Helping Someone Leave
It is frustrating to have family and friends belong to a high control religion. Whilst it is difficult to change a person’s belief, there are certain steps to make them more receptive to considering information logically. There are also important pitfalls to be aware of before confronting a Jehovah's Witness about their belief system.
I am regularly asked how to help a Jehovah’s Witness realise that what they believe is not the truth. No matter how obviously wrong Watchtower teachings and practices seem to you, people resist giving up what they are comfortable with. It will not be easy, or even possible, but as Jehovah’s Witnesses have an exceptionally high turnover rate, there is hope.
People leave for a variety of reasons, and what is important to one person will not be of consequence to someone else. Some Jehovah's Witnesses leave over doctrinal issues, some for emotional reasons, and others for perceived deception on the part of the leadership.
It is critical to know what is important to the person you are trying to reach, in order to understand how to help them. What you may feel as indefensible in proving it is not the truth may mean very little to someone else. To determine what is going to be effective, start by asking, "Why do you believe it to be the truth?" This can vary greatly, but the key reasons are usually one or more of the following:
- Only the Faithful and Discreet Slave is directed by holy spirit.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses are unique, such as being the only loving religion, the only ones that preach, or the only ones that do not participate in war.
- It is the only religion with true doctrine.
Once you know what the important areas are for the person you are talking to, you will be able to research and then respond to those areas. At the same time, attempt to determine what doubts or disappointments they have with the Organisation, as these are topics to build upon.
Directed by Holy Spirit
In order to help a person realise the Watchtower is not directed by Holy Spirit, ask if they know the history of the religion. Most do not know all the failed dates. You can discuss how Pastor Russell started the religion in the 1800's, and how different it was back then, teaching about pyramids and the world ending in 1914. That may come as quite a surprise. Direct them to look for themselves in the Watchtower's own Studies in the Scriptures, which can be downloaded for free at Historical Publications.
The purpose of these discussions is to help the Witness accept that these changes are proof that the Holy Spirit does not direct the Faithful and Discreet Slave. Some of the areas that have undergone significant change over the years are:
You will encounter the excuse that “light gets brighter”. What you are showing is that it isn’t brighter but changed and even reversed. Furthermore, increased knowledge does not equate with falsehoods; Holy Spirit would not direct the Governing Body to preach untruths.
A Witness needs assistance to understand that the Watchtower Society is by no means unique. Over the centuries, countless “end of the world” sects have come and gone. Many religions exist today that are similar to Jehovah’s Witnesses in many ways.
- There are other religions with similar doctrine to the Watchtower.
- There are religious groups that display a stronger anti-war stance.
- Other groups are more effective in their preaching work.
The Watchtower is classified as a high control religion and the following premises are common amongst thousands of high control religious groups:
- Having unique guidance from God
- Being the only loving brotherhood
- Being the only ones teaching truth
- That God will shortly save them
- That the world is a bad place
- Keeping separate from the world
- Shunning former members
Generally, arguing doctrine is not a good tactic, particularly at first. All that happens is that you will end up in a doctrinal tennis match, lobbing different Scriptures at each other. The Bible is not a book that clearly outlines doctrine. Each Christian religion has different doctrinal interpretations, because each chooses which Scriptures to take literally and which to dismiss as figurative. Even if you do back a Witness into a corner, they will blame their lack of knowledge rather than admitting the Organisation is wrong.
It is only after a Witness has accepted that the Faithful and Discreet Slave makes mistakes that doctrine becomes interesting to discuss, as Watchtower doctrine is simplistic and flawed in many areas.
A safe topic to discuss is the unreasonableness of believing "this good news has been preached in the entire inhabited world" by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and salvation depends on how people respond to the Witness message. Most people know nothing about Jehovah’s Witnesses, over 3 billion have never even heard of them. A Witness may respond that they don't judge people, but the Watchtower is clear that billions will die at Armageddon. (See Salvation only for Jehovahs Witnesses.)
