Bob Potter

(Investigator 40, 1995 January)

Each of us views the world through cognitive 'goggles' – lenses constructed from the theories and hypotheses we have inherited and developed in our journey through life. 'Religion' is one of the ways we choose to look at the world. There are other ways – 'science' and 'politics'. Of course, these ways are not separate; they overlap and none of us uses exactly the same mental constructs.

For more than twenty years I have been interested in religious approaches to the world. As I have been an atheist since childhood, it may seem odd that I chose to research religious attitudes – I could just as easily have chosen to investigate political views and groupings. These were areas in which I had been much more involved...and, ironically, it was for precise)y that reason, because I had spent much of my life committed to various forms of the secular-Marxist religion, that I chose to escape my own 'hang-ups' in the political field and research religion. (It was soon to become very obvious that the mechanisms of the one area were readily applicable to the other!)

The Christian religion is the readiest to hand and it is for this reason and this reason alone that I began by overviewing the nature and function of fundamentalist Christianity, attempting to explain its 'success' and to explore the personality characteristics of a fundamentalist believer and the interactive nature of fundamentalist groups – why they attract particular individuals and how they 'transform' the lives of their members.

T.S. Eliot's frequently quoted remark 'Christianity is always adapting itself into something which can be believed' may be partly true of the 'official' church, but it misses an important point, for there are many elements in Christendom that do not 'keep up with the times' and it is precisely those elements that appear to become the major growth areas.

One cannot speak of Christianity, either as doctrine or as social institution, as if it were a monolithic entity existing in isolation. The church, like every other social institution, is a network of smaller units interacting with one another and with the world outside and reflecting different, often opposing, social and individual interests. What goes on within one unit, the ideology it develops for integrating and articulating its views of the world, therefore influences the attitudes and values of the units and the people who are members of these units within the general structure of society.

As a research psychologist I have been interested to learn something about the people who choose to identify themselves with fundamentalism – that style of religious belief that often takes as its starting point' a dogmatic insistence that the Bible is the literal 'word of God'. My investigation was psychological, therefore, not theological and my interest in the individuals was related to their 'style of thinking' rather than the content of their belief. (For those interested in making the 'political' comparisons as we proceed, the Marxist 'fundamentalist' would be the individual who 'wins' a political argument by producing the appropriate quotations from Marx or Engels or Trotsky or...)

* * *

The tension within Christianity between fundamentalism and liberalism manifests itself, as I have already indicated, in contrasting views about the status of the Bible. In AD312, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the religion of the State. In AD325 he presided over the Nicean Council which decided which 'scriptural' books were 'inspired': the following year he ordered that all 'heretic' writings were to be destroyed. From this point in time Church dogma evolved as part of the ideology of the ruling classes, as a means of explaining the differing social standings of the peoples while, at the same time, justifying the status quo. Scriptural interpretation was seen as an adjunct of political policy making.

Only an extreme minority of faithful were able to read, so insistence on a literal acceptance of the gospels was rarely at issue. Arguably, the first fundamentalist was Lactantius, a fourth century theologian who used the Bible to 'prove' the world was flat. His argument was developed more fully by Cosmas Indicoplaustes, writing in AD547, who derided those who wasted their time taking measurements and doing sums - the appropriate way to learn astronomy was to read the appropriate chapters in the Old Testament.

By the eighth century the cosmology of Cosmas had been abandoned, even by the fundamentalists, although regularly sects sprang up preaching a 'flat earth'. A popular anecdote of the thirteenth century relates how the congregation of one church was surprised to hear the voices of sailors coming from the sky and to see an anchor suspended above their heads, down which a sailor descended, dying of suffocation as he reached the ground. Tragedy had struck a boat cruising on the waters above the firmament!

Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian orthodoxy insisted that the Bible was literally true and the continued illiteracy of the masses and the unavailability of the texts allowed this claim to be largely unquestioned. All academic knowledge was grounded in religious conceptualisations, and prior to the Renaissance theological disputes were synonymous with metaphysical arguments – whatever the point of view being advocated it was always possible to find verses somewhere in the Bible to quote in support.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw rapid developments in science. Man (and woman!) needed to expand his astronomical knowledge in order to explore and exploit the globe. The Biblical view of the world could no longer be accepted: there is a basic contradiction between believing an eclipse is one of the modes whereby the Almighty expresses His anger with humanity and the ability of mathematicians to predict these 'supernatural' occurrences. The difficulties Bruno and Galileo encountered with established theology illustrated the developing conflict between religion and science, although the details of these clashes have been crudely over-simplified. (Many of the Jesuits were enlightened scholars who were not, in principle, hostile to the Copernican system. What the church would not tolerate was Galileo's claim that certain passages in scripture 'look as if they differ from truth'.)

The scientific revolution was accompanied by the invention of the printing press, and soon the Biblical texts were accessible to lay people. Historian A.G. Dickens tells us that 'Lutherism was from the first the child of the printed book’. In 1516, as Luther prepared to nail his ninety-five theses on the door of Wittenberg's church, Erasmus produced his New Testament. In 1539, Henry VIII had Bibles placed in English parish churches, so the congregations could read them and interpret them for themselves.

The initial Lutheran challenge to Roman Catholicism was on the grounds of the preservation of purity through adherence to the literal word of God (or opposed to the authority of the Catholic Church, based on tradition) but Luther himself was far from being a fundamentalist– indeed he insisted that some Bible books were more important than others and he dismissed, for example, the letter of James as 'an epistle of straw'.

Luther was undoubtedly one of the most viciously reactionary individuals in human history, whose anti-Semitic ravings make the later speeches of Adolf Hitler appear moderate in the extreme, but his reform served as a catalyst for fundamentalist and millenarian movements which he and his associates neither wanted nor could control. In this situation it became increasingly necessary for the church authorities to be 'seen' as endorsing the truth of scripture. The basis for a movement combining ecclesiastical conservatism and Bible literalism was being laid.

Close on the heels of religious reformation there began to develop a revolutionary ferment against the disintegrating European federal system, identifying itself with the Protestant reformation and manifesting hostility to the Established Church. The French revolutionaries of 1789 saw the Church as part of the feudal structure they overthrew. The elite theocrats in Rome may once have seemed enlightened 'humanists', but now the church was forced to become the blatant representative of the old order.

In England, the hierarchy of the national church usually reacted to change by identifying itself with the forces of reaction. Biblical interpretation became a device to preserve the Establishment and oppose reform; it was not untypical that when the Reform Bill of 1832 (to enfranchise the middle class) came to the House of Lords, twenty-one of the twenty-three bishops opposed it. Again, the following year, only two of the twenty-three bishops supported the bill to abolish slavery — they cited Exodus 21:2-6, for example. Although Christian apologists today often accredit their religious forebears with many social advances of the nineteenth century, most reformers of the day, like Jeremy Bentham, Robert Owen, Francis Place and James Mill, were atheists.

The first important scientific theory that could not be easily reconciled with Biblical literalism was Darwin's evolutionism, as expounded in The Origin of Species published in 1859. This was the point where the two factions comprising the church polarised and separated. To this day, at the popular level, evolution is often the issue that defines the boundaries of fundamentalism.

An early attempt to rationalise religion from within was that of David Friedrich Strauss, who in 1835 published The Life of Jesus Christ Critically Examined. Strauss argued that the Gospel narratives were myths representing essential truths. Although he carefully 'took the New Testament apart', highlighting the numerous contradictions and absurdities, he saw himself as a defender of Christianity:

We have outgrown the notion that the divine omnipotence is more completely manifested in the interruption of the order of nature than in its preservation, he argued, rejecting out of hand the need to believe in 'miracles' as historical facts.

