Convention speech: Amber Scorah — The challenge of leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses

This is an edited version of the speech Amber Scorah gave at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 19, 2019. She was introduced by FFRF Programs Manager Kristina Daleiden:

Amber Scorah is the author of the moving memoir Leaving the Witness, which details her experience growing up as Jehovah’s Witness, moving to China to become a missionary and coming to question the beliefs that she had been taught and eventually leaving that religion. After suffering the tragic loss of her 4-month-old son, Amber became a parental leave advocate, bringing this issue to the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign. She also penned an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Surviving the death of my son after the death of my faith.” “Oprah” magazine said that Leaving the Witness was one of the best books of summer and The New York Times called it one of 12 new books to watch. Amber is a Canadian writer living in Brooklyn.

Please join me in welcoming Amber Scorah.

By Amber Scorah

First of all, it’s amazing to be here. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and women were never allowed to give talks. It’s my guess that everyone in this room either has known a Jehovah’s Witness or has had one approach them to preach to them.

But so many people feel like they don’t really understand what the Jehovah’s Witnesses are about and why there isn’t more information from ex-members out there.

Jehovah’s Witnesses fly under the greater cultural radar, in many ways, because of the way its own culture is set up. As a Jehovah’s Witness, you are raised to believe that you must keep separate from the world.

This is why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t vote, don’t get involved in charity work, are told not to go to college or pursue any kind of career, don’t get too close to people or have relationships with anyone who is a nonbeliever. Any person who is not a Witness is considered “worldly” and a bad association. The outside is Satan’s world.

Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, I was taught I was different. And this was reinforced by many of the arbitrary things the Witnesses pull out of the bible and pronounce as necessary for salvation. No blood, which obviously meant that if you were dying and needed a blood transfusion, you’d have to accept death. No Christmas, no singing carols. We’d have to sit outside. When someone had a birthday in the classroom, we weren’t allowed to eat the cake. We couldn’t date or marry a non-Jehovah’s Witness. Our time was to be used for preaching, to save as many as we could before Armageddon.

No dirty laundry

You don’t see many books by people like me, who leave the religion, because the leaders of the group strongly forbid anyone from airing any of the organization’s dirty laundry.

This applies to very minor issues. For example, we were told constantly that even if a brother cheats us, we shouldn’t take him to court. And it extends to very serious issues, where parents are told not to go to the police when their child has been sexually abused by someone within the congregation. The idea behind this is that the most important thing is that God’s chosen ones be protected. They don’t want God to look bad.

Of course, you might think, if you leave, then you’re no longer bound by this rule, right?

But what happens when you leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, like I did, is that you are shunned. This is quite a severe punishment for people who have been taught to build their entire lives around an organization, and who, as a result, have very few ties anywhere else.

This shunning is bad enough, but if a person takes it one step further and speaks out about the organization, or their doubts, or anything that they feel is wrong within the organization, in any kind of a public way, that person is labeled an apostate.

This is a very scary brand to receive. Apostasy, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, is the one sin God will never forgive. “Apostates” like me would be described in very terrifying terms. They were “mentally diseased,” “criminals,” “lower than a snake” with “characteristics like the devil.”

Even after I wrote my book and didn’t believe in the religion anymore, you feel the power of that community lasts even after you’ve left. The last thing I wanted to be was that horrible apostate character we’ve been warned about. I didn’t want to be seen that way, even by people who no longer spoke to me. I didn’t want to be “mentally diseased”!

Yet here I am, out here in Satan’s world!

Path to freedom

The path to finding my freedom happened in one of the most restrictive countries in the world: China.

When I was in my 20s, after spending years knocking on doors in my home city of Vancouver, Canada, to not much in the way of results — you all know what you do when a Jehovah’s Witness calls! — I decided to learn Mandarin Chinese and travel to China to preach. China was the one place that had not received a Witness, and I wanted to give them a chance to convert before Armageddon came and God killed them for being nonbelievers.

Ironically, it was in China that, for the first time in my life, I had some freedom, which should have told me something, since most people who go to China don’t feel more free.

Because my preaching work was done underground in China, the structure of meetings and community I had had my whole life at home as a Witness was gone. Our religion was illegal there, so there was no structure.

