For most of his life Andrew Vodopich of Grand Junction was a devoted Jehovah’s Witness. His parents were raised in the faith, they raised Andrew in the faith, and like a good child he became a devout believer himself. For most of his life, he never questioned what his elders told him about the world, and he hoped as all good Witnesses do, to become one of the chosen few who would make it into the coveted Kingdom of Heaven. Andrew even met and married his wife within the religion, so the religion pretty much formed the basis of Andrew’s entire life.
That was then.
In November of 2015, at age 32, Andrew suddenly left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, gave up religion entirely and became an atheist.
I sat down for a talk with Andrew at the Trailhead Coffee House to find out what led him to this huge change in his life, and how it has affected him.
Andrew hopes that by sharing his experience publicly, it will encourage other Jehovah’s Witnesses, and adherents of other religions, to start thinking critically about what they’ve been told, and help them feel freer to investigate other points of view that they feel make more sense.
Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses can be particularly difficult because of the religion’s practice of shunning, or “disfellowshipping” members who question their proprietary doctrine or disobey the religion’s teachings, so Andrew’s leaving the religion to become an atheist was a particularly courageous and life-changing choice.
Q: Hi Andrew, thanks for meeting with me today.
We’re all familiar with Jehovahs Witnesses as the people who come knocking on our front doors trying to get us to convert, but what are some other distinguishing characteristics of the religion you think we should know about?
A: I used to think there was a whole lot unique about them. They don’t believe in a soul, they don’t believe in hell, they only believe in their Kingdom. They believe in two separate “hopes,” or scenarios: One is the 144,000 people in the Kingdom — that’s the number that will make it in, also called “The Little Flock,” and the second hope is the majority of humanity, who will live forever on a cleansed earth after Armageddon. They’re called “The Great Crowd” — those who haven’t had a chance to learn about God but get resurrected and have an opportunity to live on. Atheists just die. That’s the end. Witnesses don’t participate in military or armed conflict. My father was in prison shortly after he was married, maybe for over a year, for refusing to participate in the military. Dad’s been through a lot for this religion. He may have a criminal record…I don’t know.
Q: 144,000 people. That’s a curious figure. How did they arrive at 144,000 people?
Q: What about the local congregation? Can you talk a little bit about it?
A: They don’t use the word “church.” Their buildings are called “Kingdom Halls.” There are about eight congregations in the valley, some are English and some Spanish….There’s one on 29 Road across from Safeway….another one out on H Road. In total there are around 8-10 congregations in the valley. I went to the largest that had around 150 “publishers” attend it. A publisher is anyone who is approved to participate in the ministry…publishers preach.
Q: How long have you lived in Grand Junction, and what brought you here?
A: I’ve been here 17 years. My grandparents lived here. My grandfather died, and then my parents moved here to take care of my grandmother. She died year before last. My family moved away after that. I’m the youngest one. My parents moved to New Mexico with my grandmother because a sister lives there. Dad was never a big fan of G.J., and they have grandkids down there.
Q: Are your parents both Jehovah’s Witnesses?
A: Yes. My mother was raised as one, and my dad’s mother converted when he was 7. His parents split up around that time. The religious change created some tension in the family…My dad was one since he was 7 years old.
Q: Did you grow up a Jehovah’s Witness?
Q. How old are you now?
A: I’m 32.
Q: When did you convert to atheism?
A: The official date was Thanksgiving of last year, 2015. I was mentally out of it a few months before that. I kind of realized it wasn’t what it was, and was planning my exit. My wife was out a little before me. Hers was more of an emotional thing. She went through some bad things as a child. She was abused by her extended family members, and wondered how God could allow that.
Q: So how long were you in the religion?
A: Almost all my life. except 6 months or so.
Q: Did you ever go door to door?
A: I did, from the time I was a little kid. It was painful. I was a shy kid, and it didn’t come naturally to me. I went with my parent up until I was an adult, then I’d go out by myself, or with my wife. You can go to a meeting and they’ll assign people to go with you. I got turned down a lot. I’d say over 90% of people turned me down, closed the door. Some were pleasant and accepted the literature, I but never got to the point of studying the bible with anyone. It’s very uncommon to get to that point.
Q: How did you handle leaving? Did you come out and tell your family and friends?
