Something is greatly off-base about the New York Times review of Amber Scorah’s new book ‘Leaving the Witnesses’ and it is not Amber. It is the reviewer, C. E. Morgan, who tackles her task with a humanist fervor that merits a review in itself.
She teaches at Harvard Divinity School, per the NYT byline. One wonders what she could possibly teach, or what might be the outcome for students who attend her class—students who presumably went there because they want to learn about God. Her lavish praise of Ms. Scorah’s book: “She teaches us how integrity is determined....by enduring the universe as we find it — breathtaking in its ecstasies and vicious in its losses — without recourse to a God” surely should give those students pause—are they truly in the place they thought they were? Or did they somehow get shunted off into the Atheist Academy? There is such a thing as truth in advertising.
Ms. Scorah herself, as presented by the Ms. Morgan, is more conventional. Hers is one of the oldest stories of time—of someone disillusioned with her present life, so she reaches out for another, which upon seizing, she finds exhilarating. It is a coming-of-age story, albeit belated. It is a staple of literature.
Since she is ‘leaving the Witnesses’—Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group of Bible-believing Christians—one must at least consider how the Witnesses themselves might have phrased her departure. That can be found in the words of the apostle Paul addressed to Timothy: “Demas has forsaken me because he loved the present world.” Demas himself would not have put it that he “forsook” anyone. He would have presented it as a matter of his eyes at last being opened. “We are regarded as deceivers, and yet we are truthful,” says Paul at 2 Corinthians 6:8. Demas would have been one to say that he had been deceived.
Ms. Morgan cannot be expected to put it as did Paul, but since she teaches at the Divinity school, one might at least expect her to be cognizant of that point of view. Instead, Amber’s departure is a tale of pure heroism for her—that of escape from an “extreme” religion—even worse than a “fundamentalist” religion in her view—and it is “most valuable as an artifact of how one individual can escape mind control.”
“We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one,” says the apostle again. (2 Corinthians 7:2) Demas might have said he had been victimized by all those things. Nevertheless, you say, I was “crafty” and I caught you “by trickery.” (2 Corinthians 12:16) Demas might have said exactly that. Truly, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccles 1:9)
It would appear that any denomination of Christianity would be fundamentalist in Ms. Morgan’s eyes—at least that would be so of any that haven’t interpreted away the resurrection of Christ into oblivion. “The anti-intellectualism of these [fundamentalist] authoritarian movements, their staunch refusal to cede ground to reason and empiricism, often confounds nonbelievers,” and it is hard to believe that she does not count herself as chief of the nonbelievers—never mind what her teaching title might suggest. “How can people devote the totality of their lives to the unseen, the unevidenced?” she laments, seemingly unaware that such was commonplace until relatively recently. Isaac Newton, oft called the father of science, wrote more about religion that he did about mathematics and science combined. “How can faith subsume thinking?” she continues. Her frustration could not be more clear—‘We have fired everything we have at them and yet they keep standing!’
As bad as fundamentalism is, however, it is not as bad in her eyes as an “extreme religion” like Jehovah’s Witnesses. To establish that she has done her homework, she relates that from its 1870 inception, the faith “rejected Christian doctrines it deemed extratextual, including trinitarianism and hell,” as though providing further evidence of descent into superstition, rather than the advance into rationality that it is—early Witness leader C. T. Russell was known within his lifetime as “the man who turned the hose on hell and put out the fire.” The Witness description of death: “extinction or non-being,” is exactly the rationalist view of today, and it is ‘tarnished’ only by their added take of a future resurrection from the dead.
The notion that Christianity should return to its default state Morgan finds “dubious,” as though the inventors of something couldn’t possibly have known what they were doing. Witnesses have a “hierarchy,” as though no other organization does, their publishing constitutes an “empire,” as evidenced by the fact that it still exists, and they have a following who “actively proselytize, warning of an imminent Armageddon,” as though it is wrong to even suggest that an earth carved up into 200 eternally squabbling nations is not exactly what God had in mind.
