Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult?—Part 1

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Transcript of OnionUnlimited podcast episode 013

HELLO AND WELCOME TO EPISODE 13 OF ONIONUNLIMITED—THE PODCAST. I’m your host, Daniel Torridon, and in this episode, I will answer the question “Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult?” Having been a Jehovah’s Witnesses for over 50 years, I believe they are a cult. Obviously, Jehovah’s Witnesses will say they are not, but I have good reasons for saying that they are, and in this podcast, I will address those reasons square on.

To begin with, it’s worth considering what Jehovah’s Witnesses say a cult is. In the FAQ section on their website, they state that a cult is “a new or unorthodox religion”. Then they claim that they are not new and that their beliefs are patterned on first-century Christianity. They then argue that they use the Bible as their authority for what is “orthodox.” Their second point of argument against being a cult is that a cult is—to quote them—”a dangerous religious sect with a human leader.” They claim only Jesus is their leader, and then say that they practice a religion that “benefits themselves and others in the community.” So, as far as Jehovah’s Witnesses are concerned, they are not a cult because:

1. They are not new
2. They use the Bible
3. They are not dangerous
4. They don’t follow a human leader

I would disagree with every single one of those points as follows:

Number 1. The newness of a religion does not define whether it is a cult or not. This is a completely irrelevant argument. Besides, while claiming to be patterned on Christianity from nearly 2000 years ago their strange interpretation of scripture, especially their 1914 doctrine upon which so much is based, finds its origins in 19th century Millerite and Adventist theology—with some Egyptian pyramidology thrown in for good measure. It simply isn’t Christian.

Number 2. They use the Bible—yes, they do, as a weapon. More on this in a moment.

Number 3. They are not dangerous. They absolutely are dangerous. Using the aforementioned Bible they enforce compliance of their rules upon their members by claiming that shunning is scriptural—it’s not—and in doing so they break up families. That’s even before we mention their enforced ruling against blood transfusions which has cost the lives of many many Witnesses, and their terrible record of protecting child abusers at the expense of the victim’s mental and emotional health, their families—in the case of a victim disassociating and then being shunned by everyone they know—and even, in the case of suicide, their very lives. Jehovah’s Witness as an organisation, as a belief system, is dangerous—and it uses the Bible to support its unethical position.

And then number 4. They don’t follow a human leader. No—they follow eight human leaders in the form of their governing body. While it’s acceptable to question God, as did Abraham, Lot, Moses, and Job in the Bible, Jehovah’s Witnesses are prohibited from questioning the governing body at the risk of being disfellowshipped for apostasy.

If Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult, they are, obviously, going to say they are not. And they are going to define “cult” in such as way that doesn’t include them, so it’s worth looking outside of the JW definition of what a cult is. To do so, I would like to introduce you now to a checklist called the BITE model. Designed by cult expert Stephen Hassan, BITE stands for Behaviour, Information, Thought, and Emotional control. Instead of just four criteriums, as the Watch Tower use to define a cult, the BITE model includes 50 individual, detailed points. In this first episode, I will consider some of the points under the section “B” for Behavior control. In parts 2, 3, and 4 I will address Information, Thought, and Emotional control.

So, under Behaviour control, we have item B4 which states a cult controls the types of clothing and hairstyles for its members. Does that apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses? Absolutely! Suits should be of a particular cut—Governing body member Tony Morris III now has a reputation for speaking out against “tight pants”. When working on organisational building projects T-shirts are allowed, but they must not display designer logos on them. “Sisters” must wear skirts or dresses to the meetings—trousers are frowned upon, even smart trouser suits are a no-no. When attending conventions you are expected to dress smartly—fair enough—but even after the program, if you are out with family or friends, you are expected to avoid dressing down, and you even have to keep your convention badge on—just so everyone knows you are a Jehovah’s Witnesses. And, of course, “brothers” who choose to grow a beard are often discriminated against. More on that one later.

