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Digital Deconversion

Leaving a religious separatist group—online

Imagine paradise. It looks like our world, but there is no sickness, sorrow, or death. There is no war. There are no deadlines, and there is no currency; existence is all leisure and abundance. This New World does not have the conditions that enable poverty. Its city is a cube: the length, width, and height are of equal measure (perfect), its gates are made of pearls (perfect), and its main street is lined with gold so pure it looks like glass (perfect, and also disorienting).

If this paradise feels overly indulgent, or too concerned with aesthetics, keep in mind that it is built from the pain we bore on earth, an experience that abandoned aesthetics in favor of power, and to all the worst ends. Here, there is no power to be gained because we live in fellowship with our friends and the land. It is the beginning of things—not life after life, but life everlasting. Cornucopias have made a comeback. The amount of fruit feels excessive, but fine.

As in all utopias, there are some logistical concerns. Basic public works will need to be built and manned, meaning a few will have to sacrifice their leisure, at least for a time. The electrical grid is no more. And this paradise has been preceded by a war, so there are bodies, presumably, mangled and in pieces. Who will clean them up? It might be lonely. It will almost certainly be boring. Perhaps it is only a proverbial paradise, then, something we couldn’t understand even if we tried. There is, of course, the possibility that there might be no paradise at all. But if there is no paradise, then what are we doing? What have we been doing all along?

There are answers to these questions, or guesses at answers, in the ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses subreddit, which has become a watering hole for over seventy-five thousand “free minds”—those who are in the process of leaving the religious sect best known by outsiders for its door-knocking and aversion to blood transfusions.

The posts catalog inner lives in motion, charting deconversion in real time.

From the forum’s own description, it is “the internet’s most comprehensive resource” for deconverting Jehovah’s Witnesses, which might be underselling itself—while there are other resources available to those leaving the religion, none operate as both a round-the-clock hotline for the unsure and the aggrieved, and a living index of religious history for a small denomination. The subreddit’s ability to function is predicated on its simultaneous anonymity and openness, which means that it often winds up feeling like Ask Jeeves, if Jeeves had a pre-butler past of sectarianism and a vested interest in your spiritual well-being.

To provide order, there is a self-selected taxonomy that sorts members by their Physical and Mental state of being In or Out (or Questioning)—PIMO, PIMI, POMO, POMI, POMQ—as well as vocabulary for the particulars of life in transition. The Jehovah’s Witness organization is called “the Borg” (or “the bOrg”) in reference to the aliens in Star Trek who famously declared that “resistance is futile.” Those who remove themselves from life in it gradually are “fading,” a path often chosen because the alternatives are bleak: disassociation (self-expulsion, followed by shunning) and disfellowship (expulsion by the group of local elders, followed by shunning.) To avoid getting lost in this jargon, there is a glossary of terms in the forum’s header. 

Taken together, the posts catalog inner lives in motion, charting deconversion in real time as members return again and again to ask questions and chime in with responses. All matters are on the table for the free minds. Did you go to school on Halloween while you were In? It would have been traumatizing; celebrations not based on scripture were said to promote interfaith values and could be linked to the occult, and this is one that likes to dress children up as Beetlejuice! In hindsight, maybe being kept home was an act of compassion. Where does the Bible tell us of an ultraparadise? It doesn’t. But are there actually eight million congregants? Eight million people who turn to the religion for friends and false hope. How likely is therapy to help? Depends. Even if you aren’t going to meetings, do you still believe in Jehovah? No. Free yourself of this. Be firm about it.

In the late nineteenth century, Charles Taze Russell was himself a young man in a crisis of faith. Growing up in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now north Pittsburgh), Russell found himself at odds with the teachings of his childhood church, which he felt was rife with logical inconsistencies. An entirely random encounter with an Adventist preacher encouraged a teenaged Russell to turn back to scripture for answers, which planted the earliest seeds of what would become Jehovah’s Witness doctrine. He began to organize Bible studies that focused on when Christ was meant to return, reinterpreting the dispensationalist theologies of William Miller—whose chronic failure to predict the Second Coming led to a number of Adventist offshoots—and John Nelson Darby, who is credited with popularizing the theory that believers would be “raptured” before ultimate judgment.

In 1881, the organizational body now called the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was created with Russell at the helm. Ever the gifted advertiser, he evangelized new members through a nonstop stream of speaking engagements and written publications, including early editions of magazine The Watchtower, which is still in circulation. The year 1914, two years before his own death, was the point Russell identified as the beginning of the end. And it did, in fact, precede an era of intense persecution for Witnesses, from the mass incarceration and murder of German Witnesses under the Nazi regime to a series of First Amendment legal battles in U.S. courts, further cementing Russell’s delineation between us and them, believer and apostate.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a distinctive subgroup of the Christian tradition for all sorts of reasons. There is the newness, the wholesale rejection of political engagement, and the enforcement of obedience to internal leadership, all of which are sustained by horror. If religion is understood as a way to give structure to life, Witnesses structure their lives through time: drawing from a blunt interpretation of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, they anticipate a world ground into dust by satanic forces, violence breeding more violence until, at long last, the true followers of Jehovah enter the eternal dispensation and reap their millenarian rewards. Life before this is a waiting game and an exercise in withstanding terror; it is tenable only because of the promise that the chosen few will not just survive the apocalypse but benefit from its ruin.

