Almost five months ago, Devon and I stepped onto a plane at SeaTac Airport bound for Bali, Indonesia. In the months prior to that event, we sold almost all of our belongings, found a new home for our cat Maddy, and moved out of a beautiful home on an island we loved. Why?
I know that is a question many of you may have wondered at some point in the last few months. I’d like to set the record straight.
I am not intending to be provocative or controversial, but some of what you will read might be challenging. If it is difficult for you to read, please know that it has been infinitely more difficult to write it.
I have not been to a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses since we left the United States. Intentionally. In fact, the main purpose of leaving in the way we did was to make a difficult transition in our lives as graceful as possible.
I decided to stop going to meetings because my beliefs and values no longer align with the official policies of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society and their affiliate corporations. Since there is absolutely no room in the JW organization for dissent, I decided to withdraw, move on with my life, and start over.
This article is my explanation for why and how I have changed my beliefs.
A Little Bit of Background
I was raised since infancy as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses by JW parents. My father was a local congregation elder for many years before his removal from the position and eventual disfellowshipping. My mother was a true believer who was very active in the congregation’s activities, including the door-to-door ministry.
One of the defining moments of my childhood came when I was seven years old. My sister, at the age of 17, was disfellowshipped. I loved my sister — I even shared a room with her! Suddenly, though, she was a spiritual pariah, and my family was to have nothing to do with her.
I was too young to understand fully what was even happening at the time, but I remember my mom crying and crying. The arguments increased in the ensuing years over how much involvement our family should have with her as she got married and started a family of her own.
For the remaining portion of my childhood, I grew up not knowing my sister. At all. To this day, for all intents and purposes, my sister is a stranger to me.
With my brother, the situation was different. My brother was never baptized as a JW, so the same rules didn’t apply. My brother is gay. He’s known it since he was a child. There were monumental battles, arguments, and shouting matches between he and my parents, as my parents, due to the teachings of JWs, could not accept his sexual orientation. Knowing that he would never be accepted into the religion, my brother was sensible enough to never join.
Neither my brother nor sister identify as Jehovah’s Witnesses, yet, due to the legalistic rules of disfellowshipping, my Mom is allowed to have a relationship with my brother. However, she is barred from having one with my sister because she was baptized as a pre-teen and thereby entered a lifelong contract with the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society.
Meanwhile, despite some early variance from the JW morality rules that I kept hidden from my parents as a teen, I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the age of 15. Looking back, I think my primary motivation for being baptized was fear. I came to believe that Armageddon was real, and that God would likely kill me for my transgressions.
Fast-forward seventeen years. My wife and I are respected members of our local community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am a Ministerial Servant, have worked for years on remote software development projects for the worldwide headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, been a Regular Pioneer, and have given public talks in congregations around the Puget Sound. This brings us to last Fall, the Fall of 2014.
Focusing on Spirituality after a Busy Summer
The Summer of 2014 was packed with Watchtower organization activities, including helping to build the Hospitality Committee welcome website for the July 2014 Seattle International Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, working backstage in the Entertainment Night performances for the foreign Seattle International Convention delegates, in addition to my normal JW volunteer workload (around 10–25 hours per week) as a remote UX Designer building a web application called Builder Assistant, which helps Watchtower manage its many construction projects, materials, and volunteer workforce. I was really exhausted.
Over the years, I had developed many questions about my faith that I could no longer ignore. So I wrote them out. They were sprawling — some of them of relatively little importance, but many of them of critical importance. I was surprised that I had this many unresolved questions. I had work to do!
Here are some of the questions I had:
- Why and how can we be sure that the “pure” form of JW worship has not been or will not be corrupted? Lots of Christian religions believe their way of worship to be pure. How will we know if/when the organization strays from “pure” worship? Why do we say it is impossible for this to happen?
- If our original purpose as humans was to live forever, why do all other natural, living things that we observe die? Did Jehovah create the animals to kill each other, get sick, and/or die from other causes? Why did he create the stars including our sun, and our planet with a finite life span?
- If God created the potential for sin, suffering, and death, why is he not responsible for their existence? If it is impossible for Jehovah to act unjustly because he is holy, why can angels and other perfect creatures choose to act in a sinful way? Why is it impossible for God to act unjustly? As Socrates put it, “Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?”
- What is the scriptural basis for interpreting 144,000 to be a literal number? Almost everything else in Revelation 7 is interpreted by the Watchtower to be symbolic, even the fact that the makeup of the 144,000 comes from the 12 tribes of Israel, with 12,000 taken from each tribe. If the hope of all the faithful from the founding of Christianity to the mid-1930s was the heavenly hope, and there have always been faithful Christians on the Earth, it seems like there is a huge math problem. Historians estimate that 40,000 Christians had been martyred by the year 95 CE, and the JW yearbook in 1935 shows a publisher count of 52,000. Additionally, the Memorial partakers count has been increasing in recent years. Lastly, all the other descriptors given to the 144,000 in Revelation 14, including their being virgins, their being from the 12 tribes of Israel, their being “without blemish”, and their having the name of the Lamb and Father on their foreheads are all interpreted as being symbolic, yet the number is held as literal. Why?
- What is the scriptural basis for the “overlapping” Generation teaching? Nothing in the accounts where Jesus discusses the generation even hints at the possibility of this. In the fulfillment in the first century, the generation literally meant about 30–40 years (until Jerusalem was destroyed).
- Why are women not given positions of responsibility and teaching as humans, and yet are anointed as kings/priests as members of the 144,000? If women are to be superhuman kings and priests, why are they treated in the congregations like they are now?
- If God is love, how are we to interpret the many times he commits genocide of entire populations including men, women, and children (the Flood, Canaan, Egypt’s innocent firstborn children, and again in the near future at Armageddon)?
