reprint of the Jul/Aug 1990 Bethel Ministries Newsletter

Understanding Watchtower Phobias

How and Why the Watchtower Uses Fear to Control Its Members

by Randall Watters

Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.
Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862

phobia. [Gr. phobos, fear.] any persistent, irrational, and excessive fear of some particular thing or situation. (Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 1983)

People who have struggled with phobias understand how immune such phobias can be to logical analysis. Like the recurrent nightmare of fleeing a hideous monster, it never seems to sink in that monsters don't exist. The irrational fears continue to plague the victim.

While nightmares are transitory and often forgotten in the morning, other fears, some just as potent, lie in the consciousness of people even during their waking hours. Fear of heights, dogs, being closed in a room, etc. regularly traumatize people, affecting their lifestyle.

Relatively little attention is given to religious fears, however. It is apparent that manipulative minds can readily distort the scriptures in order to produce feelings of fear, guilt, remorse and even hysteria. The followers of Jim Jones and Ayatollah Khomeini can attest to that. What is surprising is that often the victims are aware of their paranoia and know it to be destructive, but feel powerless to overcome it.

This is especially true among Jehovah's Witnesses. Not satisfied with scripture alone, the Watchtower has added much commentary to the Bible, comprising a "Talmud" of rules and prohibitions involving smoking, holidays, etc. which create unnecessary fear of disobedience and finally guilt.

Why does the Watchtower insist on carefully interpreting almost all matters of conduct for their followers? Furthermore, why do Witnesses comply with all the rules, even when they may entertain doubts that the rules originate with God?

To answer the first question, the motives of the Watchtower must be understood. They intend no malice to their followers, but believe they are seeking their best interests. By ordering the lives of almost four million Witnesses around clearly-defined standards of conduct, they believe this will thereby be pleasing to God and He will grant them eternal life. What the Watchtower does not comprehend is that they share the same feelings and convictions as did the Pharisees in Jesus' day. By developing an extensive commentary on scripture, the Pharisees made rulings in all matters of life. Jesus said of them, "They tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger." (Matt. 23:4) This doesn't mean they failed to keep their own laws, as much as it means they enjoined a moral law on their followers while avoiding a change of heart towards mercy and justice themselves. (Matt. 23:23) Jesus condemned them for their failure to come to repentance, in spite of keeping their laws. (John 5:39, 40)

As with legalism, phobias are a form of manipulation. Like the parent who scares the bedwetting child with horror stories of what happens to children who wet their beds, so there are religious organizations who resort to phobia indoctrination rather than appealing to their followers through love and mercy.

While the reasons phobia indoctrination is used are largely explained by the effort to control others' actions and behavior, understanding the victim's plight is more complex.

Often those who seek out legalistic religious sects are victims of phobias implanted long ago in their minds. The child who is taught by his parents to fear life, people, marriage, or success will find solace in a religion that preaches doomsday and engenders a persecution complex in its members. Like the codependent mate of the alcoholic, he seeks not what he needs in order to escape the abusive pattern, but what is already comfortable to him. Though hard to believe, phobias and mind control can feel "comfortable" to those addicted to them, due to long-term familiarity.

Phobias can be treated with success, but they must be recognized by the victim, and the victim needs counseling in most cases.

Typical Watchtower Guilt Trip

"Some who were at one time progressing toward dedication later may seem to be holding back. If they do not have enough love for God in their heart to make an unreserved dedication to him, they ought to ask themselves whether they still have the wonderful privilege of prayer. Apparently not, because those approaching God must be earnestly seeking him and also righteousness and meekness. (Zephaniah 2:3) Everyone who really fears Jehovah is a believer who makes a dedication to God and symbolizes it by getting baptized. (Acts 8:13; 18:8) And only baptized believers have an unrestricted privilege of approaching the King Eternal in prayer." (The Watchtower, May 15, 1990, p. 12)

Should Christians Counsel Those In Cults?

Answering Non-Christians and Mental Health Professionals

Those who study religious cults from a psychological or behavioral perspective (especially non-Christians) will sooner or later be confronted with the question, "Should Christians counsel those in cults? Don't Christians themselves use mind control on people?" Critics of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity charge that the Bible fosters a persecution complex, unnaturally focuses on sin and guilt, and demands strict rules of conduct, producing low self-esteem and personal failure.

