We are very down on independent thinking in the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example,
Pride may play a role, and some fall into the trap of independent thinking.
(w06 7/15 p. 22 par. 14)
Due to background and upbringing, some may be more given to independent thinking and self-will than others.
(w87 2/1 p. 19 par. 13)
This is by no means a recent development.
Any other course would produce independent thinking and cause division.
(w64 5/1 p. 278 par. 8 Building a Firm Foundation in Christ)
He cannot have independent thinking. Thoughts must be obedient to Christ.
(w62 9/1 p. 524 par. 22 Pursuing Peace Through Increased Knowledge)
The world, in its independent thinking, ignores God and his purposes for man as though he were not the Creator.
(w61 2/1 p. 93 Safeguard Thinking Ability for the Ministry)
It was independent thinking that started humankind out on its current tragic course. Adam chose to think independently of Jehovah. There are but two courses open to humans. Thinking that depends on Jehovah, and thinking which is independent of him. The latter is thinking that depends on men, whether oneself or others. Thinking, dependent on God—Good! Thinking, independent of God—Bad!
Simple, isn’t it?
But what if men want to confuse the issue? How can they mess with such a simple formula? By getting us to believe they speak for God. If we believe that, then we will believe that independent thinking—independent of those men, that is—is bad. This is how the man of lawlessness accomplishes his task. He sits in the temple, proclaiming himself as a God. (2 Th 2:4) Therefore, thinking independently of him is a sin. Using this technique, he can convince us we are obeying God when in fact we are doing just the opposite.
It is sad to have to say this, but by their own words it is evident that this is the tactic that the Governing Body has used for decades. Consider:
But a spirit of independent thinking does not prevail in God’s organization, and we have sound reasons for confidence in the men taking the lead among us.
(w89 9/15 p. 23 par. 13 Be Obedient to Those Taking the Lead)
But inside they are spiritually unclean, having given in to prideful, independent thinking. They have forgotten all that they learned about Jehovah, his holy name and attributes. They no longer acknowledge that all they learned about Bible truth—the glorious hope of the Kingdom and a paradise earth and the overturning of false doctrines, such as the Trinity, the immortal human soul, eternal torment, and purgatory—yes, all of this came to them through “the faithful and discreet slave.”
(w87 11/1 pp. 19-20 par. 15 Are You Remaining Clean in Every Respect?)
20 From the very outset of his rebellion Satan called into question God’s way of doing things. He promoted independent thinking. ‘You can decide for yourself what is good and bad,’ Satan told Eve. ‘You don’t have to listen to God. He is not really telling you the truth.’ (Genesis 3:1-5) To this day, it has been Satan’s subtle design to infect God’s people with this type of thinking.—2 Timothy 3:1, 13.
21 How is such independent thinking manifested? A common way is by questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization.
(w83 1/15 p. 22 pars. 20-21 Exposing the Devil’s Subtle Designs)
Today, too, there are those who, by their independent thinking, question Christ’s ability to have and use on the earth a specially appointed governing body of imperfect humans, to whom he has entrusted all the Kingdom interests or “belongings” on earth. (Matt. 24:45-47) When such independent thinkers receive counsel and direction based on the Bible, they incline to the thought, ‘This is only from fleshly men, so it is up to me to decide whether to accept it or not.’
(w66 6/1 p. 324 Intellectual Freedom or Captivity to the Christ?)
You will notice in these quotes how we start by laying a solid foundation on the readily acceptable truth that thinking that is independent of God is bad. Then we slide seamlessly from that truth to the lie that thinking which is independent of the Governing Body/faithful slave/those taking the lead is just as bad. This turns some humans into God’s peers.
That a deception is at work is most transparent in the last (1966) quote because that refers to a Governing Body 10 years before there actually was one. At that time, Nathan Knorr and Fred Franz governed the Organization’s output.
Given how obvious this misapplication of a scriptural principle is, one can’t help but wonder why it is so readily taken up by millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The answer can be found in a principle stated by Peter. Though applied to a different situation, like all principles it has a broad application.
“. . .For, according to their wish, this fact escapes their notice. . .” (2 Pe 3:5)
Those unbelievers didn’t accept the fact in question as true because they didn’t want to. Why wouldn’t they want to? Applying the principle to our day, we can ask: Why would people who claim to be “in the truth”, reject truth when it is presented to them from Scripture? Many of us have had occasion to bring up our findings regarding 1914 or the two-tier system of salvation with various Witness friends and have often been shocked at the negative and dismissive responses we have received. If we push a little harder, we are often confronted with angry condemnation. Why do these brothers and sisters not want to believe the evidence before them?
Recently, I was watching an episode of a TV show called Perception. It ended with this fascinating monologue.
