This section is designed to assist a therapist whose client reveals having current or past involvement with Jehovah’s Witnesses. A common complaint from former Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking professional assistance is that their religious experience was downplayed and not understood. This article covers the most important factors to be aware of in order to offer constructive guidance.
To be most effective, a therapist should have an understanding of:
- Whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult
- Certain key doctrine that influences their emotional and mental state
- The client’s current involvement and feelings toward the religion
The religious organization behind Jehovah’s Witnesses is the Watch Tower Society. Whilst it is not necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of Watchtower doctrine, there are certain teachings and practices that shape the way Jehovah’s Witnesses view themselves and the world around them. Without being aware of these, advice offered is likely to be met with resistance.
Are Jehovah’s Witnesses a Cult?
Jehovah’s Witnesses get labelled across the spectrum from benign religious group to harmful cult. Since there are millions of members, people usually find it difficult to accept they could compare to a small esoteric cult. They are best known for the visibility of their preaching work, which is considered little more than an annoyance.
The term cult is misleading, due to its’ range of meanings. The primary meaning of cult encompasses all religious groups, yet in common usage it has come to evoke the image of a small commune following an eccentric leader. The Oxford dictionary definition of cult is as follows:
Regardless of the type of group a follower belongs to, they will never accept that it is a cult in any negative sense of the word. For this reason, is it un-beneficial to refer to Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult to a client.
What is important is the level of control a group has over members. Researchers generally classify a group as harmful if is exerts excessive levels of control, or coercive persuasion. Groundbreaking work in this field was done by Robert Lifton, who outlined 8 criteria high control groups systematically use to control members. Jehovah’s Witnesses are subjected to all 8 of these criteria.
Watchtower leaders, the Governing Body, enforce total acceptance of their belief structure as being from Jehovah God, with strict sanctions for any followers that do not comply. Disfellowshipping and strict shunning of noncompliant members is the clearest indicator that Jehovah’s Witnesses are subjected to and manipulated by excessive levels of control. You will find that current shunning, or the fear of being shunned, features prominently in your discussions with Jehovah’s Witness clients.
Key Beliefs and Practices
Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christian, and strictly follow Watchtower interpretation of the Bible as God’s infallible word. A core difference with most Christians is that they do not accept Jesus as God, or part of a Trinity. Jehovah is considered Almighty God. Jesus is a lesser creation of God, through still admired as their ruler.
There are a few core teachings and practices to be aware of in order to understand the depths of influence Watchtower teachings have.
- Never Dying – Jehovah’s Witnesses do not expect to ever die. The primary teaching since its 1800’s inception has been that “very soon” Jehovah will destroy billions of people, with Jehovah’s Witnesses alone surviving to live forever on this planet.
- Sex – Sexual guilt is prominent. Sex is only acceptable between married hetrosexuals. Hence homosexuality is strongly condemned. Masturbation is considered unclean and a common source of guilt.
- Headship arrangement – Men are considered the head of women. This can lead to the extremes, from male guilt for not living up to expectations of headship, to dominance and domestic violence against wives.
- Child abuse – Whilst condemned, known child abusers have systematically gone unreported to the authorities, leading to an epedemic of abused children raised in the religion.
- Disfellowshipping and Shunning – Failing to abide by Watchtower rules and doctrine can lead to being disfellowshipped. This is a common practice, with around 1% of Jehovah’s Witnesses being disfellowshipped every year. This results in strict shunning. All active followers, including family members, are forbidden from contact with the individual. This extends for the remainder of the persons’ life if they do not repent and return to the religion. Being shunned by family members has exceptionally destructive consequences, including drug addiction and suicide.
- Higher education is discouraged.
- Blood transfusions are strictly forbidden. It has been estimated that every year more Jehovah’s Witnesses die refusing blood than died in Jonestown.
- Forbidden practices – Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to engage in a long list of celebrations and practices. This includes not celebrating Christmas, Easter and Birthdays, not being engaged in politics or voting and not engaging in smoking, illegal drugs, drunkeness or premarital sex.
A good place to start understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses is the 15 minute video Growing up a Jehovah’s Witness. This describes how children are expected to remain separate from their worldly peers, preach each weekend, not celebrate birthdays and Christmas, are discouraged from higher education, and encouraged to devote their lives to growing the religion. They expect that they will never die. Armageddon is imminent, resulting in the destruction of billions of non-witnesses. This has been going on for over a century, resulting in many Jehovah’s Witnesses struggling with a lack of funds for retirement, and the confusing disappointment of why the end still has not arrived. An understanding of these few key points will go a long way to being able to effectively assist anyone that has been involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses undergo an incredible amount of indoctrination. They are expected to attend religious meetings or preaching several times a week, and on the other days studying Watchtower publications. Reading alternative viewpoints, particularly from “apostate” sources is discouraged. For this reason, the Watchtower belief system is strongly influential, and remains so long after Jehovah’s Witnesses leave, even for those that may claim to no longer believe it is “the truth.” They may retain distrust of “worldly people” (anyone not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses), feel guilt for engaging in standard celebrations and behaviour, and retain a strong fear of being killed by Jehovah at Armageddon.
