Many people are aware of the Jehovah’s Witnesses but know little more than the fact that they have a door to door preaching ministry. Not many people, including current members, are aware of what happens when you try to leave the group. Officially published information on the topic is scarce, but I will reference as many of their publications as possible. I will also include my own experience of leaving this high control group. With that in mind, what happens when someone leaves the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
When someone leaves the Jehovah’s Witnesses they are subjected to emotional abuse and shunning. There’s no option available to simply leave the group without severe consequences. Once an individual is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their friends and family are forbidden from speaking to them.
Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses is no laughing matter. In this article, I want to explain why so many Jehovah’s Witnesses leave the organization, the three ways that Jehovah’s Witnesses try to get out of the organization, how former members are treated, and how ex Jehovahs Witnesses cope with the sudden loss of their entire social network and even their identity.
Do Jehovah Witnesses shun former members?
No matter how you leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you will be shunned afterward. The goal of announcing when someone leaves is to shame them and direct all current members to shun them. The book “Organized To Do Jehovah’s Will” makes this clear on page 152 where it says regarding the announcement: “This will alert faithful ones in the congregation to stop associating with that person.” If anyone fails to shun this person, they too will get disciplined and disfellowshipped if they fail to comply.
People who leave, by their own choice or not, are viewed as evil people who should never be associated with. According to their doctrine, anyone who leaves the cult will be personally killed by Jehovah at Armageddon. Families will even abandon their loved ones, refusing to even acknowledge them. It is not uncommon for teenagers to be kicked out of their parent’s house as soon as it is legal to do so. If you happen to work for a Jehovah’s Witness, leaving the organization means you will probably be fired from your job.
The only way to end this punishment is to return to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A process that can easily take a year or more. In order to return you need to meet any criteria set by the Elders and cut off all contact with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses. This means that you cannot be friends with anyone who isn’t a Jehovah’s Witnesses, while simultaneously nobody who is a Jehovah’s Witness will speak to you. It is a lonely and emotionally abusive process that has pushed many to suicide.
Why do people leave Jehovah’s Witnesses?
There are many reasons people choose to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Often, former members simply no longer believe in the religion. Perhaps after dedicating a significant amount of their life to it.
Some common reasons people leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses are:
- Realizing that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult.
- Learning about the policies in place that protect pedophiles.
- Becoming uncomfortable with the organization’s support of Nazis in the 1930s.
- Discovering the many times the cult has called for the end of the world, including 1914, 1919, 1925, and 1975.
1. Many decide to leave the Jehovahs Witnesses when they find out it is a cult
People living inside of a cult rarely realize that they are in a cult, it’s just the life they know. in fact, Dr. Hassan puts it this way on page 80 of his book Combatting Cult Mind Control: “Ironically, members of cults look down on anyone involved in any other cult groups. They are very quick to acknowledge that “Those people are in a cult” or “They are the ones who are brainwashed.” They are unable to step out of their own situations and look at themselves objectively.”
Waking up to the fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult can be difficult to accept. However, the knowledge motivates many members to escape, and to live life on their own terms.
2. Many leave when they find out that the Jehovah’s Witnesses harbor pedophiles
In 2013 the Austrian Royal Commission looked into many organizations for evidence of child sexual abuse. Within the Watchtower organization, they found over 1,000 pedophiles resulting in some 1,800 child victims. Since members of Jehovah’s Witnesses are told they are the one true religion, many find this shocking. Especially knowing that Witness publications have called out the Catholic Church for its improper handling of child sexual assault cases.
3. Many leave when they learn about the organization’s troubled history, including support of Nazis
Joseph Rutherford was Watchtower’s second president and an anti-Semite.
The 1934 Yearbook puts it plainly: “The conference came to the conclusion that there are no contradictions when it comes to the relationship between the Bible Researchers [Jehovah’s Witnesses] of Germany to the national government of the German Reich. To the contrary, referring to the purely religious and unpolitical goals and efforts of the Bible Researchers, it can be said that these are in full agreement with the identical goals of the national government of the German Reich.”
4. Many become tired of the repeated false predictions
The Watchtower organization, which became the Jehovah’s Witnesses later, has existed for over 140 years. Throughout their history, they have claimed that the end of the world is imminent. Occasionally they will pick a specific year for Armageddon to come, including 1914, 1925, and 1975, among others. Spoiler alert, they have been wrong every time, and we are all still here.
|“Many groups have timetables for the apocalypse, which tends to be two to five years away—far enough not to be discredited any time soon, near enough to carry emotional punch. These predictions have a way of fading into the background as the big date approaches. In other groups, the timetable is believed right until it actually fails to come true.”|
Page 83, Combatting Cult Mind Control
For me personally, I left the organization for two reasons. One was learning that the doctrine is based on inaccurate history. For example, the core doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses is based on a prophecy. In short, it says that Jerusalem’s destruction in the year 607 BCE shows that we are living “in the last days”. However, Jerusalem was actually destroyed in 587 BCE. In addition, I was no longer willing to support an organization that protects pedophiles.