- How is it possible that humans have only been around for ~6,000 years when all evidence points to the Earth having been populated for at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years?
- Why did Jesus celebrate Hanukkah as John 10:22 indicates? Does that have a bearing on the JW beliefs on national and secular holidays today? If not, why not?
- If Noah’s flood actually happened, how did he fit all the animals on the ark? If he only had to fit representative ‘kinds’, how is it possible for us to not believe in evolution, since that implies all modern species evolved in about 4,000 years from the original kind representatives preserved on the ark. If that is true, we actually believe in a far more aggressive form of evolution than most evolutionary biologists who allow for millions of years of adaptation to achieve the biodiversity in the world today.
Of all of my questions, though, the most pressing one that I needed an answer for was this: why do we teach that Jerusalem was destroyed in 607 BCE when 586/587 BCE is the accepted date by historians?
Research, Research, Research
Why is it important to verify the claim that Jerusalem was destroyed in 607? Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that the 2,520 years of the “Gentile times” extrapolated from their interpretation of the prophecy of the seven times recorded in Daniel chapter 4 had a starting point with the destruction of Jerusalem. Counting 2,520 years from 607 BCE makes 1914 CE the endpoint of this prophecy.
This prophecy is the primary evidence JWs use to prove that Jesus returned invisibly as King of God’s Kingdom in 1914, signaling the start of the Last Days. It is also the starting point for another set of prophecies interpreted by Jehovah’s Witnesses that point to Jesus Christ invisibly appointing JW leadership as the “faithful and discreet slave” of Jesus’ parable at Matthew 24:45–47 in 1919.
Without the 607 date, the 1914 doctrine is wrong, and the 1919 appointment of JW leadership as the “faithful and discreet slave” is mathematically impossible.
So what seems at first to be a relatively unimportant historical dispute about the date of Jerusalem’s destruction becomes critically important to the credibility and spiritual authority of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Warning — the next sections get quite detailed regarding JW beliefs. Feel free to scroll down to the “My Conclusion” section to skip the result of this detailed research if you just want to keep reading the story.
What I Discovered about the Date of Jerusalem’s Destruction
What I found after doing countless hours of research is that historians almost unanimously agree in dating Jerusalem’s destruction to 586/587, and further that there is absolutely no chance of the 607 date being accurate.
Why are historians confident in a 586/587 date? The Neo-Babylonian period is one of the most archaeologically well-documented periods of antiquity. Literally tens of thousands of cuneiform texts have already been excavated in Mesopotamia, studied, published, and dated to the Neo-Babylonian period. Professor D.J. Wiseman estimates that “there are probably some 50,000 texts published and unpublished for the period 627–539” BCE.
The overwhelming majority of these documents concern economic, administrative, and private legal items such as promissory notes, contracts (for the sale, lease, or gift of land, houses, and other property, or for the hiring of slaves and livestock), and records of lawsuits. These documents are to a great extent dated just as commercial letters, contracts, receipts and other vouchers are today. The dating is done by giving the year of the reigning king, the month, and the day of the month.
Interestingly, there are large numbers of dated tablets from every year during the whole Neo-Babylonian era. Dr. Wiseman estimates an average of nearly 600 dated texts from each of the eighty-seven years from the reign of Nabopolassar to the reign of Nabonidus.
Why is this so important? 2 Kings 25:8,9 dates the destruction of Jerusalem to the 19th year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.
“In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, that is, in the 19th year of King Neb·u·chad·nezʹzar the king of Babylon, Neb·uʹzar·adʹan the chief of the guard, the servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned down the house of Jehovah,+ the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; he also burned down the house of every prominent man.” — 2 Kings 25:8, 9 New World Translation
So determining when Jerusalem was destroyed is as simple as figuring out the dates of Nebuchadnezzar’s rule. Add 18 years to the start of his rule and that’s when the Bible teaches Jerusalem was destroyed.
This is where those thousands of economic and legal cuneiform documents which provide an irrefutable chronology of the list of Babylonian kings is so useful. What these tens of thousands of cuneiform documents unearthed in the last 100 years show corroborates the ancient list of kings known as Ptolemy’s Canon and proves without a doubt that Nebuchadnezzar came to power in 604 BCE. Add 18 years to that date, and we arrive at 587/586 BCE.
These thousands of cuneiform documents that fix in history the Neo-Babylonian line of kings is only one piece of the evidence for dating Jerusalem’s destruction to 586/587.
The highly predictable movement of the stars and planets makes astronomical observations invaluable in dating prior events. Babylonians placed great importance on astrology and the thousands of records uncovered prove precisely the dates for the reign of Babylonian kings.
VAT 4956 provides 30 observations, 5 of which place Nebuchadnezzar’s 37th year as 568/67 BCE, making this an absolute date. This is significant, again, since 2 Kings 25:2,8 places “the eleventh year of King Zedekiah” in “the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar”, proving beyond doubt the date for the fall of Jerusalem.
In short, Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only major group that teaches that Jerusalem was destroyed in 607 BCE. They teach this because without it, the basis for their 1914 beliefs about Christ’s invisible presence, the start of the Last Days, and the basis for their spiritual authority received in 1919 are completely, and utterly undermined.
What I discovered next about the Governing Body’s attempts to conceal this information in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s was shocking.
The Cover Up
Carl Olaf Jonsson was a Pioneer and Elder in Sweden throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1977, he wrote a humble letter to the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses after studying all the available evidence regarding the dating of Jerusalem’s destruction, and presented the evidence to them.
