Amber Scorah – Traveling Out of a Religion in “Leaving the Witness” | The Daily Show

Welcome to the show. Thank you.
I’m so happy to be here. You’ve written
an intriguing book that takes us on a journey
through your life. You know, it-it starts off
in a place that many people
are familiar with. Growing up
in a very religious household as a Jehovah’s Witness. Now they…
People may not be familiar -with that part
as the religion… -Yeah. but everyone’s grown up, or many
people have grown up religious. And you begin this journey
that slowly changes over time. Let’s start with that part before we really reveal
where your journey takes you. What is it like
to be a Jehovah’s Witness? I mean, because we laugh
from the outside. Um… -I know you do.
-No, no, really. Peop… -I’ve heard the jokes.
-Yes, people are just… -You know what I mean?
The knocking on the doors. -Yes. And the peop…
Like the… like the… Like, as a Jehovah’s Witness,
did you know about that, or were you… were you
completely oblivious? I think as a Jehovah’s Witness,
every time, if in a movie, there was a joke
about a Jehovah’s Witness, or in a comedy show, we kind of
liked it, ’cause it kind of… We would laugh along with it,
and it was like, -at least we were getting
some attention. -Right. Maybe it was a way
of being in the world, ’cause we lived kind of cut off
from the world in our own way. -Interesting. -But, you know,
Prince was a Jehovah’s Witness, so, there-there were
mainstream people, -and we were very excited
when that happened. -Huh. -That’s an interesting one.
-Yeah. There’s-there’s a part
of the book that I… that I really enjoy. It’s early on
where you talk about how you would go
to these houses, and you would knock
on peoples’ doors. And some of these neighborhoods
were really rich and fancy. -Yeah. -And some people
would cuss you out. Some people would threaten you
and tell you to leave. Other people wouldn’t answer. But there’s a beautiful line
in the book where you say, “I would come back
the next year, and I would be shocked that
these sinners are still alive.” And you, like, “That’s not what
my religion has told me. -They should be dead by now.”
-Mm-hmm. Was that a…
was that a weird moment for you, or did you just push it
to the back of your head? I mean, I guess it was…
We had been taught from being very young that the
world was going to end any day. Like,
in-in our children’s books, there were centerfold spreads,
artists’ conceptions -of what Armageddon
would look like. -Right. And we were just little kids
reading this. But there were pictures of,
like, -fire coming down from Heaven…
-Yes. …wiping out all the people, basically all of you,
no offense. (laughter) So yeah, it…
I think it was something that was constantly on our mind, and that’s why we lived
the way that we did, because we thought
the world was ending. I mean, why do you think
we spent so much time preaching? -It’s, you know, it wasn’t that
much fun. -Because you believe. Yeah, we believe, yeah. And
there was a certain smugness, you know, like, where we
felt like we had the truth and we were sharing with people,
and if they didn’t listen, well, too bad.
(laughs) You truly believed
in a way that I find admirable. Because in the book you talk
about how you left America and moved to China to preach
and to be a missionary. And China,
for those who don’t know, is one of the countries
where it’s illegal to do that. You’re not allowed
to preach religion to people. You’re not allowed
to be a missionary. So that, like,
takes a real level of belief. Why China, and why
would you take that risk? Um, I think that
there was probab… I mean, I had been raised
as a Jehovah’s Witness, so I did fully believe it, and I
really did want to help people. My motives, you know,
in my own mind, were pure, that I thought
I was saving people’s… -sorry, I thought I was
saving people’s lives. -Right. Um, but I think, also, there was
probably some latent thing in me -where I wanted an adventure.
-Mm-hmm. Because when you’re
a Jehovah’s Witness, as most of you probably know,
a lot of people -don’t open their door or…
-Yes, we know, we know. -slam the door.
-(laughter) And so, you know, that gets
a little tiresome after a while, so I think that
that was part of it, too, and, you know,
if you went to a country where no one
had ever preached before, it feels like fresh territory. -It’s, like, you got new blood.
-Right. It’s-it’s an interesting world
that you take us into. What-what’s
really beautiful, though, is when you start witnessing
the changes. Because you go out to be
a missionary to these people out there to tell them
about being a Jehovah’s Witness, and in a strange way it’s almost
like they start converting you, because you meet people
who tell you about the world, you meet people who show you
a different perspective, and that started to shift your
views on religion– in what way? Yeah, that’s…
(clears throat) that’s exactly what happened,
in that, um… I think when I was at home,
well, first of all, I didn’t get that far–
I didn’t really, you know, come to the point where someone
would sit down and listen to me and, you know, listen to me
go through our books -and study with them
in my hometown. -Right. But in China, more people would
listen to what I had to say. And I think being
in a different language and a different culture, it
kind of really disoriented me. And even learning Chinese–
I learned Mandarin– um, learning that language,
it’s not just like a language where you can just translate
from English. -You really have to kind of
excavate your mind -Interesting. and change the way you think
in order to speak it. But also, there was
the strange side effect of being in this country where, as we all know, there’s not
a lot of freedom, but for a Jehovah’s Witness
in China, there was a lot of freedom,
because the organization, anywhere else in the world,
is very structured and quite insular,
and you have a lot of meetings and preaching that you do,
and in China, because the work is done
secretly under, you know, it’s under ban there,
uh, suddenly, I just had a lot more freedom
and time on my own. And also the opportunity
to meet people and talk more deeply with them, people who weren’t
Jehovah’s Witnesses. Honestly, I-I don’t pass
judgment because, as I say, many of us have grown up
extremely religiously. And those levels of religion
are defined across religions. You know, some people would
label Jehovah’s Witness as a cult, they would say
it’s completely a cult. You speak to that in the book. Others would argue that any
religion can become a cult depending on
how you practice it. When you look at your life now,
you left the religion. And one of the hardest parts
of leaving the religion was how you were cut off from
your family and your society. It feels like that,
in of itself, lends itself more
to being culty then-then other mainstream
religions in a way. Like, what was that like
for you? Yeah. I think, um, there’s a
scene in the book where one of the characters
tells me I’m in a cult, and I react very strongly. I felt really angry and I was
adamant that that wasn’t true. Does anyone who’s in a cult
ever know they’re in a cult? -That’s…
-Mm… Yeah. You know, I don’t think–
I don’t think they do. -Except the leader, hopefully.