This instilled fear and guilt is very difficult to overcome, yet important in assisting the individual understanding how it is not the truth and the superstitions that may be controlling them. It may be manifest by a reluctance to embrace life outside the religion, or the other extreme of engaging in seemingly juvenile and destructive behaviour.
Shunning has a devastating effect. Many that no longer believe it is the “truth” continue to remain part of the religion out of fear of being shunned. This leads to feelings of being trapped, living a lie, wasting their life, self-loathing and depression. Those that leave never get over being shunned. To be shunned by family is incomprehensible, and a disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witness will never stop hoping that one day their family may speak to them again, which prevents them ever feeling completely whole or content. Any attempted contact will be met with silence, or a message that they are dead to them, a disappointment, a disgrace, and overcome by Satan. The message will end with words to the effect, “You chose this situation. We still love you, but we love Jehovah more.”
Never tell a former Jehovah’s Witness to be the better person and initiate contact. This is not a family squabble that can be solved if one member swallows their pride and reaches out to reinitiate the relationship. This is a strictly imposed religious sanction that your client has no control over. It is common that therapists do not understand the magnitude of the disfellowshipping arrangement, and by indicating that your client can change the situation will only hurt them more, and make them question whether you are qualified to assist them.
Four Primary Categories
If a client mentions involvement with Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is critical to determine which of four primary categories they fall into, as this affects the current issues they face and how they respond to your advice. Determining this will influence how you can most effectively be of assistance.
Try to identify if they are an:
- Active believer
- Active non-believer
- Inactive believer
- Inactive non-believer
The more strongly they believe, the harder it will be to have them accept any helpful advice that does not align with their belief system. The more active they are, the more they stand to lose if they slow down in their religious activity.
Does your client still believe Jehovah’s Witnesses are the truth? This will affect whether they are struggling with guilt, and how open they are to accept your advice and act upon it. How involved is your client as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses? This will influence whether they are struggling with the fear of leaving or loneliness.
These considerations are in addition to the specific reason they sought your help. For example, they may have sought therapy for marital problems, addiction or depression. It may well be possible to assist without any regard to their religious background. However, problems and acceptable solutions are likely to be intertwined at least to some extent with where they fit on the quadrant of belief and activeness.
The easiest to assist are those in the non-believer category.
The inactive non-believer is likely struggling from the loss of family, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help cope mentally with negative thoughts. If they have not done research or reached out to other former members, directing them to websites and forums can help clear up any lingering doubts and issues they may not have been aware are affecting them.
The Inactive Non-believer will usually be struggling with coping with loss of family, difficulty making friends, and trust issues that affect their ability to find a partner. There is also the loss of a belief system that is hard to replace. This can lead to depression, suicidal inclinations and addictions.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have the majority of their boundaries dictated to them. This is under the guise that all Watchtower rules are from Jehovah, and deviation will result in punishment. Upon leaving and losing a belief in Watchtower rules, Jehovah’s Witnesses will often regress, even as older adults, to behaviour common amongst youth, trying to establish their own boundaries.
The biggest complaint from inactive non-believers is that therapists dismiss any suggestion that Watchtower teachings are harmful. When the patient describes Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult, they are often left feeling like they are overreacting, and told by therapists the religion is not that bad, unaware of how controlling and unrealistic the teachings are. Whilst a therapist should not raise the claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult, they can examine with a client their basis for using that label.
Worse is the lack of recognition of Watchtower’s policy on disfellowshipping and shunning. Many therapists refuse to believe that Jehovah’s Witness parents are absolutely forbidden from speaking with disfellowshipped adult children, or visa versa, in all but the rarest of occasions. Disfellowshipped Jehovah’s Witnesses are regularly told to, “be the better person, and make the first move in re-establishing contact with your family.” It has nothing to do with your patient, the religion dictates that those that leave the religion must be shunned unless they return.
“Really, what your beloved family member needs to see is your resolute stance to put Jehovah above everything else – including the family bond. … Do not look for excuses to associate with a disfellowshipped family member, for example, through e-mail.” Watchtower 2013 Jan 15 p.16
The inactive non-believer needs to trust you and feel acceptance. They need to learn how to make friends and new interests. This can only be done by learning that most people are not bad, but also how to identify the few that are so as not to be taken advantage of.
