Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult?—Part 2


Transcript of OnionUnlimited podcast episode 014

HELLO AND WELCOME TO EPISODE 14 OF ONIONUNLIMITED—THE PODCAST. I’m your host, Daniel Torridon and this is the second part of a four-part series entitled Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult? In part 1, I introduced you to a checklist called the BITE model designed by cult expert Stephen Hassan to help identify cults and high control groups in the wild. BITE stands for Behaviour, Information, Thought, and Emotional control. Last time we considered whether the Watch Tower organisation employs behavioural control on its members. This time I will address the “I” for Information control. Do Jehovah’s Witnesses control information in such a way that it manipulates its members and meets the criteria for a cult?

Okay, so item I1 of the BITE model states that cults deliberately withhold certain information. Is this true when it comes to Jehovah’s Witnesses? Is there any information Watch Tower would prefer that its members, or even outsiders, do not know about? Well, consider David Splane’s concluding talk at the 2021 regional convention. In justifying why Watch Tower tries to settle child abuse cases out of court, he made this comment which I think he immediately regretted. He said: “Actually, neither side probably wants the whole truth to come out in court.” Why would he say such a thing? What is Watch Tower so nervous about? Could it be the sheer number of abuse cases on record? Or perhaps the way the cases have been handled—or rather mishandled? Or maybe it’s the amount of contributions the organisation has used to pay off the victims that they don’t want people to know about? Why would Watch Tower not want “the whole truth” to come out in court? The organisation, it would seem, is desperate to hide this information, especially from its own members, but unfortunately for them, it’s just not possible. The Internet contains so much verifiable information these days that when it comes to the organisation’s mishandling of child abuse, it’s clear to see. The best that the governing body can do is to warn members not to read or view outside information, especially critical information, and so—since they’re running a cult—that is exactly what they do.

The Watchtower May 2021 p. 13 stated: “In modern times, a few well-known Witnesses have left the truth, become apostate, and then tried to turn others away. They have spread negative reports, half-truths, and outright lies about Jehovah’s Witnesses through the news media and the Internet.” Now, that may be the case, but there are also many “apostates” as they like to call us—I include myself here—that tell the truth. In fact, we pride ourselves on doing so. The governing body likes to give the impression that any information that shows them in a negative light is “apostate lies” or—to coin a modern term—”fake news”, but for the most part, those who have left Jehovah’s Witnesses, and have the circumstances and the courage to speak up, have absolutely no reason at all to make up any bad publicity. It already exists!

In deciding whether to divulge information, the governing body never seems to base its decision on whether it’s the right thing to do. Certainly, in the case of child abuse cases, the victim’s welfare seems to be the last thing on their minds. Their priority is always what effect sharing the information will have upon themselves or the Watch Tower organisation. This is confirmed in Awake! magazine February 8, 2000 p. 21 which noted: “being truthful does not mean that we are obligated to divulge all information to anyone who asks it of us… Jesus did not always disclose the full truth, especially when revealing all the facts could have brought unnecessary harm to himself or his disciples.” So there you have it—Watch Tower using Jesus’ example there to justify withholding information. The organisation will only reveal information if it won’t result in what it considers “unnecessary harm” to itself.

Of course, they cloak their efforts at self-preservation by saying that they don’t want to “bring reproach on Jehovah’s name”. That suffices to silence most Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Watchtower June 1, 1960 p. 352 unashamedly directed cult members: “For the purpose of protecting the interests of God’s cause, it is proper to hide the truth from God’s enemies.” But it’s not really about God, God’s cause, or God’s name is it?—it’s all about quashing any information that might show them in a bad light. To a Jehovah’s Witness, an “enemy” of God is anyone who doesn’t see things the way they do, or who tries to call them to account for their errors. So, that would include governments, the police, courts, judges, and so forth.