In the years after Jonsson corresponded with the Writing Department regarding the evidence against 607, Jonsson found out that while he was corresponding with the Writing Department in good faith, Governing Body member Albert Schroeder held a meeting with JW representatives from European Watchtower branch offices. At that meeting, he told the audience that there was a campaign going on both inside the organization and from outside to have the Society’s 607 BCE– 1914 CE chronology overthrown. The Society, however, had no intention of abandoning it, he stated.
Three weeks later, on September 2, Jonsson was summoned to a hearing before two representatives of the Watch Tower Society in Sweden: Rolf Svensson, one of the two district overseers in the country, and Hasse Hulth, a circuit overseer.
Jonsson was told that they had been commissioned by the Society’s branch office to hold such a hearing because the brothers at the Brooklyn headquarters were deeply concerned about the evidence he sent them. Once again he was cautioned not to spread the information he had gathered. Rolf Svensson also told him that the Society did not need or want individual Jehovah’s Witnesses to become involved in research of this kind.
Finally, three years of correspondence with the Governing Body and the Writing Department resulted in the final admonition to “wait upon Jehovah”. It has now been 35 years since then. Why would Jehovah use an organization that has hidden this vital evidence for that long? Of course, “waiting on Jehovah” is also invalid if the Society’s suppositions regarding Bible chronology are wrong. Why?
Because the very concept that it is possible today to identify a “faithful and discreet slave,” whom Jesus, as the “master” in the parable at Matthew 24:45–47, has appointed “over all his belongings,” rests unequivocally on the calculation that the “master” arrived in 1914 and made such an appointment a few years later in 1919.
If the Gentile times did not end in 1914, then the basis for claiming that Christ returned in that year disappears, and Watch Tower leaders cannot claim to have been appointed “over all his belongings” in 1919. If this is so, neither can they rightfully claim a divinely-assigned monopoly on publishing “the truth.”
I can only conclude that burying this information has been an attempt by the Governing Body to save face, and avoid admitting that the central chronology they’ve built an entire belief system around is incorrect.
Recent Attempts to Rationalize 607
After largely ignoring the overwhelming evidence against a 607 date for the destruction of Jerusalem for a few decades, a series of Watchtower articles in 2011 attempted to rationalize their insistence on the 607 date. The series is entitled “When Was Ancient Jerusalem Destroyed?” The series is split into a part 1 and a part 2.
I studied these articles in depth many times, because my trust in the organization was hanging in the balance! However, what I found amounted to obfuscation, and circular reasoning.
The 70 Year Prophecy of Jeremiah
For instance, in the articles, the Society uses the 70 year prophecy of Jeremiah 25 to support a 607 destruction date of Jerusalem. This is because the Society acknowledges that 539 BCE is the universally accepted date of Babylon’s destruction, and they extrapolate that the Jews were released from bondage soon after and arrived back in their homeland in 537 BCE.
“The Bible, however, shows that the 70 years were to be a period of severe punishment from God — aimed specifically at the people of Judah and Jerusalem, who were in a covenant to obey him.” — Watchtower 10/1/2011, pgs 26–27
I encourage you to read Jeremiah 25 in its entirety and ask yourself honestly if you think this prophecy relates only to Jerusalem. Note in particular verses 11–16:
11 And all this land will be reduced to ruins and will become an object of horror, and these nations will have to serve the king of Babylon for 70 years.”’ 12 “‘But when 70 years have been fulfilled, I will call to account the king of Babylon and that nation for their error,’ declares Jehovah, ‘and I will make the land of the Chal·deʹans a desolate wasteland for all time. 13 I will bring on that land all my words that I have spoken against it, all that is written in this book that Jeremiah has prophesied against all the nations. 14 For many nations and great kings+ will make slaves of them, and I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their own hands.’” 15 For this is what Jehovah the God of Israel said to me: “Take this cup of the wine of wrath out of my hand, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. 16 And they will drink and stagger and act like madmen because of the sword that I am sending among them.”
The rest of chapter 25 describes in detail all the lands to which the prophecy’s prediction of subjugation to Babylon would apply to, including Egypt, Edom, Moab, Ammon, and many other regional powers.
So does it make sense to apply this prophecy only to Jerusalem? Or does Jeremiah plainly state what his intent is? Personally, when you read the entire prophecy together like this, it makes perfectly clear sense that Jeremiah was predicting that Jerusalem along with all of the nations around Jerusalem would be involved in a subjugation Babylon for 70 years, and that the 70 year period is concluded when the king of Babylon is called to account. That exact thing happened in 539 BCE when Babylon was memorably overthrown in one night by Cyrus’ army.
Taking the prophecy as it is plainly stated, one would have to conclude that the 70 years of the prophecy end in 539 BCE, which means that the period started in 609 BCE. Historically, what happened in 609 BCE? Consider the following citations:
“In 610 the Babylonians and their allies took Harran, and Ashur-uballit with the wreckage of his forces fell back across the Euphrates into the arms of the Egyptians. An attempt (in 609) to retake Harran failed miserably. Assyria was finished.” — A History of Israel, Professor John Bright, pg 316
“In 609 Assyria was mentioned for the last time as a still existing but marginal formation in northwestern Mesopotamia. After that year Assyria ceased to exist.” — The Fall of Assyria by Stefan Zawadzki, pg 16
“In 609, the Babylonians finally routed the Assyrians and began the establishment of their control over Phoenicia, Syria and Palestine.” — History of Humanity by M. A. Dandamaev, pg 16
In 609 BCE, Babylon overthrew Assyria and became the dominant regional power, starting a 70 year domination of the entire Mesopotamian region, ending in 539 BCE when Persia sacked Babylon. This all fits much more easily with the entire prophecy of Jeremiah 25, rather than just the parts cherry picked in the Watchtower article.
The 2011 Watchtower article also contains brief tidbits casting doubts on the reliability of Ptolemy’s Canon (as well as another ancient historian, Berossus). I won’t go into great lengths here, but detailed discussions of these and the other items raised in the 2011 articles can be found here and here.
