Joining the Club

A New Perspective On Getting People Out of Cults

by Randall Watters

Q. What do you feel is the most common barrier a person faces in communicating with Jehovah's Witnesses?

A. Understanding the whole cult phenomena. The main problem is not that they are brainwashed. They don't have demons. Generally speaking, they have, in effect, joined an exclusive club that has, as part of its initiation, the adoption of a peculiar world view, a set of glasses through which they look at life. In order to be a part of that club, they are forced to abandon any previous model of reality they may have entertained.

Q. Can you give an example?

A. A woman notices her new neighbor leaving the house all dressed up and her kids obediently going with her. It's Sunday and they're going somewhere, presumably to church. She later talks to this new Jehovah's Witness neighbor, begins a friendship and finds out that Jehovah's Witnesses appear to be the friendliest people she has ever met. She has recently gone through a divorce and its subsequent loneliness, has two kids of her own and she has no direction to turn to. She feels helpless and vulnerable. She contrasts her life with that of her new neighbor who is confident about the future, has many pleasant friends, well-behaved children and seemingly all the answers to life's problems. Who wouldn't find it an appealing contrast, finding themselves in a similar situation?

Q. But, it's not real... I mean, it's a cult, and they're really under mind control!

A. Well in a very primal sense, the cult lifestyle and worldview represents reality or at least becomes reality to them. If you're able to overlook the initial doubts and logical objections, the system "works," at least for many, and for a time. For those in desperate or despondent situations, that kind of success represents a powerful drug, a drug so strong that it motivates a person to accept this new worldview and its accompanying behaviors as a viable solution, quickly overcoming any contrary evidence in order to partake of this drug.

Q. Are you saying that joining a cult is like getting addicted to a drug?

A. In a sense, yes. Drugs are more commonly used to alleviate pain (either physical or emotional), more so than for pleasure. In fact, when drugs are used primarily for pleasure they tend to be much less addictive than when used to alleviate pain, because there is usually a relatively healthy (or at least stable) frame of mind to return to when the experience is over. Contrast this with the situation where a person is very unhappy with life and will use almost anything that "works" to alleviate or mask that unhappiness. This is where one's religious belief CAN be the ultimate drug, because it is not as subject to the law of diminishing returns as are physical drugs. One can maintain this altered frame of mind indefinitely with the right type of reinforcement program. Once an unhappy person is able to taste of this "new" way of looking at things and sees the contrast with the old way, logic and objectivity will hold a lesser sway in their decision-making process. The "new solution" will be chosen readily, and any conflicting evidence is often dismissed in the decision-making process. When the new recruit discovers they can live in this new mindset all the time with practice, and especially if they don't have to suffer any accompanying feelings of guilt as are associated with the use of physical drugs, they are quick to abandon the old mindset with its behaviors. The unhappy former world, with its "lobbyists" (Christians, family members, workmates) who have not been effective in alleviating their pain thus far, is seen as not only less-than-desirable, but perhaps even demonic by contrast.

Q. Wow! So the reason a person often joins a cult against all sound advice from others is because of its seemingly miraculous ability to change their life for the better, and fairly quickly. It's a new social setting that works for them as well, a new family, if you will, whereas the old family, the old social life has failed. It has not made them happy.

A. Precisely. Most all the persons who became Jehovah's Witnesses that I've talked to over the years (regarding their initial struggle in deciding whether the Watchtower represented the "truth" or not) admit that they did have many troubling questions about the Watchtower, but were quick to resolve their doubts once they got actively involved in Witness activities, where they see and experience the results of this new life-style. If you are all of a sudden able to quit smoking or using drugs, improve your health and manner of dress, and not be as troubled about world conditions, the critics of the Watchtower are easily dismissed as "disgruntled opposers." This is really true in any cult environment. Once the new recruit crosses the line of active participation and group socialization, any conflicting data is easily dismissed. "It works for me, and that proves it must be right," is the typical feeling. They want it to be true! They NEED it to be true. I did.  There's also something appealing in the idea that God (Jehovah) really HAS given man all the answers, and that He is thoughtful enough to put them all down in a pretty, innocent little book that's easy to read and understand.