“There’s nothing worse than a liar. We all feel that way. But why? Why do we take such exception to somebody pulling the wool over our eyes? ‘Cause it feels lousy…literally. Disbelief gets processed by the limbic system’s cingulate cortex and the anterior insula; the same parts of the brain that report visceral sensations like pain and disgust. So this not only explains why we hate liars, but why we as human beings long for something to believe in. Whether it be Santa Claus or a scientific fact like gravity, our brains reward us emotionally when we believe. To believe is to feel good; to feel comforted. But how can we trust our own belief system when our brains are giving them emotional kickbacks? By balancing it all with critical thinking; by questioning everything…and by always, always being open to the possibilities.“ Dr. Daniel Pierce, TV Show Perception [Boldface added]
When someone lies to us, it doesn’t just bother us intellectually, but viscerally. Jehovah designed us that way. Likewise, when we learn a new truth, whether it is scriptural or scientific, we feel good. We get a little chemically induced high. We like that feeling. When we believe, we feel good, we feel comforted. But there is a danger.
“. . .For there will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, but, in accord with their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, whereas they will be turned aside to false stories. 5 You, though, keep your senses in all things,. . .” (2Ti 4:3-5)
Like a drug addict addicted to a high that we know is bad for us, our own desires can cause us to cling to false stories. They make us feel good. Our brain rewards us for believing with an emotional kickback. All we have to do is go out in service (even if we are just handing out tracts), attend all the meetings, pioneer regularly (Look they’ve made it even easier with the new 30-hour requirement), and most of all, obey the Governing Body; and we will live forever in paradise as youthful human beings.
As the character of Dr. Pierce asked, “How can we trust our own belief system when our brains are giving us emotional kickbacks?” The answer, “By balancing it all with critical thinking.”
What is critical thinking?
Since 1950, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society publications have next to nothing to say about it. In fact, the term is referred to only incidentally in just three places in all that time.[i]
While the NWT doesn’t use the term, the concept is scriptural and can be found in the term “thinking ability.”
“To impart shrewdness to the inexperienced; To give a young man knowledge and thinking ability.” (Pr 1:4)
“Thinking ability will keep watch over you, And discernment will safeguard you, 12 To save you from the bad course, From the man speaking perverse things,” (Pr 2:11, 12)
“My son, do not lose sight of them. Safeguard practical wisdom and thinking ability; 22 They will give you life And be an adornment for your neck;” (Pr 3:21, 22)
The words “discernment” and “insight” are closely related and also well supported in Scripture.
Critical thinking is vital if we are going to overcome the mind’s willingness to believe for the emotional kickback it receives. It is a scriptural concept and one we are commanded to practice.
One definition of the phrase “critical thinking” is “the study of clear and unclear thinking. It is primarily used in the field of education, and not in psychology (it does not refer to a theory of thinking).
The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (a non-profit organization based in the U.S.) defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.
Etymology: One sense of the term critical means “crucial” or “highly important”; a second sense derives from κριτικός (kritikos), which means “able to discern”.
If we are to ensure that we don’t engage in the wrong kind of independent thinking (thinking that is independent of God) we must practice critical thinking. Consider this advice from The Watchtower:
To ask a sound religious question is a demonstration of lack of faith in God and the church, according to the clergy. As a result, the Irish people do very little independent thinking. They are victims of the clergy and fear; but freedom is in sight.
(w58 8/1 p. 460 Dawns a New Era for the Irish)
I am sure the irony of this excerpt does not escape you. The church in Ireland kept the people in darkness by imposing their will on them and coercing them with fear. A new era dawned when the Irish Catholics began to think independently of the Church. In a similar way, Jehovah’s Witnesses are repeatedly discouraged from thinking independently of our organization or church by our equivalent clergy class which uses the fear of disfellowshipping to keep us in line.
A Lesson from Computers
It may surprise you to learn that the simplest of all electronic circuits is the basis for all computers. The flip-flop circuit uses only two transistors and no other component parts. It can be in only one of two states: On or Off; One or Zero. This is known as a binary logic circuit and by replicating this circuit over and over in the millions, we create the most complex of electronic devices—complexity from simplicity.
I find that life is frequently like that. Handling the overwhelming complexity of human interactions can often be accomplished by boiling it all down to one simple binary concept. Either we obey the Creator and benefit, or we obey the creation and suffer. It almost seems too simple to work, yet it does. Like the computer’s flip-flop circuit, it’s either 1 or 0. God’s way or man’s.