How do you get out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Unfortunately, no one is free to resign or leave the group without the harsh consequences of shunning. Sure, the JW.ORG article “Can a Person Resign From Being One of Jehovah’s Witnesses?” says that you can, but what they fail to mention is what happens to a Jehovah’s Witness when they “resign”. This is just another tactic used by almost all cults to create an impression of the freedom to leave when really, there isn’t. This is beautifully explained in Dr. Hassan’s book, Combatting Cult Mind Control.
|“When cult leaders tell the public “Members are free to leave any time they want; the door is open,” they give the impression that members have free will and are simply choosing to stay. Actually, members may not have a real choice, because they have been indoctrinated to have a phobia of the outside world. Induced phobias eliminate the psychological possibility of a person choosing to leave the group merely because he is unhappy or wants to do something else”|
Page 65, Combatting Cult Mind Control
The leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses has never admitted that any valid reasons to leave the religion exist. In fact, the July 1st, 1984 issue of Watchtower magazine goes so far as to say that anyone who leaves their religion has decided “to leave the way of truth”.
Contrast this to the July 2009 issue of Awake! magazine which says: “No one should be made to worship in a way they find unacceptable, or be made to choose between their beliefs and their family.” This quote is applied to all other religions, except for the Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. In effect, nobody should be forced to worship a specific way, unless it is their way.
These two quotes highlight the hypocrisy within the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They teach, as all cults do, that there is never a reason to leave. Similar to an abusive relationship they, in effect, tell their members that leaving them is always a mistake.
There are three ways to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but from a practical standpoint the end result is the same:
- Disfellowshipping: The most common way of leaving. This involves being accused of a “serious sin”, a breach of one of the cult’s many written or unwritten rules. This can range from having sex, growing a beard, or having a bad attitude. Some people are disfellowshipped simply for upsetting an Elder. Once disfellowshipped your name is read to the congregation, “so and so is no longer one of Je
- Disassociating: This is quitting Jehovah’s Witnesses versus getting kicked out, however, the end result is identical. You write a letter stating that you are no longer wish to be a Jehovah’s Witness and mail it in. The Elders will attempt to contact you to set up a judicial meeting. The exact same announcement is made as if you were disfellowshipped.
- Fading: Some people attempt to fade from Jehovah’s WItnesses. This is a difficult procedure that involves pretending to be an active member, while slowly ending your participation. The goal is to stop attending meetings, door to door preaching, etc, without anyone noticing. Elders are trained to look for anyone who is “spiritually weak” and stop them from fading, so this is not an easy task.
In short, there are no good options for leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses. No option is available for members to simply stop participating and move on with their lives.
How do former members cope after leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
|“It can be extremely painful for a person to walk out of a destructive cult and have to deal with the havoc and emotional damage that his membership caused”|
Page 177, Combatting Cult Mind Control
Leaving a cult is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses want to leave but choose not to due to the extreme difficulty of getting out. It is not uncommon for people who leave to feel hopeless and suicidal. But there is hope for people in this position. Some things that former members have found to help include:
- exJW Communities: There are many online communities for former Jehovah’s Witnesses. These include the r/exjw subreddit, Facebook groups, or in-person groups on websites such as Meetup.
- Therapy: Mental health is extremely important. Being a cult survivor myself, I can attest that therapy has helped me process what I went through and move on with my life.
- Hobbies: Jehovah’s Witnesses are cautioned against having hobbies. Former members now have the freedom to learn to make art, music, or anything else they desire.
- Making Friends: Despite what Jehovah’s Witnesses tell their members about non-members, most people are good people. Making an effort to meet and befriend new people can be very rewarding.
Are the Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult?
You may have noticed that I use the word “cult” to describe the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This label would come as a shock to most, and any active Jehovah’s Witness would quickly reject the label. They certainly would never admit, or even realize, that they are a cult, so how do we know that they are in fact a cult?
According to the BITE model developed by cult expert Dr. Hassan, the Jehovah’s Witnesses qualify as a cult and a high control group by controlling member’s behavior, access to information, thoughts, and emotions.
For the purpose of this article, it is sufficient to examine a few points of the BITE model and how they apply to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The full BITE model, and how the Jehovah’s Witnesses relate to it, is available on Dr. Hassen’s website.
B – Behavior Control
Behavior Control is the first major component of the “cult mind control model” employed by most cults and high control groups. According to Dr. Hassan’s book “Combatting Cult Mind Control”, behavior control involves “the regulation of an individual’s physical reality” [page 60, Combatting Cult Mind Control] by imposing rigorous schedules, in the case of the Witnesses, the number of hours spent preaching door to door, attending meetings and volunteer work, are tracking intensively. But why are Jehovah’s Witnesses so tightly regulated?
|“In such a well-regulated environment, all behaviors can be either rewarded or punished. It serves the leadership to keep their members off balance… Obedience to a leader’s command is the most important lesson to learn. The leaders cannot command someone’s inner thoughts, but they know that if they command behavior, hearts and minds will follow.”|
Page 61, Combatting Cult Mind Control
I – Information Control
Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid members to spread or read any information critical of the group, even if it is completely true. And even if a Jehovah’s Witness is exposed to such information, they are essentially brainwashed to overlook it, or pass it off as “apostate lies”. Dr. Hassan explains: “People are trapped in destructive cults because they are not only denied access to critical information but also lack the properly functioning internal mechanisms to process it. Such information control has a dramatic and devastating impact.” [Page 65, Combatting Cult Mind Control].