Learning that Watchtower leaders and publications are not always honest can shock some followers into doing further research, and the examples at Misquotes, Deception and Lies are easy to comprehend as scandalous.
For a list of other topics that can be discussed see Questions to Ask.
To get through to a Witness you need to use the Socratic method of asking questions. If you directly attack the organisation or its teachings a Jehovah’s Witness will get very defensive. You will see their eyes glaze over and then they will start reciting Watchtower justifications by rote. At that point you are not helping them but just letting them reinforce their indoctrination.
You will not be able to get a witness to look at information on the Internet at first, as they have been conditioned to believe it is all lies from bitter apostates. Rather, you will need to discuss a point of interest, and then get a quote from a Watchtower to back up what you are discussing. Hopefully, they will eventually start to want to look further with an open mind, and it is not until that stage that recommending they read Crisis Of Conscience or jwfacts.com will be effective.
Likewise, knowing when to introduce scandalous topics, such as the Watchtower's involvement with the United Nations or Pedophile crisis, is difficult. Whilst awareness of these topics has resulted in tens of thousands leaving, if they are introduced too early you will be accused of being a gullible, bitter apostate. These topics require the person to be ready to read and accept information written outside the pages of the Watchtower, which only comes after they have learnt to question the "Faithful and Discreet Slave".
Stick to one topic at a time, and even a single topic per discussion. A Witness will jump around and side track the discussion every time a difficult question or topic is raised. Stay firm in keeping the conversation on track, and getting an answer. Make sure they really answered the question before moving on. If a statement is made that you know is not true, make them support what they said with evidence. You are not trying to win an argument, but to make them think.
A common Witness theme is that disagreeing with Jehovah's Witnesses is disagreeing with the Bible, and that leaving the Organisation is leaving Jehovah. You will need to regularly reinforce that the Watchtower contains just one interpretation of the Bible, one that you have found to be very simplistic and inaccurate. Many former Witnesses still believe the Bible and in God, but do not want to follow what they have concluded is a damaging belief system.
Whilst discussing various topics, you will sometimes find a Witness being dogmatic that you are wrong about Watchtower doctrine or history when you know you are not. Rather then telling them they are wrong, make them commit to that being an important point. For instance, a conversation may go as follows:
You: God does not direct Information provided in the Watchtower. For instance did you realize it was falsely predicted that the end would come in 1914?
JW: They never said the end would be in 1914, just the end of the Gentile Times.
You: How would you feel if they wrongfully predicted the end for 1914? Don’t you think that is a good indication Jehovah does not direct the Slave?
JW: Well … (they may say yes or no)
If they agree it is good indication of not being directed, then ask them how they would feel if you were able to find some quotes? On the other hand, they may claim they don’t care, as the light gets brighter. That is a good topic for another time, but stick to this topic and continue that not only did they make these wrong predictions but also what really offended you is that they have often lied about what they said. Witnesses are often more affected finding out the dishonesty of the Watchtower than about the errors. (For the quotes to use see Failed- 1914 Predictions.)
For anyone born into the religion, even more important is to make him or her recognize that the main reason they believe the Watchtower is the truth is because they were raised a Jehovah’s Witness. If they were raised a Mormon, then they would be equally convinced that Mormons are the truth. Then you can ask they put themselves in a position of being raised a Mormon. Do they think they would have ever changed to being a Witness? If they were a Mormon and started studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses and found out that the Watchtower said the end would be in 1914, or that they built Beth Sarim because Abraham was going to be resurrected in 1925 and live there, would there be any chance they would have converted?
It is important to try not to get upset in the conversations, and that can be a lot harder than expected when being confronted with what you will quickly see as stubborn refusal to accept logic. Becoming upset just reinforces the Witness notion that you are unhappy with where you are. Try to stay light hearted, calm, and happy, as a Witness will expect you will be filled with rage. If things get heated, nothing will be accomplished, so save the conversation for another day.
