Most religious believers are free to leave their denomination at any time they choose without repercussions. They may face some pressure from associates if they become atheists, but their families will usually continue speaking with them and their business relationships will be unaffected. Not so when one of Jehovah's Witnesses becomes an atheist. For Jehovah's Witnesses, the potential problems associated with being disfellowshipped and shunned lead to many choosing instead to just fade away.
Disfellowshipping, in Jehovah's Witness parlance, means they will be excommunicated and shunned by all other Jehovah's Witnesses in good standing. It is the highest penalty the Watchtower Society can bestow. This is why, when a believer becomes disillusioned with the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, they do not feel free to speak out about their doubts — not even to their closest friends and family members. Many are afraid to just get up and walk away like any normal person would because they're afraid of being disfellowshipped and what this will do to their various relationships.
Disfellowshipping: Why Would an Atheist Care?
To secular atheists, excommunication may not seem like a big deal. We don't believe in God, so why would the spiritual condemnation of any religious organization matter? That isn't the real problem, though. For most Jehovah's Witnesses who become atheists, it's the shunning they're so afraid of. This makes the process of deconversion much more difficult for Jehovah's Witnesses than for members of other Christian denominations.
Imagine you were raised in a religion where the members are strongly discouraged from associating with any non-believers, or even from associating with members known to be "unevenly yoked" with "worldly" friendships and ways? What if that religion saw the outside world as a place under Satanic control and labeled so-called worldly members as "bad associates" to be avoided? It is likely that you would be reluctant to make friends with anyone who didn't believe as you do. You wouldn't have many friends who weren't part of that religion.
So what would happen if you were suddenly cut off from fellow believers? What if your own mother wouldn't speak to you, or even acknowledge your existence if you should bump into her in a public place? What if you had to start over, without the support of friends, family, or the religious institution you've been a part of your entire life? It would be an extremely lonely and difficult time to get through.
This is the situation that any Jehovah's Witness faces when they come to see the Bible as lacking in authority or Jehovah God as a mere myth. Former Witnesses will usually come to see the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in a negative light and, according to the Watchtower Society, these are all grounds for disfellowshipping the atheist for apostasy.
The Society's encyclopedic reference book, Insight on the Scriptures (Volume 1, page 127 under the heading "apostasy"), mentions "lack of faith" as grounds for apostasy. If an atheist dares to confess their true feelings to a Witness friend or relative, they may literally never speak to that person again. A disillusioned Witness thus can't even afford to let their newfound views slip out by accident in casual conversation.
If this should happen, the atheist may be forced to go before a Judicial Committee where they will be judged by congregation Elders in a private tribunal. If they are disfellowshipped, they will never speak to their families again unless they are reinstated, a difficult process which take years to accomplish. Unless the atheist has no Witness family members and doesn't object to losing contact with their friends, they must therefore conceal their true feelings from everyone they know and must pretend that they still believe.
Of course, some Witnesses may choose to become inactive and stop going to meetings or attending field service (the door to door ministry Witnesses are so famous for), but this sudden disappearance will only alert the congregation to a spiritual crisis and they will attempt to draw the wayward member back in. Depending on the attitude of their local congregation, the atheist may start receiving dozens of phone calls from concerned Witnesses and visits from Elders. They may be questioned by Witnesses they see in the grocery store or who just happen to stop by for a not-so-casual visit. With each encounter, they risk confessing their doubts.
For many, simply disappearing off the Watchtower's radar isn't an option — not if they want to continue having relationships with Witness family and friends.
Many Witnesses who become atheists must "fade" from the congregation to avoid drawing too much attention to themselves. Fading is when a Witness gradually becomes less and less active within the congregation over a long period of time. Many atheists can take years to fade successfully, hoping that the Elders in their congregation will be too busy with other concerns to take notice. Their families will notice sooner or later, but it's the Elders who have the power to disfellowship them. So long as the atheist isn't officially disfellowshipped and don't openly disparage the Watchtower's teachings, a relationship with their families is still possible.
To those who don't know any better, fading can seem like the cowardly approach. Some former Witnesses are lucky enough to have attended a less diligent congregation where they can simply disappear without going before a Judicial Committee. Others are simply willing to sacrifice all former relationships and go it alone in the world. Some proselytes who don't have Witness relatives may find their families are pleased with the change. For the rest, fading — though a long and arduous process — can be their only option, even if it means they will be looked down upon by people who once respected them as Christians in good standing.
If you are a Jehovah's Witness with doubts about your religious beliefs, there is advice and suggestions about how to fade away from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society or from other religious organizations with similar beliefs.