At the beginning of October I produced and participated in a video featuring 62 Jehovah’s Witness apostates from all over the world. The video has so far attracted more than 24,000 views.
Our message to believing JWs was simple: apostates are NOT your enemies. Apostates are simply JWs who have summoned the bravery to subject their cherished beliefs to objective scrutiny and logic, based on which they have decided to reject irrational, corrosive teachings and practices, and start afresh.
As should by now be obvious, I am (and always will be) a proud apostate. I am immensely relieved to have discovered, while still relatively young, that the beliefs passed on to me by my parents were false. I also derive great pleasure and personal satisfaction from being involved in raising awareness of the harm caused by cults such as Watchtower through my activism work.
But being a JW apostate does not mean I support and endorse the behavior, methods and agenda of ALL other JW apostates. Just because I come from a cult in which “unity” of thought and action is demanded, this does not oblige me to nurture similar “unity” to some mirror organization or community.
For example, a year ago I took the decision to distance myself from apostates who engage in aggressive forms of activism after I noticed an increase in videos being shared on Facebook showing certain individuals harassing Jehovah’s Witnesses on the street and at their places of worship.
Even though I didn’t name any names, or target anyone in particular, by merely stating the obvious on this issue (i.e. aggressive confrontation of cult victims is not conducive to their rehabilitation) I was subjected to a barrage of abuse and slander culminating in my being labelled a sexual predator, a stalker, a cyber bully, a cult leader and a wife beater by two individuals in particular – Mike and Kim Brooks, of New Mexico.
Since then, Mike and Kim, while insisting that I refrain from any criticism of them, seem to have set up camp as “Cedars Haters HQ.” Over the past 12 months they made two more videos with me as the subject, and have attracted a small army of similarly-fixated, mostly-Christian evangelical “haters” from across the ex-JW community.
In one of these videos, Mike Brooks threatened me with physical violence if I ever set foot in New Mexico. The “crime” that warranted a violent attack on me was my failure to apologize to another person for something within an arbitrarily-defined time period.
In the second video, both Mike and Kim condemned me for giving away an unauthorized copy of Crisis of Conscience to my YouTube subscribers. Though the pair bemoaned the breach of copyright represented by my unauthorized copies, which were printed by a friend, both seemed oblivious to the fact that copyright laws are equally applicable to digital PDF copies, such as the PDF copy Kim Brooks admitted to having in the same video (and which was even being distributed on their website when their video was uploaded).*
A ‘community’ divided
Since first getting involved in activism work in 2011 I have had to deal with an unrelenting tide of criticism from fellow ex-JWs. Even my first attempts at setting up a survey of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which led to this website being launched, attracted controversy. Mike and Kim’s crusade against me, which is so clearly driven by deep resentment of my atheist views, is just the latest in a long line of aggravation I have become accustomed to dealing with.
I have repeatedly acknowledged that the majority of criticism of my work comes, not from Watchtower, but from my fellow ex-JWs. This, in my view, underscores just how damaging and corrosive the Watchtower cult is. Those who leave can be riddled with so much resentment and frustration that many can’t help but re-direct it at their fellow ex-members, who in their troubled minds become more worthy of criticism than Watchtower itself.
At times these “haters” get me down. I am, after all, only human and susceptible to sustained threats and abuse directed at me and my family. At other times I am able to shrug off the negativity and press on with my work. But with this latest “copyright” fiasco I feel something has changed, which is why I have decided to write this article. I assume my readers and YouTube subscribers value my treating them like adults and telling it like it is, and by pointing out the elephant in the room I will hopefully prepare you all for what lies ahead.
I have long understood that the so-called ex-JW “community” (I prefer to call it a movement) is composed of factions. You might be unaware of these factions if your only interaction with ex-JWs is brief forays on social media or forums. But when you deal with ex-JWs on a day-to-day basis as I do, the factions are all too obvious, and encompass two principle areas.
The Activism Spectrum
The first area, or spectrum, concerns activism. The following graphic gives you a rough sketch of the various mindsets…
At one end of the spectrum you have aggressive activists, who advocate confronting JWs on the street and in kingdom halls. A common defense of aggressive activism is: “All forms of activism are equally good, and different forms of activism work on different kinds of people.” My reply to this argument is that it overlooks how complex and deeply-entrenched cult indoctrination can be, and the delicacy and sensitivity required in disentangling someone from it.
Saying that all forms of activism are equally good is like saying all forms of dentistry are equally good. Just as a bad dentist can end up doing more harm than good, so can an activist who believes in storming into kingdom halls and berating cult victims as a means of helping them.
On the opposite end of the activism scale you have anti-activists, including JW apologists for Watchtower (but also some apostates) who oppose any attempts to wake up JWs from their indoctrination. You may consider it unthinkable to have such a mindset, but I have an awakened uncle who embraces it unashamedly. The attitude of awakened JWs who are against activism can be summed up as: “Thanks to the work of activists I’m now awake, but waking anyone else up through activism is distasteful. All the Witnesses still inside can fend for themselves.”
