Sixth place (tie): Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest by Aaron McLaughlin

Witnessing door to door no more

Aaron received $400 for his essay.

By Aaron McLaughlin

Acts 17:11, in which the inhabitants of Berea are praised for examining the evidence before believing Christianity’s claims, was a verse shared with me often during my childhood. I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and like the Bereans, I believed that my faith was firmly grounded in evidence.

I was like the Bereans in another important way: The only evidence that I considered came from the bible. I felt that I had strong scriptural evidence for the beliefs that I was raised with. But as I grew older, I felt the need to find evidence for the scriptures themselves. This desire led to a profound awakening, a year of hiding and a liberating confession.

I never planned to walk away from my faith. It happened organically and unintentionally. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to proselytize door to door, I was constantly interacting with people who didn’t share my beliefs. Despite this exposure, my beliefs were a closed system. The bible translation that I used was published by the Witnesses, as were the magazines and books that told me the correct interpretation of it.

While our beliefs were internally consistent, I was bothered by the overreliance on scriptures. Almost every line in a Witness publication will have a biblical verse cited at the end. It wasn’t as if I was skeptically analyzing the bible then. I simply had no idea how I could convince someone to accept it as truth.
With the goal of becoming a more effective evangelist, I set out to find external evidence for the bible. Over the next few years, I watched as every piece of evidence I clung to collapsed under scrutiny.

Fulfilled prophecies? Too vague. Historical evidence? Sorely lacking. Divine miracles? Unsubstantiated. By the end of my journey, I was one of the people whom I had set out to evangelize: I no longer viewed the bible as accurate.

It took me some time to finally admit to myself that I was an atheist. It took me even longer to admit this to others. Witnesses who disagree with the teachings of the church are guilty of apostasy and are often punished with “disfellowshipping,” or complete social exile. For many, that means means losing all family and friends. I was 16 when I realized that I was an atheist, so I couldn’t risk such a fate.

For a year, I went through the motions of being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Living in the closet breeds frustration and resentment. I was extremely hesitant to come out, but it was the right thing to do. I could continue to lie to everyone else and force myself to pretend to be a Witness, or I could tell the truth. As I was taught by my parents, the truth would set me free.

Like most of my peers, the biggest decision I made in my senior year dealt with college. This decision was made more complicated by the Witness position on college. Witnesses feel that college is unnecessary because of the impending arrival of Armageddon, and feel that it is harmful because of its promotion of ideas that contradict their teachings. Most don’t go. I was going to be different.
There was no possible way for me to tell my parents that I would be going off to college without explaining myself. Unfortunately, that meant telling my parents that I had rejected everything they’d taught me. When I finally did come out, it took my parents by surprise. Looking back, I suppose I should have changed the way I told them. But I’m completely sure that telling them was the right thing to do.

I never chose to be an atheist, but I did choose to be public about it. That was a decision I am confident was the best I could have made in that situation. Living openly and honestly is the most rewarding way of life.

Aaron McLaughlin, 19, spent the first 12 years of his life in Eveleth, Minn., before his family moved to Sioux City, Iowa, and Fayetteville, Ga. As a University of Iowa sophomore, he’s pursuing B.B.A.’s in man-anagement and marketing. He’s the education and community organizer for Secular Students at Iowa.

Freedom From Religion Foundation