We’ve all heard comments about Jehovah’s Witnesses being “brainwashed”. That always seemed like a ridiculous claim to make whenever I heard it. And of course there are good comebacks to such an accusation, such as one a circuit overseer used to use: “The world is such a filthy place- maybe our brains needed washing out when we came into the truth!”
The idea of brainwashing goes back many years actually. Here is a comment about its possible origins:
“During the Korean War, Korean and Chinese captors reportedly brainwashed American POWs held in prison camps. Several prisoners ultimately confessed to waging germ warfare — which they hadn’t — and pledged allegiance to communism by the end of their captivity. At least 21 soldiers refused to come back to the United States when they were set free.” (Excerpted from http://people.howstuffworks.com/brainwashing.htm)
The Watchtower commented on this shortly after the phenomenon came to light in the mid 1950s. The article said:
…“Be transformed by making your mind over, that you may prove to yourselves the good and acceptable and complete will of God.”
Note the admonition, “Prove to yourselves.” If you can prove to yourself from the Bible the thoughts of God you have adopted, no brainwashing will sweep them from your mind. It is not enough to know what you believe; know why you believe it. The U.S. News & World Report, February 24, 1956, published an interview with an army major on the subject, “Why Did Many GI Captives Cave In?” He said an amazing one third of all the American prisoners became either Communist sympathizers or collaborators during their stay in Communist prison camps. The reason he gave was that they had no thorough knowledge of democratic principles and lacked real loyalties and convictions based on deep understanding. When asked about those with religious convictions, he said if those convictions were deep and were a part of their daily life the men could resist successfully, but if their religion was a “foxhole religion” picked up on the battlefield during an intense emotional experience or crisis it did not sustain them over a long period of time. It was not really a part of them. It must be “an active, working, practical, meaningful moral code of their own, not just a set of abstract ideas, but a way of living among others.” (The Watchtower 1956 6/15 pp. 358-359)
This article makes a good point in saying “It is not enough to know what you believe; know why you believe it.” It is in this way we arm our minds with the tools to fend of credulity. Deeper knowledge, background information on why a certain thing has happened or is happening is key. The following essay written by a brother that successfully faded a number of years ago is presented. This is the brother that supplied information used in the past article, Jargon and “Theocratic Language”. The essay touches on the subject of brainwashing and how in this regard some Witnesses may resemble ones from other groups. The text is below:
I don’t know if JWs still talk about how to deal with “conversation stoppers” in “field service.” But I imagine that as a community, they’re still peculiarly beset by what I call “mind deadeners” or “thought killers” or platitudinal “thought arresters.” For instance, I grew up hearing the platitude that God didn’t need any more angels in heaven and that man was meant to live on earth. I came to see that this is a platitude meant to arrest thinking—stop it dead in its tracks. The fact is we don’t really know the details of how all the spirit creatures came to be—whether some were created fully developed as spirits as Adam and Eve were as humans, or whether certain spirits may have had some sort of ‘toddler’ or ‘infant’ stage, as it were; some formative phase in the spirit realm or even elsewhere. We simply don’t know anything about it, and obviously, the Scriptures are silent. Our ignorance of what may have been, or what might be, is vast—to say the least.
Another thought-killing platitudinal question is, ‘Where will we go away to?’ which takes the mind away from the real issue being ‘to whom.’ (John 6:68) Or, perhaps a leading “thought arrester” is, ‘How is the good news to be preached worldwide without an organization?’
Despite decade upon decade of JW door-knocking, I’m pretty certain that most householders could not begin to tell you (if surveyed) what the main message of JWs is: i.e. that God’s Kingdom was supposedly established in the invisible heavens in 1914. In stark contrast however, most every adult (particularly in the West) has probably at least heard of Jesus Christ—and that to no help from JWs in most cases. And whether they believe in Jesus or not, most (if quizzed) could probably tick off the following salient points purported about him: that he was the Son of God, that he died for mankind’s sins, that he was raised to life by God and went to heaven, and that he’ll return again to judge. Again, whether those so quizzed believe these points or not, most know them despite being muddled on the details; most could rattle off these important features of the good news found in the New Testament—demonstrating that the basic biblical message has indeed been preached and has penetrated and registered with peoples’ consciousness, whether they believe it or not. You might see it differently, but to my mind JWs have not achieved such penetration of, and registering with, people’s consciousness when it comes to their peculiar interpretational message.
I don’t think JWs are brainwashed in the way it’s typically characterized and defined. But I do recall hearing “the friends” I knew and loved speaking of outsiders as being “brainwashed”; and I even remember occasionally hearing speakers saying the same from the platform. Perhaps the principle found at Matthew 12:37 is applicable:
“By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
On page 681 the Proclaimers book speaks of “the Roman Catholic concept in which truth is Catholicism, error is anything non-Catholic, and liberty is the freedom to speak and live the Roman Catholic truth.”
