“MadSweeney” is a regular contributor to several online discussion forums that focus on the Watchtower Society and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Known for his informed and clearly expressed opinions that are frequently delivered with a pointed sense of humor, “MadSweeney” has become a favorite among forum regulars.
“Sweeney” recently decided to expand the reach of his message, and as of April, 2011 he’s branched out, broadcasting a bi-weekly talk show. He shares his own observations and commentary, along with those of his guests, as host of Cult Free Radio on UStream. He agreed to give us the following exclusive interview and to bring us up-to-date on the progress of his new podcast.
Be sure to check out recent programs by clicking on the graphic above. You can enjoy reading “MadSweeney’s” forum posts at JWN (Jehovahs-Witness.net) and other forums listed on our “Other JW Sites” directory page. Don’t miss reading “MadSweeney’s” informative (and humorous) article for Ex-JW.com, “The Watchtower’s Pecking Order”.
EDITOR: So may I just call you “Sweeney”? After all, that’s part of your forum pseudonym of “MadSweeney”?
SWEENEY: Absolutely. You can call me Sweeney, Mad Sweeney, MS, Mad. Whatever you’re comfortable with.
EDITOR: How did you happen to come by that nom de plume?
SWEENEY: I’ve been participating on Internet message boards for a long time. Before they were popular, I participated in Usenet newsgroups. Back in the 1990s I even participated in some of the Round Tables on GEnie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GEnie ).* As Internet usage grew, and security became an issue for anyone participating in online discussions, like many others I stopped using my real name and chose unique user names for the various boards and discussion groups I participated in. Being a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I chose character names from some of my favorite books and movies.
[*As an aside, this was before the Watchtower Society came out strongly against “online associations,” and during a time when many Jehovah’s Witnesses were becoming active online, mostly to interact with one another and to defend their faith. But I was more interested in sports and science fiction groups, so very rarely got into any online religious discussions.]
“Mad Sweeney” is a character from the Neil Gaiman novel “American Gods,” which may become an HBO mini-series within the next year or two. He’s a tall, skinny, leprechaun-type figure who drinks himself to death because nobody believes in him anymore. Basically, he’s the exact opposite of the real me – more of a short, chubby, American-type figure, who doesn’t drink at all anymore because I’ve learned to believe in myself.
At various times in the past, online I have been The Marquis de Carabas, The Dread Pirate Roberts, and other variations on those names – like TheMdC and TheDPR.
EDITOR: I see your posts on JWN all the time. How many websites do you contribute to regularly?
SWEENEY: I like to keep my Cult Free Religious life separate from the rest of my online life. So you won’t see Mad Sweeney on NFL or NCAA Hockey discussion boards, or Gaiman or Straczynski fan pages, even though I’m there.
As for religious and Cult Free discussions, in addition to JWN, I am increasingly participating in www.jehovahswitnessrecovery.com, and the “The End is Nigh…” group on Facebook. I have contributed a bit to this site, www.ex-JW.com , and I have also set up a “Cult Free Radio” discussion group on Facebook. Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, and the delicate family situation of many group members, I was asked to make the group’s status “secret.” But the rest of the current group members and I are happy to keep adding friends to the group. Because “The End is Nigh…” is already so well established and successful, the CFR group primarily sticks to discussions about the show itself.
EDITOR: Can you describe your connection with Jehovah’s Witnesses?
SWEENEY: When I was just a toddler, my mom had her first contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Another relative had recently converted and, of course, immediately started preaching to the rest of the family. Before too long, my mother was studying the “Truth” book on her way to getting baptized at the district convention in 1975.
So I was basically raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Like most JWs, I got married young, but was incredibly lucky that my wife is someone I am happy to spend my entire life with. So many of the JW friends I grew up with are either divorced or stuck in unhappy marriages because they don’t have a reason that the Watchtower allows for divorce. I’m thankful for the marriage and family that I have.
EDITOR: Were you ever an elder or ministerial servant? Did you ever pioneer?
SWEENEY: While I was a Jehovah’s Witness, I progressed in the organization relatively slowly. I think this was because of two things. One, I was too honest for my own good. I would never say things I didn’t mean like, “I really wish I could pioneer and go to Bethel; I’ve been praying about it,” just to make myself look more “spiritual” than those around me. I never had interest in either of those things that would have put me on the fast-track to becoming an elder. I have known kids in their mid-20s who were appointed as elders because of their pioneering and spending a few years in Bethel service.
So I took the slow and steady route, knowing that the kid who was appointed in his 20s would probably be burned out and stepping down by the time I got appointed. Eventually, in my late 30s, I was appointed as a ministerial servant. I quickly received assignments like public talks and Watchtower study conductor for the small foreign language group my family was involved in. I put in a lot of time and energy and gas money traveling all over the place to give talks and trying to convince others to come to our little neck of the woods to give talks, too. It was fun for me. It was a lot more fun than field service ever was.
EDITOR: So you were on track for more responsibility at that point?
