The Choice to Get Baptized by Jehovah's Witnesses, Cont'd

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

“No one chose this imprisonment.” That’s our latest reader pushing back on the previous one, both of whom were raised by JWs but developed very different attitudes toward the church and its practice of disfellowshipping—the complete shunning of an apostate JW by both congregants and family members. Here’s her story:

I’d like to offer a reply to the reader who split hairs on the free preconditions of baptism and disfellowshipping. She presumes that the commitment to baptism is a free one, and that the consequences of breaking the commitment are thus chosen. Perhaps this is the case for adults who have life experience with which they can actually make an measured decision about what it means to “be no part of the world.”

What if you’ve never been in the world? Or what if your experience of the world is completely filtered through Watchtower-shaped lenses?

I am an on-the-books Witness, having taken the plunge at 14. I was pressured by my family, congregation, and friends to “get baptized” and was obsessed by the fear of being “worldly”—as in, under the influence of Satan the Devil, not a sophisticated, smart, and cosmopolitan person (When I realized that that was what “worldly” meant to everyone else, I had to laugh. I really had no idea).

Many people “raised in the Truth” (what Witnesses call their faith) are encouraged to get baptized in their teens. If they don’t, they are looked at a bit askance. My best friend and I used to fervently discuss whether we would be kept out of the Paradise for swearing, listening to Nirvana, or checking out skater boys. If we got baptized, we reasoned, we’d be protected.

This is not an uncommon belief, and it is utterly reasonable for a religion of myriad behavioral restrictions. After baptism, we would stop even wanting to be “worldly” because we wouldn’t be anymore! And when she did get baptized, she seemed so righteous. So I did it, too.  I was terrified of being shunned or otherwise left ungirded in a world that had been described since childhood as a place where Satan walked around invisibly, just waiting to eat you up.

Witnesses strive to limit their members’ social world to only “the friends” (what they are, and what everyone else isn’t). I wanted to fit in, please my parents, and do what I thought would save me. I was bright, highly adept at acting as though I believed everything I ought to—so adept that I fooled not only the elders and my parents, but myself.

I’ve been “inactive” for over a decade, and the reason I’m not disfellowshipped is because I refuse to subject myself to the “judicial” procedures your reader describes. If I were to become disfellowshipped, I know that my parents and brother would probably stop talking to me, and my mother has said as much. So, I remain in a limbo, which I don’t mind at all, considering that I think the entire process is abused and abusive.

Your reader’s mother, according to her own description, used the disfellowshipping process as a method of skewering her father (she doesn’t say what “actions” the father did) so that she could be free to marry someone else. She went through all that process rather than questioning the rule.

I’ve seen this play out painfully. I watched our neighbor get into her car from my driveway as a small child as my mother told me: “You can’t talk to Anna anymore.” Anna (I’m using pseudonyms, to ensure privacy) was a woman I knew since birth, who cared for me as a baby, whose yard I played in and whose snacks I ate and whose dog bit me. I found out later than Anna got disfellowshipped “on purpose": She had had sex with another guy, Bill, in the congregation, so they could both leave their spouses, knowing they’d get disfellowshipped.

Anna and Bill did marry, but that was not the primary purpose for the adultery. Anna’s husband, Mark, was gay (a fact I also found out later; I don’t know why Bill needed out of his marriage nor should I need to know). Mark's second wife Nancy, who was an anointed Witness (one of those few chosen to serve in heaven), left him too (for a woman).

Anna and Nancy probably did not realize that they were marrying a gay man. Not only were they forbidden from having any sexual intimacy before marriage, Mark was forbidden from admitting his sexuality. Everyone lost.

No one chose this imprisonment. The strictures of the religion are so numerous and invasive that the way they end up playing out in the real world are absurd and incredibly sad. My own parents told me that they had considered divorcing and were at the point of deciding who would do the cheating-disfellowshipping combo to free them.

Disfellowshipping, as your reader mentions, is the way the religion keeps itself “clean.” From what, exactly? Mustachioed gay men who love musical theater and porkpie hats? (That was Mark, to a T.)