While most Christians would deny using mind control techniques to gain converts or counsel others, some respond by saying, "We are using a form of positive mind control, from God!" This answer may satisfy a few Christians, but will probably not convince too many people outside the churches. Groups such as Fundamentalists Anonymous often accuse the more zealous churches of being powerful sources of guilt and fear, and reply that one cannot just "walk away" from their belief structure without lasting psychological harm.

Shifting Viewpoints

I will first consider the typical viewpoint among mental health professionals towards Christianity. Then, I will focus on the renewed interest in traditional moral values among non-Christians as well as Christians.

Most sociologist/psychologists tend to evaluate religions based on how far they deviate from the "norm" in terms of socially acceptable behavior and beliefs. Churches or organizations that question or oppose current moral trends in society are automatically viewed as aberrational or even destructive. Picketing abortion clinics, boycotting movies, evangelization campaigns and campaigning for the allowance of prayer in school or the teaching of creation as an optional curriculum are seen as extremist activities by many professionals.

This kind of prejudice is open motivated by the failure to discern between cultic mind control and social activism. It may be based on negative personal experiences with religious people. Additionally, there are those who are strongly opposed to traditional moral restraints, and religion becomes a key target.

There are valid reasons for skepticism among psychologists. Phony faith healers, wild-eyed visionaries, charismatic leaders and hucksters can be found in Christian churches, as in all religions. Some Christian churches are borderline cults themselves, with leaders exerting more than necessary influence (as well as guilt and condemnation) on their flocks. The shepherding/discipling movement has been operative for years in many churches and organizations, promoting obedience to an assigned "shepherd" who may enforce all manner of rules on the victim, such as who to talk to or date or marry, etc.

However, while Christians may feel that the professional world is against their values, many are not aware of the shift in attitudes among many psychologists. In recent years certain experts, including the non-religious and atheistic, have challenged many of the traditional Freudian attitudes in psychotherapy. Researchers like William Glasser and Garth Wood have found greater success with behavior therapy and honoring more traditional values including sexual morality, honesty and self-sacrifice than with older Freudian theories. Through research, they have demonstrated positive results accompanied by greater self-respect when their patients follow their own positive moral values.

An Open Agenda or a "Hidden" Agenda?

The Bible openly encourages evangelism, being separate from the world in attitude and action, and standing up for what is morally right in a society that has an ever-changing moral foundation. Christians are sometimes persecuted for not "changing with the times." It is part of their inherent value system. Non-Christians sometimes criticize Christians for pushing their values on others.

The truth is that most of us are salesmen in one way or another. We try to sell others on our lifestyle, products, attitudes and/or beliefs. We expect salesmanship in all areas of life, whether it be advertising, marketing, political campaigns and even religious persuasion. Most of us believe that what we have is the best thing going, and it is not wrong to attempt to convince others. We have an "agenda," or cause, with which to influence others for good, and whether we be Christians or non-Christians our value systems will naturally influence our counseling of others.

The question arises, "When might the counselor's agenda (including their religious persuasion) become an undesirable form of mind control?"

While all may agree that truthfulness is important, opinions would vary widely as to how much we need to disclose about ourselves and our values to others. If someone comes to our door asking how much money we make, where our spouse works and their hours, and what are our children's names, we may deny them the information without being dishonest. But other situations are not so clear, especially when we seek to convert someone over to our view without telling them that view in advance. Then we are using a "hidden agenda."

Cults are very good at using the hidden agenda. They will lie about the history of their organization, the failure of their prophecies, the moral lives of their leaders, and much of their doctrine that they may feel is too "strong" for you to hear all at once. By lying or failing to disclose vital information, they are controlling information. Cults will also use fear and guilt to manipulate others into a desired course of action and they will attempt to control the emotions of their members.

Allen E. Bergin discussed the obligation upon mental health professionals to disclose their values to their patients (see "Psychotherapy and Religious Values"). But what about Christians? Should Christians inform those they counsel of their value system? What if it may differ slightly from that of other Christians? Shouldn't the results of the Christian lifestyle be open to criticism and verification? How might Christians use mind control in counseling others?

