Thought control

Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult?—Part 3


Transcript of OnionUnlimited podcast episode 016

HELLO AND WELCOME TO EPISODE 16 OF ONIONUNLIMITED—THE PODCAST. I’m your host, Daniel Torridon. In this episode, we are looking at the subject of thought control—the “T” in the BITE model. Does the Watch Tower organisation employ thought control on its members?

When you hear the phrase “thought control”, or “mind control” you may immediately think of “brainwashing”. However, there seems to be some debate over what “brainwashing” actually is, whether it’s the same as “thought control” and/or “mind control”, and even if brainwashing is an actual thing.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines brainwashing as “a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas.” I can see how some would argue that what Watch Tower does, does not fit that definition exactly. Jehovah’s Witnesses are definitely indoctrinated, and they definitely “accept regimented ideas”, but is it fair to say that the process is “forcible”? Maybe, if you take into account the threat of disfellowshipping—do this, think this, believe this, or lose your family. Most, I think would say that the indoctrination process is more subtle than forcible. The aforementioned dictionary has a second definition which is interesting, “persuasion by propaganda”. I tend to think that applies in the case of Watch Tower. Propaganda usually refers to ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a particular case. That seems to fit Watch Tower.

Wikipedia—not always the most reliable source I know, but often very useful in research—explains that brainwashing is “the concept that the human mind can be altered or controlled by certain psychological techniques.” That might imply some force, I think, against the will of the subject, but it also could suggest that the subject doesn’t even know it’s happening, and that, I think applies very much to Jehovah’s Witnesses. For me, it was only when I stepped outside of the group and looked inward, especially at meetings, assemblies, and conventions, that I realised there was something going on in terms of the way that the teaching was delivered—very repetitive, monotonous, almost hypnotic, to the point that you can very easily just take your brain of gear and accept as “the truth” whatever it is you’re hearing. Wikipedia states that “brainwashing is said to reduce [a person’s] ability to think critically or independently”—ah, now that does start to sound very much like Jehovah’s Witnesses. I still remember a talk at a regional convention one year where the speaker kept saying “independent thinking [independent thinking… independent thinking… independent thinking]”. It was effective, annoying, but effective, but it was also a bit strange, almost like he was—yeah—trying to hypnotise his audience into believing that independent thinking was wrong.

The term brainwashing is often used synonymously with “thought control” or “mind control”. Whether it’s actually the right term in regards to Jehovah’s Witnesses, I don’t know. I personally don’t have a problem calling it brainwashing. For me, when I was a Jehovah’s Witness, I feel it was very much the case of being forced to at least pretend to believe certain things, at the risk of being disfellowshipped. Did Watch Tower ever successfully brainwash me? No, I don’t think they did, which is probably why I suffered so much cognitive dissonance. Having said that, I did genuinely buy into the whole “we are the truth” business, growing up as a child and then [as] a teenager in the organisation. It was just what I knew. It was only once I got into my late 20s and early 30s that I really started to see the cracks in the doctrine, and began questioning things. The reaction I then got from other people—that was an eye-opener! They seemed nervous about disagreeing with anything the governing body was teaching, and that only served to make me wonder more. Why couldn’t I question things? I guess it’s fair to say that something seemed “off”, but it took me many years to figure out that it wasn’t “the truth”, and that I was, in fact, in a cult.

Interestingly, Watch Tower itself makes a connection between propaganda and brainwashing. If you look up the term “brainwashing” in the Watchtower Online Library, it refers you to the entry for “propaganda”. So, I’m not averse to using that term, although some experts might say it’s not entirely accurate, the same way as some would claim Jehovah’s Witnesses is a “high control group” rather than a cult. But, I’m going with “cult”, and “brainwashing”—also known as, “thought control” or “mind control”. I do think there is sometimes an element of force involved. Certainly, if you are already in the organisation—I was born-in—there is some peer pressure, some element of threat even involved if you don’t conform, and in my experience, that was sometimes against my will. The judicial hearing I had in 2006 felt very much like a forcible attempt to skew my mind a certain way, but it didn’t work. I still believe what I believed back then, and what got me disfellowshipped for apostasy. So, any attempts to brainwash me, have, I feel, ultimately failed. So there!

One thing that always has made me cringe, is when Jehovah’s Witnesses are accused of being brainwashed, that old chestnut where they reply: “Yes, and my brain needed washing.”