-Yeah. -I mean, yeah.
-Maybe. (laughs) Um, but it was when I started
to have doubts, and questions
and started to leave. I think when you try
to leave a group, and then strange things
start happening, that can be when it starts
to occur to you -that maybe you might have been
in a cult. -Right. -You might be in a cult when…
-Yeah. For example, as you said,
if you’re, you know– It wasn’t like I was ranting
and raving about it. I wasn’t, like, in the church
being like, “This is wrong.” But I-I mentioned
a couple things, maybe some doubts
that I had had, and very quickly, my community
just shed me as a person. And that’s quite a big thing
for people who have been taught to build their life around
a community. So that felt strange, and then
I think the further– you know, I got one step away
after that happened– and the further I got away
from it, I would start to see other
things, examine other things, -like the different beliefs
that they have, -Right. um, whether they cause harm. I think that’s a good gage,
whether a group– I mean, religions can do– be a cause for good,
but they can also, on the flip side,
can be a cause for harm. -Right.
-So, for example, um, Jehovah’s Witnesses
don’t believe in taking blood transfusions
even if it saves your life, and so that’s caused
thousands of deaths. So, that’s… When I started
to think about that more, um, with a little bit
of distance, it started, to me, feel like
it’s not that much different than Kool-Aid, drinking Kool-Aid -if people are dying
unnecessarily. -Right. So, there’s little signs
along the way that started to make me feel
that it was a group that was not really
a positive, um… Didn’t have
a really positive effect -on a lot of people.
-Right. When we look
at this-this journey, you-you are traveling
into a religion, through a religion
and then out of the religion. The one question
I always have for people is what do you then
replace that with in your life? Because, I mean, religion is
such a big part of your world -if you are deeply religious.
-Yeah. Where have you turned to
since then? I mean, you talk in the book
about suffering tragic loss. -You know, you lost a child.
-Yeah. Many people would lean
on religion in those moments. What have you now turned to
in your life to replace that-that stability? Yeah. I think that when
we go through difficult times or tragedies, the impulse… There’s some instinct in us
as humans is to look outward to try and look
for something to absolve or, like, to-to heal the pain. And when you
no longer believe… For me, it-it wasn’t a choice
to believe anymore. Once I believed
and then kind of, like, just scales fell from my eyes,
to use a biblical term, and then didn’t,
it wasn’t possible for me to just return
and believe something again. -Right. -So, I think that
the big thing that comes to mind is that when I had…
when I was in the religion, I felt like I had the answers
to every question. Like, anything. Why do we die?
Why is there suffering? Uh, and then that felt
really meaningful. -Mm-hmm.
-Like, my life had meaning. But when you…
when you leave the religion and you realize
that those answers weren’t true, well, if an answer isn’t true,
then it’s not meaningful. So, basically,
when you have some future hope that you no longer believe in,
what do you have? You don’t have a, you know, a fictional future
in front of you. You have what’s
in front of you now. And for me,
just being present in the world and knowing
that now my life is finite, it’s not gonna go on forever, it’s kind of made me see
the world as a more… -Like, the beauty in the world.
-Right. And even in not having
all the answers, I think there’s a lot of magic. Um, there’s a lot of mystery
that we can’t know right now, but that can be something
that’s really meaningful -and interesting, um,
to consider. -Right. And as far as when my son died,
the thing with… You know, when we do look
at the world, there’s also pain. There’s no denying that.
But even… I think that the pain that,
of course, I carry with me due to the loss of my son, um, the flip side of it,
of that grief, is the depth of the love
that I had for him. And, so, to me,
I think when I consider that love of the mother
and the child, -it really is
a transcendent love. -Mm-hmm. And I experience that love
without religion. So, to me, I think that life
just has meaning inherently. It’s just that I’ve traded in
maybe the future for the now. It’s a beautiful journey, and it’s a really powerful book
with some wonderful insights. -Thank you so much for being
on the show. -Thank you. -Thanks for having me.
-Wonderful having you here. Leaving the Witness
is available now. Amber Scorah, everybody.

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