There are two areas in which a Christian may be unethical in counseling others. One is the presenting of Christianity as "the truth," to be accepted without question and reinforcing it by fear and guilt. The second is where the Christian presents their own personal opinion as absolute truth on an issue that is vague in the Bible.

How Christianity Should Appear

Christians believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Christians should not be ashamed of this, if they truly believe it. Embarrassment is usually a sign of insincerity or yielding under social pressure. Yet neither is it a good sign when a Christian resorts to bluster and intimidation to prove their point. This is an attempt to pressure people into submission, rather than to win their hearts and minds with sound reasoning.

There are several good reasons why not to use manipulative techniques to gain converts to the faith. Note the following points:

God desires us to make decisions of our own free will. Ours should be an educated choice, so that we can explain the reason for their faith to others.

When people later discover we have not told the whole truth or purposely hid something from them due to a hidden agenda, they will not trust us and may reject Christianity altogether. (1 Peter 3:16,17)

Christians who resort to bluster and deception make the Church as a whole look bad, as outsiders cannot easily make distinctions between the honest and the dishonest. (Rom. 2:23,24)

Using deception and manipulation indicates a lack of faith in the power and efficacy of the truth in the lives of believers. and makes God appear deceptive.

Leading on to Maturity

Being honest about one's motives is the mark of a mature Christian. In turn, there will be a sincere desire to pass on such maturity to others. Mind control tactics will be abhorred, knowing that God desires those who follow him to have a free will and to make an educated decision. Yet the Christian need not shrink from influencing others by his values, as long as such values are made known. In situations such as exit-counseling, a Christian needs to be particularly careful not to take advantage of the patient's confusion and vulnerability to influence them towards a decision that they would not normally make if possessing a sound frame of mind. The use of such techniques almost always backfires, with the result that the patient may later see Christians as clever opportunists, and their methods as a form of mind control.

In summary, Christians can be good counselors. They need to be honest in their presentation of what the Bible says, not reading into it their own personal opinions. Nor should they use blustering in their argumentation. Their lifestyle should demonstrate their faith as well.

In my personal experience, the Holy Spirit prepares the hearts of people to receive the Word of Christ. God has chosen those who are His before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4,5). When I begin to counsel people, I can soon tell if they are really interested in knowing God or not. ##

Psychotherapy and Religious Values

In 1980 the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology printed a paper by Allen E. Bergin on the subject, "Psychotherapy and Religious Values." Bergin demonstrates certain values inherent in modern psychotherapy that often go unrecognized, but are nevertheless part of the "agenda" of the therapist. He presents them in six thesis, which include the following points

The psychotherapist's own values (i.e., humanistic philosophy) are a pervasive part of psychotherapy. They must start with a philosophy of human nature as a basis for measuring which changes are desirable or undesirable in a person. For instance, if a patient obtains a divorce, is this to be regarded as a desirable or undesirable change? If the patient turns from homosexuality to pursue heterosexuality, how are such changes to be evaluated? Every aspect of psychotherapy presupposes some implicit moral doctrine.

Two approaches to therapy are dominant in the professional world, neither of which includes religious values. One seeks to conform the person to the dominant society surrounding them, the other to humanistic ideals and philosophy. Bergin comments: "An examination of 30 introductory psychology texts turned up no references to the possible reality of spiritual factors (in influencing behavior). Most did not have the words God or religion in their indexes." ("Psychotherapy and Religious Values", Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1980, Vol. 48, No. 1, p. 98) Since surveys indicate that about 90% of the U.S. population express belief in God and 30% express strong belief, one must ask why such a pervasive need for spiritual values is ignored in psychotherapy.

There is a significant contrast between the values of mental health professionals and most of their clients. For example, in reply to the statement, "Some sex before marriage is good," all 19 mental health professionals at the New York Metropolitan Hospital agreed, but only half the patients agreed. Obviously, professionals do advocate their own value systems, i.e. they have an agenda whether they admit it or not.

