Woman Leaves Jehovah’s Witness to Find Her Truth
As a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness, Amber Scorah had devoted her life to the teachings of her faith. When she volunteered to take the message to China, where the preaching she did was illegal and could result in her expulsion or worse, she had some distance from her community for the first time. Immersion in a foreign language and culture–and a whole new way of thinking–turned her world upside down and eventually led her to rethink her life’s path. Scorah’s loss of faith culminated in losing everyone and everything she knew. In her book, “Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life,” Scorah reveals the challenging process of starting over.
Q. You describe the Jehovah’s Witness religion as a “cult.” Can you elaborate on that?
SCORAH: Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ message gives many followers hope, and hope is something we all need as human beings when any belief system goes to extremes, it often ends up causing harm. The Jehovah’s Witness religion coerces obedience in a way that is manipulative, and at times abusive.
Of course, when I was a Witness, I didn’t see it that way. I was taught from childhood that I had “the truth,” and I believed it 100 percent. What that meant, as it does for all Jehovah’s Witnesses, was unquestioning obedience. It meant being willing to refuse a blood transfusion, even if one would save my life or the life of my child. It meant cutting off all ties with loved ones who left the faith or were “disfellowshipped” (shunned) from the congregation for some sort of sin. We were not to say hello to them if we saw them on the street, nor pick up the phone if they called, even if it was a family member.
This threat of shunning is no small thing for people who have been trained to stay separate from the world and whose lives are built around their religious community. When your salvation, family relationships, and friendships are all conditional on conformity and obedience, that takes away free will.
People like me who leave the organization because they no longer believe are special targets. In their publications and in talks at the Kingdom Hall, we are called “apostates,” “mentally diseased,” “manipulative,” and “depraved.” This vilification is a form of information control: if the leaders keep people too afraid to talk to members who have left, or to read anything they write, or listen to anything they say, they can control the messaging.
It is for these reasons, based on the research I did after leaving the Witnesses, that I believe the organization bears traits that would fit it into the category of a cult.
Q. You began to question your faith while doing missionary work in China. Why is that and what happened?
SCORAH: When I got to China, it felt like my entire life had been turned upside down. The life of a Jehovah’s Witness in any other part of the world is a very structured one. In my home city of Vancouver, I had a busy routine of attending five meetings at the Kingdom Hall, meeting up with other Witnesses to preach a few times per week, attending congregational activities and doing bible study in preparation for the meetings.
In China, everything was different. First of all, there were huge cultural differences. I was spending most of my days speaking in Mandarin, which is not my native tongue. For an English-speaker, learning Chinese requires a near-excavation of the mind. You have to think in a different way. But the biggest change of all was that Jehovah’s Witnesses, like many other religions, are illegal in China. All of our preaching and meetings had to be done underground, secretly.
What this meant in practical terms was that I had, for the first time in my life, a bit of space from the very closed community I had been born into. There was now only one meeting a week, and preaching was done on our own. I would walk out of my house and decide how to accomplish my hourly quota for the day. It was quite ironic that it was in authoritarian China I found the most freedom I had ever experienced!
Beyond that, at home we would preach in a very formal manner, keeping all “worldly” people at arm’s length except for the purposes of converting them. Here in China, we were told to befriend our potential preaching targets before we ever revealed what our true purpose was. This caution was valid because if a potential bible student was a member of the Communist party or worked for the government, there was a danger we could be exposed, arrested even.
The by-product of this method of preaching was that for the first time in my life, I began to make friends with people who were not of my faith. I started to talk to people and get to know them without ever bringing up my message. These relationships began to shift the way I saw the world. I began to understand there were entirely different ways of thinking that were just as wise and good and helpful as the things I had been taught from the bible. The judgmental, black-and-white thinking that was essential to my belief system was blurring. I began to see that things were murkier, in reality. I did not feel so sure that I was right, and everyone else was wrong, anymore.
As time went on, I established bible studies. Sitting across the table from my Chinese students, reading from our Watchtower publications, more cracks in my faith started to form. I began to feel the absurdity of my position. Here I was, a person from a Western country, coming here to this place with thousands of years of cultural history, only to tell them to throw that all away in favor of my new, 100-year-old or so American religion. And my own beliefs began to sound odd to me, after all this time away, hearing them in another language: 1914? Armageddon? Don’t go to college? Women must be submissive to men? I began to question “why”, for the first time in my life.
