Critical thinking

How to Stop Thinking Like a Jehovah’s Witness — Part 1


Transcript of OnionUnlimited podcast episode 052

HELLO AND WELCOME TO ONIONUNLIMITED—THE PODCAST. I’m your host, Daniel Torridon. This series of podcasts is all about thinking, in particular about thinking, or not thinking, like a Jehovah’s Witness. I want to start by defining three types of thinking which I will refer to a lot in this podcast.

1. Conscious Thinking. By this, I mean focused, concentrated thinking, where we actively analyse information and make conscious choices. It’s what we tend to do with new information. It’s often evident when we are learning.

2. Subconscious Thinking. This is where we have already accepted information via conscious thinking and no longer actively analyse it. We accept it and “file” it away as processed. It’s what I tend to think of as programmed thinking or unconscious thinking. In many respects, it’s not really thinking at all. It’s more instinctive based on the preferences and decisions we have already considered.

3. Higher Thinking. This is intuitive. It’s more in line with feeling than thinking. It’s a sense of “just “knowing. I refer to this as your higher self, or your authentic self. It tends to come from somewhere beyond the human brain, I would say from a spiritual plane outside of our physical bodies and brains. It’s more of a mystical process as if you are accessing a Universal knowledge base. You might find it difficult or impossible to explain your reasons for feeling a certain way, but nevertheless, higher thinking feels very real.

Everyone engages in conscious and subconscious thinking on a daily basis. But higher thinking, this access to Universal, spiritual information, can be lost among the “noise” of modern life.  

Let’s start by considering conscious and subconscious thinking in more detail, and in particular how it relates to the thinking processes of a Jehovah’s Witness.

Did you know that you have been programmed from birth? You’ve been programmed more than once, most likely many times. Your programming has many layers. You’ve been programmed by your parents, your school teachers, your school and work colleagues, maybe your driving instructor or your piano teacher, and in the case of a Jehovah’s Witness, your religion. You’ve even programmed yourself! 

Now whether you believe it or not, you operate from a collection of subconscious “programs”, not all of them created by choice. You may recoil at this idea but as you listen to this podcast you’ll realise this is, indeed, the case. Every minute of every day you are fed information—through your senses, via questions you’re asked—calling for you to make decisions, some important, but most mundane. Initially, you will analyse the incoming information to make a conscious decision. But once the information is learned and accepted as valid, safe—beneficial even—your future thoughts on the matter will be filed away in your subconscious. At a future time when you are faced with the same, or a similar decision, you may find you no longer think it through consciously. Instead, you respond without thinking, pulling your instinctive thoughts from your subconscious mind. 

Take driving a car as an example. When you first started learning to drive, every step was calculated, thought through in detail. Conscious thinking you see. You kept repeating “mirror, signal, manoeuvre” but then forgot to change gear. You stalled and rolled back on the hill. More than once your driving instructor had to shout “Stop!” But eventually, driving became a mostly subconscious action. The focused steps that were in your conscious mind, at the forefront of your brain it seemed, had now settled down. They were less acute, more readily accessible, part of you. Now, you drive along with ease, listening to music while singing or conversing with someone and you laugh at how you don’t have a clue—at least not consciously—where you’ve driven or how you got there. While this might sound dangerous, it’s actually what makes you a confident and safe driver. No longer are you learning to drive. You are a driver. The myriad of decisions you initially stressed over now happen on a subconscious level like breathing and your fully concentrated consciousness only kicks in when it’s needed—say if another car pulls out in front of you or you see a red stoplight.

We make thousands of these subconscious, learned, programmed decisions every day—from brushing our teeth to making a drink when we feel thirsty. We accomplish complex actions like driving or playing a musical instrument, and make simple but potentially life and death decisions such as whether to stop at the amber light or accept or refuse a cigarette when offered. These are learned behaviours. At some point, we have consciously processed the incoming information and then filed our response into our subconscious. Take smoking as an example. You’ve no doubt been asked if you would like a smoke before. The first time it happened you perhaps had to think, but after deciding, “Yes” or “No” it became a programmed response. Chances are, if you now say an instinctive “No” to smoking, you would probably say no to taking heroin too. The same subconscious programming would kick in based on previously answered questions: “Would this be harmful to my health? Would it be addictive?” and so on, but if you were offered an unusual fruit for the first time—ah, now that would be different! You would revert to conscious thinking, at least until such a time as you had decided if you liked the taste or not.