Anyway, let’s take a closer look at the BITE model again, and this time the “T” for Thought control. Item T1 observes that cults and high control groups require their members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth. You can’t really deny that when it comes to Jehovah’s Witnesses. They actually refer to themselves as “the truth” which sounds very culty to anyone who isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness, but to a JW it’s quite normal.

The BITE model goes on to state that cults persuade their members to adopt a new “map of reality”. Again, this is very much the case with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their “world view” is that they are the only true religion, chosen by God and Jesus, they alone have or are “the truth”, they alone will survive Armageddon, and then turn the earth into a paradise. They really believe this. It’s their “map of reality”.

The BITE model continues that cults instil black and white thinking—good versus evil, God versus Satan, the truth versus the world, life and death, sin and salvation—and it organises people into “us and them”. That’s very observable in the Watch Tower organisation, I feel. The Watchtower September 15, 1974 p. 561 illustrated this well. It states: “Even after a person has freed himself from the control of the powers of darkness and has come into the light he faces continued bombardment from this system of things. So it may be difficult at times for some to ‘practice the truth,'”—can you see the—the—black and white, us and them thinking at play there? All very dramatic.

Item T3 next. Cults use “loaded language” and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thought and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words. This is what Jehovah’s Witnesses like to call “theocratic language” or “the pure language”. Basically, it’s a collection of words and phrases that only make sense within the cult setting. Outside of the cult, use any of these expressions, and it will probably mean nothing to people, or perhaps even raise a few eyebrows. Let me just read a few of these expressions to you:

“The truth” versus “the world”.

“Worldly people”, “Satan’s system”. That would get some funny looks in the supermarket.

“Brothers and sisters”—what Witnesses tend to call each other in the United Kingdom.
I believe in America, “the friends” is a more common expression, which always sounded a bit culty to me.

“Unbaptised publisher”. That would mean absolutely nothing to someone “in the world”.

“Pioneer” sounds like something from a Western.

Then you have the negative expressions such as “left the truth”, “spiritually weak”, “bad association”. That’s a good one if you want to make someone feel rubbish.

You’ve got your various degrees of “leaving the truth”—”irregular”, “inactive”, “disfellowshipped”, “disassociated”, and then the big one—”apostate”—from which, supposedly, there’s no coming back, although I did.

There’s what I like to think of as the “excuses”—”wait on Jehovah” for “new light”—and then all the organisational terms that make things sound very important—”the governing body”, “the faithful and discreet slave”, “the society” (they don’t tend to use that one so much now, but back when I was growing up it was “the society says this” and “the society says that”). “Bethel”, “circuit overseer”, “elders” and “ministerial servants”—all very official sounding.

And the list goes on. “Shepherding calls”, “Armageddon”. Sometimes it felt like Armageddon when you had a shepherding call! I think in all of my 50 years as a Jehovah’s Witness, I only ever had one or maybe two shepherding calls that I actually found encouraging. Most of them, and there weren’t that many—I could probably count them on two hands actually—most of them, left me feeling worthless, unloved, unlovable, and generally rubbish. Such is how a cult motivates people!

So there you go—buzz words, theocratic language, whatever you want to call it, it’s a cult thing.

Further to this, item T5 says that in some cults, hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member. I would say that’s exactly what happens at the meetings. The information is very repetitive. It’s easy to fall asleep, mentally and physically. The monotonous “tone” is very apparent across most of the teaching assignments—elders, circuit overseers, and now, of course, the governing body and their helpers on JW Broadcasting—they all sound the same. It’s really easy to find yourself taking your brain out of gear and just absorbing whatever is said, subliminally even, when you’re half asleep, and just accepting that what you’re hearing is “the truth”, without any attempt to analyse it critically. Remember, independent thinking—critical thinking—is frowned upon. “Listen, obey, and be blessed” as they like to say. Or if that doesn’t work, “listen, obey, and avoid being disfellowshipped”!

Age regression is interesting. The governing body does talk to the flock like they are idiots. They talk down to their audience—the adults I’m thinking of here—as if they are all a bit slow, or like little children. It comes across as very patronising don’t you think? The general idea is that you can’t manage without them. You need the governing body for your spirituality or personal relationship with God. Independent thinking, as we’ve noted, is, of course, discouraged, and a child-like dependence upon the organisation and the governing body becomes the order of the day.