“Strategic activists” are those who take full advantage of online resources, including blogs and social media, to make it as easy as possible for Jehovah’s Witnesses to awaken without resorting to harassment or confrontation. You don’t need to have a blog or YouTube channel to be a strategic activist. You can get involved in strategic activism simply by supporting and promoting other strategic activists, or by sharing links to important articles or videos that may prove helpful in prompting JWs to start thinking for themselves.
“Armchair activists” is my description for usually-anonymous ex-JWs who for various reasons don’t do any activism themselves, but who offer guidance on how they would do it from the sidelines. Armchair activists can exert either a positive or negative influence. Their guidance ranges from constructive criticism and helpful advice to fierce attacks on the methods, motives and character of those actually involved in activism. There is at least one forum I can think of where armchair activists seem to be in the majority.
Non-activists are those, like my wife and many other friends of mine, who are simply grateful to have escaped Watchtower with their wits intact. They neither criticize activism nor involve themselves in it – they just dust themselves down and get on with their lives.
The Belief Spectrum
The second area of “factions,” and perhaps the area that effects me the most personally, is that of belief.
And it is much simpler to explain.
Over the last four years, many will have noticed the tone of my articles and videos follow my journey from skeptical Christian, to agnostic, to agnostic atheist. Throughout this journey I have always striven to be as respectful towards believers as possible.
I understand that some people need religion in their lives, and though I find it both obsolete and in most cases repulsive, I personally cannot envision a world where everyone is atheist and nobody is religious. I also acknowledge that the majority of JWs who find themselves on this website will recoil if they feel coerced to abandon belief in God altogether.
It is for these reasons that JWsurvey has, and always will have, a “religious neutrality” policy displayed in our comments section, whereby it is prohibited to evangelize either religion OR atheism on these pages (i.e. “This belief system works for me – and everyone else had better embrace it too!”).
But, though I try to be as respectful and accommodating as possible towards believers, there is an evangelical Christian faction within the ex-JW movement, and it does not play by the same rules.
While some Christians jumped to my defense over last year’s aggressive activism debacle, rightly acknowledging that harassing cult victims is anything but loving and Christlike, they were worryingly few in number. Aggressive activism and evangelical Christianity, it seems, usually go hand in hand.
Worse still, though I hate that this is so, as of this moment I can probably count on one hand the number of friends I have who are both Christian and genuinely respectful of my lack of belief, including my right to criticize religion on my YouTube channel.
And I can understand the reason for this.
Though there are liberal Christians out there who embrace a “live and let live” approach, and who aren’t remotely concerned as to whether others around them embrace their beliefs or not, the simple truth is: evangelism is a part of Christianity. It is mandated for Christians by Jesus himself. (Matthew 28:19)
Christians who take their faith seriously are supposed to think that anyone who doesn’t share their belief in Jesus as savior has slightly (or radically) bleaker future prospects than they do. In that context, promoting one’s beliefs when the opportunity presents itself, such as when others are discussing religion on a website or forum, is only to be expected. In their minds, they are doing us all a favor.
But rather than its members simply extolling their own understanding of God and his requirements for humans, for some time now the evangelical Christian faction has adopted a troubling new approach: stamping out the fledgling ex-JW atheist faction wherever it manifests itself.
Again, I only need to dip into the way my mind was calibrated as a JW, and the motivation behind this offensive by the evangelical wing is as clear as day.
As a JW, apostates were not just slightly-misguided fellow creatures who were pitied but still worthy of respect. They were the enemy. The gloves were off. Apostates were agents of Satan himself who were to be, not just avoided at all costs, but resisted and repudiated if they made incursions into God’s organization and its all-important kingdom work.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the same righteous indignation fuels the hate-strewn rants of the likes of the Brooks’ and Alun Williams (another even more eccentric would-be spiritual mentor), to name only a few. They will not share the same space with unbelievers. They can barely tolerate the fact that unbelievers exist, but the moment an ex-JW unbeliever such as myself opens his mouth and criticizes their cherished beliefs on a suitably well-subscribed YouTube channel, this constitutes an act of war. I become “fair game” (to coin a Scientology expression), and any tactics no matter how underhanded may be brought to bear.
No perceived flaw or slip-up is too trivial to warrant an avalanche of criticism. Even giving away an unauthorized copy of a book is to be treated with horror and disgust, and responded to with character assassinations of the most severe kind – even if the one doing the criticizing is guilty of the same indiscretion.
By this point you are probably thinking: “Ok, I get it. There is an evangelical faction in the exJW community, and it has its knives sharpened for anyone like you who espouses atheism. But what is different? How has anything changed?”
The Christian evangelical faction has, to my knowledge, always been mostly populated by demonstrably-eccentric conspiracy theorists, obsessed with freemasonry, subliminal images and the illuminati, who are almost a parody of themselves. But, like Donald Trump, against all odds they are gaining in influence, and have already attracted a respectable portfolio of more eloquent, credible spokespersons to rally to their banner.