The most damning double standard in the Watchtower’s defense of 607 is their complete reliance on the very same cuneiform tablets, astronomical data, and historical records to date Babylon’s destruction to 539, while discrediting the very same evidence that points to Jerusalem’s destruction in 586/587.
Either the massive amounts of cuneiform documentation is correct, or it’s not. Either the astronomical data is reliable, or it’s not. Either almost every single historian who studies this area is involved in a massive conspiracy (with nothing to gain and their reputations to lose), or they’re not. The only party with something to lose is the organization that has staked all their spiritual authority on their dates being accurate.
I was devastated to learn all this. I was angry, I was despondent, and I was scared. I was scared that my entire life had been built on a house of doctrinal cards, and the house was falling apart fast. I was also scared to discuss this with anyone — even my wife — because I knew there is no room for disagreement with Watchtower doctrine.
I started casually asking a few trusted friends who happened to be Elders questions like, “hey, have you ever had to defend the 607 date for Jerusalem’s destruction?” The first response I got was a curt, “Haha. No.” via text message. Not encouraging. The second Elder I asked said they’d have to “look into it”. The topic was never brought up again.
The third Elder I asked is a personal friend. This time, I laid out my concerns in much greater details and and even shared my concerns about the huge implications to our beliefs if the 607 date is incorrect. He replied that he knew that the 607 date was “disputed” and that he’d have to do some research on it. A few days later he emailed that he “read over the WT articles and read Jeremiah 25 and Daniel 5 among others. Up next is that chronology heading.”
That was the last thing I heard from him about the topic for five months. A couple months ago I received an email from him apologizing for “leaving me hanging”, and then expressing concern about my “increase in political tweets over the months” and that “every time I read them I wonder if they’re a sign you’ve lost faith in the kingdom”. He concluded with “I’m also sorry for not being there when you needed a friend. If you want to talk. Please, let’s.”
I replied, “I really appreciate your email. Thank you for the apology. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little hurt at the lack of response at the time, but please don’t feel ashamed, I understand. I’d still love for you to share any research you’ve done on the topic. I keep researching, but so far all the evidence I’m finding keeps pointing to 586/587 as the date of Jerusalem’s destruction.”
It’s been almost two months since his last email, and I haven’t heard from him since then. He never did address the question about 607.
Social Justice Sensitivities in a Life Deferred
While I was spending days and days doing in-depth research about the Watchtower teachings on 607, and the corresponding teachings about 1914, and the Faithful and Discreet Slave’s appointment in 1919, something else was happening.
On August 9, 2014 an unarmed young black man, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That evening, I started noticing Tweets about the unrest that was developing in the streets of Ferguson. I tuned in to live video feeds from protesters as the streets of Ferguson started looking like Baghdad. Over the next several days I learned all I could about the situation. I learned all about the systemic and institutional racism that black folks face in America. I learned about the increasing police militarization in the United States since 9/11. And I learned about the disproportionate amount of unarmed people of color American police kill each year.
If anyone on this bus is wondering why I'm on the verge of tears: http://t.co/YID66ADJux #Ferguson
— Daniel Genser (@DanielGenser) August 13, 2014
Even though I know JWs to be mostly tender-hearted people who sincerely want to see conditions on the Earth improve, I noticed that when I looked around at my fellow JW peers, no one seemed the least bit concerned about the specific injustices I saw and felt in my heart.
Once, I Tweeted the words of Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do good, seek justice, Correct the oppressor, Defend the rights of the fatherless child, And plead the cause of the widow.” It was obvious my context was my righteous indignation over recent events. An Elder messaged me on Twitter to correct me, “Of course, Isaiah 1:17 is applied to Jehovah’s people; not fruitlessly trying to help Satan’s system’s problems. Only preaching truly helps.”
I started noticing a huge disconnect between the attitude of my fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the content of the Bible itself, with regard to social justice issues. At every turn I felt like I was being tone policed by the JW doctrine of political neutrality, even though the Bible showed tons of examples of righteous indignation over the social conditions in Israel.
As a movement started in Ferguson to protest police brutality, and as I started reading more and more about social justice issues throughout the world, I came to understand how many sincere people are making real efforts to improve the world we live in — and succeeding!
I slowly came to realize that the combination of the doctrine of political neutrality and the belief that God will imminently and miraculously solve all the problems of humankind in a New World System after the war of Armageddon allows JWs to casually dismiss any social ill they see in the world as unfixable– even if the ill is eminently correctable through human effort and leadership.
I started to find this disempowering ideology, which prevents JWs from accepting their responsibility for the part they individually play in creating, contributing to, and helping to fix the social problems, to be repugnant and infantilizing. The ideology teaches passivity — blame Satan, and pray that Jehovah miraculously fixes everything soon.
As a JW, I was living a life deferred, projecting forward all my hopes and dreams into a future paradise in a New World System in which God fixes everything, and humans have no ability to even attempt to solve their own problems.
Last Attempts to Salvage Faith
At the 2014 Seattle International Convention, we learned there was a Twi language group starting not far from where we were living. Twi is a common language of West Africa, particularly Ghana. We had an interest in Ghanaian culture, having spent time in the southern Italian town of Castel Volturno in 2011, engaged in the ministry work, focusing on English-speaking Ghanaian and Nigerian immigrants.
The goal was to focus on the ministry again, really be engaged in congregational life, and regain what we felt was lacking in our spiritual lives. We were immediately enveloped in the work of a foreign language group. We drove throughout the Puget Sound in order to share our message with Ghanaian people, mostly to their bewilderment (but usually to their ultimate disinterest).
