NPR Audio: ‘I Couldn’t Continue On’: A Former Jehovah’s Witness On Leaving The Faith

Source: NPR


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. I want to read you the headline of an op-ed in The New York Times that recently caught my attention. It read “Surviving The Death Of My Son After Surviving The Death Of My Faith” (ph). That essay, by my guest, Amber Scorah, is about the shocking loss of her 4-month-old baby boy and then grieving without the reassurances and answers that her former faith would have provided. The essay was adapted from Scorah’s new memoir, “Leaving The Witness,” about her life as a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness.

She used to be a faithful believer. In her hometown, Vancouver, Canada, she knocked on doors missionizing, armed with copies of the Witness’ publication, “The Watchtower,” trying to warn people that Armageddon was imminent, and they would soon die and leave no trace behind unless they converted. Then she went to China, where the religion is outlawed, and tried to missionize there.

While in China, she started questioning the dogma she was taught, that she was now trying to teach others. She started challenging the lower position of women in the faith. And she broke some of the rules. As a result, elders shut her out of the religion. She was shunned, officially considered an apostate, which meant family and friends within the faith were obligated to stop communicating with her. She now lives in New York.

Amber Scorah, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think the only familiarity most Americans have with Jehovah’s Witnesses – what they’ve been told when witnesses go door to door, trying to convert people. And you used to do that back when you lived in your hometown, Vancouver. What did you tell people when you did it in Vancouver, when you knocked on their door and tried to convince them they should become a Jehovah’s Witness?

AMBER SCORAH: That’s a great question, and it’s hard to answer because I often didn’t get much of a chance to tell people what I wanted to tell them because when you’re a Jehovah’s Witness in much of the Western world, most people don’t answer their doors, or if they do, before you can get a word in, they usually tell you they’re not interested.

But what I wanted to tell them was, essentially – our message was that the end of the world was coming, but that there was a way to be saved, and the reason – the purpose for our visit was to save them. And it wasn’t just about the end of the world; the reason why we felt like we had a really positive message was that if they converted to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they could live forever in paradise on Earth.

GROSS: So is that one of the differences between certain evangelicals who believe in the rapture, that we know when the end times come and they’re coming soon, that believing Christians will be raptured up to heaven, whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that after Armageddon, that believers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, that they’re not going to heaven, they’re having paradise on earth?

SCORAH: Exactly, the vast majority. They do believe that a certain number that they’ve picked out of a bible book, Revelation, will go to heaven to be with Jesus. But the vast majority of people that are, you know, God’s true people will live on Earth. And how they get to this conclusion is they have a very literal interpretation of the Bible. So if you open up the book of Revelation, you can find – to sort of pick out from there, you know, different passages about an apocalypse, about a great crowd of people who will go on to live forever under God’s kingdom.

And then they have a few other scriptures they use from different places in the bible that talk about people living forever on earth. They sort of piece these things together to take – create this theology that says, you know, Adam and Eve were created onto the Earth in a paradise, and that God’s true purpose is one day to restore that paradise with his people there living on their earth.

GROSS: OK, so when Armageddon happens, believers – Jehovah’s Witnesses – will be in this earthly paradise. What happens to everybody else?

SCORAH: Essentially, Armageddon is God’s war to end wickedness. So that means that anyone who isn’t following the true faith – which in Jehovah’s Witness’ mind is themselves – will be cut off, destroyed, leaving over in this paradise only the people who are abiding by God’s laws, aka the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine.

GROSS: Is there a hell that everybody else goes to?

SCORAH: No, they don’t believe in hell; they just believe that those who are killed in Armageddon will just – they just die, and they have no chance of coming back.

GROSS: So what were some of the strict rules you had to live by that were different from strict rules in – that people follow in – who are orthodox or who are fundamentalist?

SCORAH: Well, it’s interesting. Yeah. Jehovah’s Witnesses, over the years, they sort of came up with different things that started to differentiate them from mainstream Christianity. A few of the more notable ones that people are aware of are that they don’t celebrate birthdays. They don’t celebrate Christmas. Really, almost any holidays, they don’t celebrate. And the reason for this is because a lot of those holidays and traditions have pagan roots.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they’re the one true pure Christianity. And so they take it upon themselves to, like, look for things, almost, to make sure that their worship is the most pure. So those were definitely some of them. Preaching was another thing. Because it’s an apocalyptic religion, the thrust of almost everything you do when you’re part of a religion like this has to do with the fact that the world is ending.

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