It would be out of character for Watch Tower to make a public declaration of thanks to these people and organisations for highlighting where they fall short so they can make improvements. As God’s only true religion on earth, they clearly feel that they are above being corrected by “Satan’s world”. Perhaps they should take a moment to read their Bibles and see what the Old Testament “Jehovah” did when his “chosen people” erred. Who did he use to correct the Israelites? In addition to the prophets—who they rarely listened to—he used the nations round about—Satan’s nations—to correct and even punish them. Of course, the idea that God might do a similar thing today, using worldly governments and courts, is completely alien to the governing body who believe their religion is a holy, clean, spiritual paradise. Of course, it’s far from that, which is why there are so many child abuse cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses in the news.

Despite swearing on the Bible to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, that is not what Watch Tower representatives actually do in a court of law. As proof of this, I only need to refer you to David Gnam’s sworn statement that disfellowshipping applies only to “spiritual fellowship with the individual.” “As far as their family members are concerned,” said this Watch Tower lawyer under oath, “normal family relations continue with the exception of spiritual fellowship.” In doing so, he failed to mention that this only applies to a family member still living under the same roof. The way he presented his information made his statements much more palatable to the judge.

Then, there’s the case of Geoffrey Jackson being requested to attend the 2015 Australian Royal Commission investigation into organisational child abuse. At first, Jackson—despite being 1/8th of the governing body—claimed he knew nothing of any relevance and that he had nothing to do in the making of child protection policies. Therefore, he argued, he didn’t need to attend. Finally, after some to-ing and fro-ing, he was subpoenaed to attend. Geoffrey, didn’t volunteer to help the court with this sensitive issue—he had to be forced to show up. Nevertheless, now on camera with the entire world watching, he had the opportunity to show how Watch Tower cares about victims of child rape. But no, he spent most of his time justifying Watch Tower policy, pleading ignorance, and basically trying not to answer the judge’s questions.

When asked whether the governing body was “Jehovah God’s spokespeople on earth” Jackson replied, “That, I think, would seem to be quite presumptuous to say that we are the only spokesperson that God is using.” Jackson also claimed that the governing body is trying to fulfil the role of the faithful and discreet slave—not that they are the slave. Jackson’s responses were completely different to how Jehovah’s Witnesses are indoctrinated to view things. Imagine what would happen if you were to stand on the platform at the Kingdom Hall and say “the governing body is attempting to fulfil the role of the faithful and discreet slave”, or if you said, “it would be presumptuous of the governing body to view themselves as God’s spokespeople on earth”. How long do you think it would it be before you were removed from the platform and given a telling off by the elders? And if you continued to make those claims —that others besides the governing body were God’s channel on earth, or that the governing body was not absolutely, definitely appointed as the actual faithful and discreet slave by Jesus himself in 1919—how long would it be before you were invited to a judicial hearing on charges of apostasy? Not very long I suspect.

The thing is, Geoffrey Jackson knew that if he had answered honestly, if he had responded: “Yes, us eight guys are the actual faithful and discreet slave Jesus said he would appoint, and we do think we are God’s only channel on earth”—that would have been the truth of it—but it would have looked really bad. He would have appeared very presumptuous—which is what he was worried about, but that is exactly what he and the other seven governing members believe, and want 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses to believe. Not only that, he would have come across as a bit crazy, thinking that he is one of only eight people on earth that God uses to channel truth through. So he withheld the answer—the answer that they are constantly trying to get Jehovah’s Witnesses to buy into—and he deflected attention away from himself and his fellow governing body members by giving a much less insane answer.

Incidentally, the entire transcripts from the Australian Royal Commission hearings are available at — search for Case Study 29. I’ll also leave a link in the description below.

The Watchtower 2004 November 15 p. 28 had this to say about testifying in court: “The faithful witness does not commit perjury when testifying. His testimony is not tainted with lies. However, this does not mean that he is under obligation to give full information to those who may want to bring harm to Jehovah’s people in some way.” This article then quotes Matthew 7:6: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, neither throw your pearls before swine” and then asks “Why not? So that ‘they may never . . . turn around and rip you open.'” That is how they view courts of law calling them to account for their actions. So on one hand they claim they do not commit perjury when testifying and that their testimony is not tainted with lies, but then on the other hand they say that the “faithful witness” is not under obligation to give “full information” in such settings. So much for promising to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Watch Tower has a legacy of withholding information, especially when it comes to people or organisations that they feel are somehow working for the Devil to persecute them. On YouTube there’s a leaked video presentation of Shawn Bartlett, a Record Management Overseer for Watch Tower, explaining to Witnesses that handwritten notes and drafts of internal documents needed to be destroyed because of the potential legal harm they posed to the organization. When further addressing why this was necessary he stated: “We know that the scene of this world is changing, and we know Satan’s coming after us, and he’s going to go for us legally.” Paranoid or what? He also noted: “We’ve run into difficulties in the past because of the records we have.” One can only wonder what “records” have been destroyed to avoid legal ramifications. So, does Watch Tower deliberately withhold certain information? I think just the few examples I’ve mentioned shows without a doubt that they do, and, of course, there are many many more examples we could look at.