This latest copyright fiasco came as a surprise, not because of the ferocity of the attack over such a trivial issue, but because it succeeded in duping a number of fellow activists – including a couple of respectable Christians I was hitherto friends with, who gave me bear hugs last time I met them in person, and who have featured on my YouTube channel.
I was previously unaware of there being any animosity between this couple (who I can’t name) and myself, and they were even friends with me on Facebook. But one of them made it clear in a private email exchange with a mutual friend that, because I offered an unauthorized copy of a book on my YouTube channel, I am to be considered “toxic,” a “liability” and “bad for business.”
The vitriolic tirade in which these sentiments appeared was apparently an ill-judged attempt to use the copyright issue as leverage to turn my friend and certain other fellow activists against me and my work. The person was, in effect, outing themselves as a “Cedars hater” and siding with Mike and Kim Brooks.
Again, you are probably thinking: “So what? Why do I need to know all this? Why do you even need to write about it? By writing about it you are only exacerbating an already fraught situation, and possibly putting off JWs who will leap on all this as evidence that life outside Watchtower is full of bickering and turmoil.”
I am writing about this situation because it matters – or should matter to those who value free inquiry and intellectual honesty over religious zealotry and unfounded dogma. Things will not improve by ignoring the underlying problem, the elephant in the room. Whether I like it or not, a bitter war between the evangelical and atheist factions in the ex-JW community is raging – and it has just escalated.
A war I don’t want
I did not sign up to be an activist four years ago because I sought confrontation and controversy. Believe it or not, I loath confrontation and will avoid it where possible. But whether I like fighting or not, fighting – if only of the defensive sort – is precisely what I must now do if I am to continue despite sustained efforts to silence my atheism by those who insist everyone should believe as they do.
What matters to me is not power, prestige, money or popularity. If I wanted those things, there are far easier ways of obtaining them than being a secular-minded ex-JW anti-cult activist. What matters to me is one thing, and one thing alone: the fight for truth. It is a fight that has been going on for centuries, fought by great minds and inspirational individuals who have made immense individual sacrifices to birth a society as tolerant and progressive as the one we now enjoy.
But nothing can be taken for granted, and those who insist on inflicting their ignorance on everyone else are far from disappearing in the rear view mirror. The struggle continues and effects all of us, whether it is creationists rallying for equal time in the classroom, or gays and lesbians being denied equal rights, or jihadists trying to burn civilization as we know it. And in my own corner of this global battlefield, I refuse to keel over and capitulate to evangelical thugs such as Mike and Kim Brooks or those they succeed in enticing to flock to their anti-intellectual crusade.
That is why I wanted to let my readers and YouTube subscribers know that, from now on, I will be more open than ever about my atheism, and my channel will feature more videos specifically on that subject. It is painfully apparent from my interactions with Christian evangelical ex-JWs that many of them are completely unaware of the arguments for unbelief, and I want to do my part to redress the balance.
JWsurvey, meanwhile, will remain for the most part as it is now – a welcoming environment for both the religious and secular-inclined alike. Scriptures will continue to be freely cited where necessary, because even though Christianity is objectively without evidence as a belief system, it just so happens that the bible is still in conflict with the teachings and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a plethora of areas.
Finally, a message…
To my critics I say: Get off my back, or prepare for a long and bitter struggle, because I didn’t break free from years of cult servitude to be told to “shut up,” and I won’t be bullied. And even if you should succeed in silencing me, ultimately the wind is in the sails of free inquiry, science and reason. Others will pick up my baton when I finish, and I am already far from alone.
To my friends I say: Thank you so much for your support, but PLEASE refrain from attacking those who attack me. By doing so you only bolster their persecution complex, and rather than take out their frustration on you they will only escalate their onslaught.
And to Jehovah’s Witnesses who might be reading this, I say: The fact that ex-JW apostates are fighting each other is not evidence that you are not in a cult. It only means that Watchtower indoctrination has a range of extremely unpleasant side-effects, which include suspicion, paranoia, jealousy, anger and bitterness. All of those things can be found in abundance in kingdom halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but at least those of us on the outside have the ability to choose who our friends are for ourselves. And the longer you stay in the cult, the more pronounced those characteristics may be when you are finally able to walk away.
*For the record, I do not say there was nothing wrong in my offering an unauthorized copy of Crisis of Conscience. I merely say that apologies need to go to those to whom they are owed, and any breach of copyright is strictly an issue between me and the copyright holder. And if you insist on besieging me with complaints on the matter, if you are fair and consistent you must similarly rebuke everyone who has involved themselves in downloading or distributing a PDF of the book – something the copyright holder has hitherto done nothing, to my knowledge, to halt. Others have complained that the JWsurvey.org logo has been added to the copy I was giving away, but the logo was added by my friend, not me – not that I think doing so was the heinous crime people are framing it as. And if you are to chastise me simply because my website is advertised on someone else’s copy of a book, you also need to level similar criticism at the owner of the JWfacts.com website, which is also endorsed.
- Why I can no longer support aggressive forms of activism against Jehovah’s Witnesses
- My response to the haters (and why I can’t always shake it off)