Dropping Jehovah: James Zimmerman’s Critical Thinking Presentation

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Eric Jayne

Photo of Eric leaning on a table in a listening pose.

On September 11, James Zimmerman delivered an engaging presentation before the Critical Thinking Discussion Group in Maple Grove. Zimmerman spoke about his experience as a practicing Jehovah’s Witness (JW) and the struggle he encountered from leaving the church and eventually becoming an atheist.

Zimmerman began his presentation by giving the 21 attendees a brief history lesson of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. He explained how the religion was born out of the east coast religious revivals during the early 19th century and that while Charles Russell is credited as the founder by creating the Watchtower, it was Joseph Rutherford who came up with the name Jehovah’s Witness and organized the religion into what we recognize today.

Zimmerman then delved into his own personal story. He explained that he was brought up in a devoutly JW home. By the age of eight, Zimmerman was giving JW speeches, and when he was old enough, he worked at the JW headquarters in Brooklyn. He had a bright future in the JW religion until he started to become skeptical of the Bible stories and rationale for specific doctrinal rules (forbidden birthday celebrations and contempt for higher education, to name a couple examples).

After doing some research of the flood story in Genesis, Zimmerman contacted the Watchtower Society with carefully constructed questions. He didn’t want to come across as too challenging for fear of unfavorable consequences that would come if he were thought to be an apostate. Unsatisfied with the answers he received, Zimmerman nonetheless kept the findings to himself, divulging the information only to a close JW friend. Shortly after this discussion his friend left the church, became shunned by his friends and family, and was divorced by his pious JW wife.

In his presentation, Zimmerman explained the structural Orwellian nature enforced in the JW faith.  This required him to keep his skepticism to himself and not share his doubt with anyone, not even his wife; for fear that she might divorce him. Zimmerman explained that if one is to openly question Bible stories and JW teachings they risk being reported to elders in the church, which could lead to being ex-communicated from their friends and family. In order to preserve his relationships, especially with his wife and young child, he had to join everyone else in shunning his ex-JW friend. He continued to keep his skepticism to himself until he and his wife had a very important discussion about a year after their friend was ex-communicated.

Zimmerman and his wife bravely admitted to each other that neither of them believed in the JW faith anymore. After a very long conversation they wondered where to go next: a Catholic church? Methodist church? Synagogue? One thing was for sure, they wanted to reconcile with the friend they’d been shunning. As it turned out, their friend held no ill feelings and now identifies as an atheist. 

As Zimmerman explained to the group, the JW faith is a very logical approach to Christianity. It’s intellectual in that members are required to read monthly issues of The Watchtower, multiple Bible study aides, and attend Kingdom Hall meetings several times a week. A significant purpose of the JW Bible study aides is to provide convincing arguments against other religious faiths and other Christian denominations so there was little interest for Zimmerman or his wife to attend any sort of religious services.

Zimmerman reasoned that since the meaning of the word “atheist” means a person “without theism”—its Greek rooted “a” means without and “theos” means God—and Zimmerman was without a theological belief, he decided that he was now an atheist just like his ex-JW friend.

Before Zimmerman fielded questions from the attendees he offered a few strategic questions to ask JW doorknockers next time they might come to your door: “If I join your religion will I be able to leave without being harassed?” Another good question might be: “Are you presently shunning somebody because they dared to question parts of the Bible or Watchtower teachings?”  For more ideas of good questions to ask, and for more details about Zimmerman’s struggle with the JW faith, check out his recent article—“Questions for Doorknockers”— published in the September/October 2010 issue of The Humanist (http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/10_sept_oct/Zimmerman.html ).

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