Q. And the book is free, too (ha ha)?

A. Yes, and so is  the "home Bible study" offered. There is the real power behind the conversion of one's world view to that of the cultic mindset. Life is simpler and more manageable, even if much more is required in the way of effort than before. Those teaching the new recruit are well aware that their view of life must fully envelope the mind of the new recruit as much as possible during their initial stage of doubt (or, dissonance, as it is called), so that the "right" decision will be made. They must decide between the "fallen world of mankind who doesn't know God" and the "New World Society of Jehovah's Witnesses." The following "lenses" are placed over the recruit's eyes early in the indoctrination process:

Q. Wait a minute, though... Don't Christians sometimes use that technique to gain converts?

A. Some do, which I think is unfortunate and damaging, because it portrays God as being some sort of politician who is trying to win a person over to his side, and who uses phobia indoctrination and haste as his primary techniques. These are ploys used only by the insecure and powerless, certainly not befitting an all-wise, all knowing Creator who loves His people. If persons are converted in this manner, their view of God is certainly warped and unhealthy, and is not even representative of the ministry of Jesus or of the apostles. It kind of reminds me of the "Jack Chick" tract approach, which in my opinion breeds a mindset of fear, suspicion and mistrust of anyone who has a more healthy view of life. These people love to preach the fires of hell, the elaborate and conspiratorial works of Satan, and the impending doom of the world, attempting at every move to put a rain cloud over the heads of people who might ordinarily consider the gospel of Christ as good news which brings joy, healing and deliverance. With cults, the message is purported to be good news, but is really more bad news.

It's a mystery to me why this type of evangelization is so often tolerated in the churches, since this limited view of God's power and love is so easily adopted by others who listen to them. Jesus directed all his negative sermons to the lost, not to potential converts. True, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict, but the primary message of the gospel is that of life and healing and victory. Another example of this phenomena occurs in many of the so-called "deliverance" ministries which claim that Christians can have demons or be "demonized," and who quickly replace the joy of Christ in the believer with fear and suspicion so that a person is always watching their backside. We shouldn't need rear-view mirrors. I don't see that in the Bible.

Q. So during this critical period of their indoctrination, where they are being coerced into attending all the meetings (Public Talk, Watchtower Study and Tuesday night book-study) as well as to continue their "home Bible study," isn't that the most important time to present them with evidence of the dishonesty and faulty reasoning of the Watchtower?

A. Yes, but keep in mind what we just discussed. If they see you as part of that old world, that old "system" that doesn't work for them, and the Jehovah's Witnesses as something that (so far) does seem to work for them, you may actually contribute to their indoctrination! You may represent, in their minds, part of the world they are trying to escape. If they've had bad experiences with the churches or other Christians, and they class you as part of the same system, you will turn them off regardless of the mountains of evidence you produce for them. If you are a member of this old social system that has contributed to their unhappiness or emotional distress, YOU may represent part of what they are trying to escape! In such a case, you would actually be assisting in their alienation process. It reminds of when I first starting going door-to-door and Christians would literally chase me off their property--it only confirmed in my mind that we had the TRUTH and they didn't.

Q. A number of active Witnesses that I've talked to say that they really DID check things out before they decided to join the Witnesses. They say they investigated the Watchtower fully before making a commitment. But what you're saying is that they really come under some kind of a spell, some kind of mind control that is not their fault, some greater power or irresistible force.

A. No, I believe that is a misunderstood ("straw man") model of the cult phenomena. Modern cults do not brainwash people. They offer them a model of reality that appears to work for a large number of people. In effect they are saying, "Come join our club! It works!" You look around and see all of these seemingly happy, smiling faces and say to yourself, "Well, I guess it does work, it must be the truth!" You now make the fatal mistake of trusting them on that basis. You have been duped into trust, without examining their history, their truthfulness in representing others or the ethics of their recruitment techniques. You are more apt to believe them than say, The Encyclopedia Britannica or the early Church fathers or ex-members of their "club," because none of these persons has gained any of your trust. It's kind of like having a new neighbor that invites you over and makes a big impression with their hospitality and generosity, and then you find yourself sitting down with them to a discussion of something that you know nothing about. You are much more apt to believe what they have to say due to their having already gained your trust. If a stranger walked in the room and offered opposing evidence to what they were saying, they would not be as readily received. You and I are like such strangers to them. Why should they believe us?

Also, cults go a step further in conditioning you NOT TO BELIEVE ANYONE ELSE, injecting fear and mistrust into the mind like powerful drugs. Those who say they have "checked everything out" before they joined usually did make an attempt to check a few things out, but when it came down to trusting what the Watchtower said versus what "Joe Apostate" said, they choose the Watchtower, for it has been very kind to them thus far. I went through that process, as did my family. My sister and brother-in-law, whom I was attempting to convert to the Witnesses, had even attended a Trinity Lutheran Church where the Witnesses were preached against almost weekly, but the changes they saw in me blinded them to all the intelligent evidence their pastor attempted to show them proving that the Watchtower was wrong. Actions (in the form of personal results) speak louder than words, but not all changes in behavior represent true Christianity.