Item I2 of the BITE model continues on the theme of withholding or preventing access to information. I2 has two parts to it. First, it notes that cults minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information including critical information and former members. Then it states that cults keep members busy so that they don’t have time to think and investigate. Let’s take a look at both of those statements.

Does Watch Tower minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information? Absolutely! The Watchtower May 1, 1984 p. 31 carried a Question[s] From Readers article which asked: “Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses decline to exchange their Bible study aids for the religious literature of people they meet?” So, picture this, if a JW offers you their Watchtower or Awake! magazine and you accept it, and then you offer them some of your literature, they are trained to say “No”. Why? Well, the article goes on to say: “Witnesses do not go to people’s doors searching for truth or enlightenment. Rather, they already have devoted countless hours learning the truth.” So there you go—they already know “the truth”. There’s no possibility they could be wrong. So why would they want your literature? The article also states: “It would be foolhardy, as well as a waste of valuable time, for Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept and expose themselves to false religious literature that is designed to deceive.” Imputing impure motive there! The article then concludes with these words: “Jehovah’s Witnesses do not make a practice of exchanging valuable Bible study aids containing Scriptural truth for religious literature that disseminates error or apostate views.” They can not accept that any group, other than their own, has any claim to spiritual truth. How arrogant is that? Remember that the next time a Jehovah’s Witness offers you some of their literature.

How about former members? Does Watch Tower discourage Jehovah’s Witnesses from listening to what former members have to say? Totally! Watch Tower paints a picture of apostates as “wicked”, “Satanic”, “deceivers”, “the antichrist”—even if you’ve left and become a Christian. Former members, they say, want to undermine a person’s faith in “the truth”. We—and I include myself in this—are said to be “mentally diseased”, “selfish”, “gangrenous”, and “disrespectful of spiritual authority”. Now, all of that would make some kind of sense if—if—Jehovah’s Witnesses really were “the truth”, but if they’re not—if Watch Tower is merely a man-made cult, even a dangerous one—then “apostates” are actually doing a great service in pointing out its errors. Yet the way Watch Tower describes those who have left makes it unlikely most Jehovah’s Witnesses will ever have an honest conversation with a former member. They’re indoctrinated to be scared and to run away at the first hint of a person being an apostate.

A 1983 Watchtower noted: “To quarrel with such ones, to debate and argue, is futile and really not the Christian course.” The thing is, a so-called “apostate” will most likely feel the same. I for one don’t wish to quarrel, debate—at least not in an aggressive manner—or argue with Jehovah’s Witnesses. If a person wants to be a Jehovah’s Witness, that’s their choice, and I respect that, but surely they have the right to hear the other side of the argument? Why is it that so many Jehovah’s Witnesses are leaving the organisation? There are many, many thousands of Witnesses who are leaving the organisation because they’ve done the research that most JWs haven’t and they’ve concluded that the organisation is not “the truth”. Most apostates I know—even the most vocal activists—will never force this information on a Jehovah’s Witness, but the information is there if the Witness wants to find “the real truth”. However, by calling former members “apostate”, “Satanic”, “mentally diseased” and so forth, the governing body seeks to shut down any chance of their members hearing both sides of the story. They do this because they are running a cult, and that’s what cult leaders do.

