by Heather Ransom
Heather Ransom is a PhD student at Edge Hill University. She is currently researching the effects of religious ostracism when leaving the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Specifically, she is exploring the impact on identity, self-esteem and belonging, as well as wider detriments to mental health and wellbeing.
Leaving a high-control faith behind – An auto-ethnographic account
Note: All scriptures quoted are from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, as used by Jehovah’s Witnesses (the JW version of the Bible)
My relationship with the Bible started in infancy. My mother, a perfect example of Jehovah’s Witness (JWs) recruitment, was a doorstep convert when she was 22 years old. Consequently, myself and my siblings were raised in a strict, Bible-based religious environment, with ‘the meetings’ (church) three times a week. We also had an active preaching schedule every Saturday morning (door knocking). My father did not convert, despite my mother’s dominant personality, which meant we came from what was described as a ‘divided household’.
My early life of ‘inculcation’ (Deuteronomy 6:6,7) into the JW faith included a plethora of images of paradise (Psalms 37:10,11), interspersed with those of death and destruction as described in the Bible. Zechariah 14:12 remains dominant in my mind. Here, the destruction of the ungodly is described:
their flesh will rot away while they stand on their feet, their eyes will rot away in their sockets, and their tongues will rot away in their mouths.
Scriptures such as this one, and the powerful imagery used in the literature to convey Armageddon, had a significant impact on my young mind, and kept me in fear for many years. Interestingly, the only mention of Armageddon in the Bible is in Revelation 16:16, yet it forms one of the main tenets of the JW faith. Believing that the world was full of wickedness, and that the JWs are the one true faith, I was taught that soon ‘Jehovah’ (the vocalisation of the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH together with the vowels of the Hebrew word for ‘LORD’ that is pronounced) would annihilate all those who do not believe, and as long as I stayed faithful, I would live forever in paradise.
After decades of devout membership, and for many reasons, I decided to leave the JWs. The maltreatment I experienced from the elders (church leaders), which felt both spiritually and psychologically abusive, made me start to question the love that is supposed to mark true Christians (John 13:34,35). I started to analyse critically, the shunning doctrine, and could not align this with the tenets of scripture regarding love (Love never fails – 1 Corinthians 13:8), judging (Stop judging, that you may not be judged – Matthew 7:1-5), forgiveness (If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you – Matthew 6: 14,15) and imperfection (We all stumble many times – James 3:2). It seemed to me that when a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is at their lowest ebb, disfellowshipping them (being forced to leave – similar to excommunication) for their ‘sins’ and, in doing so, depriving them of the assistance they need is akin to depriving a sick person of their medication
Described as a loving arrangement, JWs are required to shun those who have been disfellowshipped. This has a two-fold purpose: (1) to protect the congregation from the influence of the defector, and (2) to motivate the ex-member to return to the fold. However, more recently, former JWs who had left voluntarily (as I did), have also reported experiencing shunning from their family and friends.
Consequently, JWs are considered a high-cost group (Scheitle & Adamczyk, 2010) as exiting, whether forced (disfellowshipped) or voluntary, typically has negative consequences. These might include, amongst others, loss of supportive ties, challenges to self-perceptions and psychological distress. The adverse effects of ostracism are well-established within the wider psychological literature (Case & Williams, 2004; Wesselmann & Williams, 2017; Williams, 2001; Williams, 2007). Although there has been diminutive research amongst former JWs, leaving religiously exclusive groups generally has been associated with diminished wellbeing; in addition, ostracism (religious shunning), amongst other things, has been identified as a barrier to exit (Scheitle & Adamczyk, 2010).
As I traversed my own journey upon leaving the JWs, it became apparent that leaving experiences and outcomes were not the same. I wanted to explore if there were differences in wellbeing between those who had been disfellowshipped compared to those who had left voluntarily. I also aimed to examine the impact of forming alternative social support following religious exit. For example, social media groups set up by former JWs may act as a buffer against the effects of shunning, by allowing former members to build new relationships. Finally, I wanted to assess whether earlier socialisation into the JWs (being born and raised JW), as opposed to adult conversion, may differentially affect the process of identity transition post-exit.
Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses
The Bible retains a significant influence within Christian religions, and although modernity has meant that some Christian faiths have adopted modern concepts, such as female priests/vicars, more fundamentalist Christian religions have not. This is perhaps, in part, due to scriptures such as 1 Timothy 2:11, 12 where the apostle Paul states:
Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but she is to remain silent.
Similarly, other Bible verses paint the woman as inferior in intellect. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 states that if a woman wants to learn something, she must ask her husband at home, as it would be a disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in the congregation. Further, submission to the male is encouraged in passages which urge women to have deep respect, a quiet and mild spirit, and to be subject to their husbands. Indeed, the scriptures relate that Sarah referred to her husband Abraham as ‘Lord’ (1 Peter 3:6), and although there are some positive female references in the Bible (for example, the prophetess Deborah), derogatory figures are often portrayed as female. The great harlot of Revelation 18:1 for example, and the nation of Israel, referred to as an unfaithful wife in Ezekiel 16, with the entire chapter peppered with references to prostitution. Similarly, the book of Jeremiah chapters 2-5 describes Israel as a woman trained in wickedness, stained with the blood of the innocent (2:33, 34), and having the brazen look of a wife who commits prostitution (3:3).
In light of this less-than-positive view of women often portrayed in the Bible, it could be postulated that attitudes in some fundamentalist-style religions who adhere closely to the scriptures remain archaic in nature. Indeed, the qualitative data I have recorded as part of my doctoral thesis offers some support for the notion that fundamentalist organisations, such as the JWs, may mean women are not taken seriously when it comes to issues such as domestic violence and misogyny. For example, one participant was prevented from reporting domestic violence to the authorities, because of the ‘reproach it would bring upon Jehovah’s name, and to the congregation’. This respondent was ‘disfellowshipped’ from the congregation for talking about the abuse, rather than keeping silent, and thus cut off from all her social support.
Being disfellowshipped from the JWs is a serious matter. Congregants are not permitted to talk to disfellowshipped ones; therefore, anyone disfellowshipped is effectively silenced. There are many reasons for which a JW can be disfellowshipped, these include, but are not limited to: sex before marriage (fornication), sex outside of marriage (adultery), all forms of homosexuality, viewing pornography, smoking tobacco, drug taking and gambling. Other JWs leave the religion of their own free will because they find the way of life restrictive, or have experienced what they perceive as unjust treatment. Nevertheless, despite the method of exit, former JWs typically report religious ostracism from their family, friends and the congregation in general.
In conclusion, although ostracism is well-researched, religious ostracism remains a harmful phenomenon in contemporary society, the effects of which are under-explored. By studying religious ostracism, and recognising its harmful effects, including exploring the factors which may affect outcomes, attempts may be made to offer further support to those who transition out of high cost religions such as the JWs.
Case, T. I., & Williams, K. D. (2004). Ostracism : A metaphor for death. New York : Guilford Press.
Scheitle, C. P., & Adamczyk, A. (2010). High-cost religion, religious switching, and health. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. doi:10.1177/0022146510378236
Wesselmann, E. D., & Williams, K. D. (2017). ‘Social life and social death: Inclusion, ostracism, and rejection in groups’. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 20(5), 693-706. doi:10.1177/1368430217708861
Williams, K. D. (2001a). Ostracism : The power of silence. New York: Guilford Press.
Williams, K. D. (2007). ‘Ostracism: The kiss of social death’. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 236-247. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00004.x