Why the effects of leaving your religion are little understood

The support for mental health using therapy is a relatively modern concept. Victims of abuse, ranging from sexual abuse, violence and simple force of control, can find therapists versed in these forms of manipulation and can employ crafted forms of therapy to aid recovery.

A bad deal

Few ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses would deny that the religion they’ve left was one of high control. Few would deny that the experience has had a long-lasting effect on their mental disposition. Take for example the simple idea of the conditional salvation Jehovah’s Witnesses are offered. That idea fits into a description of two words: “conditional salvation”. That’s it. That’s the start and end of all you’re being offered by Watchtower: “obey us and PROBABLY you may survive” (The Watchtower, February 15, 2001).

What kind of deal is that? Seriously, who would take a well-paid job if the caveat was you will probably get paid? Take the effects of this form of abuse to your average therapist and you’re unlikely to find the help you need.

This shouldn’t be, but it is a niche form of abuse.

When I tell my friends and colleagues that I suffer the traumatic after-effects of being in a high-control religion they shrug. It’s an admission which, in their eyes, equates to the choice not to go to church on Sunday anymore. Why the fuss? Man up for God’s sake! Yet it’s clear from reading the various personal accounts online; listening to their YouTube channels; and reading their blogs, that the walking wounded are among us with access to specialized counselling sparse.

The first problem is, as I’ve said above, the view of the religion from outsiders. Ask the man on the Clapham Omnibus what he knows about Jehovah’s Witnesses and he’ll likely tell you about his Saturday morning lie-in being disturbed. The more informed will speak of the blood issue. Those who have taken a deeper dive may even address the society’s handling of child sex abuse. Few, if any, will truly know of the extent of the mental wounds and the resulting scars caused. And those who know won’t fully understand.


First I intend to put to rest the misuse of this term. Thrown around with abandon and mostly incorrectly, gaslighting is named after the 1944 film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Berman. The plot revolves around a man who is intent on causing his wife to doubt her sanity. To do this he varies the pressure of gas which lights the house, causing the lights to dim and flicker. When challenged, her husband denies witnessing the problem, tacitly suggesting it’s all something which is going on in her head.

A classic example of Watchtower using this method was after 1975 and the resulting disappointment which followed the failure of Watch Tower’s oblique promises of Armageddon. Oblique, because, although Watch Tower never actually promised the end of this system of things, it hinted very heavily at it.

Many talks and publications stopped short of giving the absolute assurance whilst managing to insinuate a promise. The Watchtower magazine rang with praises for those who had sold their houses and businesses to do more ministry work. It lauded the sacrifices made by these urging others to pick up the same baton and run to the finish line.

Segment from Kingdom Ministry, May 1974

“Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property and planning to finish out the rest of their days in this old system in the pioneer service. Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.”

How Are You Using Your Life?, Kingdom Ministry, May 1974

When this failed, as with all other promised dates failed, did Watchtower apologise unreservedly and take full responsibility saying that they had been mistaken? Did they offer restitution or at least an apology to those who were now homeless or out of work. That’s what any decent person would have done. Or did Watchtower lay low and say nothing – least said, soonest mended, right? No. They laid the blame at the door of their followers.

Nice mealy-mouthed morsels like this were published:

“Did Jesus mean that we should adjust our financial and secular affairs so that our resources would just carry us to a certain date that we might think marks the end? If our house is suffering serious deterioration, should we let it go, on the assumption that we would need it only a few months longer? Or, if someone in the family possibly needs special medical care, should we say, ‘Well, we’ll put it off because the time is so near for this system of things to go’? This is not the kind of thinking that Jesus advised.”

The Watchtower, July 15 1976

Notice the gaslighting? I was in my teens at this point and my parents, thankfully, a little too fly to be taken in, but hundreds of thousands were to the extent that there was a mass exodus soon after. How do you explain the damage that experience did to you as a practicing Witness? Not so much the disappointment but the feeling of treachery which you were obliged to suppress because – well, this was from the all-knowing, benevolent faithful and discreet class. Your choice was to leave or sit on and squash that profound feeling of cognitive dissonance:

Page from The Watchtower August 15, 1968

“The faithful and discreet slave made a promise. That promise didn’t materialize. But the slave class don’t break promises.”

Put that feeling of desolation on the back-burner and lock away the intense feelings of betrayal into a cupboard which, over a lifetime would come to be stuffed which such incidences.

Years later, open that cupboard and attempt to explain the contents to an analyst. An analyst who knows plenty about addiction, common-or-garden abuse, insecurities and any number of regular mental problems and they will try and slot it into what they know and hence, what they can treat.

Much of the trauma experienced from having been a Jehovah’s Witness doesn’t only stem from the more obvious measures of control and abuse. It’s comes from a sense of worthlessness.

You suddenly realise that you weren’t on the inside. You hadn’t won life’s lottery and you weren’t loftily above all those you scorned when they slammed the door in your face. You were on the outside. They were on the inside. They had the knowledge. They were right and you were stupidly taken in.

You lost your youth, opportunity, love, liberty. And you don’t get a second chance. No one says “bad luck – have another go at the game of life” to start all over again, younger and wiser. No. You’re stuck with it.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The world of mental therapy is becoming increasingly aware of the after effects of high-control groups. There are an increasing number of publications and blogs which specifically address the effects.

Many who specialise in this form of treatment recognise how widespread they are and set themselves up to carry out therapy at a distance.

Lastly, it’s interesting to know that the husband in the film, Gaslight, used this form of mental abuse to ultimately cause his wife to question her sanity at the same time masking his illegal activities.

Think about that.

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