According to the BITE model, cults also keep their members busy—busy, so they don’t have time to think or investigate anything. This is such an obvious one to anyone on the outside looking in, yet if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness you probably don’t even notice it happening to you. Meetings, assemblies, conventions, special meetings, preaching, pioneering—there’s always something to be done, and it’s usually a) something you’ve already done a million times before and/or b) completely pointless.

Take the meetings for example. How many times does a person have to be taught the same thing? With any other acquisition of knowledge, say, learning a musical instrument, or driving a car—learning the Highway Code—studying some field of academia, you learn it, and that’s it. You’ve learnt it. You now know how to do the thing. You don’t have to be constantly taught the same thing over and over again. You might practice your art or chosen vocation, or use a skill you’ve learned in day-to-day life so as to “use it and not lose it” as they say, but once you’ve learned something, you don’t keep learning it—unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, and then you do. Meetings are basically the same thing over and over and over again, and it’s designed like that. The repetition, the strangely monotonous tone—it’s how cults indoctrinate, brainwash, a person. It becomes so repetitive that in the end the listener just takes their brain out of gear and accepts everything that’s being said as “the truth”.

As far as keeping people busy, think about what they’ve done during the COVID pandemic. They’ve knocked their public door-to-door preaching on the head, but they’ve got their members writing hundreds, thousands, millions of letters to members of the public. Each letter is written by hand—what a complete and utter waste of time! If they were genuinely trying to reach as many people as possible with their “live-saving message” they’d be printing the letters, but no—that’s no good at all when it comes to “counting your time” or feeling like you were actually doing something worthwhile. So you write basically the same thing, a zillion times over—why? Because it keeps you busy, and when you’re busy you don’t question things.

The Watchtower April 1944 carried a reply to a sister’s letter from then-president Nathan H Knorr. In it, he mentioned that “moving pictures [that is movies or films] have done more harm than good”. Why so? Because, as Rutherford had decreed in 1941, “children and parents alike [should] spend their time in the field service.” Knorr openly admitted that—and I quote—”the Society for years has tried to keep [its members] busy in Kingdom work. It was to this end”, he wrote, “that we have arranged Watchtower studies, service meetings, book studies [etc]”. Then he asserts that if the brethren follow this course of action they will “keep out of mischief; they will be [so] busy… [that] they will have no time for the pleasures of this world.” There you go—keep them busy so they don’t have time to wander and actually enjoys themselves. He then says that all this activity “will bring more pleasure and happiness than any movie could”. So—stop watching Netflix and get back to writing those pointless, handwritten letters that pretty much always end up in the bin.

Item I3 of the BITE model next. Cults compartmentalize information into outsider versus insider. They ensure that certain information is not freely accessible and they control information at different levels within the group. They only allow leadership to decide who needs to know what. Does that apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses? Well, consider the elder’s handbook, intended for the elder’s eyes only. They are so paranoid about the information in the elder’s book getting into the wrong hands, that they don’t allow sisters anywhere near it. A Letter to Bodies of Elders, October 7, 2010, read: “Since the release of the new Shepherding textbook, several elders have asked about the possibility of having the textbook spiral bound.” It then stated: “There is no objection if an elder personally spiral binds or laminates his own textbook or does so for other elders… [but] if he has another baptized brother who is not an elder do the work for him, the elder must watch while the work is being done.” Then it instructs: “Outside companies, unbelievers, or sisters”—yes, sisters are classed in with unbelievers here—”are not permitted to do this work. The material in the book is confidential, and confidentiality must be preserved.” Why? What information does the elder’s book contain that they don’t want non-elders to see? Ironically, the elder’s book is available to download online, so it’s really easy to check.

Might it be, that the elder’s book contains instructions that run contrary to what you are usually told as a rank-and-file member of Jehovah’s Witnesses? For example, if you have a disfellowshipped relative that is not living under the same roof as you, are you or are you not allowed to have contact with them? If you did, what would happen? Let me read you some quotations from The Watchtower which congregation members have access to:

The Watchtower April 15, 2012 p. 12: “What if we have a relative or a close friend who is disfellowshipped? Now our loyalty is on the line, not to that person, but to God. Jehovah is watching us to see whether we will abide by his command [to not] have contact with anyone who is disfellowshipped.” So, obedience to God’s command is at stake. God is watching you—sounds serious!