The Risk You Take
Be aware that you are not trying to win a religious doctrinal debate, you are attempting to assist a person that is constantly being subjected to standard mind control techniques. Appealing to logic is not going to be effective to a person that fears any criticism of the Organisation is an affront from Satan, and that to leave the religion would be to enter the evils of the world and certain death at Armageddon.
Jehovah's Witnesses are inoculated against criticism of their religion. They are constantly warned against apostates, (members that leave the religion and attempt to subvert them), and are always on guard. As soon as you make known your doubts, or mention anything negative about the Watchtower, their defences will immediately spring to action.
Before choosing to confront loved ones, it is vitally important to be aware that you run the risk being labeled as an apostate and destroying any relationship that you have left with them. Be very subtle in your initial approach in order to test the waters. If the discussions become very heated and unreasonable you are unlikely to be successful and it may be more important in the long term to try and retain some form of relationship instead of proving the religion to be wrong.
If you are living with your parents, very little good will result from confronting them. Whilst you live under their roof, you owe it to them to be respectful. Until you are of an age to leave home, and have saved enough finances to move out, it is rarely worth attempting to convince them they are wrong. I have read far too many experiences of teenage Jehovah's Witnesses kicked out of home and living on the street.
Why Don't They Agree With You?
Jehovah's Witnesses are confident that they have used logic to prove what they believe, regardless of how illogical their reasoning seems. The Righteous Mind - Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt is exceptional at explaining why a person can believe something that seems crazy to you. Haidt quotes philosophers and research to show that opinions and beliefs are not formed by logic, but by emotion. Logic is then used to find a way to justify that belief, as weak as that logic may turn out to be.
Numerous rhetorical fallacies are behind a person accepting false information. Watchtower articles draw heavily on these, hence why your Jehovah's Witness is so confident that what they believe is true. These include confirmation bias, special pleading, inconsistency, circular reasoning and red herrings.
People resist changing what they believe due to cognitive dissonance. It is easier to justify a wrong belief than face the consequences of changing a belief. This is particularly so for Jehovah's Witnesses that have invested a lot of time into the religion, and stand to lose family and friends by leaving. This is the sunk cost fallacy.
People most vulnerable to converting to being one of Jehovah's Witnesses are usually going through an emotionally traumatic period. Likewise, for one of Jehovah's Witnesses to reevaluate what they believe usually takes an emotional trigger from a Watchtower article or experience in the congregation. Being confronted with just logic and reasoning is unlikely to be enough.
Doubting When Married
It is particularly difficult working out what to do if you are happily married to someone you love. In such case, don't lose sight of how much you mean to each other and don't rush. Regardless of how much you think you know your spouse, it is difficult to predict how they will react if your approach makes them think you are an apostate. There are three potential outcomes.
- They also leave the religion
- They remain active in the religion but accept that you do not believe
- You separate
It is impossible to know how long it will take for them to leave the religion or accept the changed circumstances, which is why patience and planning are required. When both people really love each other, it is possible to stay together even though one is active and the other is no longer one of Jehovah's Witnesses. On the other hand, when the spouse values their relationship with Jehovah more than with you, they will leave as soon as they think you are apostate, out of fear you will come between their relationship with Jehovah.
Put yourself in your partner's shoes. Regardless of how much you love each other, they will be terrified of what will change if you are not one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Watchtower convinces them that worldly people have no morals, and people leave the religion because they crave an immoral lifestyle. It is important to constantly reassure your marriage mate of your love, and that whilst you no longer believe Watchtower teachings, it does not mean you want to cheat on them, leave them, or have lost your ethics.
I have read a number of experiences where a spouse has been able to speak to their partner and eventually both end up leaving. Sadly, experiences like the following are equally common.
“I was considering how long I can live the lie, but unfortunately I am not very good at acting, nor at lying. This weekend my wife confronted me about my changed attitude about ‘the truth’ and then it happened. I became a talking jwfacts. I did this in a calm manner and tried reasoning and use of questions, as taught in the school. It is here that I appreciated Steve Hassan’s work the most, as her responses such as, “to where will we go”, “but this is God’s organization”, and the usual dribble about apostates all made sense to me.
