It would be very difficult to discuss how I got to be where I am now without bringing up religion. As a word of warning, religion does not play a very supportive role. Maybe someday I’ll try to say something about it’s possible to feel fulfillment in a world without any gods, but that’s not the topic for today. Also, I don’t want to be in the business of condemning religion. When anything does harm it should be pointed out and demonstrated, no matter how dear it may be to hearts and minds, but if you’re religious and it comforts you in whatever stressful situation you’re in (graduate school or otherwise) then go in peace.
From the age of six or so I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. It would be easy to single that religion out, but I really don’t think it could be that radically different from many other devout religious upbringings with a cultural fear of losing followers. There was a lot of isolation–we weren’t supposed to have any friends outside of the organization. We had five meetings a week (two on Sunday, two on Thursday, and one on Tuesday). All other bureaucracies were condemned at every available opportunity, especially other Christian religions–“Christendom”–and human government.
Truth be told, I was never a very good Jehovah’s Witness. I’ve been a lifelong introvert, so keeping my friendships outside the faith to a minimum was never a huge issue. When I learned about activities with other people that I really enjoyed that started to slip. Yup. Board games. Well, and video games, but this was back in the days when you still had to play those in the same room with no more than three other friends. I could almost understand the “graphic” violence of video games being some kind of threat, but I was told that the game of chess was a gateway drug to going to war commanding a real army.
So you could just forget about Risk or Axis & Allies or Stratego. If these were a gateway to anything for me it was turn based strategy PC games. Now I’m sure if you replaced all the time I’ve spent playing the Civilization franchise over the years I probably could have built a flying car or a jet pack, but I have a very hard time believing it’s damaged my character. Which is more or less what I felt back then, too.
This notion that I was so pathetic that I couldn’t discern between fantasy and reality was just so insulting. I hated it. I hid my interest. In high school I got into table top role playing games, too, so I guess it must have looked like a boulder rolling towards a cliff edge. But when you’ve had people condemning things you enjoy for more than half a decade you start to carry around someone inside yourself that does it for them even if they don’t see it.
I didn’t understand why enjoying games was so bad. I knew it was just a game. I didn’t understand why wanting to be a scientist was so bad. When we studied the sciency things in one of our five weekly meetings those were always my favorite. If what they say there is true how could studying it in more detail be harmful to my faith? I didn’t understand why, but I knew that wanting them was bad. There was something wrong with me. I was broken.
I was often told that other people who are raised in “Christendom” hear about how they’re going to Hell all day and all night and live in terror of it. And that I should count myself lucky that the Witnesses instead focus on living forever on a paradise Earth. See? Nice and happy with puppies and rainbows! Except for that bit where knowing “the truth” but not living by “the truth” makes you like the worst possible kind of person. Which may not involve eternal fiery damnation, but I’ll argue sounds just as bad to a kid looking up to adults for verification.
I haven’t kept up with any changes in JW doctrine in the past 10 years. So I don’t know how things are now. But when I was growing up I felt like any interests I had outside the organization were hunted down and condemned in seemingly arbitrary ways. I think I was about 13 when I decided physics was about the coolest thing ever and I was pretty sure I wanted to be Richard Feynman. Even though part of my interest was also phrased in the sense of “figuring out how/why/when god made the universe” physics was probably the second most threatening science after biology (hiss, evolution, hiss). So I feigned an interest in chemistry until I moved off to college and promptly declared a major in physics.
And that was a year or two after I more or less left the faith for good. I was still carrying around this feeling that what I wanted was somehow wrong. To some extent, I’m still carrying a little bit of that. I’ve managed to internalize a sense of personal failure that has been broken up into smaller bits and shaken out over years of really seriously not failing, but it’s still something I’m working on. Other lingering side effects include getting really uncomfortable and anxious about donating blood, finding birthdays and Christmas super awkward, and a strong casual interest in weird eschatology that empowers the distracting influence of Wikipedia.
To wrap up, I could go back and try to fill in some gaps here and there about how I was such a keen skeptic, always ready to question things that don’t seem quite right. But we’re talking about not only the past, but a less than enjoyable time in the past recorded only by my personal memory. I think that would be a bit disingenuous. I’d be lying if I said I never wanted to go back despite all the bad feels. My slide into atheism was actually quite slow with a very long stop at agnostic deist and probably had far more to do with all the religious studies classes I took in college than anything.
What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that doubt is a thing that happens. It’s pretty okay. But it is not itself a virtue. That I doubted the religion I was brought up in isn’t a personal accomplishment. It’s just a fact of life. Having processed that doubt in a way that eventually led to me recognizing the harm my religious upbringing did to me and turning it into a learning, developing experience that’s helped me to understand myself and (I hope) others is an accomplishment. And I plan on owning that. Have a good one, y’all!