The Watchtower January 15, 2013 p. 16 instructs Witnesses: “Do not look for excuses to associate with a disfellowshipped family member, for example, through e-mail.”

Okay, so that’s what The Watchtower says. So, what would happen if you did associate with your disfellowshipped family members living outside of the home? Might you be disfellowshipped yourself? Many Witnesses think that’s exactly what would happen, so out of fear of the consequences, they shun their relatives. But notice what the elder’s book says in chapter 12:

“If a publisher in the congregation is known to have unnecessary association with disfellowshipped or disassociated relatives who are not in the household,” what happens? “elders”, it says “should use the Scriptures to counsel and reason with him… ” So you’d get a visit from the elders. Then what? It continues: “If it is clear that a Christian is violating the spirit of the disfellowshipping decree… and does not respond to counsel, he would [be disfellowshipped? No! He would…] not qualify for congregation privileges, which require one to be exemplary.” So, they wouldn’t let you carry a roving microphone at the Kingdom Hall, or be a pioneer, or an elder or ministerial servant, but unless you went around saying disfellowshipping was unscriptural—which it is by the way—nothing would happen to you. The elder’s book confirms: “He would not be dealt with judicially unless there [was] persistent spiritual association or he persists in openly criticizing the disfellowshipping action.” So, the only way you’d get disfellowshipped is if the elders could prove you were having “persistent spiritual association” or if you went around saying disfellowshipping was wrong. Yet most Witnesses are completely unaware of this direction in the elder’s book and so they just go along with what The Watchtower says—to shun their loved ones—thinking that if they don’t they’ll be in big big trouble. This is just one example of how information is controlled at different levels within the group. Elders are given one set of instructions—the congregation, a different set of instructions.

How about gambling? Can you imagine if a Watchtower article was to tell the flock this: “Elders do not generally involve themselves in what an individual does with regard to petty gambling solely for entertainment.” I wonder, how many Witnesses would be tempted to buy a lottery ticket for a quid on a Saturday? Yet they don’t because they think gambling—of any kind—is a disfellowshipping offence. The thing is, it’s not. Those words are from the most recent elder’s handbook.

How about if a person’s gambling started to affect his spirituality, or became a cause of stumbling for others, then what? Could that warrant judicial action? No. In those instances, the elder’s book says “counsel should be given.” Okay, what if, he ignores the counsel and his gambling has a negative effect on himself or others. Surely, now he would be invited to a judicial hearing? Again, no. He would simply “not be viewed as exemplary in the congregation”—so again, no more roving microphone duties! Only “if an individual’s gambling reveals a course of greediness”—this is what the elder’s books says—”perhaps causing harm to himself or others, and he ignores repeated counsel, [would] judicial action… be appropriate.” So, you’d have to be a pretty hardened gambler to get done for it. A Saturday night lottery ticket ain’t gonna do it. As I say, most Jehovah’s Witnesses would never think that this was the “official” stance on gambling.

So, does Watch Tower compartmentalize information ensuring that certain information is not freely accessible to members? Do they control information at different levels even within the group? Totally! What a rank-and-file member is taught is not necessarily what an elder is taught. How about this for a scenario: A well-respected elder, who’s served for many years let’s say, comes forward and confesses to the body of elders that five years ago, while he was serving as an elder, he committed sexual immorality with—let’s keeps this simple—an unknown party. He never confessed at the time, and for the last five years, he’s had a guilty conscience knowing that he’s hiding his immorality from his fellow elders. What should happen to him? He says he’s repentant now, but should he be made to attend a judicial hearing to determine his repentance? That’s what would happen to any other congregation member. If so, and he was found to be repentant, should he be allowed to continue serving as an elder? Remember, this is a guy who has not only committed sexual immorality but did not confess at the time and then continued to serve as an elder—possibly disfellowshipping other people for immorality—for 5 years.

It seems like a no-brainer doesn’t it, but let me read you what the elder’s book says under the heading [Elder] Committed a Disfellowshipping Offense Years in the Past and the Matter Was Never Addressed. It says: “The body of elders may determine [that] he can continue to serve [as an elder] if the… immorality… occurred more than a few years ago [that’s why I chose 5 years as an example], and [if] he is genuinely repentant, recognizing that he should have come forward immediately when he sinned.” Incredible, but here’s the thing—the elder’s book states he may continue to serve as an elder if “he has been serving faithfully for many years, has evidence of God’s blessing, and has the respect of the congregation.” So, when it comes to being an elder, as long as things look right, it seems they are right. It’s basically an old boy’s club. If the congregation was told about this hidden immorality, would he continue to have the respect of the congregation? No way, but as long as they don’t know—can you imagine any other person in the congregation being treated this way? They confess to committing immorality 5 years ago, and the elders say: “That’s ok, there won’t be any repercussions at all. Just carry on as you were.”

When it comes to rank-and-file members of the congregation, the rules are clearly different to those that the elders are under. Item I4 of the BITE model says that cults encourage spying on other members—that they impose a [kind of] “buddy system” to monitor other members and to report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to the leadership, in this case, the elders. Does this happen within Jehovah’s Witnesses? It definitely does. While elders are watching each other’s backs, the congregation is encouraged to inform on any wrong conduct that they find out about. Growing up as a Witness it was impressed on me by my parents that if I ever learned of wrongdoing on the part of my friends, I was to tell the elders—actually no, I was to give the wrongdoer seven days to come clean themselves, and then I was to go and tell the elders. That put me in a somewhat awkward position since I had a very sensitive conscience, and also had quite a few friends growing up that did things the elders were all too happy to know about. As I’ve mentioned in a previous podcast, this even extended to me telling the elders about my own girlfriend’s so-called historic “wrong conduct”, something I really regret in hindsight, but again, it’s cult conditioning.

The Watchtower November 15, 1985 p. 20 gives these instructions: “After we have given the erring individual a reasonable amount of time to approach the elders about his wrongdoing, it is our responsibility before Jehovah not to be a sharer in his sin. We need to inform the responsible overseers that the person has revealed serious wrongdoing that merits their investigation.” Now, understand, I’m not averse to this in principle. If the matter was something such as child abuse, then too right, the matter should be brought to the attention of the elders, and more importantly the police. But Watch Tower’s list of what constitutes “serious wrongdoing” is endless, and as we’ve seen not always consistent. The point is, monitoring and reporting divergent conduct isn’t primarily because it’s the “right thing”, or even the scriptural thing—remember if you’re an elder you can literally get away with sexual immorality—it’s because it’s a cult and that’s how cults keep their members in check.

Finally, item I5—cults make extensive use of cult generated information and propaganda, including magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, movies and other media. This one goes without saying. Jehovah’s Witnesses is a global publishing corporation, and the information it publishes is all designed to make people believe it is “the truth”.

As far as propaganda is concerned, Awake! magazine June 22, 2009 p. 9 makes this observation: “Education shows you how to think. Propaganda tells you what to think… it gives you a sense of importance and belonging if you follow it.” When it comes to Watch Tower publications, do they teach you how to think? Or do they tell you what to think? I’ll discuss this more when we consider “T’ for Thought control, but for now, I’ll just leave you with this quotation from The Watchtower August 1, 2001 p. 14 that states a Witness should never “harbor private ideas when it comes to Bible understanding.” So even private thoughts that are different to what the governing body teaches are not permitted within Jehovah’s Witnesses. Rather, the barrage of magazines, books, videos, and even songs nowadays, tell you what to think, what to say, what to do.

If—heaven forbid—you were ever to read a publication or watch a documentary about another religion, or about atheism, or perhaps evolution and then attempt to share it with one of your Witness friends what would be their reaction? They would tell you it was, at best, a waste of time—time you should be spending reading Watch Tower publications or watching JW Broadcasting—or, at worst, they would say it was dangerous as if just the mere act of reading or listening to information that contradicts the organisation will somehow take you away from “the truth”? I just wonder how “true” is “the truth” if it can’t stand up to scrutiny or even just an opposing opinion?

That’s all for this episode. Join me next time as I look at “T” for Thought control and as I continue to investigate the question Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult? As always, thanks for listening.

Further reading