In short, she found has people—ordinary people for the most part—who disagree with her, and she oozes disdain for them. Children raised in such religion “experience a totalizing indoctrination that so severely limits the formation of an adult psychology that many don’t ever achieve maturity in the way secular society conceives of it...” Necessarily this means that she thinks the adults of that faith are largely immature children. The patronization is simply too much. Any time someone leaves one culture for another, there is some catching up to do—say, in the case of a person migrating from one country to another. Would Ms. Morgan similarly find it necessary to crow her superiority over the country and culture of emigration—where Islam is practiced, perhaps, or Spanish is spoken? She would recoil at the thought, but when it comes to religious views that stray from her worldview, it is as natural to her as breathing air. Let her “world” prove itself reasonably “free from sin” before she casts stones on those who have come to see things differently,
“Witnesses are forbidden to socialize outside the organization,” she says. How enforceable can such “forbidding” be when people live, school, and work in the general community, as Witnesses do? The forbidding amounts to no more than counsel to choose one’s friends wisely—counsel that should hardly be a shocker. It is surprising that the she does not escalate “higher education is discouraged” also into an ironclad rule. When Witnesses partake of the offerings of “higher education,” they usually prefer to take it a la carte.
For all that she might carry on about “mind-control,” it is her environment of higher education that employs a classic tool of it: cut a student off nearly 24/7 from former stabilizing influences to minimize resistance to the absorption of whatever philosophies are taught. It is her environment that normalizes such a drastic shift as no more more remarkable than pursuing health care. Study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, and there is truth in packaging—you know full well that you are going off the grid of standardized thinking. Still, one remains in the most stabilized environment possible—one’s normal routine and surroundings are entirely undisturbed—the “safest” setting in which to give any new ideas a trial run. It is the very opposite of how one “brainwashes” people.
“Questioning doctrine is an offense punishable by disfellowshipping, or shunning,” she says. It is a matter of degree. Each side of societal uproar that we see on the television news presents itself as merely “questioning” the premises of the other. Amber ran out on a “loveless marriage,” Ms Morgan states, and the implication is clear that Jehovah’s Witnesses think loveless marriages are the bee’s knees, since she presents love as the balm that finally wakes Ms. Scorah up. Seemingly to her, there is no way on earth that love that could be found within the repressive religion. Few cheerleaders are unbiased and Ms Morgan is clearly is not an unbiased reviewer.
“The bravery of [the book] cannot be overstated,” she gushes. I suspect that, not only it can be, but it is. Certainly it pales next to the bravery of a migrant who arrives in a strange country with no money, no common language, and often without family. Ms Scorah, on the other hand, has a new-found partner—the same one who introduced her to her new worldview, and who will presumably be there to give support.
Notwithstanding that anything with which you agree is “highly readable” on that account, I will take for granted that Ms. Scorah’s book is as it is said to be—an “earnest one, fueled by a plucky humor and a can-do spirit that endears.” Perhaps one day I will read it. And yet it does not completely satisfy the reviewer—it shows too much the “the remnants of a Christian modesty not well suited to the task of memoir.” ‘Come on, SPILL!’ one can all but hear Ms. Morgan urge. ‘Blow this “juvenile” “fundamentalist” tripe out of the water!’ as she totally redefines “miracle” as “enduring the universe as we find it — breathtaking in its ecstasies and vicious in its losses — without recourse to a God.” What will be the subject of her next lesson at the Divinity School?
But she has not yet come to the most gripping part. When she does, she foresees another book. “Many readers know Scorah through her viral article in The New York Times about the death of her son on his first day of day care....” she writes. “This, one senses, is her brutal but beautiful route into a new book — a shorter, wiser one, sharp and devastating. Here she reveals a chastened existence, steeped in grief and unknowing without recourse to pacifying religious answers.” THAT is the book I will read even before this one. Ms Scorah has exchanged a backdrop of: “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who are sleeping in death, so that you may not sorrow as the rest do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) for one that reads: “Stuff happens. Pick up the pieces and carry on if you can.” Ms. Morgans reckons that exchange an unmitigated triumph of the human spirit. Is it? The apostle would have reckoned it as “shipwreck of a faith.” (1 Timothy 1:19)
- Tom Harley is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness in the United States. He does not teach anywhere, but has written the ebooks “Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah’s Witnesses Write Russia,” and “TrueTom vs the Apostates!”