A: Yes. I typed a letter to elders of our congregation in which I said we no longer are Jehovah’s Witnesses and we wanted them to take our names off their membership lists. I emailed all of the members of family letting them know I didn’t want to pretend someone I wasn’t…
Q: What the reaction like?
A: There was very little reaction from my family. Dad called me. He was concerned someone was influencing me. He came up from New Mexico to talk about it. There were no raised voices. He mentioned Australia once. [Note: In 2015, widespread child sexual abuse and an internal cover-up was revealed among Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia.] Dad made it clear he didn’t believe it. Interestingly, I don’t know the exact date, but the governing body sometime last year came out almost preemptively and called it [the Australian flap] “apostate driven lies.” They said to avoid apostates at all costs. In Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s not even just atheists who are are apostates, it’s members of any other religion. They are the only true religion.
Q: Is your entire family JW?
A: Yes, except for my wife, who agrees with me and was a couple of steps ahead of me. She has PTSD/bipolar disorder. She went through some hard times. She gives of herself a lot, watches other people’s kids, but then when she was having hard time, no one was there for her. No one, not even her friends, offered to stop by, help her through emotional troubles…It was very stressful for her to confess to me how she was feeling…I was disillusioned at the time with some of the people in the religion, too, but I wasn’t going to throw away the whole religion because of some of the people in it. They’re apologists [for the religion]. I’d never heard the term before, but that’s what they are. I was just taking their word for it.
Q: What was the turning point that made you want to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
A: The beginning of the end for me was when I was reading the Bible, and I just came out to my wife and said “This is bullshit.” A lot of the explanations didn’t hold much water. With everything else going on, it just kind of hit me. I started looking into some some other things, like the story of Noah and the flood, that didn’t make sense. I had some down time at work and started looking into how much water you’d need to cover the whole Earth…the indoctrination builds walls in your mind.
My particular exit had to do with the Bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses trains you see the hypocrisy and the ridiculous stuff in other people’s religions, so now I turned that ability onto the Bible for myself. I realized I didn’t believe in the Bible anymore. That was step one. Then used secular sources, like the Smithsonian and USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] for some facts…then I started looking into the former Jehovah’s Witness apostate stuff, they have sourced information by people who’ve been through the same stuff I have. The first time I put “Jehovah’s Witness” into a search engine, I got the Washington Post and Sydney Morning Herald stories and found out about the sex abuse stuff. This was after I had mentally left the religion.
People have different strategies [for leaving the religion], like “fading out” until you’re an inactive Jehovah’s Witness. But there are risks with that, like if you want to celebrate holidays, there’s a little looking over your shoulder. Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t celebrate birthdays or holidays. They observe the memorial of Jesus’ death close to Easter, but do it by Jewish calendar…that’s the date the Bible gives for things that went on. There’s unleavened bread [matzoh] passed around at one memorial, but the only people who can take it are the people who think they’re going to be in the Kingdom after they die. That’s one of the weird things. It’s kind of brash to take the matzoh in front of everyone…People who think they’re special do it. There’s no defining standard of how you know who’s in and who’s out [of the Kingdom].
Q: What are your relationships like with your family now? Are you an outcast?
A: I talked to my dad the time he came up [from New Mexico]…It was a little tense, but there were no raised voices or anything. When it became clear I didn’t believe any more and I hadn’t been led astray by any evil apostates or anything, the conversation went to small talk. Then he said goodbye and hugged me and I haven’t seen or heard from him since.
In my letter to family, I just asked that they let me know if they’re going to cut me off completely, but no one answered. I’ll give ’em some time and then call them myself. I’m sure they’ll let me know if there’s been a death in the family or something like that. They’re good people, but it’s that level of control…Witnesses has most of the characteristics of a cult. I’m reading a book now called Combatting Cult Mind Control be Steven Hassan. He was in the Moonies. I’m finding it helpful. I’m a reasonably intelligent person, but I wonder how I could have gone along with this for 32 years. It’s kind of disturbing. It was my identity for 32 years. It’s not a casual religion. It dominates every aspect of your life. I met my wife in the religion, at the meetings. We were married in Kingdom Hall…we don’t have any kids yet, but we’ve been foster parents.
Q: Are you in touch with other former Jehovah’s Witnesses that feel the same way about the religion? Are there any support groups for “recovering Jehovah’s Witnesses,” like the website ExMormon.org?