Of course, my aim was to preach, and I took that mission seriously. But that, too, looked different. Back at home, rarely would a Witness ever have a friend who was not a Witness. The only interaction was for the sake of conversion. Non-Witnesses were to be always kept at bay, as they were a worldly influence.

Yet here in China, we were told by the leaders of the organization that the way to go about our preaching work was to spend a lot of time getting to know people before we preached to them. This would allow us to vet them, to make sure they weren’t Communist Party members, or people who would turn us in to the authorities. Often that vetting process took a long time, because you were trying to “be casual” and get information from people naturally, before bringing in the bible or our literature and possibly endangering ourselves.

A byproduct of this, of course, was that I began to make “worldly friends” for the first time. I got to know people who weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses on a pretty intimate level before I ever even tried bringing up the bible.

Preaching in a language like Mandarin, too, was so different, it felt like my mind was being excavated. As I sat teaching my Chinese bible students “the truth,” telling them to throw away their thousands of years of cultural history for my 100-year-old religion in this new language, it was almost as if I could hear what I was saying for the first time. I started to realize my beliefs sounded a bit crazy.

Cracks in my faith

Eventually, the mild disorientation of being in this new culture and speaking this language so different than my own opened up cracks in my faith, and the physical distance from my community gave me a mental break from the constant meetings and indoctrination. Slowly, a “worldly” friendship I began to engage in with a client at my workplace ended up with me questioning everything I had been raised to believe.

A lot of people who have never been religious wonder why in the world anyone would stay in a group like this that is so obviously, to those on the outside, wrong and “culty.”

Here’s the thing: No one who is in a cult ever thinks they are in a cult. You think you are living the best life, and in some ways it IS a great life. You have no angst, you don’t worry about climate change, you don’t have to have a retirement fund because Armageddon and God are going to solve all those problems. Plus, you have many wonderful friends and family who believe in it with you. You have a warm community.

You are constantly told about how awful people’s lives are on the outside, and because you are only allowed to be close with other Witnesses, you have no way of verifying. Of course, the world can be a scary place, so it’s an easy message to sell. Sure, you see people who seem happy and fulfilled, you meet nice people at work and such, but you know that they are going to die at Armageddon, so really, how great can that be?

Yes, it isn’t until you try to leave a cult that you start to realize it’s a cult. When the people in your organization and family immediately shun you for questioning even one of the beliefs handed down from the leaders, you know you are in some form of cult.

When I voiced a doubt or two and that got back to the elders, well, that was about when I started to get the inkling that the Jehovah’s Witness organization bore the traits of a cult.

Later, after I left, I found stronger proof: The first boyfriend I had after leaving the religion found on YouTube nearly every documentary ever made about cult members and we watched them together. I was surprised as I watched. Every cult it seemed, from the most extreme (Jim Jones in Jamestown) to the less extreme ones (that didn’t mandate death), well, they were exactly my story.

They are entirely different belief systems, but have the same systems in place to keep people in. My lines of reasoning, my thought patterns, my thought-blocking, the us vs. them mentality, all the things we had been trained to do to stay in the religion were the same things people in all these cults had been trained to do.

And while the Witnesses are not as extreme as some cults, they do mandate that people die rather than take life-saving blood transfusions. So, while they aren’t drinking Kool-Aid, they are mandating death for no reason, which isn’t that different.

It takes a lot of deprogramming to realize the religion you were raised with as “truth” is simply a mythology that has been passed down from generation to generation.

No regrets

Even given all I lost — family, friends, faith, support systems, purpose — I have never once regretted waking up and leaving. And I’ve never heard any other ex-Witnesses saying any different. People have lost their own children to the religion after waking up, have lost their livelihood, everything.

But now that I shed a belief system, it’s a lot easier for me to see culti-ness everywhere, not only in religion. We are, all of us, subject to indoctrination of some form, whether we realize it or not. Obviously, some belief systems are more extreme than others, but we all have blind spots. We are born into a family that teaches us values and ideals from birth. All of us have embedded ideas about how things must be and how we must live (marry, have children, elect a straight white man, whatever it is). This is most obvious in the religious realm, but it’s also the case in the political, social, internet, scientific and any other realm in which people identify with a way of thinking.

