Jul 21, 2019

When Leaving a Religion Is Like Abandoning a Cult

C. E. Morgan
NY Times
July 1, 2019

Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life -- By Amber Scorah

Though religious fundamentalism has surged globally in recent decades, the anti-intellectualism of these authoritarian movements, their staunch refusal to cede ground to reason and empiricism, often confounds nonbelievers. How can people devote the totality of their lives to the unseen, the unevidenced? How can faith subsume thinking?

But reason is a poor weapon against the believer whose very religious identity springs from an embrace of the unreasonable. Many fundamentalists are conscious of the seeming absurdity of their position, but it is precisely the stridency of their faith, their ability to withstand the irrational, that confirms for them their exceptionalism and salvation. They reject modernity’s demystification project and instead construct meaning in the supernatural. Their faith becomes very thick armor indeed, one that even the sharpest Enlightenment rationalism won’t penetrate.

But the stunted psychology of those raised in extreme religion is another problem altogether. For these children, there is no obvious forfeiture of common sense or flight from existential chaos that informs adult conversion. Rather, they experience a totalizing indoctrination that so severely limits the formation of an adult psychology that many don’t ever achieve maturity in the way secular society conceives of it, a state of empowered capability that permits complex life choices, a state in which contradictory ideas can be held in tension without psychic recoil. Instead, the fundamentalist child, raised on fear and limitation, lives a life of diminished options, constrained by strict dualisms: black and white, good and bad, God and Satan, and (perhaps most alarmingly for the broader culture) us and them.

Amber Scorah’s memoir, “Leaving the Witness,” is the account of a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness finally able to muster the emotional and intellectual resources necessary to leave the sect once she reaches her 30s. As a freedom story, hers is of particular note and value because the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a secretive and self-contained organization, known to most only as cheerful proselytizers who knock on doors and refuse to celebrate birthdays.

Established in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell, this millenarian movement rejected Christian doctrines it deemed extratextual, including trinitarianism and hell, instead preaching a dubious return to apostolic Christianity. Like many 19th-century Christian denominations, it reacted to the scientific age with intensified literalism and supernatural faith claims, granting Scripture the ultimate authority. As the Witnesses consolidated and organized, they formed a strict hierarchy topped by an eight-member, all-male governing body; a prolific and wealthy publishing empire; and a following of eight million members who actively proselytize, warning of an imminent Armageddon.

Witnesses are forbidden to socialize outside the organization; higher education is discouraged; and questioning doctrine is an offense punishable by disfellowshipping, or shunning. Understandably, given the hermetically sealed nature of the sect and the shattering designation of apostate applied to those who dare question the organization, memoirs of departure have been few. A Witness who leaves the cult stands to lose everything.

And, as Scorah makes exceedingly clear, she did survive a cult. Growing up in Vancouver, she was the child of an alcoholic father and distant mother, both of whom were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Scorah’s grandmother was the agent of indoctrination, bringing the author and her sister to the Kingdom Hall for services. There, Scorah was repeatedly warned that the end of the world was nigh, that Witnesses alone would survive on an earthly paradise, and that all others would be consigned to what’s called the common grave — extinction, or nonbeing. Though unusual in that she “strayed” sexually and experienced disfellowshipping at a young age, Scorah was reinstated when deemed properly repentant, and fell quickly in step with established doctrine, ultimately marrying a devout Witness for whom she felt little romantic or sexual interest. When she and her husband eventually journeyed to China as missionaries, Scorah was fully indoctrinated, “as confident in my mission as a suicide bomber.”

Ironically, given the primacy of love in most religious doctrines, it is often love — destabilizing, transformative and messily human — that represents the greatest threat to extremist indoctrination. Knowing this, authoritarian organizations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses exert tremendous effort to curtail the intermingling of believer with nonbeliever. After all, religious absolutism is no match for the handshake, the shared meal, the neighborly conversation, the kiss. So it was with Scorah. In China, where the denomination is outlawed, she cultivated secular friendships for the first time in order to secretly proselytize. She went to dinners, invited people out for excursions and gradually began to ask questions that come naturally to those not born into cults: How do you live your life? What is your religion about? Do you even believe in God?

Ultimately, it was through an email correspondence with a man that Scorah found the courage to court apostasy, focusing on the contradictions in Witness doctrine, its misogyny, and how its promotion of ignorance and lack of education undermines any sense of personal choice, rendering the word almost meaningless. When this email affair turned physical, Scorah was finally able to extricate herself from both a loveless marriage and a life-consuming cult. Her memoir, most valuable as an artifact of how one individual can escape mind control, tracks this transformation from zealous believer to apostate.

Scorah’s book, the bravery of which cannot be overstated, is an earnest one, fueled by a plucky humor and a can-do spirit that endears. Her tale, though an exploration of extremity, is highly readable and warm. However, her straightforward, unadorned prose, which many will admire, feels not so much intentionally accessible as the product of a mind still forming the ability to see the secular world, one not trained in the speculative that is the foundation of poetry and lyricism. Given the painfully restricted life she led until her 30s, this is entirely understandable, yet remains artistically limiting.

Likewise, there are unfortunate ellipses in the text, especially at moments of particular heat — the death of her father, the tryst with her lover, the argument that ends her marriage — that seem a product of two problems equally: a young writer’s struggle to consistently sculpt narrative movement, and the remnants of a Christian modesty not well suited to the task of memoir. While too many memoirists appear willing to fling anyone under the publishing bus, reticence can be equally troubling. Scorah would do well in her next literary outing to occupy a bolder space between ethic and revelation, perhaps the memoirist’s trickiest task.

And, hopefully, there will be another memoir. Many readers know Scorah through her viral article in The New York Times about the death of her son on his first day of day care. Though the introduction of this material in the final chapter conflicts tonally with what precedes it, her description of that loss in terse, blunted prose is deeply moving. Suddenly, we see an emerging writer come into full emotional expression. This, one senses, is her brutal but beautiful route into a new book — a shorter, wiser one, sharp and devastating. Here she reveals a chastened existence, steeped in grief and unknowing without recourse to pacifying religious answers. It is precisely through this unknowing, and her ability to bear it alongside the loss of her son, that Scorah most effectively accomplishes what her book sets out to do. She teaches us how integrity is determined not by assenting to the juvenile claims of fundamentalism, but by enduring the universe as we find it — breathtaking in its ecstasies and vicious in its losses — without recourse to a God. Given the enormity of her grief and the wholesale collapse of her previous belief system, the intellectual integrity that Scorah displays is nothing short of a miracle.

C.E. Morgan is the author of “The Sport of Kings,” which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. She teaches at Harvard Divinity School.

Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life
By Amber Scorah
279 pp. Viking. $28.


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