A few years later, Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841) argued that the religious individual worships not God but an idealised human nature. Men look about them and observe that their ideals of perfection are not realised in particular human beings, assume that they must be realised in some being and postulate a God. The more they 'give' to God, the more they take from themselves. Marx and Engels have described the enthusiasm with which Feuerbach's early delineations of 'alienation' were greeted by contemporary radicals – and Marx himself was to develop more fully this idea of the roots of religion being found in man's alienation:

The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of the people, is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to abandon the illusions about their condition is a demand to abandon a condition which requires illusions.

Strauss and Feuerbach, then, were the founders of modem liberal and humanistic theology – a development to be continued by Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, John Robinson and more recently Don Cupitt. The latter has developed his 'humanism' to the point of rejecting the godhead in the traditional sense:

It seems doubtful whether there is any immense cosmic or supracosmic creator-mind. Even if there is, it is hard to see what it or he could have to do with religion.

The consequences of liberalism

A theme that will be explored later in this text is that one of the essential functions of traditional religion is that it offers security and stability in an increasingly uncertain world.

It is glaringly obvious, therefore, that the individual who joins a religious community because it appears as a sanctuary in an ambiguous and frightening world, will react strongly against modem attempts to 'de-mythologise' Christianity.

I have referred to the way in which early attempts to rationalise theology were countered by the Establishment – and this, of course, is what those who needed religion as a refuge wanted. In Great Britain, for example, membership of the traditional churches steadily increased, especially from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the period of the First World War. For most of that time, membership increased faster than the population; but during and after the 1914-18 War the numbers sharply declined in all the major churches apart from the Roman Catholic.

Interestingly the decline in membership correlated positively with the increasing liberalisation of theology. Equally interesting is the fact that throughout this period there had been no similar move to rationalise the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church and its numbers continued to rise. This trend has continued to more recent times.

One could say that the religious history of Western civilisation during the last five hundred years is largely a history of secularisation. Since the Reformation and the rise in science the external supports of the Christian faith have fallen away. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the power and prestige of the clergy declined dramatically - empirical methods and mechanical models left little room for revelation. The Christian who needed to remain faithful found his faith weakened by the social environment; increasingly he must 'withdraw' from the world.

The origin and growth of ‘fundamentalism’

The rejection of liberal Christian thought took two forms — firstly the insistence on the literal truth of the Bible and secondly the acceptance of millennial beliefs, the conviction that mankind was living in the 'last days' and that God would soon intervene to 'cleanse' the world.

No historical period lacks a millenarian movement. In America, the rejection of religion based on the new secular sciences culminated in the intense millennial expectation of William Miller, a Baptist preacher from New York, who in 1818 declared that study of the Bible had convinced him that the present world system was about to end. He eventually decided that Christ would return to Earth some time between 21st March 1843 and 21st March 1844. At their height the Millerites had a hard-core following of fifty thousand and probably another million were interested but not convinced. They did not form a distinct sect, remaining within their various congregations.

The failure of the prophecy did not lead to the demoralisation that might have been expected - indeed it led in many cases to increased enthusiasm: 'I have never witnessed a stronger and more active faith', declared one of the Millerite leaders in July 1844. The date of Christ's return was postponed until the following 22nd October. As this date approached thousands gave up work, closed their workshops and stores. Last goodbyes were said and the faithful remained at home waiting for the Lord. The intense distress following this second disappointment destroyed the Millerites in their original form. The movement shattered into three factions.

The largest group, including Miller himself, decided he had erred in calculating the date Christ would now return in 1849. The descendants of this group remain active in the US today. The second faction, the spiritualisers, decided that Miller had been correct, that Jesus had indeed returned as predicted, but in spirit form. This theme, with regular modifications of the critical dates, was to lead to the eventual foundation of the Jehovah's Witnesses. The third faction was to develop into today's Seventh-day Adventists. They argued that Miller's date was correct but that it referred to Christ's activity in heaven. Virtually all of today's fundamentalist Christian sects originated in the disintegration of the Millerite movement.