There is a difference between an objective consideration of the facts, and a subjective consideration. Objective means fair, in that you have considered all the evidence without bias (with no predetermined conclusion), whereas subjective means that you have been somewhat selective in the facts you choose to consider, and/or are being emotionally primed towards a certain outcome. In a court of law, for instance, certain types of jurists may not be allowed in certain trials, due to likely prejudice towards or against the person on trial. Likewise, if you are already enjoying all the social and psychological "benefits" of association with Jehovah's Witnesses, i.e., going to meetings, fellowship, going door-to-door, etc., you are much less likely to be fair in weighing any evidence that would incriminate the Watchtower organization. Anyone who objectively considers even half of the information critical of the Watchtower that is available would find it very hard to become a Jehovah's Witness. So new recruits are partly responsible for their own deception by not being objective, though few are really aware of their error. They WANT it to be right, they want to believe that God does have all the answers and that these are his people, so they play down the bad and highlight the good (with help from the Witnesses, of course!).

Q. What about those who are born into the religion?

A. Those born into or raised early on as Jehovah's Witnesses are heavily persuaded that it's the only true religion from the start, and any doubt is equated with sin or personal pride. They may not have ever considered any alternate views regarding the truthfulness of the Watchtower, depending on their level of isolation from the outside world. They do not have another view of reality with which to compare. Parents are quite effective at controlling the minds of their children as to which thoughts are acceptable and unacceptable, and what emotions are acceptable/unacceptable. "Correct" behaviors are taught, incorrect behaviors are discouraged. The selection of reading material is usually carefully guarded. This is "mind control," whether one views it as proper for parents to use or not. For the young one raised in the Watchtower organization, it would require them to intelligently entertain the views of others before they could begin to understand the degree of bias present in their own indoctrination. This usually occurs in the teen years, with the result that many children turn away from the Watchtower.

Q. What you say sounds true, but I don't see a big difference between their kind of coercive persuasion and that used by many Christians within their own families.

A. That's true. But I don't fault the Bible for that, or even the churches necessarily. I think it represents a failure on our part in allowing God to win his own battles. Deep down, maybe we are afraid that what we believe might NOT be true, or at least that the supportive evidence is not as strong as we think, so we don't allow ourselves to entertain doubts or to question our own world view. If that's the way we feel, we certainly won't encourage our kids to do so! I have to ask myself, "Am I willing to accept new conclusions if the evidence doesn't confirm what I believe?" Would I trust my own intuitions and perceptions over some kind of dogmatism enforced by fear and the social pressure of others? That's a hard decision for anyone to make. We're sometimes not willing to risk the mental state of not having all of life's answers, so we stay away from the edge of the "abyss" by not thinking about it.

Unlike most Christians, I'm forced to that edge continually in dealing with cults and demonstrating their logical and historical fallacies. If you're going to be honest with the beliefs of someone else, you have to be honest with your own. There are some things you just don't have answers for. Will I pretend that I do, to give others that extra confidence in me? Ethically, I can't, so I wrestle with God at times over this issue. The teachings of Christ "work for me" in my life in many tangible ways, including answers to prayer and in God's grace and watchfulness over me. But how does that make me different than the Jehovah's Witness or the Mormon in whose life their own religions "works"?

I think the answer lies in our view of God and our understanding of His grace (1 John 4:16-19). I have always believed that truth will stand up to the test. Truth is not afraid of investigation. It's not afraid of science, and it's not afraid of criticism. Nor is it afraid of people. God must be big enough to weather such storms.

Cults, on the other hand, are paranoid. They resist investigation or criticism. They will not engage in public debate, for fear their dirty laundry and shabby techniques will be exposed. They have their own collective organizational egos; they can be offended, they are proud, they are exclusive. They are SUPERCLUBS, social cliques that have taken themselves far too seriously, and have dues and rites to join, and rituals to maintain. They cannot be lived alone; they are only "true" when experienced collectively, their reality disintegrates in isolation. Unlike Christianity, cultic systems require constant reinforcement to be accepted as "truth." Christianity, on the other hand, is not really an organized "system." It is a Person, a Person who is timeless.

"When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you've ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate and understanding person you've ever met, and then you learn that the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true!  Don't give up your education, your hopes and ambitions to follow a rainbow" - Jeanne Mills, former member of the People's Temple and subsequent victim of assasination a year following the Nov. 18, 1978 Jonestown suicides/murders of 911 adults and children.

back to Psychological Issues
back to Free Minds Home Page