First-Person Humanism: My Journey Away From Indoctrination and Threats

By John Drews

I’m embarrassed. I was a Jehovah’s Witness for over 40 years. Not only that, but as an appointed elder of that church I taught lies that the average adult could easily point out as false.

Having said that, I’d like to let myself off the hook by explaining how I became so thoroughly convinced that I was teaching truth.

Excuse #1: Indoctrination

I was raised in the cult from the age of 3 or 4. JWs teach their members to be “in the truth.”

I heard the phrases “Is Bill still in the truth?” or “Sadly, Jill left the truth.” The “truth” meant everything involved with JW culture: personal bible study, church services three days a week, weekly door-to door preaching, assemblies and conventions, and much more.

Listen to this. Anyone who did not actively participate in these activities was considered “weak in the truth.” Anyone outside of “the truth” was considered “worldly” and was thought to be actively supporting Satan the Devil. Perhaps you can imagine how at a very young age this built in me the importance of embedding myself in the “us” group to clearly distance myself from “them” – the enemy.

Excuse #2: Bonds

I believe organizations like JWs design the perfect Goliath-shaped straw man. We were to maintain faith in a wicked world. This wickedness couldn’t be conquered alone. It was only possible with the help of God. When the members unite, they can feel a sort of hero’s welcome. The bonds that are built in this environment are abnormally strong. This can be especially difficult to leave behind.

Excuse #3: Threats

The fear of losing every person I cared about certainly further embedded myself in the cult. As I reached my late teens, I started having doubts about my faith. As a 6’6” giant of a man, I desperately wanted to participate in sports at school. This was considered sinful for many reasons. I was extremely frustrated, so I wanted out of the religion. The problem is, if you leave, you are guaranteed to be shunned by your most loved friends and family members. This is cruel for sure, but it keeps members in line.

So why did I leave?

Injustice

When dealing with some painful medical issues in my 20s it became difficult for me to reconcile the JW explanation about how a “loving, all powerful creator” could stand by and allow his human children to suffer.

L: A younger John playing guitar after a Jehovah’s Witnesses church service. R: John graduating from a school of full-time ministers in 1995.

JWs teach that God created humans, an angel turned bad and challenged God’s way of ruling. God’s sense of justice moves him to allow the angel to rule humans to prove that the challenger is wrong. It made sense to me at the time, but it only makes sense in concept. When you suffer, or worse, when you actually watch a loved one suffer, the concept doesn’t hold up.

As I voiced this to my parents, the congregation elders, and my now ex-wife, I was told I was impatient and lacking faith. I decided to keep it to myself and to wait on God. When the world shut down because of the pandemic, I was given time to look at these issues. I happened upon a YouTube video titled “Sam Harris demolishes Christianity.” My faith was shattered.

When I discovered that Jehovah’s Witnesses actively protect members who engage in child sex abuse, and actively cover up this practice, I knew I had to leave. I also knew that there would be consequences for leaving.

In October 2021, I stopped attending JW meetings and found a therapist to help me through this process. In March 2022, I sent a letter of disassociation to the church. To them, I am mentally diseased. I’m now the enemy, an apostate.

It hurts to be shunned, especially by my family. Up until now, my disgust for the practices of the cult has been stronger than the loneliness I feel at times. I have no desire to go back. The crater left from losing my entire community and way of life keeps me active in finding new charitable outlets and meaningful friendships and community.

I have investigated churches that aren’t centered on dogma or doctrine, but on humanism and genuine concern for my fellow neighbors. It’s been a difficult road, but I am forever optimistic, perhaps to a fault. I believe that there is good in everyone. I believe we can benefit from a little bit of vulnerability and a willingness to listen. Recently I have participated in a variety of activities in Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul and with the HumanistsMN community (I became a member in November) and I have high hopes.

I told you how embarrassed I am to have been in that group. I am very proud that I am no longer trying to convince an invisible entity that I’m worthy of its care. I’m proud to identify as a humanist.

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    • Wayne Hanson on January 9, 2024 at 9:32 am
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    Many of us have had JW like upbringings in the past and many of us learn at some point that there are other options. I remember a priest telling me when I was a Catholic grade schooler that unless you were Catholic, there was no way you could get to heaven. Since I had come from a predominantly Lutheran family, I was horrified to learn that many of my relatives would never go heaven. What bunk, and that kind of thinking/propaganda/brain washing was thrust upon us in many other ways as well. How good it feels to no longer be shackled by the thinking of those who hold themselves up as intellectual and moral authorities.

  1. Wayne, I had a similar experience growing up Catholic. I was told to not play with Protestant kids — unless I tried to convert them. I invited one of my “evil” Protestant friends to attend Mass with me one time. She was smart enough to decline:).

    • Christine R on January 10, 2024 at 9:07 pm
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    John, I have really enjoyed your company when we have crossed paths (fixing bikes and at a December-in-India luncheon). Now I understand more about what you meant and have been struggling with as you are trying to find a new group of people and Community that fits you. That clearly has been painful. And – I’m so glad that HumanistsMN is a group where you feel comfortable. You’re a wonderful human 🙂

      • John Drews on January 11, 2024 at 12:13 pm
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      How very kind of you Christine. I’ve enjoyed our chats and working with you as well. I have come away each time with even more optimism and feeling a sense of admiration for you. Thank you for your comment!

    • Christine R on January 22, 2024 at 9:54 pm
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    Dear John – you have warmed my heart. Thank you!
    And I now remember to say/ask – I think you mentioned that you have been going sometimes to Unity church on Portland in St Paul? I have a good friend who goes there – Betsy. She is petite and always wears a bandana covering her head and is in her 70s. She’s very friendly and I suggested she look for you, too!

    1. Thank you Christine!

      I don’t know if I’ve met Betsy yet, but I”ll keep an eye out for her. Thanks!

    • Sally S on February 6, 2024 at 7:27 pm
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    Thank you John for sharing your story.

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