The name 'fundamentalism' arose in the USA during the First World War. Mention has already been made of the development of liberal thinking in the established churches of this period, and it was as a conservative reaction to this process that millionaire Lyman Stewart financed the publication of twelve booklets entitled The Fundamentals: a testimony of truth during 1910-12. Three million copies were sold expounding the central doctrines of:

a) the Bible is without error;
b) the virgin birth of Christ;
c) salvation through Christ;
d) the need to be 'infilled' by the Holy Spirit;
e) the imminent second coming of Christ;
f) the urgency of speedy evangelisation of the world.

These points remain the essence of twentieth century fundamentalism.

The influence of this new fanatical trend within the United States cannot be overstated. During the 1920s, for example, no less than seventeen anti-evolution bills were introduced into twenty state legislatures in attempts to eliminate this theory from the public schools.

The main thrust of contemporary fundamentalism still comes from America where since the mid-1960s Bible literalists, describing themselves as 'scientific creationists', have set up numerous organisations dedicated to campaigning against almost every objective of enlightened secular education. With impressive literature, videos and films, expeditions travel abroad seeking evidence supporting the Biblical creation myths – as, for example, the recent excavations in Turkey claiming to have found Noah's Ark, capable of holding fifty thousand animals.

The relative 'success' of the 'born again' approach to religion is measurable in that the growth rate of the various Christian groupings seems to correlate positively with the degree to which they endorse fundamentalist doctrine. Reference has already been made to the steady decline in the traditional congregations that has accompanied liberalisation. From October 1962 to December 1965 the Roman Catholics in Council, now known as Vatican II, met the groundswell of opinion for reform from within the church for 'liberty to study, liberty to discuss, liberty to differ, liberty to converse with all other men'. Limited though the reforms may have been in the eyes of the non-Catholic population, the church suffered a similar fate to that of mainstream Protestantism. For example, in this country during the years 1966 to 1992 the adult Sunday Mass attendance fell by 38% – from 2.1 million to 1.3 million participants. (Had Pope John Paul I, who was almost certainly murdered in September 1978 only thirty three days after his election, remained in office, even more vigorous reforms in the area of 'birth control' would have followed. One can only speculate what the effect of this liberalisation would have been!)

As every denomination has its own method of assessing numerical strength, it is difficult to make comparisons. However, if one accepts their own figures as being accurate, mainstream churches in general are, on average, losing up to 20% of their members with the passing of each decade.

On the other hand, fundamentalist communities continue to expand. For example, and typically, during the period 1980-1992 in the United Kingdom Jehovah's Witnesses increased their membership by 54%.

Two very important points need to be made regarding these comparative data:

1. If 1 accept the Catholic Directory's calculation that there were 4,280,000 Catholics in England and Wales in 1992, the figure doesn't really mean much. Many of these individuals may attend an occasional Mass and have no other involvement in their 'religion'.

2. But if I accept the Jehovah's Witnesses' calculation that there were 127,000 'Witnesses' active in this country in 1992, then the figure tells me, quite literally, that there were 127,000 individuals who attended fivemeetings every week and spent time selling their magazines on the doorstep every week. There is no such thing as an 'inactive Witness' and failure to comply with tile above mentioned requirements as a minimum would automatically remove them from the 'census'!

One other important point needs to be borne in mind when interpreting the meanings of the membership figures. From my own investigations, I have frequently found that even within the mainstream churches it tends to be the 'fundamentalist' congregations that recruit and expand: if it were possible to 'extract' the 'born again' gatherings from the mainstream churches, the collapse of the traditional 'liberal' congregations (e.g. Anglican, Methodist, Unitarian) and the inverse rapid expansion of the 'evangelicals' would be accurately reflected in the figures.

The fundamentalist personality

There appear to be at least six general psychological characteristics that go to make the fundamentalist individual. Not every fundamentalist has each of these characteristics, but the majority have most of them. Indeed, research has shown that it is possible to identify, with impressive accuracy, to which community individuals belong by noting the extent to which they conform to each of these dimensions. (Although these characteristics have been identified with reference to members of religious communities, the reader familiar with fringe political groupings will possibly 'recognise' these personality types!)

