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Doing the Right Thing

The ancient Greeks believed that the earth was the center of the universe and, from their observations, that the sun, the moon and the stars revolved around the earth in a circular orbit. It was a comforting thought to many, especially to those who narcissistically believed the universe was created for them. For centuries, Christians held on to that notion, reluctant to wade into the complexities that were offered by the likes of Copernicus and Kepler. The notion that the universe was not centered around the earth and was far more complex then previously understood destroyed their paradigm. It took away their warm blanket, and most importantly it called into question their authority.

Despite the attempts by some to explain complex issues in simplistic terms there is seldom a binary, right or wrong, yes or no explanation. Attempts to do so often lead to false dichotomies. It takes courage that many do not possess to admit they were wrong, that they do not have all the answers, or that the simple black and white explanations they hold so dear are incapable of describing the complexities of the universe.

They want to look at the world–and more importantly–want everyone to look at the world as sixty-four squares on a two-dimensional plane, insisting that only the rules of checkers apply while the rest of the world, still playing on the same board, had the courage to move on to chess where every decision is wrought with opportunity and consequence, and thus, not so easily quantifiable.

Being raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, doing the right thing was a simple equation, one in which the result was always predictable: either I obeyed and measured up to the standard of right–or I did not. For me it was generally the latter. But having the rules simplified and the choices limited, however, allowed a sense of security and false confidence so that whether or not I measured up I could point to exactly which steps or missteps brought me to an undesirable result, (though more often they were graciously pointed out to me), leaving me with the sense that I had the world figured out, that I had a special knowledge that kept me unaccountable and smugly above the unknowing masses.

It was a warm blanket, an insulation against the outside world… and they fostered that fear of the unknown… the outside… the “worldly.”

When Jehovah’s Witnesses, individually or as a group, encounter a former member who challenges them (which is seldom, as they are isolationist) they are often all too quick to point out that the former member is “just bitter and resentful.” It’s almost a pavlovian response that allows them to isolate and marginalize dissenters while still claiming the moral high ground. This way they never have to address any specific issues. instead they can summarily dismiss any conflicting information simply by making the sweeping ad hominem argument that the source is tainted. Although it’s nothing new, it’s very effective.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ define apostasy as “Religious defection; a withdrawal or abandonment of the true cause, worship, and service of God, and hence an abandonment of what one has previously professed and a total desertion of principles or faith … It may properly be said that God’s Adversary was the first apostate, as is indicated by the name Satan.” (Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 1, pp. 126-127).

Notwithstanding the claims of a person’s “total desertion of principles” or complete moral debasement, apostasy puts one in pretty good company.

I am an apostate. That is to say, a heretic, and as with most things “membership has it’s privileges.” Mainly, the privilege of losing most of my family and life-long friends.

Mark Twain called it a privilege that can only be exercised from the grave, because no one would be so foolish as to exercise his right to speak his honest mind before his death, as the cost would be too great. He was half right.

What is so insidious about a group such as Jehovah’s Witnesses’ is how benign they seem to be from an outward appearance or cursory glance. Ask, though, any Jehovah’s witness about someone who has left, what they call “the truth,” and you will get one of two answers; either they are weak and mislead or they are bitter, angry, and don’t want to be accountable to God. God by the way is synonymous with their “Governing Body, a.k.a. “Faithful and Discreet Slave” because they boast they were chosen in 1919 by God, (more semantically speaking, Jesus) to represent him and thus “speak with the authority of God.” And if you have any difficulty believing that, just ask them, they will allay all your doubts with unfounded assurances.

To acknowledge that ernest people of reasonable intelligence have looked objectively at all of the evidence and come to the conclusion that seven men back in New York are not God’s representatives to mankind and in turn do not speak with Godly authority–is simply unacceptable. Thus, instead, the answer is simple: marginalize them, create a mandate that it is a sin against God to speak to such ones, and thus effectively curtail the spread of independent thinking.

Having had some limited interaction with Jehovah’s Witnesses may bring some preconceived notions to mind, but let me assure you that unless you have been under their thumb, or under a similar form of coercive propaganda, you cannot appreciate what a grip it will have on every part of your life, which isn’t surprising considering that I had no idea either… until I tried to leave.

