Are Jehovah's Witnesses a Cult?

A Psychologist Dissects the July 2016 JW Broadcasting: The Danger of Justifying Your Actions as One of Jehovah’s Witnesses

The July online broadcast of Jehovah’s Witnesses focused on the importance of performing many varied duties in order to gain the governing body’s approval. (For non-JWs, the governing body is a group of seven men who make all decisions regarding the religion’s beliefs and practices.) It actually requires all this work as a tool so congregation members can become increasingly more devoted and obedient. How so?

Being There for Others

The broadcast makes clear that the congregation members are to know who needs support, for them to be there at the meetings or in the service (the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses); everybody else should visit the sick and also check on those who miss the meetings to find out whether a meal delivery or help around the house is required. While it’s commendable when someone checks on another congregant who may need assistance, this is a lot of responsibility placed on people who most likely have quite limited financial resources and energy themselves.

Elders have become a special target of constant pressure to work beyond their capacity. In this broadcast, elders were told to drain themselves out physically and emotionally. No protection in terms of monetary compensation or provision for health insurance for such hard work has once been mentioned.

Self-Congratulatory Thoughts, and Only Self-Congratulatory Thoughts

This strategy of constant prodding to do more for the Watchtower achieves two important results. The first outcome of such pressure is that people whose time is sucked into an overwhelming schedule then have less capacity to reflect critically about the information that is available to them. Active members of the congregation have limited mental energy available in order to process their own emotional and intellectual response to what they are absorbing from the platform and magazines each week. People in such a state are trapped in the vicious circle of doing more while thinking and feeling less, which keeps them perpetually involved with the routine.

doubtsSecondly, this type of excessive hardship directly secures the governing body with numbers of devoted members who convince themselves to stay in this never-ending vicious circle. This is a counter-intuitive idea, but quite often people tend to place more value on the things that they have to work hard for. This is how it goes: Jehovah’s Witnesses, just like people in general, like to think that they are sensible and competent individuals. When they engage in a painful and demanding process of securing a place in the congregation, they justify this choice by focusing on the good things about the group and ignoring the downsides.

This is a classic example of cognitive dissonance and self-justification in particular.  It would be a painful conclusion for any active Jehovah’s Witness that their choice is stupid, or that they are stupid to belong to a cult. It is easier for such individuals to conclude that their choice is a good one and the group they work for deserves their commitment.

Capture cultLooking Back

As past followers of the governing body, and I assume that most readers of this article probably are, we have to find a resolution to a disturbing fact, that we have belonged to a doomsday cult. How did that happen? How was it possible to stay in the group for as long as we did? “Am I really that stupid?”

The answer can lie in:

  • the deceptiveness of the recruitment process
  • the influence of mind control techniques
  • the destructive nature of emotional and physical coercion
  • the overpowering mechanisms of control of behaviour

What also is true though is that we were making ourselves attached more and more to the Jehovah’s Witnesses corporation by constantly justifying our decision to continue, by focusing on the positive aspects of the group and minimising the harm done to ourselves and others. This is a largely unconscious process, but nonetheless a powerful one. If you want to learn more about it, look for the book by Elliot Aronson “Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts” and his YouTube videos.

Moving Forward

Past members of the congregation might find it helpful to reconcile their choices in a self-compassionate way: “I’m a good person and I made the mistake of supporting a harmful cult.” This readiness to acknowledge bad judgment needs to go along with action to make amends and do something to undo the harm that resulted from obedience to the group’s demands.

However, there is also a lesson to be learned: a readiness to examine justifications for future decisions. The question that all ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses need to continuously ask is, “Are the decisions I’m making today justifying my previous choices, or are they truly based on my values?” or, “Have I gathered enough information to make up my mind, or am I just trying to justify my preconceived ideas?”

In the Jehovah’s Witnesses theology, providing the governing body with hard work for many decades is not enough to secure their approval. Jehovah’s Witnesses are led to believe that serving the organisation for many decades is only valuable if they do it to the end. Nobody knows when the end will be so in such a scenario; there is never a good moment to quit association with the congregation because the date of the final judgment is both elusively near and yet ever distant. But, to help Jehovah’s Witnesses stay motivated, they are reminded that time flies if you are having fun, where fun is defined as fulfilling the governing body’s quota of activities.

To drive this point home, a psychological study was quoted. The researchers who conducted it concluded that, indeed, desiring to pursue or approach something makes time go faster.  However, what this broadcast fails to acknowledge is an intended application of this finding.  The researchers found out that “states high in approach motivation make us feel like time is passing quickly because they narrow our memory and attention processes, helping us to shut out irrelevant thoughts and feelings. This perceived shortening of time may help us to persist for longer periods of time in pursuing important adaptive goals, including food, water, and companionship.” See this website for more information.

Anybody who has a spare minute to look the study up will find that the application of its results for promoting cult activities is dishonest. The researchers narrowed the usefulness of this explanation of “time flies when you’re having fun” to activities such as pursuit of food, drink and companionship, all being survival and hedonistic activities; they did not apply it to long-term commitment to a highly controlling group.

mistakeIn response to the July episode of the broadcast, probably a few obvious things need to be stated in conclusion. The message of this installment can distort the idea of love, so maybe we as individuals need to find out what it’s like to never let any corporation take the place of our mother, father, child or friend, what it’s like to be loved for who and what we are without having to buy or earn approval by doing things for others, and what it’s like to find our answer to the question of pain in the world and act according to our conscience and conviction. Maybe the best part of finding out what matters to us in life is that we don’t have to stick to something just because we believed in it in the past, or because someone else said so. Now we have the freedom to read, think, speak, ask questions, and find out information before forming an opinion, and not for the purpose of convincing ourselves that the choice we made was a good one or that we were right.

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Below is the July broadcast in its entirety; the discourse mentioned above begins about the 8:10 mark.

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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 Witness 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 contributions.

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