The thing to note about subconscious thinking is the information isn’t always the result of analysing the information itself for validity. Sometimes things make it into our subconscious “filing cabinets” because we trust the source of the information. This especially occurs with children who, although curious, will often accept what a parent tells them purely because they are their parent. The child has learned from past experience that when their father or mother told them something it was true. Touching a hot stove did hurt. Petting a stray dog resulted in being bitten. Lying got them in trouble. Having accepted the information as valid, it was filed in their subconscious and they are now less likely to do those things again, but equally the source of valid information—in this case, their parent—is considered, analysed, and used to validate the incoming data. So when a parent tells the child that God, or Father Christmas, or fairies at the end of the garden exist, they are much less likely to doubt. Sure they might have questions—“Where does God live? Why can’t I see him?” but the existence of God, or Santa Claus, or fairies is now much more likely to be accepted at face value, based on trust in the source.  

The thing is, when it comes to joining a religion your default response, the response you were born with, is to question what you’re being taught. No one is born religious. Spiritual maybe, with an innate sense of wonder about the seemingly mysterious, but religious? No. If you were converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses as an adult you most likely questioned the validity of the information you were being given, at least to start with, at least until you began to trust the source of the information. But if you were raised as a Witness you will have had maybe 16 or more years of parental training on all kinds of other issues. You learned to take what your parents told you as true, safe, beneficial and it’s these same parents who assured you, from a very young age, that Jehovah’s Witnesses were “the truth”. The information you received from your parents matched the images you saw in the Watch Tower publications, and what you heard at meetings at the Kingdom Hall. Much of this information will have circumnavigated the conscious thinking, analytical phase, and gone straight into your subconscious filing cabinet. There may have been a “lightbulb moment” when you suddenly thought “this must be the truth!”, but more than likely your subconscious acceptance of your parents’ religion just happened, like the day you finally learned to read or ride a bicycle—something that now you may not be able to remember as ever actually having happened. 

You probably copied your parents and answered up at a Kingdom Hall meeting for the first time as a small child. People you had been taught to trust—spiritual “uncles and aunties”—praised you and it felt good. Before too long you were giving a talk on the Theocratic Ministry School and the same people commended you again while your proud parents looked on. You felt the approval of those around you when it was announced that you were now an unbaptised publisher. As you approached 16, people started asking “are you baptised yet?” and before you knew it… you were a Jehovah’s Witness.

Now, “worldly” people you met on the field ministry questioned whether you were forced into getting baptised and you replied, “No, I made the truth my own”, but somewhere in the back of your mind you may—if you had an acute sense of self-awareness—have wondered, “Did I? Was it really a conscious decision, or merely part of my subconscious programming?” but chances are, you were convinced you believed because you had proved “the truth” to yourself. The problem is, almost certainly, you will have only been exposed to biased data—information from your JW parents, The Watchtower, the meetings. Confirmation bias will have been high, and critical thinking low, if not non-existent.

You may say you consciously chose to be a Witness, and there may have been some element of “free will” in the matter. When it comes to joining a religion like Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’m guessing no one put a gun to your head and forced you into a baptism pool to dedicate the rest of your life to Jehovah but how much of your dedication was the result of subconscious programming?  We have some degree of choice as to what information we’re subjected to, but we are also “drip-fed” information by our mentors before we are ever old enough to really know what’s happening and that drip feed is a very powerful influence based on two primal emotions—love and fear. 

