I don't want to be a Jehovah's Witness anymore, but I'm scared of losing my family

ABC News, Australia/January 28, 2020

By Sana Oadar

It seems Australians are increasingly giving up on God — or at least religion.

On the last census in 2016, nearly a third of Australians (30 per cent) reported they had 'no religion' — the highest number of people ever to do so, and up 11 per cent on 2006.

For those who come from conservative religious families, what causes them to lose faith? How does that impact their relationships with family? Religion is often deeply tied to identity and culture; announcing you no longer believe can result in strained, or even severed, relationships.

Curious about the experiences of young Aussies who no longer believe, we spoke to three 20-somethings from a range of religious backgrounds. Each grew up in a particularly conservative strain of their respective faiths.

From being cut off entirely, to leading double lives, their experiences share one thing in common: plenty of emotional upheaval.

In this first instalment of a three-part series, we hear from Julia*, a woman who grew up Jehovah's Witness.

Trigger warning: This story contains details of sexual assault.

Describe your upbringing

Everyone I've grown up around have been Witnesses.

I've always been very believing in it, but now that I look back it was very blindly believing.

I was 18 when I got married. I've been married for 10 years now.

I wasn't allowed to have sex before marriage. You're not allowed to drink much alcohol. You can't hang out with school friends, you can only hang out with people in the religion.

We didn't celebrate birthdays, Christmas or Easter. We weren't allowed to sing the national anthem at school, we'd have to stay seated — it would be really embarrassing.

We went to three worship meetings a week.

We went witnessing (door-to-door preaching) every Saturday morning, 9am-12pm. Every single door, people wouldn't be interested. I'd be so embarrassed.

I remember we had a gun pulled on us once. I was about four, that was my first real memory of witnessing.

Why did you stop believing?

I was raped at 14 by someone high up in the religion. I had very repressed memories from it, which only came out a few years ago after my kids were born.

I went to the elders and told them everything. And he got protected by them.

My husband had helped me complain, but after that he said, "The elders have dealt with it, just leave it at that."

I had the realisation that I didn't want to bring my kids up in that lifestyle anymore.

Two years ago I stopped going to the weekly meetings and going witnessing. I don't believe in God anymore.

The thing is, I'm still living in the community. It's hard. I can't exactly leave because I'll get shunned by everyone. I have a lot of anxiety, so I don't want to be disfellowshipped.

How has your relationship with family been impacted?
My parents don't really know how I feel. They live next door, they're kind of hopeful I'll come back to [the meetings]. It would just break them if they knew how I felt, because they'd have to cut me off.

They look after the kids a lot. They're constantly praying around them, pushing the kids to believe. They actually told them Santa is bad, Santa is Satan. It's pressure on me when I go out to the shops, and the kids say that out loud.

I told my husband I don't believe anymore which caused us to separate at one point. We're back together again because he wants to try for the kids. But he doesn't feel he can love someone who doesn't believe in the religion.

He actually refuses to have sex with me if I'm not doing the right thing via the religion. He withholds intimacy.

What's life like now?

Julia has received support from a private Facebook group affiliated with Say Sorry, a group run by former Jehovah's Witnesses.

It's really hard because I'm so detached from everyone around me. I can't be friends with those in the religion, because they know I don't go to meetings, and I don't really have outside friends. It's very isolating.

I got added to the ex-JW group on Facebook and they were very supportive. I've made a few friends there and we've been out for a few drinks and that's good. I speak to them every day.

I know that I never want to go back to being Jehovah's Witness but I struggle to find a way out.

I've got bipolar and I've got anxiety, I rely a lot on my parents for emotional support — I would lose that if I left.

The main thing is, if I got shunned, it would give my husband a reason to divorce me and then I'd lose my kids.

If you're struggling, there are groups online that can help (including the organisation mentioned in this article), as well as resources like Kids Helpline, which helps young people up to the age of 25 (1800 55 1800) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636).

Why do some families shun their unbelieving members?

Gary Bouma, Emeritus Professor of sociology at Monash University, stresses that in general, it's rare for families to shun members who no longer believe in God.

"The simple facts of the matter are, if you have two religious parents, you have a 50 per cent chance of half of your children being religious themselves … so the background is this is something parents have to deal with," he says.

But he says a culture of "competitive piety" in some groups or families can fuel ostracisation: This idea that "if you are good because you don't do six things, I'm much better because I don't do 12," Mr Bouma explains.

"Competitive piety drives these kinds of high-temperature, very strict, hyper-orthodox kinds of groups. If you violate that, you've violated a really important code of that subgroup."

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