A: There are lots of support groups online, lots of Facebook groups, I joined one specifically for Jehovah’s Witnesses who are now atheist. It was kind of a surprise to see how many there are!
Q: What is your life like now?
A: We’re lacking in friends a little, but the friends we have now are real friends instead of conditional friends. A lot of our former friends were good, close friends, but there was a level of indoctrination, and they feel they can’t talk to me now. One former friend used to come over and he would bring a TV and a Playstation and we’d play games. But on his last visit, he left the TV at our house and hasn’t been back to get it. But I know he still cares for us.
Q: What do you want the world to know about JW overall as a religion?
A: I believe there are a lot of good, sincere people in the religion and their motivations are genuine. They’re trying to save people from the coming destruction, but when it comes down to it, they’re victims of cult mind control, and instead of closing the door on them [when they ring your doorbell], it would be good to talk to them. Try and talk some sense into them without being hostile. Every time they’re confronted with some contradiction they can’t explain, it can put a little crack in their indoctrination and maybe, if they get enough of that information, it will make them think. I remember one time here in the valley, a guy we talked to said in the Bible Jesus Christ never claims to be the son of God, maybe the messiah, but that just means the chosen one — it was just a small thing but this guy had us on this point. Technically it was true, Jesus never claimed to be the son of god. It’s not a big, earthshaking revelation, but the person I was with was flustered. It wasn’t [a moment that was] instrumental in my leaving, but was an interesting experience to see this non-witness person bring this to our attention. It was years ago, but I think if people can be non-hostile and have a conversation with the witnesses who come to their door and bring some things to their attention, it can help.
Also, the religion strongly discourages people from attending college. It has to do with the stereotype of the unwholesome university environment and the persuasive authoritative of professors who shape people’s minds with new ideas. They don’t want you to have new ideas or new information. They’re big on having a simple life. You can go through vocational school to do what you have to do to support yourself. They don’t want you to have a high paying career, or anything like that, that detracts from worship. It’s okay to make money, but if it takes all your time and you don’t have time to contribute to the religion, it’s bad. There are lots of stories about how some people sell all their stuff and move into small apartments to devote their time to the religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses have the lowest average income, the lowest level of education and highest turnover rate of any religion. Almost two thirds of people raised in the religion leave. They don’t want people on social media. They urge great care online. They have their own website now, but they tell you to you type in the official website, and not do any Google searches.
The idea always bothered me that there are people who could convince you there is another “truth.” If something is true, it will stand up to scrutiny. It’s interesting how many Jehovah’s Witnesses are disobeying and trolling apostate sites. People who are born into religion can be talked into stuff, but converts check stuff out…
Q: So why do you now prefer atheism to religion?
A: I despise religion as a whole, the influence it has on people. The idea that an all-powerful God would allow thousands of conflicting viewpoints and let people kill each other over different views…. Once you get out of that mindset, it all seems very petty. Even when I was fully in Jehovah’s Witnesses, I realized if I was on the other side of the door and I wasn’t raised as one, it would be hard to convert someone. I can’t believe even deeply religious people don’t have some doubts. I don’t see how you couldn’t, no matter what the religion. They might not admit it…you can push things down so you don’t admit it any more, but there are so many questions to ask. As a kid, I wondered about where God came from. I had so many questions about creation and all that. I thought it must be beyond my human mind to grasp, but you can rationalize and push things down as I did for a long time.
Q: What are you going to do now? Do you see yourself as spiritual now?
A. In a vague sense. There are different takes on spirituality. I’m enjoying life, not getting into any different faiths. I want to go to college. From the time I was a little kid, most of the careers I wanted to pursue were science-related, but I never pursued it. Some Jehovah’s Wittnesses push for it [advanced education], and get a lot of flak. I went through some deep depression in my teens. I graduated early from Grand Junction High School and they were going to set me up with some courses at Mesa State College, but I never pursued it. Now I don’t know if I can make [school] work with my job and home life. But I still like all kinds of sciences, like astronomy, astrophysics, geology, zoology.
–Andrew is currently a truck driver working nights Monday-Friday, is glad to have a regular schedule and to be free to inquire about anything he likes now. He’d like to attend college if he can work it into his schedule.