We were certainly busy, and we were being pressured to join the group officially by the lone Elder, a very hospitable and welcoming native Ghanaian. I was asked to start organizing the territory, a large project in such a foreign language group.
As I spent more and more time in the ministry, and less and less time in the more abstract work I had been doing on the Builder Assistant project, I was face to face on a daily basis with the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses that I was expected to teach people. The very same beliefs I was doing massive amounts of research on, the beliefs I was desperately seeking to validate as truth.
There were two particularly memorable events during this time that stand out. The first was the Annual Meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses in early October, where, besides some doctrinal changes with regard to JW interpretations of certain Bible prophecies, it was announced that the world headquarters is launching a web TV station at http://tv.jw.org. Having the opportunity to see and examine Governing Body members in the flesh on a regular basis would have a huge impact on me in the following months.
The next event was a special meeting for JW’s in the United States in early November. It was a live stream from world headquarters broadcasted to all congregations in the United States branch territory. Anthony Morris III, one of the seven members of the Governing Body gave this talk to about 1,000,000 JWs across the USA.
This man, supposedly one of a select few chosen by Jesus Christ, chose on a historic occasion to talk all about the many spiritual dangers of tight pants. To guilt sisters who wear exercise pants — while jogging. To guilt trip brothers who wear close fitting suit pants. To call into question the reasonableness of fancy socks. To denigrate brothers over 23 years of age who are not in an appointed position. To assert that “tight pants” are an elaborate conspiracy by “homosexual fashion designers” because they want to see young JW men in them. It was embarrassing to listen to.
The way the the talk was delivered was embarrassing, too. It sounded as if he wasn’t even prepared. It sounded like he just rolled out of bed, got in front of the camera, and just started spouting off on his pet peeves. I left that meeting feeling very small. The religion I was in was not expansive, not life-affirming. It was small. It was petty. And it was utterly controlling.
That evening, Devon and I went to go see the movie Interstellar. I will never forget walking out of the theater, still in shock at the day’s events contrasted with the expansive themes considered in the movie. On the way to our car, I looked to Devon and said, “And we’re supposed to believe that the Creator of the Universe cares one bit about the type of pants we’re wearing?” I shook my head and drove home.
A Breaking Point
By mid-November I reached a breaking point. I had been researching for months. Not only had I found no satisfying answers to any of my questions, I was discovering the rabbit hole of questionable JW dogma ran deep. Very, very deep.
After realizing the organization is dead wrong about the 607 date, the house of cards started falling. 607 is wrong, so 1914 is wrong. 1914 is wrong, so 1919 is wrong. 1919 is wrong, which means Jesus didn’t appoint the leaders of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society as his “Faithful and Discreet Slave”. This means the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, and its Governing Body have zero spiritual authority. They are just men. Men who are captive to the most dangerous concept of all — that they are chosen by God.
If 1914 is wrong, does that mean we are not living in the Last Days, as Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to urgently believe? The chronology starting with 607 is the proof JWs rely on most, but they also use the more subjective prophecies from Matthew 24 and the analogous gospel accounts. Do these offer any more compelling proof that the Last Days started in 1914 and that Armageddon is imminent?
I learned that, historically, Christians of various sects have been applying the Last Days prophecies of Jesus continuously since the first century, with particular increase in the Middle Ages, and then again after the Protestant Reformation.
“The World is so evil that it cannot grow any worse. A child 7 years old knows more about wickedness than old people did before. Fidelity and love exist no more. The signs in the Heavens cannot be misunderstood. There is blood, pain, suffering, devils and demons everywhere.” — Bishop Olaus Petri, 1550
Many Christians (including Jehovah’s Witnesses for the first few decades of the movement) similarly believed the Last Days began in 1799, in the tumultuous time immediately following the French Revolution.
How could the same prophecy be applied to so many different time periods? I would need less subjective data to see if the JW claims of worsening conditions since 1914 were accurate.
What I found is that, largely, life has continued to improve throughout human history, particularly during the 20th century. Despite a massive population boom, per capita statistics show striking improvements in global health, safety, literacy, and poverty rates in the 20th century, and on into the 21st.
If you doubt the truthfulness of that statement, tell me honestly what century you’d rather live in? In what other century was life better? I, for one, would’ve been dead long ago in any previous time period. I’m thankful for the progress of medical science such that I can wear what amounts to a robotic pancreas in my pocket, delivering medicine continuously through the day, keeping me alive and healthy. I’m thankful for antibiotics. I’m thankful for vaccines. I’m thankful for increasing life expectancies. I’m thankful for better childbirth survival rates. I’m thankful for progress and modernity.
If You Want to Know What Kind of Organization You’re in, Consider What It Takes to Leave
I made my decision. I knew I had to leave. But how? This is when the full weight and reality of the emotional and psychological prison I was in as a Jehovah’s Witness really hit me.
There was no way for me to just leave without catastrophic consequences. There was the potential that I would lose my wife. I would lose all the friends I’ve ever had in my life. I would lose my entire family. I would probably lose my job. I would lose most of my professional network. I would be starting my life completely over.
This is when it really hit me that the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society is a completely unethical organization. No healthy organization emotionally blackmails their members into staying, instills debilitating phobias of life outside the organization, or promotes complete dependence on it. Because of a “contract” I entered when I was 15 years old, I now had to throw my life away and start over.
For a couple terrifying weeks, I had no idea how to go about what I knew I had to do. Finally, I told my wife how I felt. I was so relieved to find that she largely felt the same way. We took different paths to get to the same place, but we arrived together.
For the next several weeks, we essentially went through the seven stages of grief. There were many days of barely getting out of bed. There was a lot of despondency. There were tears. There was whiskey. We had to process everything that was changing. And we had to consider what were going to do next.
