The question is asked, “Are Jehovah’s Witnesses subjected to ‘brainwashing’?” Following is information written to one inquirer on this subject:

On the points you present, opponents of the Witness religion are quick to categorize it as a “cult” and speak of members being “brainwashed.” One thing that I believe each of us needs to recognize is our own personal responsibility in accepting error. We cannot fully divorce ourselves from responsibility for our decisions, even though misleading information contributed to the decision. There are always reasons for our having accepted claims that were only partly supported, motives for what may be called a passive acceptance. As Dr. Primrose in Oliver Goldsmith’s eighteenth-century work The Vicar of Wakefield puts it:

The vice does not lie in assenting to the proofs they see; but in being blind to many of the [additional, possibly contrary] proofs that offer [themselves]. Like corrupt judges on a bench, [such ones] determine right on that part of the evidence they hear; but they will not hear all the evidence. Thus, my son, though our erroneous opinions be involuntary when formed, yet as we have been willfully corrupt, or very negligent in forming them, we deserve punishment for our vice, or contempt for our folly.

Though “victims of victims,” we still had reasons for letting ourselves be victimized, and perhaps analyzing our thinking and our motives from that standpoint may be the most beneficial course, grant the best hope of avoiding similar circumstance. In his book, The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist Scott Peck makes these observations, some of which were quoted in my second book:

Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual or organization or entity. But this means we then give away our power to that entity, be it “fate” or “society” or the government or the corporation or our boss. It is for this reason that Erich Fromm so aptly titled his study of Nazism and authoritarianism Escape from Freedom. In attempting to avoid the pain of responsibility, millions and even billions daily attempt to escape from freedom. . . .

Dr. Hilde Bruch, in the preface to her book Learning Psychotherapy, states that basically all patients come to psychiatrists with “one common problem: the sense of helplessness, the fear and inner conviction of being unable to ‘cope’ and to change things.” One of the roots of this “sense of impotence” in the majority of patients is some desire to partially or totally escape the pain of freedom, and, therefore, some failure, partial or total, to accept responsibility for their problems and their lives. They feel impotent because they have, in fact, given their power away. Sooner or later, if they are to be healed, they must learn that the entirety of one’s adult life is a series of personal choices, decisions. If they can accept this totally, then they become free people. To the extent that they do not accept this they will forever feel themselves victims.

While indoctrination is one factor why people believe an organization’s claims and “party line,” another that may be just as strong is a wanting to believe. Sometimes what is false looks more appealing than what is true, though that appearance is both superficial and deceptive. One person writing mentioned his “strong belief that this system would end in October” of 1975, and that this contributed to his urging his daughter to get baptized. While many placed strong confidence in that date, not all did so. They read the same magazines and heard the same talks as those who did, yet they were not affected in the same way. I personally felt compelled to give talks in which I gave reasons against placing such confidence in a date.

When, for whatever reason, we strongly prefer a certain course that may actually not be to our best interests, we can rationalize away all the signposts that should show us the undesirable end toward which we head. Hebrews 3:13 somewhat comparably points in that direction in speaking of being hardened by the “deceitfulness of sin, NRSV (the delusive glamour of sin, PME).” I know that I went into the Witness religion, not because my parents forced me to do so (they did not even insist on meeting attendance once I reached my teenage years and for some years I did not attend), but instead I did so with my eyes open. I believed error but in many cases it was because the error had appeal and I gave in to that appeal. That does not excuse the propagators of the error but neither does it relieve me of my own responsibility. With many it is a situation like that described at John 12:42, 43: As Phillips renders the text:

Nevertheless many even of the authorities did believe in him. But they would not admit it for fear of the Pharisees, in case they should be excommunicated. They were more concerned to have the approval of men than to have the approval of God.

Of course, there were and are definite elements of truth within the teaching of the Watch Tower and it was undoubtedly those elements that initially drew us to it, appealed to our hearts. Only with time did we realize to what extent those precious truths were overshadowed by and diminished—or even vitiated—by other teachings.

Again, responsibility cannot be restricted solely to one level of an organization or system. Hitler and his chief associates could never have accomplished what they did without the support of other officials and most of the German people. The actual implementation of the Watch Tower’s policies rests especially with congregation elders. When they accept appointment as elders they, in effect, accept responsibility to support and advocate the policies and teachings that are in place. As in my case, they have done so when the various disfellowshipping policies and misleading teachings were already in place. I was willing to express myself, to be frequently in the minority (even to be a minority of one), willing to incur growing animosity and eventual rejection, to face beginning life anew when approaching 60 years of age. Some elders have taken a similar course, but I believe the evidence is that they are comparatively few. Many who have realized the flaws have preferred to remain silent.

Separation from a large organization and former associates can indeed produce a period of loneliness. But it would seem that even that can have its beneficial aspects. It can bring home to us more than ever before the need for full reliance on our heavenly Father, that only in Him have we genuine security and the confidence of his care. It is no longer a case of flowing along with the stream but of developing a personal inner strength, gained through faith, of growing up so as to no longer be children but grown men and women, a growth achieved through our growth in love for God’s Son and the way of life he exemplified. (Ephesians 4:13-16) I don’t view my past experience as all loss, nor feel that I learned nothing from it. I find great comfort in the words of Paul at Romans 8:28 (the New World Translation changes the meaning of this text by inserting the word “his” in the expression “all his works” but this is not the way the original Greek text reads). According to a number of translations, Paul states:

We know that by turning everything to their good God cooperates with all those who love him.–Jerusalem Bible translation.