This is why cults exist! They are just a manifestation of the extreme end of something that is in us all. We all need to check our thinking, to ensure we aren’t succumbing to our own cult-like tendencies.

How do we do this?

Make friends with people who don’t think like us. That may sound trite, but in my story, the only reason I was able to see my blind spots was because I developed a close relationship with someone “on the outside.” The differences between us were what made it possible for me to see that not everything I had been taught to believe by my culture was absolute truth. Allowing myself to get close enough to someone so different than me was what made me see that. It wasn’t always pleasant, but I’m so grateful I didn’t back away or dismiss him.

I’ve also learned this: When we feel very sure we are right, that’s always a sign to look again, look deeper, question our strongest assumptions, never be dogmatic about anything. Always be willing to listen and readjust. Never let your identity be too stuck to a group, a belief. Step outside our comfort zone and be willing to put ourselves in positions that make us feel off kilter, because that is when we get opened up, that is when we learn.

Great tragedy

There is one postscript to my story. And that is that seven years after I left my religion, I experienced a great tragedy.

My first child, my 4-month-old son, Karl, died. I raise this because many people who know my religious background have asked me if this terrible loss made me want to go back to religion. I think it’s an interesting question.

I don’t think anyone really can be prepared for the loss of a child, but it blindsided me. I was now faced with an entirely foreign landscape: death without hope of an afterlife. Grief without religion.

My father had died when I was a Witness, when I was 18, and I was sad, but I wasn’t that sad, because I was certain that one day I would see him again in paradise. Religion was born for times like this. My faith, I realize now, had acted as a buffer to many of these more devastating aspects of being human.

And now, when I lost my son, without that faith, I experienced this death as nothingness. My child, so full of promise and health and energy, vanished. It was beyond my ability to accept losing him. But it was even farther beyond my abilities to return to any kind of belief in life after death. This was the ultimate test for someone who had once had belief.

But let me tell you what I discovered about grief without religion. It has some surprising byproducts.

I now had no choice but to live with the reality of the loss, and it made me deal with what was in front of me. What was in front of me was utter devastation on every level. But once you have been that close to death, something else happens when you can’t escape it. In the midst of this kind of grief, where you have no escape, you are forced to experience a deeper pain, but you also become more clear-eyed about life. You find you see what is beautiful in life in the midst of all this suffering. And one of those things I experienced was the great care and compassion that we as human beings possess.

When I was in such great pain, so many people, strangers and friends alike, got me through by showing love in so many ways. It was the strangest thing, to experience such an awful thing, yet at the same time, to be touched by such beauty and love.

Now, time has gone by, and without the escape of belief, I have learned a lot. I have learned how to live with everyone’s worst nightmare, I’m still alive, which honestly feels like a feat sometimes. I have learned patience and endurance and how to tolerate devastating feelings, because that is what living without your child requires.

But since I do not believe that my son is “out there” somewhere or will come back to me, it has also meant that I have kept him alive in the ways in the here and now. By talking about him to his sister, and by holding close the memories I have of him every day.

I also became an activist for a national parental-leave policy in his name. Through this work, I found that death without hope didn’t have to be death without faith.

How so? Activism is an act of faith. A faith that when there are problems, we as human beings can find ways to solve them. A faith that my son’s life and death would show others the value of every child’s life. A faith that others would join me in a fight for what was right, and they did.

In my old religion, we were taught not to put our faith in man. But if humankind is all we have, perhaps this faith, this active belief that we can change the world, is not misplaced. That’s what I learned. I’m not willing to give up hope yet.

And the fact is, once we accept reality and truly live in it, with its full range of emotion, good and terrible, that’s where life lies. Not in some fictional paradise.

The one thing that no one can take away from us is the beauty and love we can find in this world if we look for it. When I am in great pain, I remember that the depth of grief we experience is a reflection of the depth of the love we are capable of.

I don’t have all the answers now, but I can appreciate the deep mystery of it all. I feel the magic of life all around me, the great power of shared humanity. I feel gratitude.

And it’s been so lovely to be here with you today. Thank you.

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