We spoke to Ste Richardsson, Vice Chair of Faith to Faithless, Humanists UK’s programme supporting people leaving high-control religion and cults. He spoke to us about growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, the work of Faith to Faithless, and why he values humanism as a positive approach to life.
Hi Ste. How does Faith to Faithless help people?
The most important thing I needed when I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a listening ear. Speaking to people that have shared similar experiences was so invaluable. Faith to Faithless is in a unique position to support apostates on a personal and emotional basis, as well as to identify and tackle the systemic societal issues that lead to apostates slipping through the cracks. The training that we offer to raise awareness of the issues apostates face is extremely helpful in mitigating the effects of homelessness, shunning, and so-called ‘honour-based’ abuse.
Tell us about about what you do for Faith to Faithless.
My role with Faith to Faithless has evolved considerably over the last few years – and I’ve gone from being helped by Faith to Faithless to helping others like me. I’ve been a committee member since 2018, and I’m excited to say that I’ve just been made Vice Chair as of May 2019. As a committee member I’ve spoken at panel events about my experience of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’ve helped organise Faith to Faithless museum socials, and I continue to deliver our Apostasy Awareness Training Programme. This programme helps educate police, social services, and mental health professionals on the issues ‘apostates’ like me face when leaving high-control religions. It’s essential that these frontline services re-examine their policies and practices in order to better support vulnerable people.
What was it like growing up as a fourth generation Jehovah’s Witness?
I was brought up in a very religious household and life was very hectic, packed full of activities. We attended five meetings a week that required preparation. We had to preach for at least two hours a week; I went door to door every Saturday and Sunday. On top of that, I started giving talks to the congregation at the age of eight. From an early age I found it boring and not at all intellectually challenging. Over the years, many more doubts crept up and I practised a very clear form of cognitive dissonance, filing those doubts away in the back on my mind. I never truly believed in a god or any spirit creatures for that matter, yet I believed that armageddon would come, and I believed that the paradise would come.
You’ve also been very involved with LGBT Humanists. Did your sexuality play a role in leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
My sexuality played a large part in how I ‘woke up’. I knew that I was gay from around the age of nine or ten. I heard at Jehovah’s Witness meetings that it was a sin, but I knew that it wasn’t wrong. I knew my sexuality about a year before I’d realised it was frowned upon, that probably led me to question the religion rather than question my own feelings. I never believed that my sexuality was something I could change, even if I wanted to. It was only during my teen years that I began to make any attempts to subdue it, as I was acutely aware that I would eventually be rejected by my family. My sexuality definitely contributed majorly to my realisation that I didn’t believe in the religion; I just couldn’t understand why something that I felt was so innocent was prohibited.
Could you please elaborate on the ‘high control’ aspect of being a Jehovah’s Witness?
In the community I was raised in, every aspect of life is controlled. You cannot take blood transfusions, or celebrate holidays like birthdays or Christmas. We weren’t allowed to get involved in politics and were discouraged from higher education. Voting, standing for class president, or joining a political system are prohibited too. Singing the national anthem, for example, is considered as idolatry.
Every minutiae of your life is controlled. You can’t say ‘bless you’ after somebody sneezes or wish someone good luck. Alcohol, drug use, gambling, adultery, tobacco, being gay, fornication (which includes oral sex before marriage), attending another church – these are all forbidden and can get you excommunicated. A lot of that guilt and shame is still with me, even after I left the religion. I still feel strange pangs of guilt when clinking glasses…and I quite literally forgot my own 30th birthday until two days after.
As forming meaningful relationships with people who aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses is also frowned upon, many leavers and apostates find themselves without even the most basic support network of friends when they leave and in some cases end up homeless. Our inculcated distrust of non-Jehovah’s Witness organisations makes living on the streets even more dangerous; many of us are fearful of seeking the help of social services, the police, or charities, and many of us are even unaware that such support even exists. This means the control of over your life extends even after one has left the religion.
You’ve now met and supported a lot of people with experiences like yours, including from other religious backgrounds. What experiences would you say are common among apostates?
I made friends with an Australian colleague who I learned was an ex-Hare Krishna. The level of control of the minutiae of his life was parallel to, but not completely overlapping with, what I had experienced. In terms of emotion, there’s a wide range of things apostates tend to feel: from anger and fear to self-pity, guilt, anxiety, and depression. In my experience of meeting apostates regularly since around 2011, social connection, and talking about one’s emotions with people who have a shared experience, mitigates these overwhelming feelings.
Why do you identify as a humanist?
Humanism for me has always been positive. We don’t define ourselves by what we don’t believe, which is what I had always done prior to discovering humanism as an atheist. The fact that logic and rational thinking are so prized, alongside empathy and human feeling, really attracts me to the humanist philosophy.
If I was an apostate interested in getting help, where should I start?
I would contact us directly at email@example.com. Another way would be to simply come to one of our socials and meet us. We have socials that almost always last much longer than the scheduled time because people enjoy meeting others who have been in the same situation as them.