When “deciding” (and I say “deciding” in quotation marks) whether to officially become a Jehovah’s Witness by getting baptised, the “born in” Witness will process their feeling of being loved and accepted by the group they’ve known from birth and compare this nice feeling with the potential for rejection if they were to leave. The fear of not being accepted, receiving criticism or being abandoned, is a huge motivating factor in people remaining with the religion of their birth. This, for many, is the extent of their conscious thinking. Once they accept a religious position, once their subconscious mind has been programmed, they generally don’t rethink their position unless something arises in their conscious mind to literally “make them think”—to wake them up if you will. Then their critical thinking kicks in.

Even The Watchtower itself acknowledges: “Most stay with the religion in which they were reared”, noting that “very often [people are] afraid to make a change even if dissatisfied [because] the person who makes a change may become the object of popular hatred…” Watchtower May 15, 1959 p. 305

Having said that, people do change their religions. 20,000 Muslims supposedly convert to Christianity each year. In turn, 25,000 Americans convert (or should I say revert?) to Islam each year. Globally, 2.7 million people become Christians of various denominations each year, and last year Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed 171,000 of those, but I suspect the majority of those 171,000 were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses. I say that because anyone who has ever tried to convert someone to become a Jehovah’s Witness will know just how hard it is. I was a pioneer for many years. I estimate I spent over 15,000 hours preaching and conducting Bible studies and I only ever converted one person. Granted, I raised four children as Witnesses but two of those later left when they were older and were exposed to critical thinking in their secular education—hence why the Watch Tower organisation strongly discourages young ones attending University. 

I honestly doubt very many “born in” Witnesses have ever truly questioned their religion. Yet with an estimated 10,000 religions worldwide The Watchtower is correct in asking “Is it logical to assume that the religion of your birth is automatically the true one?” Watchtower July 15, 1985 p. 4

Conversion of an adult from another religion or a position of atheism to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness is really difficult. It’s much much harder than getting a child surrounded by Witness family and friends to become baptised. For one thing, you don’t have 16 years of malleable brain development to work with. You have a fully grown adult who already has a set of programs from their life experience. Plus they have no predisposition to trusting you as a source of valid information. Now, I’ve never tried this, but if you went up to a complete stranger in the street and said, “Hi, would you like to join my religion?” most I would suspect, if not all, would say “No”. And if you were totally honest about what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe and what’s involved in being a WItness I’m almost certain they would see the information as extremely questionable. For example, imagine if my presentation used this rather “direct approach”:

“Good morning! I’m here to tell you that Jesus is coming back to the earth any time soon. I know this is a fact based on some numerology inherited from the Millerites in the 1800s that pointed to 1914 as being the start of the “last days”. When Jesus arrives, he and 8-men running the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation from their luxurious headquarters in America, along with 143,992 other Jehovah’s Witnesses specially chosen by God, will kill all the “wicked” people on earth. Then, after the birds have eaten their rotting corpses, those who survive Armageddon will turn the world into a paradise before welcoming back from the dead everyone apart from those destroyed at Armageddon. Then everyone will live happily ever after. Like, literally, forever.”

Not exactly sugar-coated, but even then I’m not being totally transparent am I? I’ve not told you that you are one of the “wicked” who will be eaten by the birds, along with 99.9% of the earth’s population who will be snuffed out unless you join my religion, and I’ve also not told you what “joining” entails either. If you’re going to survive Armageddon and live forever in my paradise you’re expected to go to two 2-hour meetings each week to learn how to be a model Jehovah’s Witness. Then you have to spend a good portion of your time each month—for the rest of your life—trying to convert other people to join your religion. 

Of course, you can never earn salvation. No, no—you’re far too imperfect for that! At the end of the day, eternal life is a “free gift” from God based on whether he wants you in his paradise or not. You’ll never be “worthy”, only a recipient of “undeserved kindness”. It’s not uncommon to hear active Jehovah’s Witnesses express doubt as to whether they will actually survive Armageddon and most I would say feel guilty that they’re never doing enough, and as for having to be retested by the Devil after 1000 years of paradise they simply suppress that as a “bridge to cross later”. 

