Are Jehovah's Witnesses a Cult?

Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult? A Psychologist Weighs In On Their June 2016 Broadcast

The Watchtower has a monthly broadcasting programme serving as a means of disseminating their teachings to many Jehovah’s Witnesses. Let’s take a critical look at the content from the perspective of a mental health professional. I express my thoughts here because I want to give ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses an alternative point of view to our previous indoctrination. I’m not in a position to engage with you in the comment section but hopefully this brief analysis might add to our shared understanding of what it was like to be one of Jehovah’s Witness. From my perspective, the June 2016 broadcast focused on the development of the cult personality, and stressed the importance of engaging in activities which result in isolating the participant from oneself and the world of people who do not subscribe to the ideas promoted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation.

Risks, Even for Children

During the June broadcasting programme it is implied that taking risks in order to get to places of worship is commendable. However, personal safety and the safety of the family take precedence over attending any gatherings or meetings. Making responsible decisions in terms of staying safe physically is an obligation of the parents on behalf of their children. Behaviour which puts children at risk of injury or accident should raise concerns of local child protection services.

Degrading Outsiders

In this broadcasting episode, people who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses are portrayed as selfish and isolating themselves. While it might not be healthy to find most of one’s social interaction online, it is also true that individuals now have access to an enormous amount of information online and people do use their phones to learn about the world they live in. Attributing to others the quality of selfishness is highly inappropriate. This creates an “us versus them” mentality which can only bring about trouble in getting along with others.

It is worth mentioning that this broadcasting episode makes clear that people who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses are manipulated by Satan. This is a potent message promoting distrust and fear of those outside the congregation. It is human nature to seek belonging to a group of peers at school or work. We are wired that way. Putting the sense of isolation from the world in the hearts of children will damage their interpersonal skills and deprive them of many occasions to develop socially, emotionally and intellectually.

Promoting Group-Think

I’m deeply suspicious of the idea of becoming one with a group of people who have just one thing in common, namely, their shared affiliation with a religious organisation. In normal circumstances, social support increases a personal sense of well-being and provides individuals and families with information useful in coping with the challenges of raising a family or negotiating conflicts in personal or professional life. Social support is good for the body, it facilities endocrine, cardiovascular and immune system functioning. To rely on friends for advice and support and to have a circle of friends who accept you for who you are is one thing, but to build a sense of identity based on total blending with the group is another, and a very troubling one.

The development of identity starts in childhood and is sometimes conceptualised as the functions of self-evaluation, self-regulation and self-knowledge. Self-evaluation involves opinions about oneself and emotions resulting from those opinions. Self-regulation refers to perceived ability to be in control of events and the usefulness of coping mechanisms and defensive strategies. Self-knowledge is how people describe themselves and their connection to the social group and the world in general in terms of trust, autonomy, initiative, group identity, their own identity, intimacy, productivity, integrity and meaning in life.

I think that someone who is asked to become one with the religious group or any group for that matter doesn’t have enough space and time to become what and who they are, aware of what matters to them, what their values are and what they want to accomplish outside of this group. Constricting the development of the sense of self to the parameters of the one truth distributed through media approved by one channel within the confines of one group can, and I believe will, have a debilitating effect on the development of the sense of self, self worth, positive adjustment and effectiveness in dealing with problems. The group identity should constitute only a part of the personal identity, and it is not to override and encompass the whole person.

The freedom to develop identity is especially important for adolescents. It has been found that adolescents go through a process in order to eventually attain a stable identity. From a time when parents make decisions, adolescents move to trying out different roles before settling on an identity.  The freedom to take on a different role means experimenting.  It is like putting a different costume on to feel what it is like to be a certain kind of person. This curiosity has to do with vocational, social, political and religious values and should be not only tolerated but encouraged in the family. Adolescents who inherit a script on who they should be without the freedom to move through a range of identities and without a real choice in the matter will experience a sense of living their lives as a lie. Those who were not offered time and space to get to know themselves will feel not true to their nature while going through the motions of activities approved by the group.