Not just in “his works” but in “all things” or in “everything” God is able to turn any circumstance—however painful or, in some cases, even tragic—to the good of those who love him. At the time we may well find this difficult to believe but if we turn to him in full faith and allow him to do so, he can and will cause that to be the result. He can make us the better person for having had the experience, enrich us in spite of the sorrow we may undergo. Time will demonstrate this to be so and that hope can give us courage to continue on, trusting in his love.

We need, however, to guard against expecting God to provide what He has not promised to provide. If we expect Him to lead us out of one organization that falsely claimed to have all the answers and which imposed a false unity on its members—obligating them to profess to being of “one mind” on teachings or suffer organizational and peer disapproval or even rejection—and then lead us into another organization that genuinely has all the answers and in which all persons are in full agreement on every matter, we are not facing reality. If one simply reads the letters Paul wrote in the first century it is evident that not all persons in the congregations he wrote to saw matters the same way. Jesus’ parable regarding the “wheat” and the “weeds” shows that anyone expecting to find an “ideal” organization composed fully of genuine Christians and teaching only truth is looking for something that is simply not there.

I quote here from a letter sent to another person a while ago:

I would ask, however, if you truly feel it is pleasing to Jehovah to, in effect, bind Him to some human organization that originated in the late 1800s, so that all thoughts about Him, and all attitudes and feelings toward Him, must be inseparably linked to that religious organization? If the Watch Tower organization is found not to be the one and only channel of God, as it claims, would that make the God you have relied upon most of your life to suddenly disappear out of focus? Are His goodness and love and other qualities inextricably linked with some religious system? What justification in Scripture is there for placing such a restriction on God or limiting Him to a particular context in that manner? Why should we, as one Bible scholar expressed it, “put God in a box”? Granted, the Watch Tower organization endeavors to build up such an outlook in its adherents, but did Christ or his apostles do so? If God goes out of focus when one changes his or her outlook toward a religious system–any religious system–then it is apparent that such person has been looking at God through special glasses, not directly as did His servants throughout the ages. (Compare Job 42:5; Psalm 11:7; 2 Cor. 3:12-18.) Any sense of loss of focus is due to previous religious distortion, not due to facing facts and reality.

I suppose it goes without saying that the issues raised ultimately must be settled by each person, himself or herself. No one can supply conviction to another. I think it is also self-evident that our previous experiences and background inevitably exercise some effect on our viewpont and tend to color it. So, whatever the issue is, an initial step is to try to see where the past may be hindering us from looking at matters cleanly. Otherwise at least some distortion of the picture is going to exist.

I do not believe that faith and will are mutually exclusive. I don’t believe any of us can walk the walk of faith without demonstrating a strong will and determination. None of the individuals given as examples of faith in the Biblical accounts were weak-willed persons. (Compare Hebrews 11:32-40.) They did, however, believe that there is a source of power that is greater than human will and looked to that source when human will seemed to fail them and thus were able to go beyond the limitations of human will alone. They were willing and able to face rejection, isolation, even to live in caves and holes in the ground, trusting in God’s help and power. Only if we recognize that life as a Christian is a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage, and that the apparent hardships can all work to our good, then only can we make that journey with peace of mind and calmness of heart.—Hebrews 12:3-13.

Spiritual maturity is like physical, mental and emotional maturity. They all take time and cannot be hurried. Just as one would not push one’s own child beyond what is good and normal to achieve more rapid growth, one ought not to push onerself. I believe that simply reading the Christian scriptures and focusing, not on a sort of dissecting, word-for-word analysis and interpretation, but on the basic message and import of the information can help to free the mind of a contrived viewpoint and provide a fresh outlook. I don’t recommend using the New World Translation, not because of any particular inherent deficiency, but because it makes it difficult to view what is read free from the mental baggage of the past. I have taken time to write several pages to you. But the ultimate point I am trying to convey is that I do not feel that people (such as you describe) are primarily or particularly in need of more words from myself—or anyone else today—but in need of reading and taking to heart the words of God’s Son and of his apostles, all found in the Scriptures. That is the essential message I sought to convey, however imperfectly, in the two books written.

I was impressed by a statement found in the book The Myth of Certainty, in which university professor Daniel Taylor writes:

The primary goal of all institutions and subcultures is self-preservation. Preserving the faith is central to God’s plan for human history; preserving particular religious institutions is not. Do not expect those who run the institutions to be sensitive to the difference. God needs no particular person, church, denomination, creed or organization to accomplish his purpose. He will make use of those, in all their diversity, who are ready to be used, but will leave to themselves those who labor for their own ends.

Nonetheless, questioning the institutions is synonymous, for many, with attacking God—something not long to be tolerated. Supposedly they are protecting God . . . Actually, they are protecting themselves, their view of the world, and their sense of security. The religious institution has given them meaning, a sense of purpose, and, in some cases, careers. Anyone perceived as a threat to these things is a threat indeed.

This threat is often met, or suppressed even before it arises, with power. . . . Institutions express their power most clearly by enunciating, interpreting and enforcing the rules of the subculture.

Having seen the truth of this in the Witness religion and its organization and creed, we should not nearsightedly fail to realize how equally true it is in the larger religious field.

[Copyright 2002 by Raymond Franz. Reproduced with the writer’s permission.]