I was born in Long Beach, California, to parents who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and if not for my father’s conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, I would either be Canadian or not exist at all. (I do live in Canada now, coincidentally.) But therein lies the conflict for a staunch atheist who thinks that our world would be better off without religion—my father’s religion may have been necessary to allow my birth. I shrug off this “debt” to religion by recognizing that African Americans do not owe anything to the slavery that brought their ancestors to the United States stuffed into ships like cordwood, nor was Manifest Destiny a justifiable means to the ends we enjoy today. So what were the circumstances that resulted in my not being a Jehovah’s Witness? It’s complicated.
When it thunders, God is bowling. When lightning strikes, God is taking pictures. This was the extent of my God-belief in my toddler years. I was being “educated” weekly at Kingdom Hall. I rather enjoyed my yellow book of children’s Bible stories. I enjoyed books in general. Two pictures from that book stay fresh in my mind: the poor sinners being swept away by God’s Great Flood and Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt. I thought about Lot’s wife often, wondering if she was still living and breathing under all that salt. Nothing about going to the Kingdom Hall was all that bad. I was bored, of course, like all toddlers, but it was not a painful experience. Until one day.
Until the day I became an apostate at the age of four.
I was sitting in the family living room watching my favorite children’s show—Romper Room. The show went off the air in the early nineties, so some readers may not know of it. It was simply a televised version of preschool. In the United States, most large cities had their own local versions (smaller markets ran a syndicated version), but mine was based in Los Angeles and had a Latina teacher, Miss Soco, who reminded me of my half-Portuguese mother.
The “class” began with the Pledge of Allegiance and ended with the teacher looking through her “Magic Mirror” to see the kids out in TV land. A “Tommy” was often found in that mirror, so this part of the program was a never-miss for me. I loved that show.
If you know anything about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you know exactly where this is going, but for others, I will fill you in. Perhaps you never had any school classmates who grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness household, so you never experienced the oddity of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while one student remained seated or standing with his or her head bowed in silence. To the Witnesses, the Pledge of Allegiance is considered idolatry—as are Christmas trees, crucifixes, and other trinkets—so my children’s program that emulated a regular preschool class was already skating on thin ice in my house. But the last straw—the conveyor of damnation, if you will—was the closing scene of every episode. Looking through that magic mirror at the kids in TV land was considered sorcery, of course, and poor Miss Soco would have to have been an insufferably powerful witch in order to possess a mirror capable of seeing all the child viewers in the greater Los Angeles area. (I have a good idea what the kids of Jehovah’s Witnesses went through a few years ago during the popularity of the Harry Potter books.) My memory is foggy, being that I was four years old, but my mother’s recollection is that one day I informed her in no uncertain terms that I was not going to be going to the Kingdom Hall anymore. To this day she claims ignorance as to why, but this decision of mine just so happened to occur the day I was forbidden to watch Romper Room.
My mother responded to my declaration by announcing that I was four and unable to stay home while the rest of the family attended church, so she said I would have to continue to accompany them. I said that I would go but that I would not listen, that I would sleep or play with my toys instead. I was true to my word. I would either sleep or play quietly at her feet. She says I had an uncanny ability to wake up immediately upon hearing everyone’s Bible close at the end of the meetings. She also says that I was probably the most well-behaved child at the Hall every week, while other mothers had to constantly take their bored and fussy children to the restroom for a Solomonic smacking.
Coincidentally, just a few months after this episode, my parents’ marriage began to fracture, and my mother fell in love with a young Catholic man. Again, if you know anything about the Witnesses, you know that even talking to Catholics is grounds for a private meeting with church elders. Witnesses and Catholics are polar opposites: Witnesses stay away from blood at all costs (even life-saving blood transfusions), while Catholics drink Jesus’s blood on a weekly basis! By the time I was five years old, we had severed our ties with the church and were trying hard to maintain a relationship with my mother’s Witness parents. All I remember is celebrating my first Christmas later that year, finding out about that jolly old false god Santa Claus, and being able to watch Romper Room again.
I do not consider myself to have been an atheist at that age, but I was most definitely not one of Jehovah’s witnesses.
Thomas J. Lawson lives in British Columbia, Canada. After a few years of making movies and television shows, he swtiched to the glamorous life of full-time dad to two kids and a pug. When they are busy playing, he is busy writing. He is the author of the nonfiction book Letters from an Atheist Nation (CreateSpace, 2011) and is currently working on a novel.