to get their field service time started or stopped at my expense. (Witnesses add up the amount of time they spend preaching door to door and turn the tally in to an Elder at the end of every month. They can only start their time from the moment they start preaching to someone and must end it with the last person. The more hours you have, the more spiritual you are.)
Each confrontation put my stomach in a knot. To them, I was the dope who'd thrown away paradise to serve the Devil just because the Elders were picking on me. It was more than that, of course. But I had no answer for their accusations because I hadn't sorted figured it out for myself yet. Their presumptions and their arrogance still made me want to stand up to them. My experiences were painful, but I would have to think about them if I was ever going to do that.
They wanted to bring me back into the fold. Instead, their efforts only pushed me further away.
Search For Answers
I began researching the Society's literature to see if their claims were backed by evidence. I found a lot of web sites that were more about anti-Watchtower rhetoric than arguments of substance, but some were good. I paid special attention to the Society's "Creation Book" (AKA Life-How did it get here? By evolution or creation?). This was the Society's infamous attempt to refute evolution. I found that many had refuted it instead. For those of you who've never heard of the Creation Book, Richard Dawkins later talked about it in his own book, The God Delusion.
I came across articles on philosophy and especially atheism along the way. In reading these, I believed the arguments for nonbelief were irrefutable. I began to realize that I was already an atheist, but not a skeptic. I still believed in ghosts because many in my family had experienced poltergeists first hand. Still, reading articles about atheism made me realize that you don't have to be a skeptic to be an atheist. Then I discovered that there were rational, scientific explanations for my family's supernatural experiences. Soon, I became a skeptic as well.
Much Better Now
Ultimately, the efforts by Jehovah's Witnesses and others to aggressively convert me to their beliefs backfired. In trying to sort out my views on gods and the supernatural to stand up to evangelists, I began comparing the arguments for belief and non-belief because I wanted to know the truth. In my book, the atheists won. Now I'm one of them.
I admit that I fit several atheist stereotypes. I have had a bad religious experience. I don't get along with my father. I don't submit to authority for its own sake any more. Yet my reasons for being an atheist are too complex to write off as petty emotional damage. I didn't become an atheist to get back at a god I no longer believed in. My experiences simply put me in a place where I wanted to find real answers, even if they weren't answers I would like. So when I found atheism, I was open to it.
This was not an easy journey. There was a lot of pain and misery along the way. But it has been worthwhile. It made me who I am today.
I wouldn't change a thing.