My question is how does a person arrive at this way of thinking? How do they dedicate their entire life to a cause that, when you don’t sugar-coat it, sounds completely bonkers? It’s perhaps easy to see how a child raised as a Witness from birth would find himself becoming a Witness by default, swallowing down the most “unique” of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs, however crazy, but how does an adult who’s been raised in another religion, or perhaps has never believed in God—how do they end up selling their souls to Jehovah, or should I say “the organisation”?

Whatever a convert tells you, however much they feel they exercised their free will, they didn’t. There will have been an element of subconscious programming taking place. Either they will have been offered something they longed for—being reunited with dead loved ones or being cured of some painful illness—or they will have been made to feel special, wanted, accepted. It may have taken a while to overcome that initial questioning phase and build up trust in the source of the information but over time their emotions will have been manipulated, first to trust, then to accept, then not to question at all. Technically, they could have been scared into conversion—threats of Armageddon and the like—but that’s not usually the approach most Witnesses take when preaching to you. They just tell you the “good news” to begin with, capitalising on the “love” motivator. Having said that, I’ve heard a lot of born-ins refer to fear as having been a motivator—being exposed to imagery in the Watch Tower publications of people being burned or buried alive at Armageddon literally scared them into getting baptised at a very young age.

Now, salesmen sometimes try to motivate you on the basis of fear, losing out on something say, but generally, they employ positivity to sell you their product. If they can get you to be agreeable several times in a row, answering “Yes” to mundane questions such as “Are you enjoying the good weather?” or “Do you like this colour?” they know they have a very high chance of getting a “Yes” out of you when they come to their last question: “So, would you like to buy it?” What they do is pre-program your responses. They take away the fear factor. They build trust. They make “Yes” seem the easy and right response, and then “Wham!” they’ve got you hooked. Jehovah’s Witnesses are trained to do the very same thing. They will rarely if ever tell you the whole story upfront. They definitely won’t come to your door and tell you Jesus is going to kill you if you don’t join their group, and they certainly won’t start with transparently telling you about the numerous child sexual abuse cases they’re fighting in courts around the world. No, they start, as might be expected, with “good news”—that wickedness is going to end, the earth will become a paradise, your dead loved ones will be resurrected and so on. They get you “on board” so to speak, and then, if you agree to spending “just 15 minutes a week”, you find yourself studying the Bible with them—or more precisely, studying a publication of theirs which presents their version of what the Bible really means. 

Early on, you will be told that you are special, that God loves you personally, and that Jehovah’s Witnesses calling on your door was divinely directed by the angels. You are one of the 0.1% of people on earth who are “rightly disposed for everlasting life”—unlike the 99.9% of “wicked” people that are going to die at Armageddon. But watch out for your relatives! When they hear you’re studying with Jehovah’s Witnesses they will try to discourage you. For example, they might say Jehovah’s Witnesses are a dangerous cult (we’re not) or that we cover up child abuse (we most certainly don’t) or that they force their members to refuse life-saving blood transfusions (no, it’s a “personal decision”)—and of course, we don’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays. Some of these objections, such as the celebration of holidays, will be explained away using the Bible, or at least the JW interpretation of the Bible in their publications which they will present as an “authority” on the matter, and their reasoning will seem legit. It’s there in writing in the book that you’re studying. Pretty soon you’re sat down over tea and biscuits studying the Witnesses’ publications for an hour or more a week. Other objections, such as child sexual abuse being prolific in the organisation, will be brushed aside as “apostate lies”. Blood transfusions will be shelved until you’ve built up a “love for Jehovah and his high moral standards”, and at this point in your conversion, researching Jehovah’s Witnesses using anything other than Watch Tower literature will be highly discouraged. Why would you want to look elsewhere when you’ve discovered “the truth?”

