Most people, when they find out that I was a Jehovah’s Witness (further noted as JW), ask how I got in that group. In my case, I was adopted by a Jehovah’s Witness family at the age of six months. My earliest memories were of the Kingdom Hall, field service (what JWs call their calling on the homes of people), assemblies and conventions. However, my experience is different from most people who are or were involved in a cult or high-control religious group. Since I was not recruited into the cult, I didn’t have to readjust my thinking like the people that come in. To borrow a scene from popular culture, I was plugged into The Matrix at birth. It was all I knew existed, and like Neo, I decided to take the red pill, and I saw just “how deep the rabbit hole” went.
The purpose for this series is to instruct and warn Christians of the dangers of cult recruitment. It is important to note that the danger in cult recruitment is that anyone can be recruited into a cult.
The main sources of information in this series are Robert J. Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, and Steven Hassan’s Combatting Cult Mind Control. Lifton’s work was based on researching the effects of mind control on American POWs by the Communist Chinese. In his book (further fleshed out by Steven Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church, i.e., a Moonie), Lifton lays out eight identifying marks of a mind control cult.
This brings us to the next logical question, “What is a cult?” This is where the waters get a bit muddied. One man’s cult is another man’s religion. However, for the purpose of this series, we will focus on two types of cults: the religious and non-religious. The late Walter Martin, the original “Bible Answer Man,” defined a religious cult as “the adherence to doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity and which yet claim the distinction of either tracing their origin to orthodox sources or of being in essential harmony with those sources” (Walter R. Martin, The Rise of the Cults, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1955, pp. 11-12).West and Langone define a cult as, “…a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of [consequences of] leaving it, etc.) designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community” (West, L.J. & Langone, M.D. . Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Summary of proceedings of the Wingspread conference on cultism, September 9-11. Weston, MA: American Family Foundation).
It has been estimated that there are 5,000 cults (militia groups, extremist groups, “New Age” groups, etc.) in the United States. The Y2K fraud rekindled interest and memberships in these groups. Interestingly, this is something that can be traced back through history. Anytime there is major upheaval in society, these groups pop up to prey upon people’s fears and anxieties. It has also been estimated that an average of 180,000 people join these groups per year. Not all the groups are religious in nature. There are large group-awareness trainings, psychotherapy and “New Age” groups. Interestingly, Amway has been described as a cult. However, I would hesitate to label the company as a cult, rather that label should go on some of the “business building” groups that are associated with Amway. There are also political cults such as the followers of Lyndon LaRouche, certain elements of the border security movement, and the Mexica movement.
Before we go further in describing what mind control is, it is important to define what mind control is not. Mind control is not “brainwashing”. There is no existing science that can “deprogram”, “program” or “reprogram” the human mind like one would do to a computer (Hollywood movies not withstanding). The primary element the recruit brings is a willingness to participate in the conversion. The recruit may not be aware of the persuasive elements in the process, but he/she is willingly allowing the process to continue. It is important to point out that all cults use the same basic persuasion techniques, in addition to unethical strategies. Some cults may employ multiple techniques at the same time in order to speed up the conversion process. However the techniques are the same, physical isolation, ego reinforcement, sleep deprivation, etc.
The first mark of a mind control cult is milieu control. “Milieu” is a French word that means “surroundings or environment”. One of the first things a cult will do is to get the recruit isolated from their friends and family. Some cults will do this by a literal physical separation of the recruit from non-cult members by whisking them off to a remote compound or commune where the recruit can receive the “pure message” of the group. In the case of JWs (Jehovah’s Witnesses) the recruit is warned very earlier in the recruitment process that people who are against his/her studying with JWs are really persecutors under the influence of Satan. The recruiting JW will suggest that the recruit begin to cut-off association with people that are not JWs.
Another from of milieu control is warning the recruit to avoid any information that might cause critical thinking (i.e., the normal process of gathering information and decision making). If the recruit allows the cult to control this milieu, then he/she has allowed the cult to get into his/her mind in order to control the recruit’s internal dialogue mechanism. This control may also be accomplished through the reading of the cult’s literature (to the exclusion of all other material). After all, the recruit may be asked, who better to interpret issues of importance in one’s life than “the Elders”, “the Faithful and Discreet Slave” “the Prophets”, etc.? Essentially, the recruit is being taught that all thinking must be done by the leadership because they are the only ones that have a direct “hotline” to God.
Along this line of control, is the warning to the recruit and to members to avoid any material written or produced by former members. These persons may be called “apostates”, “rankers”, “dogs”, or a number of pejoratives to numerous to list here in order to get recruits or members to avoid their material. I can remember the first time I picked up the book Crisis of Conscience written by the late Raymond Franz (Mr. Franz was a member of the ruling group of JWs called the Governing Body) my hands were shaking and my stomach was in knots, but my search for truth was not going to be stopped by what I felt. In that book, Mr. Franz gave a detailed account of the most secret inner workings of the Watchtower Society (the legal entity of the JW religion). As an aside, giving JWs who come to your door a religious tract is probably one of the least effective things you can do as a Christian, as that tract will almost always end up in a trash can, but I digress. It was in this book, written by a person JWs view as an apostate, that I began to see the arbitrary and intrusive manner in which the leadership of the Watchtower Society dictated their opinions into the lives of the rank-and file.
Further, the “mother organization” almost always keeps track of the rank-and-file members of the group. This information helps the leadership to ensure that members are not falling too far behind or moving too far in front of the cult’s leadership. In the case of JWs, each congregation has extensive files on the members that show how much time they spend going from door-to-door, how much literature they gave out, their meeting attendance, and even more disturbing any matters concerning any wrong committed by them. This information is used in a number of unethical ways that will be discussed later in this series.
Lastly, I have often been asked what a person interested in counter-cult ministry should read in order to better understand how a cult works. I recommend 1984 by George Orwell, and Crisis of Conscience by the late Raymond Franz. I read 1984 as a sophomore in high school, and I was struck by the similarities between the world of Oceania that Orwell had created, and the JW world in which I was raised. I believe that God, in His providence, used this book to prepare my mind for the eventual turmoil that would result because of my exit from the JWs. 1984 also helped to calm my fears when it came to reading material authored by “apostates” of the JWs.
I hope that this introduction and first point of mind control is helpful to you, and above all that you will use this information to help people who have been blinded by these cults to see the reality of their involvement in these cults.