It took my wife about 24 hours to report me to the elders. It took her another 6 hours to decide to leave me.
So here I sit. All that truly matters to a man, my family, has been ripped away from me. My sin? To seek the truth and to “Test everything. Hold on to the good." (1 Thessalonians 5:21 - NIV)” Wezz 12 Mar 2012
A few Saturdays ago, the elders knocked on my brother’s home ... the wife said; “They were invited---by me”
What had happened the past several weeks, is that my brother had been showing his wife some points on JWfacts regarding the date 1914. She listened to him and wrote lots of notes but said nothing. Well my brother was very happy that she was listening and not accusing him of being an apostate. He was sure that he was getting through.
My brother went along and sat down with the elders in the kitchen table, (There were three elders, not two) His wife brought in the laptop and put it on the table and turned it on. The elders took out all the notes that the wife had written and put them on the table and spread them out. One of the elders asked my brother; "Is this your writing?"
On the top of a couple of pages of his wife’s notes was the name of the website—Jwfacts.com. His wife had asked him to write the address on the top of the pages so she could do research later. (I guess she had planned this)
So my brother said; “Yes, that’s my writing.”
They typed in the address (JWfacts.com) on the laptop and JWfacts appears. They type in 1914 on the search box, and that page appears. ...
The elders told my brother that this was actually an investigation and a judicial hearing would be held that evening. They said he was welcome to attend or not but the evidence for apostasy was very definite and clear.
The above experiences are included as a warning that regardless of how well you think you know your spouse, their instinctual response is likely to have adverse consequences. Plan and take time before speaking to others about how you feel.
Even if you are able to help a Witness accept that the Watchtower is not the true religion, you will still encounter the roadblock of Where Else Would I Go? It is important to understand the fear that a person has at losing, not only their belief, but also their entire group of friends and family. Whether or not the person ends up needing some religion to tell them what to believe, they will need friends and activities to replace the void left by a religion that is good at providing a close knit social circle and is very demanding on time. For the highest likelihood of success, you will need to be prepared to offer alternatives. These alternatives need not be other religions, but rather sources of interest and friendships. Forums for former Jehovah's Witnesses, such as jehovahs-witness.net and reddit.com/r/exjw, are useful at this point to assist the person through the stage of learning their real identity and interests.
As leaving is extremely traumatic, it is also important to be there to support to person at this time. Ex-Witnesses can feel like aliens for quite a lengthy period, looking in but unable to fit in with normal society. Meeting with some former Witnesses can make a great difference in understanding that what they are experiencing is normal. Professional help may also need to be recommended. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, covered by Medicare in countries like Australia, can make a great difference in as few as 8 weeks.
I do not think that it is always recommended to confront a Witness with the truth about the Organisation. Age and circumstances need to be considered. Despite its short-comings, some people benefit from the support group it offers, and leaving the religion and losing family can result in terrible consequences. Recognise that there is no rush. Plant the seeds and be there to offer support, so that when the time is right, you will be the one they turn to.
- Do not be critical of Jehovah's Witnesses as people. It is Watchtower teachings and practices that are the issue.
- Do not present "apostate" information. Discuss topics for research and consideration, using neutral sources such as Watchtower publications and encyclopaedias. This will require preparation and knowledge on the subject matter.
- Be respectful of the other person and their beliefs. Heated emotional discussions prevent logical thinking. Leave the conversation for another time if either party becomes angry and aggressive.
- Use questions in preference to statements. People are convinced by conclusions they have reached themselves.
- Be patient, as it can take weeks, months or even years for a person to change.
See also Questions to Ask Jehovah's Witnesses.
For further advice it is worth reading Releasing the Bonds (Freedom of Mind Press 2000) by Steven Hassan. This discusses high control religion in general and approaches to help a person that belongs to one.
Written March 2012. Latest update February 2022.
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2022