Slowly, a sense of “us” and “them” will be introduced into your Bible studies. Your family doesn’t really love you. Not like your spiritual “brothers and sisters”. How could they? They are part of “Satan’s world”. Gaining eternal life involves sacrifice—even giving up your “worldly” family for Jehovah. But don’t worry! Your good example might get your family to convert too and then you’ll be able to live with them forever in paradise rather than for just a few short years in this life. We have such a wonderful hope for the future! 

Meanwhile, to keep you feeling special, and from asking too many awkward questions, you have a mission from God—a mission to “preach the good news”, because, let’s face it, now you know “the truth” it would be selfish not to share it, right? So you start repeating what you’ve been told to your friends and work colleagues. Then you agree to attend a meeting at the Kingdom Hall. You’re love-bombed from the outset. You feel part of a special group of people and before you know it you’ve “progressed” through becoming an unbaptised publisher and then dedicating your life to Jehovah. Baptised, Jehovah now owns you which actually translates to the organisation owning you and baptism is a permanent vow. You can’t change your mind later. That would be breaking your dedication promise which you made before an audience of hundreds or thousands at an assembly or convention.

So now your entire life is filtered through the “program”: What you wear; what you eat; what you drink; how much; what you watch on your telly; what music you listen to; what you read; who you associate with; how often you enjoy recreation; whether you grow a beard or not; whether you get a tattoo; how short your dress is; how tight your trousers are; what events you can or can’t celebrate.

Now, at first, it’s like learning to drive a car. You check and double-check  everything because it’s not second nature but you persevere because you’re assured that the end results are going to be worth it. You’re going to be living forever in paradise, and over time you gradually found you no longer have to question things because it becomes second nature. You start to think like a Jehovah’s Witness. You start to respond like a Jehovah’s Witness. You learn to trust that whatever you’re taught is truth.

So now someone offers you a cigarette and you say “No”, not because it’s unhealthy but because it’s a “defilement of the flesh” and Jehovah wouldn’t like it. You get asked to the office Christmas party or to contribute to a birthday cake for one of the workers and your subconscious response is, “No! That would be pagan. Jehovah wouldn’t like it.” You’re invited to watch a movie that has some “sexy scenes”. Now not only do you say “No” but you also report the “sister” who invited you to the congregation elders because, well, you “love” her and you don’t want her to die at Armageddon. Then a “brother” grows a beard and you decide to limit your association with him because he’s becoming “worldly”. After all, none of the governing body members have beards, do they? A beard means “not spiritual”, the same as a short skirt or tight trousers. Some of the responses we develop make just enough sense to keep the “truth wagon” on the road—we can kind of explain why we respond in a certain way, even providing Bible verses that back up our decisions as pleasing to God himself—but other choices make no sense at all, and that’s okay because the governing body has a “catch-all” net for when your inner voice says “Wait, what? Why?”

“Learn to trust those whom Jehovah and Jesus trust. At times, those appointed to take the lead may give direction that does not make sense to us. However, Jehovah blesses obedience… obedience saves lives… Doing so will strengthen your resolve to cooperate with organizational arrangements now and in the future. You will thus have no reason to fear the greater storm that is soon to come.​” — Watchtower (Study Edition) November, 2021 p. 23

Notice how they use fear as a motivator. You don’t want to be devoured by the “birds of heaven”, do you? And they slip under the radar this idea that Jehovah and Jesus trust the governing body—no evidence at all presented to that effect—they just do and, that being the case, unquestionably obeying the governing body even when what they say is non-sensical is now a good thing to be commended.  

Now, if you were one of those that read that quotation from The Watchtower when it was published and it didn’t set off alarm bells then it’s safe to say that at some point your subconscious mind has been hijacked. You’ve been successfully programmed—dare I say even brainwashed. What’s really scary here is that if you accuse one of Jehovah’s Witnesses of actually being brainwashed they may even reply, “Yes, I am, because my brain needed washing.” At that point, their mind is no longer their own. I’ve heard many a Jehovah’s Witness acknowledge proudly, “My mind belongs to Jehovah!” but does it? Does it belong to Jehovah, assuming Jehovah is indeed the Almighty Creator God? Are they really thinking “God’s thoughts” or have they subconsciously inherited a bunch of thoughts from a religious organisation that has, to quote The Watchtower again: “took them in hand at infancy [or even as adults], shielded them carefully from any teaching other than its own, and prescribed exactly what they must believe”? — Watchtower June 15, 1970 p. 357