SWEENEY: However, something else happened, just as I was getting my feet under me as a ministerial servant, that opened my mind to the fact that the people running the organization were delusional. As someone raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I knew that there were times when guys who were relative dopes, from the perspective of the real world, would work the system and manage to get appointed as elders. But I always felt, like all faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses feel, that they were the exception rather than the rule, and that Jehovah would work it out in His own due time. What I didn’t know was that delusional thoughts originated with the organization itself. Here’s how I found out:
I always had a good personal relationship with the men on the body of elders. They were mostly my peers. A few were older and a couple younger, but we were all grown men of equal status, or so I thought. There was an internal decision the body made that was going to be detrimental to the foreign language group I was working in – and it was going to create tons of extra work for me personally. I complained verbally to several of my friends about it, thinking my gripe had merit, and knowing that 90% of the elders on the body didn’t have a clue what impact their decision was going to have.
Well, I said my piece and thought “that was that.”
Then a couple weeks later, the PO (they were still called Presiding Overseer at the time) asked me to meet with him and another elder to discuss some concerns he heard I was having.
“At last!” I thought, “Someone is actually listening and is going to do something about this.”
EDITOR: Then what happened?
SWEENEY: That optimism proved to be short-lived.
The meeting with the two elders consisted of “counsel” on pride, questioning, and obedience, and culminated with the PO applying Revelation 1:20 (the scripture where Christ is said to hold stars in his right hand) to themselves. They viewed themselves as those “stars,” and according to Watchtower doctrine (yes, I researched it later and these two elders weren’t making it up), questioning a decision by the body of elders is equal to “challenging the authority of Jesus Christ himself.”
There was no arguing with such lunacy. I KNEW these guys. They had no special insight. They weren’t representing Jesus in this prideful viewpoint, they were just using that so they wouldn’t have to re-think their decision and perhaps admit they were wrong – while a lowly ministerial servant was correct.
From that day on I took nothing said by any of the organization leaders at face value. How can you tell a human being not to think, not to ask questions, and then expect him to remain compliant and content? It obviously works on millions, but that was what broke the spell over me. I no longer felt that it would be wrong to explore and research outside of Watchtower organization literature, because at that point I knew their leaders were a fraud hiding behind a façade of authority.
“The rest,” as they say, “is history.”
It took several years of continuing to work as a ministerial servant, while researching the Internet in private, before I was convinced that there really was nothing in the Watchtower organization worth putting faith in. One of the final straws that really turned me off was the February 15, 2009 Watchtower article “They Keep Following the Lamb,” that talked about how “Jehovah Trusts the Slave,” and “The Slave Is Trusted by Jesus,” and you rank and file JWs better trust the slave, too. It was painful to conduct that Watchtower study knowing the entire thing was a lie.
Even so, it still took me another year or more to finally fade out of the organization for good. I wasn’t going to leave without my family, but that’s a long story for another time.
Extricating one’s mind from Watchtower control isn’t easy, and helping others to do so is exponentially more difficult.
EDITOR: So you have recently started a “podcast,” right? Can you tell me about that experience?
SWEENEY: There are other “talk radio” style discussions for former Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I noticed that none of them approach the issue from a secular perspective. When your criticism of the Watchtower is based on the view that they are doctrinally wrong, for example, about the divinity of Christ or the rejection of the cross, you are missing what I believe is the real issue: That is the Watchtower’s violation of four fundamental human rights:
- the right to complete and truthful information
- the right to think and analyze that information autonomously
- the right to feel whatever emotions one feels without fear of repercussions
- the right to choose one’s own behaviors based upon thoughtful analysis of that complete and truthful information, in a way that produces real, positive feelings of joy and friendship – and unconditional love
The Watchtower’s biggest crime isn’t that they don’t believe in the trinity or some other such religious doctrine. It is the way they violate those four basic human rights consistently and persistently as a mechanism to mentally – and to an extent physically – enslave members of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. This isn’t being talked about anywhere else that I could find, and I think it is important to talk about it.
I think I decided to start the Cult Free Radio show some time in mid-April, and actually presented the first show on April 30. When I was a JW, I would think and plan and think and plan, and not actually do anything unless and until I felt it was going to be perfect. That’s a very stressful way to live one’s life. For the time that I’ve been cult free, I have been working on living just the opposite. Eastern philosophy has something called “wei wu wei,” which is a more intuitive and relaxed way of approaching life. It could be mistaken for laziness by those ingrained in Western culture, but it isn’t that at all. “Going with the flow” actually works for me, and even though I still plan each show, I don’t stress over how I’m going to do things.
EDITOR: Why did you decide to use UStream?
SWEENEY: I chose UStream because a colleague at work uses UStream and likes it. A benefit of doing “radio” style podcasts on a video stream is that I can post pictures, a slideshow, or video on the screen while the discussion is going on. I hope to make more use of that as the show is more established and it becomes more of a routine for me.