Eventually, we decided to physically leave. We did not know where we were going, or if we were coming back. We sold all of our belongings. We found a new home for our sweet cat. We moved out of a house that we loved, and away from an Island that was our home. Fortunately, we love to travel, so traveling was a good excuse that would buy us time to figure out our lives. This is exactly what we did.
The price of mental and psychological freedom was only all of our possessions, our pet, thousands of dollars in rent, and potentially every JW family member or friend we’ve ever known.
Why did we feel this was our only good option?
The Barbarism of Disfellowshipping and Shunning
The history of my immediate family is colored throughout its existence by the practice of disfellowshipping, or extreme community shunning, even of one’s own family members. To suddenly have to treat my sister, at seven years of age, as an outcast warped my sense of familial love. I forever felt like an outsider after that, even in my own family. I sensed that I had to keep my thoughts private, that I had to shield who I was. I know my parents loved me, but I felt a keen disconnection from them. I now realize the source of this disconnection had at its source, not to a small degree, the knowledge that their love was necessarily conditional, as dictated by the policy of disfellowshipping.
What is fascinating about the disfellowshipping practice, is that it did not become official policy of Jehovah’s Witnesses until the early 1950’s. However, in 1947, just a few short years before the introduction of this barbaric policy, there was an article published in the Awake! magazine that criticized the Catholic Church for their practice of excommunication.
In the early 1980’s, in an effort to squash any form of dissent, the policy of extreme shunning of disfellowshipped members of the congregation was extended to include those who have disassociated themselves of their own accord from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, they were to be shunned, as well.
Think about that for a minute.
Since at least the early 1980’s there exists no elegant way to leave the organization. Don’t agree with a doctrinal change the Governing Body institutes? Better get on board, because if you don’t, you’re kicked out if you’re critical. And when you’re shunned, you will instantly lose all non-trivial communication with every JW you’ve ever known — whether they are your parents, friends, employers, kids, grandkids, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, colleagues. Everyone.
You can be disfellowshipped for thought crime. Yes, I know it sounds Orwellian, but it is true. When it comes down to it, if there is any suspicion that you hold “apostate” views, meaning that you believe anything differently than the current, official views of the Governing Body, there can be a Judicial Committee formed. In the Judicial Committee meeting you will be asked whether you believe that God is using the organization and its leadership as the “Faithful and Discreet Slave”. If you answer no, you will be disfellowshipped as an apostate.
I am fully aware that publishing this article which describes my own, privately held beliefs, might lead to my being disfellowshipped and branded an “apostate” as the letter above demonstrates. Of course I don’t want to be disfellowshipped, but I will not be intimidated into silence about these harmful, totalitarian practices.
An apostate, of course, is the worst thing a loyal Jehovah’s Witness can imagine. They are constantly the subject of phobic rants at Assemblies, Conventions, and in the printed pages of The Watchtower magazine. They are even called “mentally diseased” by the Governing Body. But really, an apostate is just someone who no longer believes whatever the Governing Body currently calls “The Truth”.
A Basis for Belief
So what do I believe now? Before answering that, I’d like to explain what is now my basis for belief, which is far more important. I believe that critical thinking is a vital life skill — one that is discouraged at every turn in the organization.
“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.” — Carl Sagan
The only way to ascertain truth from fiction is by using critical thinking. What is being claimed? What is the evidence validating that claim? Are there any other possible explanations? Can the claim be proved wrong with evidence? The more extreme the claim, the more evidence should be required. Since the first step of critical thinking is to gather data, the only way a person can do this is to be willing to look at multiple perspectives — some of whom might be unfamiliar and scary at first. However, Truth is not harmed by inquiry. And honest inquiry can only be done when we are free to imagine that our preconceived notions may be wrong.
What Do I Believe?
I Believe in the Potential of Humanity and the Power of Empathy
While I don’t know if I’d place any ‘labels’ on my belief system at the moment, the closest thing that fits is probably Secular Humanism. Humans have accomplished incredible things. We’ve been to the moon. We’ve cured disease. Despite notable setbacks, we’re starting to learn how to live together in pluralistic societies.
Humans are firstly empathic, social beings, and the more this primary drive is nurtured in society, the more successful, peaceful, and just our societies will be.
There is a long, long way to go, but I believe humanity is on the right track. As we inevitably find areas where there needs to be improvement, we can start within ourselves. We are not powerless.
Lookin’ for the remedy but you can’t see what’s hurtin’ you /
The revolution is here, the revolution is personal
– “Beautiful Struggle”, Talib Kweli
I Believe That the Universe Is Indifferent
I do not believe in a grand plan for the Universe. I do not believe in a cosmic power that is busy arranging events in an inevitable and poetic conclusion. We are not the center of the Universe — literally or spiritually. We are a speck in a suburb of an average galaxy, spiraling in the void of space among a vast sea of galaxies, swirling in a possible ocean of Universes. Whatever meaning we have, we create. And that is OK. It has to be, because it is.
“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” — Stanley Kubrick
I Believe That We Have One and Only One Life
We are alive, we are breathing, we are sentient. Every day celebrate that. Because one day we will not be. Entropy is inescapable and all living things die. We will die like animals die, like the flowers die, like the sun will die, and like our planet will eventually die. This is a sobering thought, one that we struggle to come to terms with. But come to terms we must.
“For there is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit, so that there is no superiority of the man over the beast, for everything is vanity. All are going to one place. They have all come to be from the dust, and they are all returning to the dust… And I have seen that there is nothing better than that the man should rejoice in his works, for that is his portion; because who will bring him in to look on what is going to be after him?” — Ecclesiastes 3:18–22
Knowing that we have a finite number of round trip tickets around the Sun can help us develop empathy for all other living things. It can remind us that each day is precious and valuable. It can spur us on to truly live our lives.