The indoctrination starts early with Witnesses giving children answers of universal implication long before they can formulate the questions for themselves. It inevitably takes hold and through the effective use of fear, guilt and emotional blackmail everything is viewed through this filter.

Unfortunately, children generally believe the “reality” they are presented with. If someone you trusted told you that Bugs Bunny was president everyday of your life until you were eighteen, you would be hard pressed to believe otherwise despite what you might have read in the newspaper, watched on TV, or heard from those that “Satan has blinded the minds of.”

Thus, to leave is more than a departure from a belief system, it’s a departure from an alternate reality, a reality where everything was black and white, right or wrong, to a world of grey. Whereas doing the right thing was once easy and easily defined, now something as simple as a birthday party is wrought with implications, second guessing, and doubt.

I’m thirty-five now, and I have a boy that just turned four.His mother and I are in the final stages of a divorce. She is still staunchly in the religion; I am doing my best to remain staunchly indifferent, though most of the time I’m seething just below the surface. I feel protective of my son and don’t want him to have my same experience. I don’t want him to have to spend the second half of his life undoing the first, as I have, though at times it seems inevitable.

I gave him his first-ever birthday party–against the wishes of his mother and most of the family on both sides. Of course they wouldn’t participate because they believe God condemns birthday celebrations, mainly, they would claim, based on the account in the Bible where King Herod had John the Baptist beheaded at his birthday celebration, though in truth I believe it has more to do with a fear of celebrating the individual, which makes group-think more difficult to maintain.

I’m thankful he’s too young to understand the turmoil and division that something as benign as a birthday party will cause, but I’m not sure I did the right thing by having the party as I know they will make him feel guilty.

Kid’s birthdays should be happy celebrations where nothing goes right amidst a cacophony of screaming kids and ensuing mayhem. At least that’s how they’re always depicted. But this was a party in name only. I did my best not to let on, for my son’s sake, but in truth it felt more like a wake than a party.

During probably the most anemic rendition of happy birthday ever heard, I couldn’t help but notice the absence of all those who would normally have been there to share with him. His grandparents on both sides, his uncles, his aunts, cousins and his mother… all noticeably absent. I couldn’t help but exchange glances with the other expatriates (as I refer to us who have left the religion), all feeling the same uncertainty, not really knowing what we were doing, or more importantly, why we were doing it.

When I was planning his birthday party, I was sure I was doing the right thing… that I would never let that cult affect my actions again–and this was just the beginning.

As I watched the lips of the expatriates barely moving and their voices overpowered by the crinkling of foil balloons, I was troubled by an overwhelming feeling of loss.

Over the months/years prior I had lost most of my friends and most of my family due to being vocal about what I truly thought, yet the loss of those relationships didn’t hurt nearly so much the feeling of loss I felt hearing that hauntingly weak version of “happy birthday.”

I wasn’t sure at the time why I felt this overwhelming loss. It wasn’t until I had time to reflect on it later that I realized the loss I was feeling was the loss of hope; hope that my son would escape the grip of this religion… hope that my taking a stand, even at great cost, would be worth it, because it would free him of the dogma and feelings of guilt that plagued my childhood… hope that he would be free to choose his own path without the manufactured encumbrances of this perceived authority… hope that this was a battle to be won or lost and thus worth fighting.

Instead, in that moment of reflection, it washed over me that this was a battle of attrition to be defined–not in terms of who won or lost–but rather a drawn out, tenuous struggle that could not be avoided and could not be lost, but which would create a lesser person to be had as the spoils.

One of the most accidentally profound things I ever said to my soon-to-be ex-wife came when she asked, “So, if this isn’t the truth, and you don’t know the answers, then what, we just have no hope”?

I responded, “Welcome to the human race, false hope is no hope at all.”

I believe credulity and reverence to be the father and ardent protectors of ignorance and intolerance. My belief in this premise is my only solace… that he is my son, so likely he will grow up to be incredulous and skeptical, if not cynical.

Despite ignorance always speaking with the most authority, the faith I’ve chosen is faith in my son to become an independent thinker, to overcome the obstacles they put before him. The decisions I make for him in the meantime, like so many other things I’m discovering, can’t be thought of in terms of right or wrong that can only be judged by time. And the only thing I can be sure of is that the right thing to do is to welcome him to the human race, and thus free him from those standing guard at the kiddie pool by teaching him to wade into the deep end with the rest of humanity.