Item B8 of the BITE model states that cults restrict leisure, entertainment, and vacation time. In determining whether this applies to Jehovah’s Witnesses, I would like to read you a quotation from Our Kingdom Ministry June, 1987 p. 4: “Vacation time gives us an opportunity to be away from our secular activity and enjoy a few days of relaxation. However, we do not want to take time off from serving Jehovah.” The Watchtower December, 2019 p. 7 expands on this further by stating: “Even when we are on vacation, we keep to our regular spiritual routine of attending meetings wherever we are, and we look for opportunities to have conversations with those whom we meet.​” So there you have it—if you go on holiday, the Watch Tower organisation expects you to attend meetings and engage in the preaching work.

Item B9 of the BITE models explains that, in a cult, major time is spent with group indoctrination and rituals and self indoctrination. Consider how much time as a Jehovah’s Witness is spent attending meetings, assemblies, and conventions. On top of that, you are expected to put aside time each week to do personal study and even study as a family of the Watch Tower publications. The information considered is very repetitive, and in the case of meetings often quite monotonous—such is how indoctrination, brainwashing, works. If you’ve left Jehovah’s Witnesses, you will probably recognise the “tone” in which talks at meetings and on JW Broadcasting are delivered. It’s almost hypnotic. But when you’re in the congregation listening to this week-in-week-out it’s not something you notice. When you leave it becomes so obvious.

BITE model item B11 next—rewards and punishments are used to modify behaviours, both positive and negative. Does that apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses? What happens if you are found to be doing something “unapproved” by the Watch Tower organisation? Do you find yourself in the “backroom” being counselled by the elders? Are your “privileges” removed? Maybe you’re “marked”, or even “disfellowshipped” and then shunned by the congregation, including your family. Why? Well, these sanctions are all designed to modify your behaviour. As a “brother”, did you ever grow a beard? If so what was the reaction? Were you counselled that it could “stumble others”? Were you allowed to serve as a ministerial servant or elder with a beard? Perhaps, depending on the congregation, but most likely not, and you definitely will have been denied the privilege of giving a talk on the circuit assembly programme, or at the regional convention.

Even pioneering is withheld from a person if their behaviour is not considered “acceptable”. Now, think about this. Even if you are considered a “poor example”, or “spiritually weak”, you are “allowed”—how nice of them—to engage in the ministry—in fact, this is expected of your whatever your “status” in the congregation. Yet, if you wish to volunteer 60 or 90 hours of your own time officially as an auxiliary or regular pioneer, then your behaviour is scrutinised under a microscope. You may then be considered “unqualified” based on a personal whim perhaps of an elder and be denied the “privilege” of spending your own precious time preaching to people. Does that make any sense at all? Only if the label “pioneer” is considered to be a status symbol—one that makes you feel accepted and approved by men—used as a method of control.

BITE model B12—here’s a good one: Cults discourage individualism and encourage group-think. As a Jehovah’s Witness you are not only expected to do what you’re told but also to think what you are told. Independent thinking is not permitted. Let me read from The Watchtower November 15, 2013 p. 20 “All of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether these appear sound from a strategic or human standpoint or not.” Even personal opinions or private thoughts regarding spiritual matters are not permitted for a Jehovah’s Witness. The Watchtower August 1, 2001 p. 14 stated: “He does not advocate or insist on personal opinions [fair enough, maybe being opinionated doesn’t add to a group being united, but it then goes on to say—and this is very 1984-ish—he may not even]… harbor private ideas when it comes to Bible understanding. Rather, he has complete confidence in the truth as it is revealed by… ‘the faithful and discreet slave.’” In a later episode of this podcast, we will take a look at thought control in more detail.

But for now, suffice to say, independent thinking, insofar as thinking differently to the Watch Tower organisation and its governing body, is frowned upon. While noting that “the Irish people do very little independent thinking” and are “victims of the clergy and fear”—a blanket statement slamming the Irish there—The Watchtower also warns in a classic example of doublespeak: “How is… independent thinking manifested? A common way is by questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization.” So, questioning the Watch Tower organisation is simply not allowed!

A court case known as the Douglas Walsh trial in 1954 highlighted the Watch Tower’s obsession with “unity”. Watch Tower lawyer H C Covington was questioned as to whether unity should be “at all costs?” He replied in the affirmative: “Unity at all costs”, he said. He was then asked whether such unity should be based on “an enforced acceptance of false prophecy?” to which he replied—can you believe this—”That is conceded to be true.” So, even if a Watch Tower teaching is false, you are expected to accept it. To give you an idea of just how paranoid Watch Tower is about their members all believing the same thing, H C Covington was then asked if a disfellowshipped person who refused to accept Watch Tower’s strict interpretation of scriptures was “worthy of death.” His reply was—get this— “I will answer yes, unhesitatingly.”

