Jehovah’s Witnesses are members of a Christian religious movement headquartered in the United States. The group reports a worldwide membership of approximately 8.7 million people, with followers in about 240 countries. Jehovah’s Witnesses are well-known for their public ministry, such as door-to-door preaching and distributing literature. They consider themselves to be Christians, but their beliefs differ from mainstream Christianity in a number of ways. One notable difference is their views on leaving the religion.
Are Jehovah’s Witnesses Allowed to Leave?
Yes, legally Jehovah’s Witnesses are free to leave the religion if they choose. There are no legal mechanisms preventing someone from discontinuing their participation and association with the group. However, those who leave are generally shunned by family and friends who remain active Witnesses.
The practice of shunning serves as a powerful deterrent for many who consider leaving. Being shunned means that active Witness members, including family and lifelong friends, will severely limit or completely cut off normal contact with the individual. They are prohibited from communicating with the shunned person unless absolutely necessary.
So while Witnesses have the legal right to leave and stop practicing the religion, the threat of being shunned often prevents them from exercising that right. Those who choose to leave anyway face the loss of their entire social network.
What Does the Religion Teach About Leaving?
According to Jehovah’s Witness theology, leaving the religion is a grave sin. They believe they are the only true faith approved by God. To turn one’s back on “the Truth” is to turn one’s back on God. It is likened to rebellion against divine authority.
If someone is baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness and then leaves, the religion considers this apostasy. They believe God will judge and destroy all apostates at Armageddon. Witnesses are under strict command to shun unrepentant apostates, even if that person is a family member.
Exceptions are made in cases where family members are considered “weak” but not apostate. For example, a son who drifts away from the faith would be shunned. But a mother who stops attending meetings regularly due to old age would not. She is considered spiritually weak but not an apostate. Disfellowshipping is reserved for those who deliberately leave the religion.
Additionally, those who formally leave are often portrayed as sinners, criminals, or people under Satan’s control. This negative stigma serves to warn current Witnesses about the alleged dangers of leaving.
What Steps Are Required to Formally Leave?
Most who wish to exit the Jehovah’s Witness religion can simply stop attending meetings, preaching, and associating with other Witnesses. This passive method of leaving is the path many choose. However, to formally leave and make a clean break requires following protocol.
To formally leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a person must either submit a written letter of resignation or be accused of sinning and face excommunication through disfellowshipping. Details on each method are covered below.
To voluntarily resign membership, a person must submit a written letter to the body of elders in their Kingdom Hall. This letter should explicitly state a desire to no longer be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Upon receiving the letter, the elders may schedule a meeting and try to persuade the individual to remain in the religion.
Once it is clear the person will not change their mind, the elders announce to the congregation that the individual is “no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The person is then shunned by congregants.
Disfellowshipping is expulsion from the religion. It is reserved for those who commit “serious sins” such as disagreement with doctrine, celebrating holidays, voting, homosexuality, adultery, etc. The disfellowshipping process involves:
- Elders investigate any accusations of sinful behavior.
- A judicial committee is formed to determine guilt and repentance.
- The accused is notified and can defend themselves at a formal hearing.
- If unrepentant, the judicial committee announces disfellowshipping.
- The congregation is informed the individual is disfellowshipped.
- All Witnesses, including family, shun the disfellowshipped person.
Those who are disfellowshipped have one year to appeal the decision. If there is evidence of sincere repentance, they may be reinstated. If there is no appeal or repentance, disfellowshipping is permanent but the shunned individual can still attend religious services.
How Many Leave Each Year?
It is difficult to obtain exact statistics on how many Jehovah’s Witnesses leave the religion each year. This is partly because there are various ways to leave – formally, informally, voluntarily, or by disfellowshipping.
However, according to a recent study published in 2021, approximately two-thirds of those raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses end up leaving at some point. This suggests that a very sizable number exit the religion each year.
Estimates Based on Limited Data
While exact statistics are not available, some have tried to estimate annual attrition rates based on whatever limited data can be obtained. Here are a few such estimates:
- A 1980 study estimated 10% leave annually.
- A Pew Research study estimated 66% eventually leave, an attrition rate of around 5% per year.
- In 2010, lawyer James B. Palmer reported around 1.4% annual attrition in the U.S. based on available Kingdom Hall closing data.
- In 2018, religious scholar George Chryssides estimated Jehovah’s Witness annual attrition at approximately 2.5% worldwide.
Based on these limited data points, most estimates put annual attrition somewhere between 1-5%. Considering a worldwide membership around 8.7 million, that translates to 87,000 to 435,000 leaving every year.
Common Reasons People Leave
There are many reasons why a Jehovah’s Witness may choose to depart from the religion. While reasons vary on an individual basis, some common themes emerge for why people leave this particular faith.
Some become disillusioned when the religion makes major doctrinal shifts. Long-held teachings may be abandoned or changed, leading some adherents to doubt the “truth.” Examples of changed teachings include altered views on medical treatments, the significance of 1914, who will be resurrected, and more.
The religion has faced criticism for stifling free speech, harsh shunning practices, mishandling of child abuse cases, discouragement of college, prohibitions on blood transfusions, and more. The accumulation of ethical grievances can become overwhelming for some.
Many leave because they can no longer endure the severe restrictions placed on dress, grooming, entertainment, relationships, career choices and other aspects of everyday life. Some struggle with what they feel are excessive lifestyle limitations.
As members get further into the religion, some develop intellectual doubts about the veracity of its theology and historical claims. They lose faith in teachings they once accepted as truths.
Desire for Greater Freedom
Some leave simply because they yearn for more freedom. They want to make their own choices without restrictions, pursue goals without judgement, and find their identity apart from the pressures of the religion.
Famous Former Jehovah’s Witnesses
A number of well-known celebrities, musicians, and sports figures were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses but elected to leave the religion later in life. Here are a few of the most famous former Witnesses:
- Michael Jackson – Singer
- Serena Williams – Tennis Star
- Michelle Rodriguez – Actress
- Ja Rule – Rapper
- Patti Smith – Musician
- Vanilla Ice – Rapper
- Venus Williams – Tennis Champion
- Shawn Michaels – WWE Wrestler
- Dwight Howard – NBA Basketball Player
- Josh Barnett – Mixed Martial Artist
- Sonny Bill Williams – Rugby Player
Artists & Authors
- Prince – Singer & Musician
- Naomi Campbell – Model
- Sherri Shepherd – Actress & Comedian
- Brandi Norwood – Singer
- Katie Holmes – Actress
This list demonstrates that even the most successful and talented individuals sometimes decide the Jehovah’s Witness faith is no longer for them.
Jehovah’s Witnesses who wish to leave face significant social hurdles. While they have the legal right to exit, those who exercise that right are shunned by family and friends who remain Witnesses. Some manage to leave formally through resignation letters or disfellowshipping procedures. But most stop practicing informally to avoid being shunned.
Estimates suggest that somewhere between 1-5% of Witnesses leave annually. Reasons for leaving are complex but often involve some combination of doctrinal disputes, ethical issues, intellectual doubts, and a desire for greater autonomy. The process can be extraordinarily difficult due to the insular nature of the religion. But tens of thousands successfully leave each year.