The show is hosted on UStream. Its channel is:
Every show is archived and available on the site. When you click on the link, you will be brought to the UStream channel where you will see a brief advertisement and then either a short introduction to the next show, or a recording of the previous show. If you scroll down the page you will see the other archived shows that are available for you to watch.
During the live show, which is every other Saturday at 10pm Eastern Time, listeners can chat with the host and guests on the Social Stream and ask questions that we try to answer on the air. Also, when there is time, we open the airwaves to calls via Skype at “cultfreeradio” which is all lowercase, all one word.
EDITOR: What do you see as your purpose or goal as a critic or reporter on the Watchtower Society and its religious followers, Jehovah’s Witnesses?
SWEENEY: I have to admit that part of it is as a catharsis for myself and if nobody ever heard my show I would still be stronger and healthier for having done it.
On the other hand, I would like to be able to help others, as well. I hope that as Cult Free Radio progresses it will not be simply a channel for me to voice my own thoughts but become a means of interaction and support and education for others.
When a person escapes from a high control religious group they remain vulnerable for a time. Some people of faith might take advantage of that situation and offer a quick and easy substitute for the Watchtower Society in the form of their own church. However well-meaning such recruitment might be, it doesn’t allow the person to explore and experience what real freedom is; it doesn’t allow the person the time they need to heal; it doesn’t provide the person the tools they need to make their own way in the world, free from oppressive religious influence.
I hope Cult Free Radio provides an enlightening avenue for self understanding and a supportive network for embracing freedom.
EDITOR: Some feel that presenting facts about the Watchtower is like “beating a dead horse.” Do you think your podcast and forum posts will have any real effect on that religion?
SWEENEY: The Watchtower Society is a multi-billion dollar corporation with dozens of branches internationally. Anyone who thinks he can bring down the organization is fooling himself and misleading others.
I care far less about the corporation than I do about people. The fact is, people are leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses every day. We also can see from the Watchtower’s yearbook reports that growth in the religion is stagnant in lands with high standards of education.
So the purpose is twofold. Primarily, Cult Free Radio is there to educate and support former Jehovah’s Witnesses and current Jehovah’s Witnesses who might be considering leaving. Secondarily, if we can educate potential recruits about the tactics that high control religions like Jehovah’s Witnesses use, and thereby prevent some from joining, we have accomplished even more.
I don’t expect the Watchtower Society to go bankrupt or disappear in my lifetime. If the religion stops growing or if its growth rate falls below the birth rate at some point in the next few decades, I think we can consider that a victory.
More importantly though, if Cult Free Radio helps somebody who has left the organization through their healing process, convinces someone to embrace freedom of thought and independence of action, or teaches someone who may have been recruited the things they need to know to save them from joining, Cult Free Radio will have done its job.
EDITOR: Jehovah’s Witnesses are often referred to as a “cult.” What do you think and why?
SWEENEY: I think the semantic argument over the word “cult” can become a distraction from the real issue, which is what the organization does to control its members. Some people avoid using the term because of the distraction it can cause. I use it because of its impact and because in its most concise definition a cult is the antithesis of freedom. That definition fits high control groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and should be beyond debate, but it isn’t.
Cult members never admit they are in a cult. It isn’t until they are free, or on a course toward freedom, that they realize it.
The first Cult Free Radio show from April 30th of this year  discussed the word and its implications in detail. It’s still available on the Cult Free Radio website on UStream, or can be accessed directly here:
EDITOR: Where are you spiritually or theologically at the moment?
SWEENEY: I am pleased to announce that I am 100% Cult Free!
I try not to use the phrase “I believe in…” anymore.
There are things that I know, or that I am relatively certain about because of the abundance of evidence and the high degree of likelihood that they are real. For instance, I am pretty sure I am typing these words right now on a laptop computer and that when I click “Send” the words will soon appear on the screen of the editor of www.ex-jw.com.
There are things in the universe with far less evidence and lower or unknown degrees of likelihood that many people choose to “believe in” despite the lack of tangible support. Sometimes those beliefs are helpful in that they organize people into communities who work together and accomplish things that individually the members wouldn’t have been able to achieve. Most of the time, however, it is far more beneficial to create communities around relative certainties rather than mere beliefs.
I am relatively certain that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people that have been victims of the Watchtower cult, Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think we all spent enough time “waiting on Jehovah” to solve our problems – while we did nothing to solve them for ourselves. As we become more and more Cult Free, we can shed the shackles of belief and embrace the freedoms that are the right of all intelligent beings. We can heal our damaged hearts, minds, and bodies and work together to heal others.
EDITOR: Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
SWEENEY: John, I think I’ve gone on long enough. If you’d like more information and for me to answer additional questions, I’ll give them a shot. But for now, I think you have plenty to work with.
EDITOR: Thank you, Sweeney, for sharing some interesting facts about your background. We hope that you remain motivated to reach out to individuals and families that have been misled and mistreated by the leaders of the Watchtower Society. I hope that your efforts bear fruit and might someday really achieve a “Cult Free” society.