1. A rootless, alienated and isolated person who feels estranged from society and 'the world'. He will readily admit to 'not fitting in'.

He will often report that prior to joining he was troubled by loneliness and had never been able to form 'deep' relationships. Admittedly this problem will remain and he will have difficulty relating to others within the new congregation - but this will no longer be a problem: now there are so many things urgently requiring to be done in preparation for the 'second coming'. There just isn't time, now, for 'socialising'.

2. An individual who is obsessed by his own perceived personal inadequacy. He will attempt to prove his worth by finding tasks he can accomplish - great emphasis will be placed on rejecting smoking, drugs, alcohol, the wearing of immodest clothes.

The fundamentalist will often report that before joining he was an insignificant nobody – but now, along with his colleagues who have also been 'saved', he becomes part of an ever-expanding invincible organisation, possibly under the personal command of the Lord himself.

(Fundamentalists are often obsessed with statistics. Every single hour spent by every single Jehovah's Witness is recorded and documented world-wide in the annual 'Yearbook'. Constant growth is evidence that they have God's endorsement – if 'other' communities are growing, that is evidence of Satan's influence.)

3. An essentially self-centred person whose only 'way out' of his own perceived insignificance is seen in terms of joining an exclusive 'elite' possessing esoteric knowledge not shared with the rest of humanity. If he 'does good 'it is not from a 'social conscience' but rather because this is the price to be paid for membership of the elite.

I remember asking one Jehovah's Witness of forty years standing what we should do about the starving millions in the Third World. 'Nothing', was her reply, 'whatever we did would be as if we attempted to warm up the sea by emptying a kettle of boiling water into it'. When I asked the congregation overseer the same question he assured me that ‘Jehovah is going to put this right in the near future – we don't want to do his work for him'.

4. An anti-intellectual largely engendered by his own exclusion from the academic world and/or past failures to gain 'recognition'. Although he will often claim to be a 'student', study will consist of reading the superficial pamphlets of his own group. His bookcase will not contain scholarly works or Bible criticisms – his object is to confirm his faith, not explore it.

He will not be a deep thinker: rather he will fear the thought processes and the dilemmas and ambiguities that result from them.

His conversion will have been sudden – not the consequence of long periods of contemplation. In discussions with outsiders the opinions of the other person will not be regarded as worthy of serious consideration – rather as a means of developing his 'debating skills'.

Indeed points of view from outsiders are viewed as a great danger. Not untypical of the attitude to the views of 'outsiders' is the following warning that appeared in the Watchtower (15th March 1986) regarding alien literature:

...what will you do if you receive a letter or some literature, open it, and see right away that it has come from a hostile source? Will curiosity cause you to read it, just to see what it has to say? You may even reason: 'It won't affect me; I'm too strong in the truth. And besides, if we have the truth we have nothing to fear' ... In thinking this way, some have fed their minds upon apostate reasoning and have fallen prey to serious questioning and doubt.

Alongside this text is a picture of a believer wisely throwing the alien literature, unopened, into the dustbin. In fact, in 1992, the Watchtower Society instructed their readers they should not read hostile literature - and this includes their own publications older than the year 1960!

5. A person with a deep fear of uncertainty and chaos. The great attraction of the religious community is that it is seen as an impregnable system totally managed by the Almighty and/or his agents on earth. Fundamentalists are fearful of the future and often admit they could never be happy if the future were uncertain. Perhaps this is related to their sense of inadequacy - if it is difficult to cope with the present, how can it be possible to cope with the unknown problems of the future? Hence the need to 'determine' the future through Bible prophecy – often with embarrassing consequences: since the founding of the Watchtower organisation, – for example, the following years have been specified by them as the date when 'Armageddon' is due: 1874, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1941 and 1975.