It would be honest and ethical for psychologists to acknowledge their own value systems to their clients and to be more explicit about their beliefs, while respecting the value systems of their clients. As Bergin admits, "Sometimes, as professionals, we follow the leaders of our profession or our graduate professors in assuming that what we are doing is professional without recognizing that we are purveying under the guise of professionalism and science our own personal value systems." (ibid., p. 102, italics ours)

It is the obligation of professionals to attempt to test the effectiveness of following their value systems. These values should be subject to criticism and verification within their own culture.

Bergin received an overwhelming response, and two replies by mental health professionals (Albert Ellis, Inst. for Rational-Emotive Therapy: New York and Gary B. Walls, Miami Univ.) were subsequently printed. Though Ellis and Walls disagreed with some of Bergin's categories and his theism, they did not attempt to deny the major points just outlined, and agreed there is a need to be more honest and objective in psychotherapy as to one's value system.

Is Christianity a Destructive Cult?

Non-Christians as well as the cults may reject any effort by the Christian to use Bible doctrine as a criteria for determining what is a cult. Furthermore, some cults have sound orthodox doctrine but abuse their members emotionally and spiritually. It is therefore important to make a distinction between doctrine and technique. As far as doctrine goes, a church or organization can be judged as either Christian or non-Christian, orthodox or heretical by doctrinal statements, but their proselytizing and training methods should determine whether they are a cult.

Steven Hassan, author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, lists four basic marks of mind control cults. They are listed below, along with my own clarifying comments. The advantage of using these as a criteria for what is/is not a cult is that they will likely be acceptable to both Christian and non-Christian. Using this as a foundation, the practices of a church or organization can be examined according to these four criteria. Other similar criteria can be used as well, such as Robert J. Lifton's eight points of mind control, as outlined in his Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.

Emotional Control

FEAR and GUILT is the key in emotional control, often called phobia indoctrination. The cult member develops the paranoia that Satan is out to get him if he questions the organization or leaves for any reason, and that he will die at Armageddon, etc. He or his family may also die a horrible death if he leaves.

Behavior Control

All kinds of peculiar rules, dress codes and standards of conduct (not specified in the Bible) are impressed upon the member. Certain movies, music, dancing, etc. are usually prohibited. New behavior models are enforced, such as going door-to-door, attending several meetings a week, new attitudes towards dissidents, etc. The cultist is made to feel both special yet persecuted for his beliefs.

Thought Control

Loaded language is used (terms peculiar to the group), such as (in Jehovah's Witnesses) new system, theocratic, God's organization, anointed, the truth, apostates, etc. Thought-stopping techniques prevent entertaining wrong thoughts about the organization that might lead to healthy doubts. Everything becomes black and white; the organization is good and all else is bad. There are answers to all your questions-no need to think for yourself.

Control of Information

Members are denied access to information critical of the organization. The member is kept busy reading their own literature and attending instructional meetings. Secrecy is maintained in formulating policies and in disclosing finances. Several levels of knowledge may exist within the pyramid structure of the cult. Information is kept from outsiders as well, giving a more benign appearance to the public. The victim of a cult develops a paranoia that the devil is out to get him/her if they do not continue in the group and follow its dictates. The members are led to believe they are not capable of using their own mind to discover what is right and wrong, but must instead follow the organization.

Note: The Following Phobias May Be Hazardous to Your Health!

Fear of doubt

Witnesses often go through a real struggle with doubt in the beginning, and must suppress information contrary to the Watchtower. They soon learn to dismiss the doubts, but rarely resolve the discrepancies in their minds. Therefore, whenever something triggers doubt once more, or whenever their belief system is threatened, they get scared. It is based on doctrine rather than relationship with God. Doubt causes extreme anxiety and all effort will be made to avoid putting the self into situations where doubt may arise.

Fear of leaving the organization

Perhaps the greatest fear of all among Witnesses, due to the radical change it will make in their mental and social well-being. Not only does the Witness suppose he will suffer extreme guilt, shame and suicidal feelings, but he knows he will lose all of his JW friends, and any family members in the organization will refuse to speak to him. The JW's worst suspicions about himself and his inherent depravity will be confirmed. The likelihood is that Armageddon will come while he is disfellowshiped. The Witness believes he will have nowhere to go, and will live the rest of his life miserable and lonely.