Speaking to former members to get their side of the story is also strictly forbidden. In Dr. Hassan’s book, he explains that cults “do a very thorough job of convincing people that former members are satanic and that even being in their presence could be dangerous.” [Page 3, Combatting Cult Mind Control].
In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, ex-members are called apostates and are avoided like a plague. A statement printed by the organization in an April 15th, 2013 Watchtower article is a prime example, stating that “Strong hope enables us to resist apostates and their gangrenous empty speeches.”
All the while, members are constantly reminded that they are not to trust any literature, or websites not produced by the organization [Kingdom Ministry Sep 2007 p.3] and that “it is not necessary to spend a lot of time and energy in research, for there are brothers in the organization who are assigned to that very thing” [Watchtower 1967 Jun 1 p.338]
T – Thought Control
In Dr. Hassan’s book, though control involves thoroughly internalizing the group’s doctrine, and adopt the group’s “loaded language” that refers to its teachings as “the truth”, information that is absolute dividing everything into a “black and white, us vs. them” belief system. Everything that is good is attributed to the group’s leadership and all that is bad is attributed to the outside world.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses did do this brilliantly, in an article titled “Breathing This World’s “Air” Is Death-Dealing!” where they stated, “Let the world go along in its way, reaping its bad fruitage in the form of broken homes, illegitimate births, sexually transmitted diseases, such as AIDS, and countless other emotional and physical woes.” and in another article, “Set Apart from the World”, that when it comes to worldly people (non-Jehovah’s Witnesses), “a nice exterior can conceal wicked intents.”
|Jehovah’s Witnesses control the thoughts of members by using loaded language and refer to their belief system as the “Truth” whereby everyone else is controlled by Satan. This results in members’ emotions being manipulated by fears and phobias|
The BITE Model and the Jehovah’s Witnesses – Freedomofmind.com
“A[nother] key aspect of thought control involves training members to block out any information which is critical of the group”. [Page 62, Combatting Cult Mind Control]. When confronted with critical information, Jehovah’s Witnesses are told, from the Watchtower, that “We need not conclude that we have to read a book or a pamphlet that is filled with slander and half-truths in order to refute the false claims and teachings of opposers.”
E – Emotional Control
Emotions are manipulated by inducing fears and phobias through the constant bombardment of Watchtower propaganda. The fear of dying at Armageddon, or being shunned by family members after being disfellowshipped.
|“Despite our pain of heart, we must avoid normal contact with a disfellowshipped family member by telephone, text messages, letters, e-mails, or social media.” |
Watchtower 2017 Oct p.16
Members are also taught that they must outright avoid all association with disfellowshipped loved ones until they return to the organization. A highly manipulative tactic that exploits the emotions of loved ones. Members are constantly made to feel guilt and shame about their “sins”, no matter how inconsequential. They are taught to be terrified of leaving and that there is no happiness outside of the cult.
|“By cutting off contact with the disfellowshipped or disassociated one, you are showing that you hate the attitudes and actions that led to that outcome. However, you are also showing that you love the wrongdoer enough to do what is best for him or her. Your loyalty to Jehovah may increase the likelihood that the disciplined one will repent and return to Jehovah.”|
Watchtower 2011 Feb 15 p.32
Leaving the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not a decision to take lightly. Whether you get disfellowshipped, voluntarily disassociate, or fade, you will be shunned by your entire social network, including immediate family members.
This shunning is essentially emotional abuse, exploiting that leavers’ emotions to force them to come back and serve the organization, by holding their families at ransom. Many have committed suicide as a result of the rejection by their loved ones.
Members of the group leave for various reasons. Some want to leave after realizing that they are in a dangerous cult, or learn that the organization enforces policies that protect pedophiles. Some learn about the organization’s support of the Nazis in the 1930s, and others discover that the organization has made countless failed “end of the world” predictions in the past.
When a Jehovah’s Witness realizes the truth about their religion, they suffer extreme cognitive dissonance as they are forced to pretend that they are still loyal to the organization. Some cannot cope with this extreme pressure as members are required to spend hours upon hours a week preaching door to door and attending meetings filled with dangerous teachings. The only option for those is to formally leave by either getting disfellowshipped or voluntarily disassociating, however, either way, they will lose all their loved ones to shunning.
But not all hope is lost. There are tens of thousands of ex Jehovah’s Witnesses all over the world who are there for each for assistance. there are also online communities that can offer help. Many Ex Jehovahs witnesses have found it helpful to get therapy, as well as take on hobbies, something that they have been deprived of their entire lives.