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Are Jehovah's Witnesses A Cult?

"Cult" is a popular word used to describe unorthodox religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses. It is generally counter-productive to refer to any group as a cult, as it invokes negative connotations of people isolated in communes, blindly following a charismatic leader, ready to die for their cause. Jehovah's Witnesses will immediately reject any such notion that they belong to a cult.

The word cult has a wide range of meanings, including simply a “system of religious belief,” and hence can be applied to all religious groups.

Cult - Meriam-Webster
1: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents ...
2a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
2b: the object of such devotion
2c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion
3: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents
4: formal religious veneration : WORSHIP
5: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator (health cults)
(merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cult 20 Aug 2018)

With such a broad range of meaning, using "cult" in conversation is bound to lead to disagreement if there is not clarity around how each person is using the term. In popular culture, cult is commonly used loosely as way of insult, and hence using cult to describe a person's religion will alienate them, preventing intelligent discussion about the merits of the group.

Rather than paint Jehovah's Witnesses with the broad brush of cult, discussion should concentrate on how ethical Watchtower's methods are in recruiting and retaining members, and the affect it has on the lives of people touched by the group. Terms commonly used to identify an unhealthy group is whether it is "high control," using "undue influence," or the alternative term "coercive persuasion." The article Fear and Cult Mind Control discusses whether Watchtower leaders use undue influence to control Jehovah's Witnesses.

Cult is most commonly applied to “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious”. Steven Hassan, renowned cult specialist, makes the distinction between a benign cult and a destructive cult, which is any religious, political or commercial group with "a person or group of people that have dictatorial control" using "mind control techniques to keep people dependent and obedient."

Although I have stated that use of the word cult is counter-productive, I have included quotes below that discuss traits of a cult that can be applied to Jehovah's Witnesses, due to how widely this term is used in the media.

The clearest distinction of whether a religion is damaging is how former members are treated. If there is strict insistence on shunning, the group is using a destructive form of control.

"The distinction between cult and religion lies squarely in how those leaving or those wanting to leave are treated." - Eliyahu Federman (huffingtonpost.com 27 Sep 2013)

Jehovah's Witnesses strictly enforce the shunning of "disfellowshipped" members. Whilst members will claim this as Jehovah's standard, the article Disfellowshipping and Shunning identifies that this Watchtower practice goes well beyond Bible guidelines. As such, the Jehovah's Witness religion has been aptly described as "cruel."

Jehovah's Witnesses 'a cruel cult'
" … Mr Aron, a psychologist, counsellor and director of Melbourne's Cult Counselling Australia, said the Jehovah's Witnesses had a policy of "shunning" members who left or wanted to leave by cutting them off from family members who remained.

"I am still waiting for a justification for someone to be able to rip away a five or six year old child from their extended family because Mum or Dad have decided to leave the Jehovah's Witnesses," he said.

… The Watchtower describes 'apostates' as "mentally diseased" outcasts who "seek to infect others."

Mr Aron says shunning is "draconian, cruel and callous." Religion and faith were supposed to provide support, comfort and warmth but shunning could crush self-esteem and give feelings of guilt, especially in children." (Chris Johnston Senior Writer for The Age 16 Mar 2013)

The primary identifiers of a cult are based around the level of "control" it has on members.

When Does a Religion Become a Cult?
"Many academics and observers of cult phenomena, such as psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford, agree on four criteria to define a cult. The first is behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do. The second is information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group. The third is thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. The fourth is emotional control—using humiliation or guilt. Yet at times these traits can also be detected within mainstream faiths. So I would add two more categories: financial control and extreme leadership."
25 Feb 25 2011 MITCH HOROWITZ Wall Street Journal
Imam Mohamad Jebara: Fruits of the tree of extremism 6 Feb 2015
“Most cults have two main distinguishing characteristics: A great opposition to critical thinking with an insistence on blindly following a set of dogmatic ideals, all the while giving their followers the false sense of self-determination and free choice. Secondly, isolating their devotees with threats of heavy penalties, including death, for “apostasy” through “deviation” from their “path.””

Watchtower doctrine garner criticism for a focus on fear and paranoia. Jehovah's Witnesses are led to believe they are the special focus of an interdimensional battle that will soon result in Satan turning governmental forces against them, and are as such a doomsday religion.

Pure Worship of Jehovah - Restored at Last! (2018) pp.196-197

It is counter-productive to tell members of any controversial group that they belong to a cult, as members do not believe they are in one, no matter how unusual the group may be. It is therefore an emotive issue to describe Watchtower as a cult. Though clearly non-mainstream, the important question is whether Watchtower misuses techniques of control that result in a damaging belief structure. These issues are examined in depth at Fear and Cult Mind Control.

No one joins a cult. No one joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organization, you join a political organization, and you join with people you really like.
Jonestown survivor

Further information

The following video is an hour long lecture by Steven Hassan on cults.

Following is a 5 minute Australian radio interview on the affect of leaving a cult, in which I had a small part.

Written Aug 2010, latest update Aug 2018.

creative commons copyright    Paul Grundy  2005 - 2018