The 'fear of future' is bound up with the perceived urgency of their proselytisation. It is because the presence of 'the End' is so close, a point that is emphasised in every meeting, in every conversation, that the fundamentalist 'elders' are able to keep their followers too busy to have time to think deeply about their beliefs and doctrines. Jehovah's Witness elders are removed from their post in the congregation if they allow their children to enter into Higher Education – there is just no time for study, the End is so near. And anyway, they will add, the educational institutions are in the hands of the Devil and his demons. 'There will be plenty of time for study after Armageddon', I have often been told.

6. Finally, quite literally, the fundamentalist person is a psychotic individual. Indeed, if the mythologies are to be taken at face value, the founders of most religions were psychotic people who regularly talked with angels and heard voices from heaven announcing who they were or asking why the listeners were persecuting the true God. (Read the New Testament for many examples!)

Living in a world that, it is literally believed, is peopled by demons (Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Satan sends his agents to every Kingdom Hall meeting in order that he may also discover the Truth!) it should surely come as no surprise to learn that fundamentalists are much more likely than the population norm to collapse into psychotic illness. A considerable amount of research in many countries, but especially in Australia and the United States, has found significant positive correlations between fundamentalist beliefs and mental illness. Specifically, for example, Jehovah's Witnesses are between four and ten times more likely to be diagnosed schizophrenic than the population at large.

In the next section it is proposed to look at the function of the group for the individual. Could it be likely that there might be support for the view that Freud was correct to characterise 'religion' as a 'mass neurosis'? Perhaps 'fundamentalism, may be a 'mass psychosis, – that by joining one of these communities the vulnerable person may avoid the necessity of constructing his own 'individual' psychosis.

The individual and the group

In his book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer suggested that there is often a point in time where a person's psychological structure disintegrates and he is then ripe for recruitment to the first sect that happens to come along. Perhaps another variable needs to be considered, namely that different groups offer different attractions, so each group appeals to a different type of person.

A weakness of this kind of explanation is that it may disregard the active role of the group in generating and intensifying this process. Basing our theory on the 'alienation' of the recruit makes no allowance for the attractions of the community in question. There is clearly an interactive process between the individual and the group. Individuals search their world for an appropriate community that matches their psychological needs; but at the same time groups themselves engender a 'group psychology' that endeavours to attract new members. There are at least five possible attributes that can make a group attractive:

1. They are fixed communities. To have a conversion is nothing much - the real thing is to be able to continue treating it seriously!

2. Experiences are shared. Members do more than share ideas — their creed becomes a living reality, constantly being re-confirmed in every day's experience.

3. The most effective persuasion is that initiated by the convert himself - in telling and re-telling his experience he is re-convincing himself while 're-structuring' his memories in the light of the group ideology.

4. Because each group has its own specific attraction, handles its own particular 'problems', those who join have much in common. Individuals are influenced most by those they perceive as being similar to themselves, so converts are constantly reinforcing themselves by eliminating feelings of isolation.

5. Groups are strengthened by the kinds of problems they address: sufferers readily embrace a new system of ideas promising relief or comfort.

One need only look at the procedure and functions of a group like Alcoholics Anonymous to appreciate the common features of group interactions — the AA 'catechism' reminds one of a typical Pentecostal dialogue:

a) at every meeting each member must confess his 'sinfulness'  – 'my name is ... and I am an alcoholic';
b) recovery only begins after experiencing the depths of despair, recognising that one's own efforts at self-control are insufficient and accepting the aid of a power greater than oneself;
c) members maintain and reinforce their own insecurity and instability in a threatening world by proselytisation, spreading the message to other alcoholics.

The similarity of process, fundamentalist and AA, is inescapable. (Ironically, there may well be other common factors. Research has found that alcoholics are more likely than controls to have a religious background!)