I Believe in Working for Justice and Human Rights for All
I believe it is the duty and obligation of humans to leave the world a better place. It is up to us to do so. We cannot disengage from the world and pretend that it will be fixed by someone else — be they human or divine. Working for justice is a love letter to humanity.
“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public”
– Dr. Cornel West
There are many ways to work for justice in our world today. Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are contagions that still afflict many of us (yes, even Jehovah’s Witnesses) and we can all have a role in confronting and eradicating them. There are also specific issues that I am passionate about that I am happily working to effect change: ending police brutality, decreasing economic inequality, and decriminalizing drugs which will lower the massive incarceration rate in the United States.
I Believe Ethics Do Not Require Religion
Religion does not have a monopoly on ethics. Some of the world’s most unethical people have been its most religious. Similarly, some of the world’s best thinkers have been irreligious. That is not to say the inverse cannot also be true — it simply highlights the point that religion and ethics do not always come as a package deal.
“For when people of the nations, who do not have law, do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them, and by their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.” — Romans 2:14,15
I believe in consequentialist ethics. This means that our ethics should be developed and improved as we examine the results they yield in the lives of real men and women. I do not believe that there is an inherent, divinely pre-ordained right and wrong we must conform to.
I Believe in the Power of Curiosity
Curiosity is life. Life without curiosity is death with your heart still beating. Asking questions is integral to understanding our world, and ourselves. Curiosity is more powerful than fear. Fear keeps a person small, but curiosity is the fuel to seek other perspectives, explore possibilities, and find new, better, and more interesting questions.
Curiosity will empower you when unsatisfying answers are foisted on you with no evidence except empty appeals to authority. Curiosity will continuously challenge you to find truth. Curiosity will protect you from complacency.
I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. – Albert Einstein
As we explore our curiosity, we should be careful of confirmation bias, the drive to only seek out facts that support our pre-existing world view. We must challenge ourselves rigorously.
I Believe in Accepting Our Kinship with All Other Living Things
Regardless of a person’s personal views on the origin of life itself (abiogenesis), I believe it is reasonable to accept that species evolve and adapt via unguided mutation (natural selection). Guided microevolution is observable in how we have domesticated and bred certain animals. Macroevolution is just microevolution on a much longer time scale. It is the exact same process that Jehovah’s Witnesses already accept. Why do I say they accept it?
We are taught that Noah’s flood was a real, historical event, and that Noah gathered representatives of each major ‘kind’ of the Earth’s animals on the ark to preserve them. For the Earth’s massive biodiversity to have been accomplished in just 4,000 years is to believe in adaptation at a much faster rate than even the most aggressive evolutionary biologist would suggest.
“Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science. In my view, it’s also a soaring spiritual experience.” — Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson
Beyond the tired Creation/Evolution debates, though, I believe it is instructive, perhaps even spiritual to reflect on the interconnectedness of life. We share 98.8% of our DNA with bonobos and chimpanzees, 98.4% with gorillas, 96.9% with orangutans, 90% with mice, 84% with dogs, and (amazingly) 50% with bananas. We are one vast biological family.
I Believe Sexuality Should Be Celebrated, Not Shamed
Human sexual orientation, preference, and gender identity are incredibly complex things. I don’t even pretend to be an expert. However, I believe it is nobody’s (religious or governmental) business to legislate against sex between consenting adults, regardless of type of sexual activity, orientation, preference, or gender identity. The incredible diversity of human sexual expression only enriches humanity — it does not pervert it.
“Sexuality is one of the ways that we become enlightened, actually, because it leads us to self-knowledge.” – Alice Walker
We are sexual beings. Religions throughout time have attached guilt and shame on this vital, normal, and healthy part of humanity. Finding pleasure and connection through safe sexual expression is healthy and should be celebrated, not shamed. Pretending sexual expression doesn’t exist only harms your children, and damages their future sexual lives. Our society will be so much healthier when we move on from our Puritanical roots.
I Do Not Believe in the Abrahamic God
I was troubled for years that I had to continually contort my mind to see Jehovah as an all-loving person, when all evidence in plain print points otherwise. The God of Abraham as presented in the Bible is a jealous, vindictive, capricious misogynist who commits widespread genocide, and can’t live by his own rules. As I studied more early Israelite history, and the religious history of the region, I came to understand that Jehovah/Yahweh was just a war god worshipped by a bronze age Middle Eastern tribe, and the Jews were not even monotheistic until much later in their history.
I Do Not Believe the Bible Is God’s Word
I do not believe the Bible is God’s Word, since I do not believe the Abrahamic God exists. However, I do believe the Bible has value — philosophically, historically, and anthropologically. There are recurring themes of social justice and personal emancipation that I find inspiring.
The Bible indicates that Israel had strong laws regarding certain aspects of social justice. A fundamental commitment to the poor is prescribed: repaying their dues must not prevent a person from making a living (Deut 24:6,12,17); the dignity of those in debt must be respected (Deut 24:10); poor laborers are to be paid immediately (Deut 24:14); the remaining crop of grain, olives and grapes after harvest should serve the poor (Deut 24:19–22).
On the other hand, the Mosaic Law is extremely sexist. And the myths of Genesis often promote extremely immoral acts — Lot offers his own daughters to appease a rapey mob . Lot’s wife is turned to salt for one moment of looking back at the city she spent her entire life in, while God is OK with Lot’s stalling and negotiating. Abraham undergoes the mental anguish of having his God ask him to murder his son. Isaac undergoes a near death experience at the hand of his God. Abraham, Solomon, David, and many other Israelite kings had harems, yet fornication is a capital offense. Wives are always ‘taken’ — consent is almost never mentioned in the Bible. God kills all male firstborn of Egypt for crimes they didn’t commit. Joshua leads a complete genocide against the nations of Canaan, on God’s orders. Samson is a psychotic murderer who God is buddies with. The list goes on and on throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
I appreciate the themes of freedom and personal emancipation found in the Christian scriptures. Jesus was an apostate. He saw what was missing in the religion of his upbringing, and revolutionized it, getting kicked out of the Synagogue in the process — sure social and economic death, at the time. Jesus emphasized love for all, regardless of personal circumstance, and dramatically castigated Pharisaical legalism.
