I did it. I did the unthinkable. I had become an apostate. I had written a letter to the church I had dedicated my life to and requested they never contact me again. I told them I was leaving their faith and going on to become a psychologist. To write this letter meant I had committed the unforgivable sin. I was filled with bitter-sweet emotion. I was sad but thrilled and I felt empowered like never before in my life. What is the unforgivable sin of apostacy and why was this letter so significant? Let me explain:
As a child I was diagnosed with dyslexia and A.D.D. but neither stopped me from spending hours looking at pictures in encyclopedias at my grandparents house and wondering about the science behind the natural world. My grandfather was an “Elder” and, other than the encyclopedia set, almost all the books my family owned were religious. Attempts to explore the non-religious interests I had were regularly stomped out. Eventually I stopped trying to pursue my personal interests, including my interest in science. My family was very loving but everything in their world existed in the context of religion. This is because I was born into a multi-generational family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This religion is not an ordinary religion and it has been described “ultra-orthodox”, as “high control”, and even as a “doomsday cult” by experts.
The religion stands in opposition to science and it discourages the personal fulfillment of its members, especially if that fulfillment would involve doing something other than church activity. It controls its members through abusive intimidation tactics and shunning. My relationship with the religion was a bit like Stockholm Syndrome, a condition where victims’ bond with their abusers. On one hand it was my family’s culture for generations, everyone I know belonged to it, and I knew no other way of living. I have fond memories of some of it. On the other hand it was causing me deep despair because it seemed like had no control over how I lived my life. I wasn’t allowed to develop my own identity, pursue hobbies, invest time in things that I might be passionate about, play sports, or even have basic life experiences like date or socialize. If I left or criticized the religion I would be shunned and called an apostate. Witnesses, including myself, would rather die than be branded an apostate. This was a fate worse than literal death.
The lack of control and autonomy over my life caused me to be extremely depressed. The religion teaches that if you are depressed the solution is to be more engaged with the church. So I dedicated all my time to the church. I became what is called a “Ministerial Servant” and a “Pioneer”, and I learned Spanish and moved to a Spanish speaking congregation. I kept reading the bible and I kept giving more to the organization . I received a lot of praise from my family and community for doing these things. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel any better. I didn’t know what was wrong or how to fix it. Like a caged lab rat on wheel I was constantly running but going nowhere. I felt like there was no escape.
Then one day I was reading a magazine published by the church about depression. In it there was an unusual footnote referencing the “Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns. I thought this was very odd as typically the religion only wants its members to read things that are published by their own organization. I immediately went and bought the book and I quickly read it cover to cover. Soon I found myself immersed in all kinds of self-help and psychology books. The religion is generally opposed to books about science, or psychology, so I felt a lot of shame as I read them but I continued on secretively.
The next book that captured my attention was Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin Seligman. There Seligman discussed Learned Helplessness. It’s a phenomenon, that he discovered along with Dr. Steven Maier, where lab animals stopped trying to escape when they were exposed to inescapable electric shocks. When an animal has no control and isn’t able to escape, they give up and stop trying to avoid the shocks. It’s thought that control or the perception of control is an important factor in developing depression or stress related disorders. I was filled to the brim with questions. How does learning helplessness work? What are its underlying biological mechanisms? Was helplessness really a good model for human depression? How does one learn to be resilient to helplessness? This phenomenon seemed to have an uncanny resemblance to my own religious experience! Had a lifetime of oppression caused me to become helpless?
Although learning about this was fascinating it did not alleviate my sadness. Eventually the Elders in the congregation told me that I had to see a therapist about my depression but gave me special instructions to not listen to the therapist’s advice and to only take medications. They said the therapist only wanted me to stop serving god. So, I went and got prescribed Prozac.
The medication made me feel extremely sick and lethargic. I stopped attending religious meetings and I stopped preaching. The medication left me with no motivation to do anything. The elders then said I was “mentally unstable” and they stripped me of all the positions I had in the congregation and told me to leave the Spanish congregation. This was devastating. I was labeled “spiritually sick” and the shunning followed. I had to leave my job because of harassment from members of the church. Apart from the religion, my family, and my community I had nothing. I had no career, degree or life skills because all of my life had been dedicated to the church. I had finally reached rock bottom.
That’s when it happened. I did the unthinkable. I revolted. I became an apostate. I thought critically of the religion of my birth. Abandoning my faith wasn’t something that I took lightly. The word apostate comes from an ancient Greek word meaning one who revolts or defects. Apostacy is considered an unforgivable sin in the church; a special sin deserving of death. A sin deserving of death and yet by it I gained my life. I gained control. It meant I was no longer helpless. After I sent my letter ending my relationship with the church my nearly life-long depression soon lifted. Apostate is a badge I now wear with honor.