Fear of success

Witnesses are told that to pursue a career in this system of things is dangerous, as IT will subject them to all sorts of distractions, mainly the love of money. The Witness is often made to feel guilty for pursuing a higher education, since their time is better spent going door-to-door in the "short time remaining" before the end of this wicked old system. If you already have money or a good education, one of two behaviors will be manifested towards you, depending on the spirit of your congregation. Either they will treat you with disdain for being so "materialistic," or they will look up to you as a fine example of someone who has power in the world and yet is successful in "the truth," which is supposedly also a good witness to others outside the organization. Many double standards!

Fear of "worldly" people

Since only "Jehovah's people" will be saved, all others will be destroyed at Armageddon. Regardless of how religious or God fearing outsiders may appear, they are "worldly" towards you, and are "bad associations." They will corrupt the good morals of the JW, and will be used by the devil to make inroads into the JW mind with doubts about the organization and will cause them to slack off in the witnessing work.

Fear of learning

Witnesses are cautioned not to "go beyond the things that are written," which is interpreted as meaning that they are not to think thoughts that the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses has not thought yet, or thoughts that may be contrary to Watchtower doctrine or policy. Thought-stopping techniques are used to avoid thinking thoughts that would bring on more doubt or increase the JW's internal dissonance (see the Jul/Aug 1987 issue of the Bethel Ministries Newsletter on "How and Why Someone Becomes a JW").

The Witness is taught that higher education will result in "higher criticism of the Watchtower truths and a rejection of the authority of the Organization. Reading books not published by the Watchtower will put a person in danger of being influenced by other's wrong beliefs, and will lead to the pollution of the "pure language" spoken by Jehovah's people.

Fear of the devil

The devil is the one who unexpectedly tried to thwart God's purposes in the Garden of Eden, and has succeeded in giving God a complex. God cannot destroy the devil, for the angels would be concerned of his motives. He is in a bind, and must allow the devil to work out his plan. Since God is limited by the devil, the devil is seen as having a degree of power over the JW and is often feared.

Fear of close friendships

A sad feature of JW relationships is the encouragement by the leadership to spy on one's brothers, and if anything is unbecoming in their lives, they are to be confronted or turned in to the elders, or both (usually it is simultaneous). There is a "pecking order" in the organization, with the Governing Body on top, followed by Bethel workers and Circuit and District overseers, then the local elders, then the pioneers and ministerial servants, and the "publishers" on the bottom (women being least favored). Since confidences cannot officially be kept, and personal struggles admitted only at great risk of being chastised or "counseled," Witnesses cannot confide in their own, but ironically turn to non-Witnesses for confidences.

Fear of "apostates"

Those that leave the organization (for any reason) are described in the vilest of terms. They are "proud and egotistical, hating authority, liars, deceivers and fornicators" and generally feared by the JWs. They will take extreme measures to avoid even making eye contact with ex-JWs, and may move their residence.

Fear of God

The Watchtower may paint a kindly picture of God in their publications, but in practice God is austere and exacting once you are baptized. Salvation is never secure, and JWs can only believe they are saved on a momentary basis. Since a relationship with Christ is not promoted and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not taught, the believer receives no true joy of fellowship with God. Pride of personal and organizational accomplishments and the spirit of elitism fills the void.

Fear of Armageddon

Though death is seen as annihilation by the WT, there are special indignities visited upon those not fully immersed in organizational activities when the end comes. Their eyes will rot out of their sockets and they will suffer immolation at the hands of God. Armageddon is kept vivid in their minds, through pictures such as the one designed to scare small Witness children found in From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, 1958, p. 208209). Much fear is centered around the intense shame and despair that will surely be experienced as the JW sees their friends survive while they die.

Fear of other religions

All other religions are part of Babylon the Great, the World Empire of False Religion. God will shortly destroy all of Babylon with her "lovers," meaning all churchgoers and sympathizers. All religious objects or ceremonies are seen as demonic and dangerous, so all physical contact is avoided with anything religious. JWs are not allowed to attend weddings or funerals in churches, partake in traditional holidays or even give gifts at Christmas. Bibles other than the New World Translation are seen as tainted by Christendom's scholars. The fear of demonic attack is ever-present when a JW encounters other religions and/or fellowships with other religious persons.

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