It is quite possible to be inspired by the stories of Jesus, without subscribing to the cult of his death. In fact, the first three gospels never even include the claim that Jesus was divine. Only the last gospel, written by John more than six decades after Jesus’ death (and rejected by some Christians until the 3rd century), presents Jesus as a supernatural figure.
I Don’t Believe in the Concept of Sin and Inherent Guilt
The concept of sin and inherent guilt is so damaging to the psyche. We internalize these feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and powerlessness to a degree that they become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Jesus never directly mentions the idea of original sin. In fact at John 9:2,3, he corrects listeners when he said that the blindness affecting a man he healed was not due to any sin inherent in himself or his parents. In fact, the doctrine of original sin wasn’t even formalized until a couple centuries after Christ, integrating philosophies of Origen, Pelagius, and most notably Augustine.
Of course, we sometimes do things that conflict with our values and ethics. These actions may hurt others. However, instead of holding on to guilt, we should acknowledge our mistake, learn from it, grow, and move forward. We are not born guilty — we need to emancipate ourselves from enslavement to inherent guilt.
I Don’t Believe in the Supernatural
I used to ask fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses all the time what they thought a spirit creature is made of. The Bible speaks of spirit creatures living in a location (heaven), traveling through time and space to Earth, being confined to Earth, among many other descriptions that imply that they are bound to the material world. How can a spirit creature, who is not a physical creation (made of atoms, molecules, etc) be bound to the rules that apply to them?
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” — The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan
I don’t believe in ghosts, spirits, angels, demons, or devils. I was traumatized as a child (like many children of JW and religious parents) by an unnatural fear of harmful spirit creatures. The only demons that exist are the paranoid thought patterns that permit us to terrify ourselves with belief in them.
I Believe My Beliefs Are Incomplete and Subject to Change
Perhaps most importantly, I believe that our beliefs should always be subject to change. As we learn more about our Universe, our world, and ourselves we should always have the humility to abandon beliefs that are no longer valid or healthy.
Another important point — these are my beliefs. We all have a right to them. We can disagree with each other’s beliefs, even debate them, and that’s perfectly OK — even healthy! It’s inevitable that there are disagreements between people who have differing beliefs in a pluralistic society. We have much we can learn from each other.
“Lord, Whom Shall We Go Away To?”
Many of us grew up as Jehovah’s Witnesses. We have no other frame of reference. Others converted to become Jehovah’s Witnesses after critically looking at the beliefs of the religion they grew up with. Whatever your situation, I urge you to examine your beliefs carefully.
If you truly believe that the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society is God’s chosen organization, that the seven men on its Governing Body are God’s representatives, and that Armageddon has been imminent for the last 101 years, by all means do as your conscience dictates.
However if there are beliefs you are uncomfortable with as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, listen to your conscience. Your doubts are valid! Research using a wide variety of materials. Read all the Watchtower publications — including the older ones. Read criticism of your beliefs. This is the only path to having a mature belief system.
What I’ve discovered in myself and in almost every JW I’ve talked to is that many of us have severe doubts about the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but we remain in the organization because we identify with Peter when he said “Lord, whom shall we go away to?”(John 6:68) In other words, “Yes, I know there are problems, but what other organization should we go to? This is the best we can do.”
I have an answer to this question — we should not go away to anyone. The question itself betrays how dependent we are on the Governing Body to decide things on our behalf in all the intimate details of our lives. Jesus did not promote an organization for us to rely on and validate us. We can save ourselves. We are all capable of living happy, productive lives without the need for delusion. We no longer need to be controlled. We can be liberated from the fear of thought crime. We no longer need the Orwellian influence of the Watchtower organization and their Governing Body in every single aspect of our private lives.
The Governing Body’s endless rule making and meddling into the most minute and intimate details of our lives is precisely the Pharisaical behavior Jesus railed against. Revel in not having all the answers. Don’t be afraid to discover and live your own hard earned truth. Don’t defer living for a false future of perfection that will never come. Make the most of now. Take your place in humanity. The real life is now!
As Devon now likes to intermittently (and without warning) yell at the top of her lungs: “It’s good to be alive!!!”
I loved the brotherhood I found among Jehovah’s Witnesses. I still do. However, I’ve expanded my view of brotherhood (and sisterhood!) to include humanity at large. It’s more challenging. We don’t all agree on everything. But I have freedom of mind. And freedom of mind is the most liberating feeling I’ve ever experienced.
After traveling for the last five months through Bali (Indonesia), Koh Lanta (Thailand), Bangkok (Thailand), Lisbon (Portugal), and Amsterdam (Netherlands), Devon and I are currently living in a small town in Italy, on the border between Umbria and Lazio, called Sermugnano. I’ve accepted a job in Amsterdam and we will be moving there at the end of July. We’ve also met several special people on our travels from all around the world, who we are happy to call new friends. The psychological freedom we are enjoying has made us happier now than we have ever been in our lives. (And yes — tattoos hurt, but not too bad.)
JW friends: I think about many of you often. I know what this letter will mean to you, and I want to tell you with all my heart that my feelings for you have not changed. I am still very much the same person, and will continue to welcome your friendship. The choice is yours — my door to you remains wide open. Message me anytime.