The other attractions of the community have already been hinted at: the warm social atmosphere to replace the earlier isolation and alienation, the offering of status, boosting the self-confidence of the individual by training him and helping him to perceive himself as an important person carrying out God's task. The challenging nature of the community's activities outside their group meetings may often arouse the hostility of the general population, thus creating a ghetto mentality and so enhancing even more the strong feeling of social solidarity that can, at times, even lead to personal immolation. Tremendously positive transformations can occur in the individual's life as a consequence of his joining the community – his morale is boosted, he leaves the barren, hostile world; he now has the opportunity to identify himself with a transcendental process engaged in changing reality.

The convert is probably not conscious of the pressures on him to 'internalise' group norms and values. He believes his decision to join originated in his 'free will; the changes in his outlook, mediated by his group membership, are seen by him as the consequences of his own ingenuity.

An essential function of daily community is that it may enable the individual member to achieve an acceptable image of himself. He remains committed as long as he feels his membership contributes to his sense of 'positive social identity'.

Visit any meeting of Jehovah's Witnesses at their Kingdom Hall and what will you find? You will find a tightly-packed hall of about two hundred individuals of all ages – from young children to the very old. All will be immaculately dressed — and, before the meeting begins, the noise will resemble that of a meeting of a local cricket club.

There will be immediate silence when the meeting begins. If it is the weekly 'Watchtower Study', the presiding elder will read, verse by verse, the designated article from the current edition. Every member of the congregation will have previously studied this article before the meeting.

After reading aloud the first paragraph, the elder will ask a question:

'What did Paul mean when he said blank, blank, blank?' Immediately more than a hundred hands will be raised, offering to answer the question. Congregation servants holding microphones will wait for the presiding elder to indicate who will be given the opportunity to answer – and as soon as the elder announces 'Sister Bloggs' a microphone is rushed to the designated woman. It matters little who is given the opportunity – the answer will be identical because they are all printed at the bottom of that page in the Watchtower! Almost an hour will be spent working through the article in this manner, and a very successful confidence-building exercise it is. Almost everybody gets a chance to talk to the congregation (with a microphone!) and everybody gives the 'correct' answer. Members leave the meeting pleased with themselves, they have demonstrated their 'understanding' of the relevant doctrines, they are confident they will be able to confront the householders they will meet on the next door-to-door ministry.

But this is just the beginning of the confidence-building exercise. Another meeting they will attend each week will be the 'Theocratic Ministry School'. Here a rank-and-file male member will deliver a 'bible reading' from the platform. His performance will be carefully studied by an appointed elder who will make detailed notes marking him for his diction. Did he arouse interest by an introductory speech? Was his speech the correct length? Did he encourage the audience to use the Bible? Did he speak with the appropriate volume? Did he pause correctly between themes? – in all he will be graded in thirty-six items, not only on his speech but also regarding his personal appearance, clothing, confidence and poise.

The elder's assessment is discussed briefly before the assembled congregation and later in greater detail with the rank-and-file member. He is given an overall grade and is expected to improve on this the next time around. You will never meet a Jehovah's Witness who will not tell you how his speaking confidence and ability has been transformed in this process.

There is a similar exercise for the female Witnesses. The 'Ministry School' mounts role-play activities: two of the sisters, armed with literature, canvass a householder who 'answers the door' and responds in a hostile manner. At the end of the role-play there is a general discussion where individuals from the floor are encouraged to suggest how the canvassers should have responded to the misguided housewife.

Again the congregation's sisters benefit tremendously from these practice runs – not surprisingly their confidence is built up and in a very short time they become very adept at 'holding their own' with the general public, often far better educated than the Watchtower supporters, but not used to tackling the specific, carefully structured questions that are posed. Unskilled, non-academic, poorly-educated 'disciples' can 'hold their own' on their terms.

The Jehovah's Witness community is more authoritarian, more centralised, more 'organised from above' than other fundamentalist groupings – but all groups to a greater or lesser degree serve similar functions.

Every fundamentalist body can provide status, purpose, legitimacy and stability. 'Me greater the 'need' for these enhancements, the more sharply drawn are the boundaries between members of the 'in group' and everybody else. The 'closed mind' is the final 'defence mechanism' of the insecure individual - and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the field of fundamentalist religion. Let's examine this question further, again using the Jehovah's Witness to illustrate some points.