Item T6—memories are manipulated and false memories are created. A good example of this is the 1975 teaching. I’ve heard ones say: “The society never said the end was going to come. That was all speculation and it was the brothers and sisters that came to that conclusion.” If you read the literature it’s very clear where the fault lays. [It’s] that’s an interesting one, that memories have been somehow manipulated and these new memories created, such that 1975 was apparently never a thing when it really was.

Item T7—thought-stopping techniques such as praying, singing, wishful thinking—I like that one—are taught, which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts. I think the Watch Tower organisation is doing a lot more of this now. The music videos on JW Broadcasting and at regional conventions—some of them, not all—some of them are very emotive. Music, of course, moves people. To be fair, some of the music in recent years, I think, is excellent, a vast improvement on the old piano tunes that we had, but the problem occurs when the music is in the background for a video showing, for example, “worldly people” attacking “Jehovah’s people”, angels on horseback coming out of the sky to save them once again. It’s skewing their “map of reality”. Put it to music, especially emotional music, and no end of crazy ideas can be passed under the reality radar without people noticing that they’re actually being brainwashed. Get them singing along with the music and it’s even more effective!

There really does seem to me, to be a lot of “wishful thinking” going on in the organisation at the moment. The Witnesses have been waiting so long now for Armageddon and the paradise to come, it’s starting to seem highly unlikely to many, and so they indulge themselves in the next best thing—video productions of paradise, songs about courage and trust in the organisation—and prayer of course, although I always found public prayers particularly to be lacking something. It never felt like the person on the platform praying was actually praying to God, but rather to the audience. Often, it was just a résumé of the meeting they’d just had. So more repetition.

Item T9 is a very obvious one when it comes to the Witnesses—forbid critical questions about the leader, the doctrine, or policy. It goes without saying that questioning the governing body is simply not allowed. You can question God, like Abraham, Lot, Moses, and Job in the Bible did, but you absolutely can not question the governing body.

The Watchtower October 1, 1967 p. 592 commanded “In submitting to… [the] organization, we must be in full and complete agreement with every feature of its apostolic procedure and requirements.” As noted in a previous podcast, private ideas about Bible understanding are, of course, prohibited, and it really is everything you have to accept as a Jehovah’s Witness. You can’t just accept or believe the bits that make sense to you. The Watchtower February 1, 1952 p. 79 really demonstrated this. It said: “We should eat and digest and assimilate what is set before us, without shying away from parts of the [spiritual] food because it may not suit the fancy of our mental taste… We should meekly go along with the Lord’s theocratic organization and wait for further clarification, rather than balk at the first mention of a thought unpalatable to us and proceed to quibble and mouth our criticisms and opinions as though they were worth more than the slave’s provision of spiritual food. Theocratic ones will appreciate the Lord’s visible organization and not be so foolish as to put against Jehovah’s channel their own human reasoning and sentiment and personal feelings.” There you go—that really does show, I think, the level of control and dependency being inflicted upon Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In a similar vein, The Watchtower April 1, 1986 p. 31 noted: “Approved association with Jehovah’s Witnesses requires accepting… beliefs that are unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses. What do such beliefs include?… That there is a “faithful and discreet slave” upon [the] earth today… which slave is associated with the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses… That 1914 marked the end of the Gentile Times and the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the heavens, as well as the time for Christ’s foretold presence.” So, if you don’t believe those things, basically, you can’t be a Jehovah’s Witness, and if you are a Jehovah’s Witness, you just have to keep your mouth shut or run the risk of being disfellowshipped for apostasy as so many seekers of truth, including myself, have been.

Finally, item T10—cults label alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or just not useful. Basically, anything outside of Jehovah’s Witnesses is, at best, a waste of time in their opinion, if not, indeed, dangerous. Higher education is frowned upon—until they need a lawyer. Growing up, a career was never something I was encouraged to pursue. It was leave school at 16 and start pioneering. Preaching was my “career”. And even hobbies, recreation—allowable, but in moderation—in “this system of things” such things are viewed as a waste of time, like “polishing the brass on the Titanic”, is the usual illustration they use, or “rearranging the deck chairs”, however you like it.

So, that’s thought control. Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult when it comes to thought control, mind control? I think so. In my experience, I feel very much that the organisation has tried to control not just my actions but my thoughts, and even my most personal beliefs, but no more! I recognised Jehovah’s Witnesses was a cult, and I decided I would never return.

That’s all from me for now. Thank you for listening again. Join me next time for part 4 when I take a look at Emotional control.

Further reading