The creator wants us to think critically. He encourages us to develop thinking ability, discernment, insight and wisdom. He wants us to listen to him. The creation discourages all these things. If someone is discouraging you from exercising thinking ability, he stands in opposition to God. Even if that someone is yourself. For you and I are part of creation, and often we stop ourselves from thinking critically, from honestly examining the facts, because deep down in some dark part of our brain a little voice is telling us not to go there, because we don’t want to face the consequences of the thought process. So we raise up walls that stop us from critically evaluating the situation. We lie to ourselves, because we like the way the current reality feels.
It is, at the level of this metaphorical flip-flop circuit, an issue of sovereignty. Does the Creator rule us, or do we rule ourselves? A binary choice—but a life and death one.
Make Time for Meditation
Back in 1957, The Watchtower had a somewhat different view of independent thinking than it does now. In a beautifully written segment we are taught the following:
Though not sought by crowds as Jesus was, his followers today are hard-pressed by modern living to find solitude for meditation. In many places in the world simplicity of living has been replaced by a life of complexity, with waking hours crammed with both important and trivial matters. Moreover, people today are developing an aversion to thinking. They fear being alone with their own thoughts. If other people are not around, they fill the void with television, movies, light reading matter, or if they go to the beach or park the portable radio goes too so they will not have to be with their own thoughts. Their thinking must be channeled for them, ready-made by propagandists. This suits Satan’s purpose. He deluges the mass mind with anything and everything but God’s truth. To keep minds from doing godly thinking Satan keeps them busy with thoughts that are either trivial or ungodly. It is tailor-made thinking, and the tailor of it is the Devil. Minds work, but in the way that a horse is led. Independent thinking is difficult, unpopular and even suspect. Thought conformity is the order of our day. To seek solitude for meditation is frowned upon as antisocial and neurotic.—Rev. 16:13, 14.
8 As Jehovah’s servants we must obey his command to meditate. The rush of events sometimes sweeps us along like a chip on the river, with no chance to guide or control our own course unless we put up a struggle against the current and work our way into a side eddy or calm pool for pause and reflection. We are like sparrows in a tornado, whirled in circles, round and round the daily cycles with no chance for repose, unless we can fight our way into the calm eye of the windstorm for regular periods of meditation on spiritual matters. To meditate we must have peace and quiet, must shut out sounds that assault the ear and blind ourselves to sights that distract the eye. The organs of sense must be soothed so they will not be occupying the mind with their messages, thus freeing the mind to think of other things, new things, different things, freeing it to probe within itself instead of being barraged from without. If a room is full more persons cannot enter. If the mind is occupied new thoughts cannot come. We must make room to receive when we meditate. We must open the arms of the mind to new thoughts, and do this by clearing our mind of the everyday thoughts and concerns, by shutting out the daily jumble of complex modern living. It takes time and solitude to thus empty and free the mind of the daily whirling turmoil, but if we do this the mind will graze its way through the green pastures of God’s Word and will be soothed by the restful waters of truth. Meditation will bring you many fresh, delectable, spiritual tidbits; doing it regularly will spiritually revive, renew and replenish you. Then you can say of Jehovah: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” Or, “He gives me new life.”—Ps. 23:2, 3, RS; AT.
(w57 8/1 p. 469 pars. 7-8 Will You Get to Live on Earth Forever?)
In light of our present position on independent thinking, the irony of this passage is shocking. How often have you heard brothers complain that they are so busy with theocratic duties that they have no time for personal study, contemplation and meditation? This complaint is so common among Bethelites that it has become a joke among the rest of us balancing congregation responsibilities with secular duties.
This isn’t from God. Jehovah’s son had only 3½ years to accomplish his ministry, yet he regularly took time for solitary meditation. In fact, before starting out, he took more than a month off to be alone to pray, think and meditate. He set the example for us in never allowing his theocratic work to consume all his time. Jehovah wants us to take time for thoughtful meditation.
Who is it now who ‘channels our thinking’? Who considers ‘independent thinking to be suspect’? Who makes “thought conformity the order of our day”?[ii]
It is simple. A binary choice. The Creator wants us to depend on him, and tells us to think critically and examine all things. (Phil 1:10; 1 Th 5:21; 2 Th 2:2; 1 John 4:1; 1 Co 2:14, 15) The creation wants us to accept their thoughts unquestioningly; to depend on them.
1 or 0.
It’s our choice. It’s your choice.
[i] w02 12/1 p. 3 Giving Until It Hurts; g99 1/8 p. 11 Protecting Freedoms—How?; g92 9/22 p. 28 Watching the World
[ii] “We need to guard against developing a spirit of independence. By word or action, may we never challenge the channel of communication that Jehovah is using today. “ (w09 11/15 p. 14 par. 5 Treasure Your Place in the Congregation)
To “think in agreement,” we cannot harbor ideas contrary to…our publications (CA-tk13-E No. 8 1/12)