Opening the closed mind

It is rare to find a Witness who is unaware of the evidence exposing the dishonesty of the Watchtower. Why then do they not see a problem? Obviously there is something that prevents them from objectively analysing factual information. Frequently I have attempted to show Witness canvassers old copies of the Watchtower to demonstrate the regular doctrinal changes made by their organisation - always they refuse to look at this material. If one cannot succeed in getting them to examine critically their own material, one can appreciate the impossibility of expecting them to study 'other' sources: they will happily spend hours discussing evolutionary theory but they will refuse to read any text by Charles Darwin. Their minds appear to have an in-built mechanism which causes them to stop short of doubting anything propagated by their elders.

What is the powerful motivation that prevents the Witness entering the 'dangerous' waters of critical investigation? The motivation is fear; the underlying problem is misplaced 'security'. Convincing the Witness that his organisation is deceptive is like trying to convince a five-year-old child who loves his parents that his father is in prison for armed robbery ~ he simply can't believe his father is dishonest. In fact, he can't tolerate the thought, since he has placed all his security and trust in his father and mother. The truth is too fearful and devastating to consider. To protect his source of security, he must reject factual information as being a lie.

The more and more he ignores the facts, the more narrow-minded and adamant he becomes that he will never change, and the more convinced he becomes that he indeed is in possession of the truth. He digs himself into a trench, erecting all sorts of mental barricades against his real enemy, which is doubt.

The question, surely, is what can we do to help open this closed mind? There is the very real danger that if we approach the problem incorrectly we could very easily risk the Witness closing the door even more firmly – he will refuse to discuss with you further because you are perceived as a threat to his security.

The solution, then, must be to try to shift his security base. Initially, this may best be achieved by simply being a friend – it isn't necessary to spend every moment (or, initially, any moment) demonstrating the absurdity of his beliefs. If, like the majority of Witnesses, he has been in the organisation for a number of years, he will have learned there is no true friendship within that body – he may well welcome a friend he can trust. But if your opening discussions are based around your 'clever' dismissal of Watchtower doctrines, you will immediately be seen as part of Satan's organisation and the contact will cease. The 'official' Watchtower view is that if you are a non-believer you are being manipulated by the Devil!)

The American 'pop' psychologist Dale Carnegie used always to say that the hest way to get a person to change his mind is to do it in such a way that the person thought it was his idea in the first place. This is the strategy I would suggest using on our Witness friend as slowly the conversations move into his chosen areas.

The kinds of questions that might be asked of our newly acquired friend:

If I were making a study of the Mormons, do you think I should read books written by ex-Mormons?
(The Witness will say 'yes'...)

If I were making a study of the Witnesses, should I read books by ex-Witnesses?
(Witnesses are forbidden to do so!)

What do you think of the many cults that forbid their members from reading texts from other groups?
(Again, the Witness has a problem – for they are forbidden to read other literature.)

How could I identify a false prophet?
(Deuteronomy 18: 20-22 tells us clearly that false prophets are those who foretell the future, and it doesn't happen. Witnesses know their organisation has often done this – this is a major reason why earlier publications have been withdrawn from all Kingdom Hall libraries.)

Opening the closed mind is the most difficult task imaginable. You are attempting to force the person to break down the wall they have erected in their mind that protects them from questioning the authority and security of their 'mother'.

Above all, remember, you will never open a closed mind by brilliant argument. The individual hiding in his refuge is there because the world before the Watchtower came along was a lonely, miserable place. Only when an offer of a possible haven in the rational world is seen as a possibility will the target person gradually become willing to reason, to question, to agree on common principles. If this willingness cannot be engendered, you are wasting your time. The closed mind is only opened by successfully building up the self-esteem of the fundamentalist individual. This is a tremendously difficult task – BUT THERE IS NO OTHER WAY!

Skeptics versus Bible defenders on this website: