This is a question that is frequently asked of Jehovah’s Witnesses, understandably so. They are known mostly for their persistent evangelism and unconventional beliefs. After all, what could possibly motivate people to go knocking on strangers’ doors on what is for many their only day off from their secular job to talk about the Bible and their religious doctrine, fully anticipating that the response at best will be apathetic and at worst will be downright hostile? If you were to ask a Jehovah’s Witness if they belonged to a cult you would undoubtedly get an emphatic ‘NO’ for an answer along with an explanation that “they do not isolate themselves from society”, “they don’t follow a human leader” etc. etc….
Not surprisingly an entire article is devoted to the subject on the official Jehovah’s Witness website jw.org. If you searched for the term ‘cult’ the following article is presented:
This is the link to the source:
This link was active at the time of writing (August 2, 2015). I provided a screenshot of the exact, complete page since, as most know, online content is subject to redaction, editing etc. with no obvious way to tell unless the authors choose to provide a change history of the page content. Many reputable sites do, or at least provide a ‘last updated’ date visible on the page. This information is not provided on jw.org.
As you would expect, this article claims that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a cult and then proceeds to demonstrate how they do not meet the definition of a cult. Or do they? Let’s examine what they are really saying.
The first paragraph provides an explanation of why the Watchtower Society feels that they are not a cult. However, if we read it carefully we notice that a false choice is offered to the reader, also known as a ‘straw man’ argument – either Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult or they are Christian. In effect they are saying “Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a cult because they are ‘Christians who do our best to follow the example set by Jesus Christ and to live by his teachings.’” While this may be a true statement, it in no way answers the question. It is a non sequitur. The question is not about their Christian-ness or what principles they follow. Many cults claim to be Christian therefore the ‘proof’ is invalid.
The subheading entitled “What is a cult?” is intended to imply that a definition or explanation of what a cult really is follow, with the intent of disproving the claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult by the strength of the actual definition of a cult. Notice though, that NO WHERE IN THIS SECTION IS A DEFINITION OF A CULT PROVIDED! Rather than defining what a cult is, an attempt is made to prove that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a cult by demonstrating that they do not meet two common MISCONCEPTIONS about cults. This should strike any open-minded reader as an odd way to prove that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not a cult. The question presumably answered by this article on jw.org is “Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult?”, not “Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a MISCONCEPTION of a Cult?”.
To properly answer the question of whether or not Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult you need to get expert opinions on the subject. It would be rare for any group to openly admit that they were a cult or even had characteristics of a cult because of the stigma associated with it. Links to a number of sites provided by experts on the subjects of cult influence and aberrant religious groups are listed below. Please note that these links are NOT to ex-Jehovah’s Witness sites or ‘apostate’ sites. I highly recommend Steve Hassan as an expert on this matter. Mr. Hassan has direct experience with cults and as an former member of the Unification Church (“Moonies”) brings years of direct, firsthand experience to the table. After leaving the Unification Church he has devoted his life to assisting individuals and families who either are under the control of a cult-like organization or who have family members that they are seeking to assist. There are a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses whom he and his group have been able to assist in overcoming the effects of membership in a high control organization and in his book “Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs” he documents the experiences of several of them. Steve explains the subject far better than I could but briefly he breaks the characteristics of a cult-like group into four aspects which he calls the B.I.T.E. model.
- Behavior control
- Information control
- Thought control
- Emotional control
Without describing each aspect further it should start to become obvious that membership in the Jehovah’s Witness organization subjects an individual to all of these control mechanisms. Describing the control imposed on an individual as a ‘loving arrangement’ does not change what it is. People attempting to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been subject to a vast array of problems, from mild to severe, due to the fact that leaving the Jehovah’s Witness organization generally results in the loss of family and friends. If one were raised in “The Truth” from childhood it is unlikely that the person has many friends or a significant support circle outside of “The Organization” to turn to as a replacement for the traumatic loss of his entire social network.
If I had to criticize one aspect of Steve Hassan’s approach it is that he does use a very broad definition of the term “cult”. However, he provides plenty of justification for his broad use of the term and I highly recommend reading his books or at least visiting his website if you are sincerely interested in this subject or cults in general.
- Steve Hassan’s Freedom of Mind
- Cult Awareness and Information Library
- Psychotherapy with Former Cult Members – Psychotherapy.net (Spoiler… ‘Bill’ is not a former JW.)
- International Cultic Studies Association
The following links are non-denominational but are sponsored or supported by religious groups and are provided for reference. Obviously doctrinal differences do not of themselves mean that a group is by definition a cult:
- New England Institute of Religious Research Visit the link to “Group Listing”
- Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry
As with most things, the most important objective is to seek answers to questions with an open mind and to this end you are encouraged to do your own research. This information is provided primarily as a convenience and as an awareness tool for those seeking answers.