The active non-believer has probably been researching and may even verbalise that they are trapped in a cult. A common term is PIMO – physically in, mentally out. They don’t believe, but feel unable to leave the religion because of what they stand to lose. A youth may fear being evicted from home and never being able to speak to their parents again, possibly living on the street if they have no source of income. A married Jehovah’s Witness will fear being honest about their feelings will result in divorce, and potentially losing contact with their children, who will be told to consider the apostate parent as dangerous and controlled by Satan. These people are not delusional, sadly their fears are completely realistic and being played out daily. The best option is again CBT to teach them how to cope with what they are going through, and being put in touch with forums and former members who can advise on how to leave strategically with the least loss, and provide a support group.
For believers, standard tools may be able to assist with the issue they have approached you about. However, if you identify that Watchtower teachings are the root of their issues, any negativity towards the religion will not be tolerated and likely lead them to chose another therapist or cease help altogether. Jehovah’s Witnesses are warned to be wary about anyone that does not belong to the religion, referred to as “worldly people.” This includes professional therapists. If one of Jehovah’s Witnesses seek out professional help, particularly at the recommendation of a doctor, they will be cautious and untrusting and wary of guidance in conflict with their beliefs or critical of the organisation.
Religion is the elephant in the room. You cannot ignore the religion, otherwise you are not going to be addressing what is likely to be at the heart of their issues. Yet drawing the patient out regarding any negative effects resulting from their religious background is likely to be met with opposition. Keeping positive about Jehovah’s Witnesses is important in order to not scare them away. Jehovah’s Witnesses are trained to expect that Satan is attacking their faith from all angles, and any negative comments on your part will be seen as such an attack and likely raise a barrier between you, and even lead to the patient not returning.
Concentrate foremost on the reason they have met with out, and standard advice. Only if the time seems appropriate, try to uncover how their religious background is of relevant influence, without appearing to attack Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Try the following approaches.
Ask them outright what they like and what they find difficult about being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Try to have them pinpoint why they think it is the truth, and anything that may be affecting their faith. It is not your position to convince them whether their religion is the truth or not, but to get them being able to identify the good and bad aspects as a platform from which to dwell upon.
Positively discuss what they can do to be happier with their life, including religious activity. Discussing what is required to be happier is not the end goal, but an ice breaker to uncovering the true issues. Is the person down because they feel guilty about not doing enough, are their parents disappointed with them, or are they disappointed with a lack of spirituality in their husband or children? This can open up conversations on how to find happiness within, not needing others for their own happiness. Such conversations may lead the person to uncovering what is core to their illness. Maybe they will realise the religion itself is directly the cause of issues they face. On the other hand, the religion may not be core to their problems, or they may not contemplate leaving to be an option, and you will be able to help them find greater levels of happiness and contentment within the religion.
Bring up similar religions, such as Mormons and Scientologists. They are similar in providing the joy of strong community bonds and assistance with issues such as addiction. On the other hand, these religious groups also believe they are different from everyone else (worldly people), impose the fear of shunning, and use the guilt of having doubts and never doing enough. If you discuss how that can affect their members, you can impart good lessons without seeming to attack your client’s religion.
The inactive believer is the one that potentially can gain the most from therapy. An inactive believer carries the full weight of guilt of the organization’s teachings, a fear of the world, the loss of association with members of the religion, and feelings of being worthy of imminent death at Armageddon.
It may seem that the easy solution to their problems is helping them recognize the religion does not teach the truth, and the damage it has caused. However, convincing them it is not the truth is difficult, and also unlikely to be legal or ethical. A therapist will be limited in offering standard guidance on understanding past experiences that may be the cause of current issues, and how to handle them.
The struggle for the inactive believer is the Watchtower concept that it is not possible to have a relationship with God without being an active part of the Watchtower organization. Jehovah’s Witness struggle to separate God from the Organization, and leaving the religion equates to leaving Jehovah. For those fearful that leaving the religion has destroyed their relationship with God, it helps to stress that they can still worship Jehovah and have a relationship with him if they leave.
Key assistance to an Inactive Believer is putting in the effort to determining whether Jehovah’s Witnesses are the truth or not. If they think it is the truth, and struggle with feelings of worthlessness or depression for not being involved, maybe they should go back. Help them overcome the reason they are inactive, such as addiction to some forbidden practice, so they have the option of returning.
Before they return, explain to them the importance of researching the religion from all angles before making such a change. There is a lot of online information that they can refer to. They will resist, saying alternative viewpoints about Jehovah’s Witnesses are apostate lies. Remind them that they will know what is a lie. Before any major purchase, it is good to not only read the organization’s marketing information, but also reviews from users, good and bad, for a rounded and informed opinion. A key skill in life is learning to identify what is accurate and what is not.
 Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, Lifton, 1989 edition.
- Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.
- Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.
- Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
- Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.
- Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.
- Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.
- Doctrine over person. Members’ personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
- Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.