Feeling chosen is a powerful force, and it can define a sense of self more than most of us would care to admit. To leave a prophetic religion, then, demands a radical decentering of yourself in the world. This isn’t so much a matter of ego as it is a matter of purpose—if the point of life is not to serve a larger eschatological cause, then identity must be built around something else. This is what comes after the classic deconversion narrative, in which a follower removes herself from religion in one great untangling, releasing the ties of belonging, then behavior, then belief—or maybe the other way around—until she arrives at a secular neutral, free to do as she pleases. But then there’s the question of how she’s meant to fill her days, and who she should be now.

There to enlighten her is the social internet. The advent of digital life was supposed to be freedom in excess, creating endless blank spaces in which to learn, to connect, to organize, and to discover ourselves. If a life lived according to strict doctrine casts the self aside, the internet pulls it back to the center. Now, individuals can look online for people like them, the real themfor networks that share their ideas, all in one place, accessible all the time.

Online communities lack real-life context, though, and they tend to be born out of a single axis of identity, which means that those who participate in them come up against an inflexible monism that is by design. This is convenient, in the sense that it builds easy trust among a group bound by nothing elsein the case of the ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses subreddit, a network spun out of religious trauma. But members in search of greater freedom are failed by the technological imperative, where autonomous self-conception is more or less a nonstarter. 

“The technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given,’ as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape,” wrote theologian Romano Guardini in The End of the Modern World. The identities we construct online are indeed useful, if also graceless. On social media, we are given the task of determining what about us is important: to ourselves, maybe, but ultimately to our digital audience. A beautiful person is insulated by the people who appreciate her beauty. A writer is insulated by those who share her taste. These are smaller worlds, alt-paradises that transcend everything that’s complex about who we are. How then, is the internet to be a platform for identity deconstruction?

When the seeds of religious doubt first begin to creep in, the internet is waiting with open arms: yes, your suspicions were right—it is impossible to reconcile the teaching that those alive in 1914 would never die when most are now long gone—and what’s more, there are flaws in the other teachings, too; I know this because I once believed just the same. Affirmation, free of charge, is no small thing at a time when you are standing between two worlds of belief, desperate for change but unsure about what that could look like. Here, online, is a group eager to tell you how it can be, if you only take their word for it. When the moment comes in real life that calls for action, what a gift it is to know that you are one of many! But the confidence to leave a religion does not promise, or even pretend to concern itself with, the material and social support that will be needed to have left. Offline, another world will have to be built.

It’s hard to do anything alone, of course. In terms of their basis, there’s no difference between a forum for those who are looking to hear and tell stories about their experiences as Witnesses and a support group that meets on Tuesdays at the Y. But the internet asks less of you than the support group does. It is filled with people you’ve never met, whose names you’ll never know. They may feel like they’re all around you, but they exist only at the place where your identities cross. In-person groups as specific and responsive as the ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses subreddit do not exist in most places, however, which only heightens the insufficiencies of these digital alternatives.

In a review of Amber Scorah’s deconversion memoir Leaving the Witness, the late critic Peter Heinegg suggested that Scorah could have left the sect sooner if she’d had a more fulsome understanding of her own faith: “Most people, it seems likely, don’t think, much less analyze, but feel their way into and out of religion,” he wrote. Here, it seems that Heinegg could not wrap his head around a world in which the two were intertwined. Deconversion, rather than one great untangling, might be better thought of as a continuing project, one that involves feelings, yes, but also analysis, reflection, reversion, money, company, solitude. As time goes on, there are other projects for the ex-religious to undertake, and deconverting may stop being the one that requires the most effort.

Deconversion, rather than one great untangling, might be better thought of as a continuing project.

But in the wake of leaving, life after religion is precarious, however certain you might be about your decision. It is difficult for all vulnerable populations to survive in a country without guaranteed affordable housing, accessible health care, and other social services, and the nature of religious separatism all but guarantees a degree of vulnerability. Seeing themselves as not “of this world” means that believers often intentionally lack formal and higher education, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular are the lowest earners in the country when compared to other religious groups. The practice of shunning removes the resources of the community as discipline, not just isolating ex-members but materially marginalizing them. And then there is the stunning lack of religious literacy across the country, in which people are unable to name basic facts about their own faith, let alone the faith of strangers.

These structural failures pass on problems to the internet that it has never been equipped to solve. Meanwhile, on the ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses subreddit, posts that mention a desire to connect with other deconverting Witnesses in real life trigger an automatic message from the moderator: “Remember that anyone who attends a meetup does so at their own risk of being discovered or worse. Stay safe, guys!”