If a religion’s grasp on reality is so tenuous that it depends on painful and complicated measures of shunning to make sure it’s “clean,” it qualifies for criticism. Doing so isn’t “misinformation or intolerance,” as your reader puts it.

Update from one more anonymous reader, who complicates our JW discussion even further:

I was mostly raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was baptized at 13. I attended and graduated from an Ivy League university while still an active member. I stopped attending meetings when I was in my mid-20s. I had done nothing that would warrant my disfellowshipping, though I am sure at this point I have.

Though I am no longer an active member, my mother is. We maintain a close relationship. She is, objectively, a lovely human being. We just don’t see eye to eye about some things. I think we are at peace with that, though I can’t pretend it wasn’t difficult at first.

These facts would seem to make me an anomaly among the voices that have so far been published. I know that I am not. I know many people in similar situations who made the choice to leave the religion, or simply drifted away, and were not shunned by their families.

Some occasionally participate, some never do. I know many, many “complicated” Jehovah's Witnesses family—married couples where one is a Jehovah’s Witness and one is an active member of another church, and where people move in and out of levels of active involvement, disassociate themselves, become disfellowshipped, become reinstated.

Of course, as in any group, there is great social pressure to conform. I don’t find this to be an exclusively JW phenomenon. If I had not been more or less raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (although my father was not a member, and in fact most of my family members are not), I would not have gotten baptized. Then again, social pressure or not, I chose it at the time. Many in my peer group were baptized years after I was, or not at all.

Some churches baptize infants. That baptism may become essentially meaningless to that individual, as mine eventually became to me. It just happened at different times.

I also attended Catholic elementary/middle school, which did not at all jeopardize my baptism or standing in the church. I was excused from Mass, as were the Muslim students in the school. I had Jehovah;s Witness friends who attended the same college as me. When I return home to visit my mother, I am not ignored on the street by Jehovah’s Witnesses I knew growing up.

I suppose my point is that while it is a much smaller, and therefore much less well understood religious group, it is no more or less constricting than other religious experiences. Some people believe fervently, some barely at all but just go with it to keep the peace at home.

I don’t agree with all of the Jehovah's Witness belief system, and that is why I left. I am against organized religion entirely. However, I believe that religion at its best provides a support community to its adherents, especially during difficult times, and if that’s what anyone gets out of religious observance, more power to them.

Update from yet another former JW, Rachel:

I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, although I was very skeptical of the teachings. By the time I was 16, my social life was severely impacted by my hesitation to get baptized. Since I wasn’t allowed any friendships with non-JWs, I got baptized to solve the problem. My sister was baptized at the same time, although she was only 12.

I tried my best to fit into the religion, but gradually fell away from the homophobia, gossip, and informal shunning. I still believed, but I had no desire for an eternal life with my fellow congregants under any circumstances.

A few years later, my sister got married. I had a panic attack in the parking lot of the Kingdom Hall, terrified of the shunning I was about to face, even though I wasn’t disfellowshipped. After this experience, something felt so wrong that I had to resolve it. I started researching online, finding information on the origins of the religion and the corruption and indifference of it’s leadership. I kept quiet about all of this, never discussing it with my still-in family.

A few years later, my then-fiance became embroiled in a drama within his family that led to his father being disfellowshipped. I was not involved, but since he was on their radar, so was I. I received a series of certified letters, which I never picked up.

Then, one Saturday, as I came in from my run, I saw two elders on my porch. There was no where to hide. They told me I had been disfellowshipped in absentia. I hadn’t been to a meeting in over eight years at that point, did not consider myself a Jehovah’s Witness, and never spoke about the religion with anyone.

My sister only speaks to me at funerals. My mother is more lenient. My father and brothers have left the religion. But it is as if a bomb went off in my family. We are never in the same room together. We are distant, and rarely have contact. Years have been lost between us.

I’ve moved to another state, where no JW knows me. Sometimes I pass by a Kingdom Hall, and I feel so badly for them.