Monday, April 25, 2011

Jehovah's Witnesses and Atheists, A Response Part I

Yours truly was raised in a family of Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs).  I began to actively doubt the JWs doctrine in my early teens, and left home at 17 to escape this dogmatic and absurd religion.  Recently I found a web site for “apostate” ex-JWs, Free Minds.  The following blog post is in response to a blog post I found on that site by, Nils Jansma, who apparently still wishes to rescue his belief in a Christian God:  The “you’ who appears in this essay is Nils.

Being an ex-JW and an atheist, I strongly disagree with what you write in your post "What May Jehovah's Witnesses and Atheist Have in Common".  Let’s start with this simple statement. 

Both Jehovah's Witnesses and Atheists are judgmental of others and believe that they have an exclusive franchise on truth.  Of course, it is to be noted that many religious and political groups may also fall into this comparative pool.  Nevertheless, the tactics used by both Jehovah's Witnesses and atheists are often very similar.  Both sides assume the other side is fundamentally wrong.

First, I take exception to your attempt to pigeonhole atheists into the straw-man you wish to knock down.  Let's clarify something basic.  Atheism, as defined by most atheists, is NOT defined as a claim of certain knowledge that God does not exist.  The word "atheism" literally means "without theology."  Many propose a sliding scale from "weak atheism" to a "strong atheism".  The former can include a simple lack of God belief and the position of so-called "agnosticism."  Strong atheism on the other hand is based on more affirmative arguments that God's existence is highly improbable.   However, I know of no actually existing atheism that claims any absolute knowledge that there is no God, except the version created by theists. The atheist who claims certainty of knowledge that there is no God, or that science decisively proves the non-existence of God is philosophically naive. 

There indeed are SOME atheists who are judgmental of others.  So what?  As you acknowledge, any number of group identity designations can be regarded as “judgmental”.   There are Muslims, Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives, Liberals,  Environmentalists, Vegetarians, meat lovers, Fascists, Communists, Capitalists, University Fraternity and Sorority members, that can be "judgmental". To say that both Jehovah's Witnesses and atheists are judgmental of others is meaningless when we could put virtually any other group identity terms in that sentence.  Perhaps you are cherry picking the atheists who you regard as judgmental, and hastily generalizing that judgment to all who doubt God’s existence?

There are atheists who can be rather arrogant and dogmatic.  But this really is a question of style.  Yes, some atheists may openly mock religious believers and claim that they are stupid.  I myself am critical of this style of atheism, but it is hardly characteristic of all atheists. The comparison of atheists and Jehovah's Witnesses is quite spurious.  Let’s be clear, JWs are a tightly united formal organization that enforces doctrinal conformity to their particular interpretation of the Bible, AND they also enforce behavioral conformity of general lifestyle.  Atheists on the other hand are loosely affiliated and variable group of people united only by their shared doubt of God's existence.

The claim or suggestion that atheists and JWs are even close to equally judgmental is absurd.  Atheists are generally accepting of women's equality, and are tolerant of the variation in human sexuality, gender identity (i.e. transgendered).  JWs and many other religions are not.  Atheists are generally accepting of peoples choices of educational and career paths, lifestyle, and entertainment choices.  JWs and many other religions are not.  Most atheists believe in a live and let live ethic, that people are free to make choices and pursue a variety of interests.  JWs and many people of other religions are not.  Most Christian religions believe that if one does not accept Christ, then that person is condemned to hell.  JWs believe that those who follow their religion will be rewarded with everlasting life on a paradise earth, while those who don't will die.  Atheists almost agree. Except we think that death is all people’s destiny, no matter what they believe.  To argue that atheists are equally as judgmental as JWs or any other religion simply isn't true.

Atheists generally do consider other peoples’ religious beliefs as absurd.  This is indeed judgmental in that atheists do think religious believers are probably wrong.  But lets face it, the believer in God also thinks the atheist is wrong.  So lets not be disingenuous in thinking that the judgmental arrogance only comes from the atheist.  And the fact is, we really don’t have much of a choice here.  Somebody is wrong.  Either there exists an omnipotent, benevolent spirit being that created the universe, or there isn’t.  Although one might propose the existence of other types of god(s), let’s put that aside here.  This is the question that theists have put before us, and the burden of proof is on them to support the claim of God’s existence.  As an atheist, I don’t think this spirit being exists, but I do acknowledge that my knowledge and understanding is limited.  So I concede the possibility that I could be wrong.  In conversations with my JW mother, and many other people of different religious faiths, to entertain the possibility that they could be wrong on this question is inconceivable.  

Part II will address Nil's comments on atheism and science. 


Pilgrim said...


Thank you for your response to my Blog about what I believe Jehovah’s Witnesses have in common with Atheists. If you read the comments, you will find that the article evoked quite a reaction among those who apparently define themselves as being atheists. One thing I have learned from writing the blog is that I have to be careful of my wording because “atheists” are apparently very sensitive about being “pigeonholed” or labeled as being a part of a group that hold views in common. I guess that comes from out natural desire to want to be special and not quite like everyone else.

I am encouraged by your comments because you are the type person for whom I am writing, one who has been disillusioned about religion in general and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular. You sound mildly angry and resentful about your experience and appear to project it on to others like me, thinking that one of my problems is that I need to “rescue” my belief in a way that you apparently were not able or had no desire to do. In responding to your comments, I don’t want this to sound arrogant as if I am defending the high ground from which you have unfortunately been displaced and find yourself in need of my words of wisdom to help in your recovery. The remainder of this comment will address specific points you raised and to provide context, I will bracket your words as I respond to them.

Because my comment exceeded the length limitation for comments, I have uploaded it to a personal file for continued viewing.

Sheldon said...

My updated response is here.