Now bear that in mind as we consider items B20, B21, and B25 of the BITE model. These explain that some cults use beating, torture, and even murder to control or punish cult members. Now, Jehovah’s Witnesses will argue that they would never kill a brother or sister that strayed from their flock, but is that true? Let me read from The Watchtower November 15, 1952 p.703. Regarding the treatment of apostates, it reads: “We can take action against apostates only to a certain extent… The law of the land… forbid[s] us to kill apostates, even though they be members of our own flesh-and-blood family relationship.” Now, when I read that I was shocked. No, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not kill apostates, but why? Because it is prohibited by the law of the land, and, as this article continues to point out, stoning people to death is no longer part of God’s law for Christians—super— but let me ask you, if it was—what then? If the Bible said apostates should be killed, would Jehovah’s Witnesses break the law of the land to carry that action out? As disgusting as such an idea seems, I suggest that yes, they would, and they would say they were obeying “God as ruler rather than men”. Their hatred towards apostates—members who reject Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs because they no longer believe them to be “the truth”—includes shunning. Shunning is a kind of “death”. It matters not if the person is still an amazing human being. If they reject the organisation, they are “cut off” by their Witness friends, even their closest family members, as if they no longer existed. Stephen Parsons, writing in an article on Surviving Church entitled Shunning – A Barbaric Practice wrote: “The act of shunning is a form of psychological murder, the desire that someone should cease to exist.” Disfellowshipped and disassociated persons have often said—and I am experiencing this personally—that shunning is like being dead to their family and friends.

Next item B18—cults instil dependency and obedience. Does this apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses? Let me refer you again to The Watchtower November 15, 2013 p. 20. What did it say again? “All of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether these appear sound from a strategic or human standpoint or not.” Questioning the governing body is simply not allowed. The Watchtower October 1, 1967 p. 592 makes this clear when it orders: “In submitting to… [the] organization, we must be in full and complete agreement with every feature of its apostolic procedure and requirements.” 

Finally, item B23 of the BITE model—separation of families. Do Jehovah’s Witnesses break up families? They would say “No”, but this is a complete lie. They do. I know from personal experience that this is the case. I’m shunned by my children, and even by my own dad because I am no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses—I’m disfellowshipped and now viewed as an “apostate”. In the case of my dad, his last words to me were: “I’m choosing my faith over your apostasy.” Now while ever he thought I would return to Jehovah’s Witnesses by way of reinstatement, he was willing to have at least some contact with me—against the rules, but there you go—but the moment I told him I no longer believed it was “the truth”, and that I felt it was a cult, he cut off all association with me. He no longer even replies to my emails or text messages telling him that I love him. It’s unlikely my dad, or my children will ever see or speak to me again, such is the level of behavioural control Watch Tower has over its members. They obey, without question, the instructions in The Watchtower January 15, 2013 p. 16 which directed: “Do not look for excuses to associate with a disfellowshipped family member, for example, through e-mail.”

Now, publicly, Jehovah’s Witnesses like to give the idea that they do not completely shun family members. David Gnam, Watch Tower Lawyer, under oath in court stated: “Witnesses don’t use the word shun or shunning… They refer to it as disfellowship, disfellowshipping, disfellowshipped… Disfellowship literally means no further spiritual fellowship with the individual,” and here is the point: “As far as their family members are concerned, normal family relations continue with the exception of spiritual fellowship.” Now, any disfellowshipped or disassociated person will know that that it a complete lie. Awake! magazine, July 2009 p. 29, considered to be more of a public magazine, explained: “No one should be forced to worship in a way that he finds unacceptable or be made to choose between his beliefs and his family.” If only that were true. The Watchtower January 15, 2013 p. 16 in an article intended for the consumption of members of the cult stated: “What your beloved family member needs to see is your resolute stance to put Jehovah above everything else — including the family bond.”

That’s all for this time. Thank you for listening. Join me next time as I consider whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult when it comes to information control.