tr.v., -nat·ed, -nat·ing, -nates.
- To instruct in a body of doctrine or principles.
- To imbue with a partisan or ideological point of view: a generation of children who had been indoctrinated against the values of their parents.
indoctrination in·doc‘tri·na‘tion n.
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Why does this word bother people, especially when used in the context of religion? It has connotations of brainwashing, and if you are someone like me, who was raised during the Cold War, when the fear of Communism was so prevalent, brainwashing was what Communists did to those poor people behind the Iron Curtain. It sounds so…torturous, as if someone is actually pouring thoughts and ideas through the ear into the brain of weak minded persons.
But isn’t that exactly what we do to children? By “we” I mean parents – specifically Christian parents but it applies equally to Muslims, Hindus and other religions. Well meaning parents, but parents nonetheless. The two people a child looks up to, with those innocent, trusting eyes, for guidance, sustenance and, indeed, life itself, more than anyone else in the world. And we indoctrinate them. Without a second thought about what we are doing.
What is the single most important correlative fact determining which religion you will grow up in? Answer: The religion of your parents.
Some indoctrination of children is good, and is for their benefit and well-being. For instance we teach them what we have learned is right and wrong. Morality and ethics are initially passed on via parents. We are their first teachers. They learn that it is not a good thing to lie, or to cheat, or to steal, or hurt someone. And we teach that to them. Yes, it is reinforced in school, and in other contexts, but it primarily comes from us.
So what is wrong with that? Their brains are tender, and receptive to anything, anything we tell them. It has to be, for their survival, or, at least in our evolutionary past, it had to be. But their brains, our brains when we were their age, are hard wired to be receptive, unquestioningly receptive, to what they are told. It’s one of the reasons why we are here today, as a species. It insured our survival.
It can be misused, albeit unintentionally. If, for instance, we tell our children that the white race is superior, and that Jews are inferior, inevitably they will grow up believing that, despite the fact that most people around them don’t. The Nazis did this in pre-war Germany. Or perhaps you could teach your children to believe in white supremacy, and have them perform songs about it. Or, more to the point, maybe you could indoctrinate your child as an evangelist, and send him out on the tent circuit to separate people from their hard earned cash. Or just have him make a fool of himself.
Oops! There’s that word – indoctrination. Look at the definition at the top of the page. The first definition isn’t so awful, it’s what we do. As I said above, we teach. The second one, “To imbue with a partisan or ideological point of view” says it all. It is a one sided exercise in brainwashing. A partisan or ideological transfer into the brain of someone else. Adults are harder to indoctrinate, because by the time they reach the age of reason, they also learn to be suspicious. But children? They believe anything. When the information is presented in a benign way, through parents and teachers and preachers, then you have the potential for GIGO – “garbage in, garbage out”.
So what’s the harm in brainwashing our children? you might ask. After all, they are our children. Don’t we have the right to do that? Well, no. Some may think we do, and our Constitution probably allows it. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But if we accept the fact that we are all individuals, with brains capable of making our own decisions, then we hamper the ability to use those brains and make proper decisions by inculcating a priori the end results we want from our children. If they truly choose to grow up and become a fundamentalist huckster, then fine, but where does free choice fit in when they are indoctrinated from birth to become one?
Christians go on and on about free will. We have free will to make all the important choices, and it was God who gave us that free will. To my way of thinking, no one has a free choice unless the mind has been completely untouched by the will of others. Free will is not free if it’s been manipulated at a young age. The whole concept of free will makes sense only if you assume that the brain of an infant is as fully developed as that of an adult. Only then the child is free to accept or discard the attempted indoctrination. Children should be off limits. As Christopher Hitchens says in “god is not Great“,
If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in quite a different world.”(p. 220)
Yes. A world where decisions about beliefs would be made only after the brain had fully developed and had the opportunity to weigh the evidence for or against each and every belief being introduced. And, hopefully, a world that would have little attraction to supernatural explanations for reality.
The Jesuits are attributed with this pithy quote:
Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.
There is so much truth in that, it hurts. The church has a lot of experience in indoctrination, and children’s minds are so vulnerable. Anyone reading this will recognize the gullibility of the child. A current bit of parenting advice appears to codify the obvious, beginning with “start early”. It seems so innocuous, yet it masks the fact that it is really just brainwashing. The other end of the same spectrum is found in the Jesus Camp. Brainwashing is antithetical to any sense of a free will, or a free conscience. Without a steady supply of Stepford children, religion would not exist, which is why religion demands indoctrination. If you subscribe to the memetic theory, pre-adolescent indoctrination must be the sine quo non for perpetuation of the meme.
The one group of people in our society, and in any society, who have no say in how they are treated, or in what rights they have as individuals, are children. Their rights depend on the adults they depend on for everything else. And if those adults fail them? Sucks to be them. Their parents may be the most well meaning parents on the earth, but their children will still be, for all intents and purposes, religious zombies.
We indoctrinate our children to believe that a jolly fat man shimmies down the chimney on Christmas Eve and leaves lots of toys for them, but only if they are good little boys and girls the rest of the year. Then, when they are pre-pubescent, we smile sheepishly, and admit that Santa doesn’t exist. “Hey kids, it was all in fun”.
Don’t we have the obligation to do that about god?