Disowning a Daughter Over a Church

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader from South Carolina has a heartbreaking story:

I am 31 years old. I was raised in a strict bi-cultural (Af-American and Nigerian) Jehovah’s Witness family, one of six children. Though it’s generally looked down upon for JWs to attend liberal arts universities (vocational schools are recommended), I somehow convinced my parents to allow me to go to university and major in theater (!!).

I was always really devout, but I harbored doubts about the teachings since I was a child. I finally came clean to my family about it at the end of my first year of college when I was 19 years old and told them that I no longer wanted to be a JW.

After heart to hearts with each family member, all five of my siblings and my parents stopped talking to me. I was followed around town by members of the church. My family withdrew financial support.

Though I had plenty exposure to shunning and excommunication, I was naive enough to believe that my family would never do that. I thought if I was honest they would respect my decision and embrace me. Nope. I can’t even begin to describe the depression and loneliness that ensued.

Recovery has been a long process. I’ve been very proactive and I guess I’m fairly  resilient. I ended up transferring schools a year after the shunning. I left my hometown in South Carolina and finished my degree at Temple University. I am doing an MA in journalism next fall. I’ve done some research on religious shunning and have interviewed lots of folks from various religious backgrounds who have been shunned. I also co-facilitated a workshop last fall for people who have been shunned or have endured other forms of spiritual abuse. I’m working on an investigative piece about the practice.

Thanks for posing this question about religious choice. I think it’s an important part of making this conversation a part of a larger dialogue, something I think is a major part of my life’s work.

To join the dialogue, drop us an email. Update from a Jehovah’s Witness reader:

I am a Witness, been one for over 30 years. As Witnesses we don’t look down on education, although in light of them last days we are living in, one is wise to focus on what is priority. Ultimately it is one’s decision and is respected.  

Also, if this daughter was baptized and then chose not to continue, she is not ostracized. But I would prefer to socialize more with those who serve God. Now if she were practicing wicked and immoral behaviors condemned as willful sin and was disfellowship, then this is from scripture: 1st Corinth 5:9-13. It is a loving provision from God for the person to recapacitate as well, as to keep the congregation clean. It’s not from the church as in a doctrine opted; it is from God’s own word, the ultimate authority.

From a reader who has clearly not chosen the JW path:


I once told a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses that I could never become one. They asked why not? My reply may help: I could never be a part of something that does not allow their members to investigate for themselves what other churches believe. You can be excommunicated by the Jehovah’s Witness organization if you even enter a building owned by another church. [CB note: That seems dubious, especially without a source, which I couldn’t readily find.] I could not be a part of such an organization because such a position is fear driven.

If what you believe can not survive the scrutiny in the public market place, then frankly it is a false religion. To have such restrictions against exposure to any other belief structure demonstrates a fear of not being capable of carrying the day with you argument. In other words, you can’t win the argument, so you just tell your people you cannot investigate—period.

There have been repeated alterations and changes in the writings of the JW teaching, and they have done their best to remove any of the older publications from the marketplace. They have predicted the second coming a number of times, and when it didn’t materialize they had to say “Oh He (Jehovah) came, but it was secretly to just a few of the chosen.

I was once invited to Passover by a young JW who was neatly attired with his little sister. He came to my home (the parsonage) and invited me to Passover. I asked him why he would invite me to something I could not participate in (only the 144,000 can partake of Passover).  His reply was, “I would like to study the bible with you.” I replied “I don’t think your ‘congregation Servant’ would want you to do that.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses will only study with you as long as they perceive that they are the teachers and you are the student. If at any point they think that position has changed, they will trade off with other teachers, or cancel the studies all together. They are afraid of any other material other than “The one true channel of truth,” which they believe the “Watchtower Bible and Tract Society” to be.