Q. How was your transition to life outside the faith? Can you cite an example of an experience?
SCORAH: It wasn’t easy. I was leaving behind not only a religion but my entire way of life, hope for the future, a marriage to a Jehovah’s Witness elder, all of my friends, and most of my family, too. It was difficult to come to terms with some of what I had been taught. Since childhood, I had been told the world was about to end in a violent Armageddon. There was no point in having an education, a career, hobbies or interests outside the organization. All my free time had been spent preaching. Suddenly here I was, alone in a foreign country, with no reason to be there, and no idea where I would end up or how I would support myself in the long term. Really, I had no idea who I even was anymore.
And while all of that was difficult, what was more difficult was getting rid of the fear. I mentioned that people who lose their faith and leave the religion are called apostates—we were told it was the one sin that God would not forgive, worse than even being a murderer or child molester. Apostates would be killed, cut off forever at Armageddon. Beyond that, I had been trained to fear these people who left the faith. It was scary to think that I had become one of those I had thought of my whole life as evil. Yet, I didn’t feel evil.
I spent a lot of time alone since all the people in my life were now shunning me, so I used my free time to try to fill up my brain with reading and research. I read history books, self-help books, new age books, science books, religious books. I was trying to piece my life and identity back together again. As I broadened my understanding past the confines of the Watchtower publications and thinking, I slowly began to see that my religion looked at only one part of a gigantic, unsolved puzzle.
Over the course of time, I began to form deeper friendships with people in the world outside my religion. I listened and learned about everything from politics to pop culture to retirement savings while trying to act like an average person. I looked normal! But on the inside, I felt a little like an alien.
Then, the most remarkable thing started to happen. Through these relationships, the fear my religion had taught me started to lose its grip on me. I had conversations on all topics with people I met, piecing back together a new worldview. Being with people in the outside world showed me that my fears were unfounded—I sometimes would ask one friend, “Are you sure the world isn’t ending?” and he would just laugh at me, and tell me “maybe, but not in the way that religion says it will.”
In these friendships, I began to experience love. Unconditional love. As I let “worldly” people in, I discovered they weren’t the evil, uncaring, immoral people I had been taught they were. In fact, the people I met and came to love were loving, kind, helpful, moral, empathetic and compassionate. Really, the love, warmth, and empathy I had been told was unique to my religion was out here too, except out here it wasn’t conditional on obedience and conformity. I saw firsthand that love and compassion were in fact qualities of most human beings.
I can say now that I have blossomed in this world I had been taught to fear. I’m so grateful to all the wonderful people I met along the way, who helped show me how beautiful life can be—even if it doesn’t go on forever.
Q. How does the tragic death of your son relate to your journey out of the Witness?
SCORAH: Giving birth to my son was incredible on so many levels – I finally had family again, my flesh and blood, after having lost most of my family when I left the religion. Experiencing the life of my son took away some of the spiritual void I had experienced after leaving the Witnesses. Through him, it was possible to experience a glimpse of the transcendent again, the immortal—though I would one day die, my son would live on.
Also, in having a child, I felt like my life was finally getting back on track after all the loss I had experienced. Now I had a home, a partner, a family. All the things other people had.
And then, I was blindsided. It was all gone again. Losing a child is not like any other loss, you lose a part of yourself. You lose your ability to live life as you had known it up until then: without harrowing, unrelenting grief. I had also lost my identity again: this time, that of being a mother. To have been a mother, then become a mother with no child, well–it is nearly intolerable.
My life as a Jehovah’s Witness had been oriented around a fictional future – that one day, I would be in Paradise, if I stayed faithful. My belief then was that any of my loved ones who died would be resurrected to Earth after Armageddon. Now I was faced with death without hope.
At first, it felt bleak. For many months I blamed myself, I wanted to be the one dead instead of him. But through that time, the most dark, awful time, I also found something incredible: I was surrounded by love. People showed up–friends, acquaintances, strangers, even. They brought food, they sat with my partner and me. They gave in any way they knew how. Even when they didn’t know how, they said that and showed up.
In the depths of the worst loss imaginable, I was held up by this beautiful demonstration of humanity. Though I no longer believe in the kind of God I was taught about as a Jehovah’s Witness, I believe now that all of this love, including the love I saw in my little son’s eyes when he used to look at me, must have some source. And even if I don’t understand it, I’m grateful for it.
Though I don’t have all the answers anymore, and I still carry around great sadness that I will not see my son grow up, I somehow am able to sit in this love and have gratitude for everything that is in front of me, in a way I could never have imagined before. I have a daughter now, Karl’s sister. My heart is still broken, but all this beauty around me is like a pillow that gently helps me live with the loss. When I am in great pain, I remember that the depth of my grief is a reflection of the depth of the love I had for Karl, and it helps to see the love peeking through the other side of the anguish.
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 love. I take joy in all its dimensions of beauty.
To get a copy of Scorah’s book “Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life,” click here.
This Q & A was featured in the July 7th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.