It might make for an interesting study to ask some of “the friends” to come up with a word or phrase to describe a person who attended only a Catholic church, or who has only been exposed to the services of a particular Protestant church for most of his life. Given time to weigh the question, do you think “indoctrinated,” “brainwashed,” and “close-minded” might be among the likely answers given? Perhaps things have dramatically changed in the more than dozen years I’ve been away from the organization, but my experience growing up a JW was that most JWs tended to assume that anyone exposed to only one way of looking at religion and religious ideas growing up, or for most of his adult life, can hardly be considered “open-minded.” “Smug” and “self-satisfied” were terms I recall being used. (“They’ve already got their paradise,” was one used mainly of the affluent.)
However, if in this same informal “study” you were (in the very next breath) to ask these same JWs how they would describe a person who attended religious meetings only at Kingdom Halls from say the age of three to well into adulthood, you might possibly receive looks of real or feignedincomprehension, or even suspicion. A shrewd sort of JW might even counter: “What kind of a question is that? After all, we have ‘the truth.’ We have the best spiritual education available. We regularly call on people in our locality and get dosed with their absurd religious notions. We’re the most open-minded people around when it comes to religion and religious matters. ‘Brainwashed’? ‘Closed-minded’? That’s nonsense.”
Of course, if you were in the countering, devil’s advocate mood (not a very wise mood to assume among JWs), you could argue that the exposure to other ideas that JWs get when knocking on doors is rare and negligible at best; and you might point out that the genuine exchange-of-information ratio is about as meaningful as that which takes place between most other religious callers and sidewalk- and airport-evangelists when they confront nominal church-goers. And if you were really wanting to make trouble (mainly trouble for yourself) you could point out that, in fairness, IF some in “Christendom” are “brainwashed” as some JWs might like to think, simply for having had rather narrow and restrictive religious instruction and teaching within a specific sect or denomination, THEN a JW who has received religious instruction only within the confines of Kingdom Halls and Assembly Halls should be regarded identically. (In fact, when those in the JW community deny this, it probably illustrates that they are somewhat close-minded and have been “brainwashed” after a fashion. The immersion in ideas and platitudes that JWs undergo is so effectual that it has rendered many of them incapable of realizing that they have been greatly indoctrinated.)
While perhaps not “brainwashed,” it can be argued that a lot of JWs are more close-minded than many of the religious people they seek to “give a witness.” Maybe that’s more the point. When I associated, most JWs would not trade religious literature with the householders they called on, since most of “the friends” I knew wouldn’t read the religious publications of other church groups. (“I tell you what. You come find me the way I’ve found you, and maybe then I’ll take your literature,” was a typical snappy JW rejoinder in my day.) While some people in Christendom’s churches will freely study Jewish, Catholic and Protestant reference works and Bible commentaries, the JWs I regularly rubbed shoulders with regarded such books as forbidden and dangerous. Many Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists will attend weddings and funerals at Kingdom Halls; they’ll even come to some of the regular meetings that are scheduled. However, it was a rare JW who stepped inside a Catholic or Protestant church for any reason. Many JWs of my acquaintance would unblushingly watch any Hollywood movie that came down the pike, but wouldn’t watch a film produced by some church group highlighting its beliefs or mission outreach; and yet, they’d invite non-JW friends and relatives to see one of the WT Society’s movies/videos. While most of “the friends” I knew would readily share literature aimed at undermining the doctrines and beliefs of other church groups, few of them would even so much as glance at a writing designed to get him to question the WT organization and its tenets. And while most of the “pioneers” and particularly “active” JWs with whom I engaged in “field service,” encouraged outsiders to think independently of their church groups, they simultaneously considered independent thinking as prideful and rebelliouswithin the JW community itself.
Perhaps things have dramatically changed within the JW community. But, I kinda doubt it. So who exactly is more likely to be provincial, parochial and ignorant of other ways of thinking, religiously speaking? Like Roman Catholics as characterized in the Proclaimers book, isn’t it a case of the JW concept in which truth is JW theology, error is anything non-JW, and liberty is the freedom to speak and live the JW truth?
If you answer “Yes,” to the last question, doesn’t this help to explain why “the friends” (at least those that I knew) so often hurl epithets instead of offering reasoned responses; epithets like: “worldly” (to describe what might simply be a pet peeve or what disagrees with personal taste), “weak” (for those who don’t speak and live the JW truth “quite like I do”), “apostate” (to mean someone who makes an issue out of things considered unimportant—unless, of course, their importance is made an issue). To a person who has almost never been really exposed to opposing ways of thinking, sustained argument is not a likely happening.
While some of the JWs I knew did not fit the typical mold, many seemed more than willing to live up to stereotypes. Again, I don’t believe JWs were (are) “brainwashed” in the strict sense. However, just as quite a few JWs can only imagine a person of “Christendom” being “brainwashed,” butnot a JW, so likewise such a JW can only imagine religious fanaticism and Pharisaism in others, but never JW fanaticism or JW Pharisaism. But perhaps the all-time kicker is this: While many JWs perceive that conscientious stands and conscientious objections abound for them outside the organization, no serious thought is given to possibly having conscientious objections to anything done inside the organization.