Once a person is this “dedicated”, are they even allowed to think for themselves anymore? For example, once every few years Jehovah’s Witnesses are directed to sign a medical directive stating that they have made a “personal decision” to refuse blood transfusions. They sign this in the presence of two witnesses, usually congregation elders, and they countersign to say that the decision was made “without duress”, but was it? Was the person signing the medical directive allowed to have a different opinion? Was that ever a choice? What if, after reading the Bible and praying to God, they felt that blood transfusions were not only not wrong but actually a wonderful way of saving people’s lives? What would happen if they decided to have a blood transfusion or even to donate blood? To avoid legal ramifications Jehovah’s Witnesses will, of course, no longer disfellowship you if you accept blood but instead, they now say that you chose to disfellowship yourself—what’s known as disassociation—and as such you are “no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses”. After this announcement is made public at your Kingdom Hall every Jehovah’s Witness friend and family member you have ever known will be mandated to cut you off as if you were dead. How “without duress” is that?

And so, over time, the born-in Witness or the new convert who initially started off questioning what they were being taught slowly stops questioning and in the end begins to trust the organisation, to the point that anything they are told is now accepted as “the truth” even if it makes no sense at all. They may occasionally question what they’re being told, but they will quickly be reminded to “trust those whom Jehovah and Jesus trust”. Additionally, they will have grown so accustomed to being commended for “being obedient” or “showing humility” or “following theocratic direction” that when someone challenges them by saying they’re brainwashed they deny it. When an “opposer” accuses Watch Tower of protecting child abusers they will parrot Stephen Lett, “That’s ridiculous!” They will pride themselves on serving Jehovah out of free will as thinkers—except they’re not. They’re now programmed robots working from their subconscious.

Now I’m not excluding myself here. I myself was taken in from infancy and taught to be a Jehovah’s Witness. I was actually a very good Jehovah’s Witness I think for a number of years. I walked the walk, talked the talk. I pioneered straight from school. I gave up any hope of a career in this system of things because I believed Armageddon was coming before the generation that saw the First World War died. I progressed to becoming a ministerial servant, then an elder. Even when I was married with four children my wife and I pioneered. I gave public talks, delivered parts on elder’s schools, assemblies and conventions, and I honestly believed what I was teaching for many many years. I even partook of the memorial emblems for 17 years as one of the “anointed”. I was brainwashed and even after I realised I was brainwashed and figured out it was a cult—even after two disfellowshippings—I continued to think like a Jehovah’s Witness before finally, after  51 years I eventually managed to break free, not just physically but mentally. 

Self-delusion becomes the order of the day. Despite teaching that homosexuals will be killed by Jesus at Armageddon the JW convert is able to stare you in the eye and tell you he’s not homophobic. Despite teaching that “apostates”—those who leave the organisation and speak against it—are “mentally diseased”, “gangrenous”, and “Satanic”, they will vehemently deny that they engage in hate speech. Now everything is filtered subconsciously through Watchtower, through a religious organisation, through a cult. They’ve basically created their own “map of reality” and that, sadly, is where the story ends for most Jehovah’s Witnesses. Once converted they stay that way for the rest of their lives, slaving for a cult that has promised for over 150 years that the end is near and that paradise is around the corner, but it never has been. Every single Jehovah’s Witness who has ever lived and died has died disappointed with no guarantee they were good enough for paradise even if it did eventually come.
Once we understand how we started thinking like a Jehovah’s Witness we can begin tackling the challenging process of deprogramming and deconversion— we can learn how to think and process information without having our subconscious short-circuited.

Well, that’s all for this time. As always thank you for tuning in. I hope you can join me for part two of How to Stop Thinking Like a Jehovah’s Witness.