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All Jehovah’s Witnesses are feeling the same thing at their meetings, or so the religion would have you believe.

In the June broadcast it is stated that while a person is congregated with others at a meeting, they can look around and think that those present love Jehovah and support his sovereignty. This is an obvious generalisation and a false statement. It is impossible for everybody in the room to hold the same exact sentiment about god. They might be taught to think in a particular way, but it is in human nature to have one’s own perspective. Every person has a unique belief. They might not necessarily express it in the environment where uniformity is highly valued, but it is common for individual Jehovah’s Witnesses not to feel huge love for the deity they communally worship and not to be very content with the fact of being present at the group session.

Creating an impression that others feel a certain way about the organisationally prescribed beliefs and activities undermines the confidence of the individual in their assessment of the situation. If someone is sure that everybody else perceives something one way, they will be distrusting of their own judgement and inclined not to voice a perspective differing from the popular one.

Dictating Feelings

The June programme offers a ready-made recipe on how to interact with others at a meeting. Such occasions, occurring twice a week for a total of 4 hours (and commute time) should be viewed as an opportunity to strengthen and uplift others, as the program says. Well, what if someone is depressed and they feel like having nothing positive to say? What if actually a person feels that something is wrong with the group, but they are uncomfortable with voicing their objections for the fear of rejection? Such individuals are likely to find fault with themselves instead of thinking objectively about what exactly it is that bothers them about the group. Even more importantly, they might not learn an effective self-disclosure in the context of the group and never trust the group to not reject them for feeling a certain way, since the acceptable way of feeling is that of positive and up-building emotion.

35043de32dbe74012ea3b125c015d878Effective self-disclosure is necessary for forming intimate relationships. The primary experience of such safety comes through interactions with the caregivers. Still, in the context of a group,  anybody who feels that they have to show a particular set of emotions to fit in will have a hard time believing that they can show who they are deep down without anxiety about being accepted. Not measuring up to an expected way of being while at meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses can create or exacerbate feelings of guilt, shame, inferiority and alienation.

Cult-Like Repetition

The repetitiveness of a long bible psalm is highly praised in this episode. If an ancient chorus sang the same phrase 26 times in a row, this would have a meditative effect on the mind. Some types of meditations consist of a practise of repeating a mantra, which usually calms the mind to various degrees by reverting attention from the chatter of thoughts to the stillness of the mantra. The structure of the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses can be described as a process of repetitively regurgitating the statements and sentiments presented from the platform. This process results in a mind-numbing, hypnotic-like state, where individualistic thought processes are stopped and group-think is promoted.

This commentary of the June 2016 broadcasting highlights methods the Watchtower uses in order to manipulate the development of the personalities of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as putting the obligation to attend indoctrination sessions above personal safety, forming a cognitive framework aiming to mould people’s opinions about themselves and those who don’t belong to the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation, and the mind-numbing process of indoctrination, as well as the stifling of the normal development of individual identity.

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The June 2016 broadcast so you can hear it in its entirety:

https://tv.jw.org/#en/video/VODStudio/pub-jwb_201606_1_VIDEO

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Karuna, a Sanskrit word meaning any action taken to diminish the suffering of others, is the pen name of a former Jehovah’s Witnesses originally from Poland and now living in Ireland. Karuna received her Master’s degree in psychology while one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but left the organization after learning of their devastating “two witness” rule and other policies that put children in harm’s way. She is currently looking to continue her higher education and use her learning to help children who have been victims of abuse. JWvictims is deeply grateful for her contribution of this and future articles as well.

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3 replies »

  1. This is so true! And most JW’s don’t even realize it’s happening! Excellent article!

    “The structure of the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses can be described as a process of repetitively regurgitating the statements and sentiments presented from the platform. This process results in a mind-numbing, hypnotic-like state, where individualistic thought processes are stopped and group-think is promoted.”

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