in·doc·tri·nate (ĭn-dŏktrə-nāt)
tr.v., -nat·ed, -nat·ing, -nates.

  1. To instruct in a body of doctrine or principles.
  2. 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·doctri·nation n.

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BrainwashingWhy 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?

13 thoughts on “Indoctrination

  1. Thanks for this post. It brings up a lot of good points, especially if you follow the links. Although that Jesus Camp is scary.

    The thing is, the religious parents believe they are doing the right thing. Unlike Santa, which they know is a myth, they believe in the supreme being, so they feel no obligation to dispel that one.

    My wife and I have worked hard with our children to explain our different beliefs. Yet, I worry eventually they will feel like they are choosing sides rather than making intelligent decisions. While at least my kids will be aware of other evidence and options compared to the way my wife was raised (fully indoctrinated since 2 years old as a Jehovah’s Witness–and let me tell you each small “battle” I win i.e. celebrating birthdays, etc. is a long hard battle-but worth it), I worry they will stay involved to make her and all of her family happy.

    When an entire family is in, it is difficult to pull any of them out.

  2. Crager

    Thanks for the comment. I really struggled to write that. It took me about 6 days to get out what I posted, and I’m still not sure that what I originally had in my head and wanted to say ended up in the post.

    One thing that I strongly feel, and should have said, that it’s exactly the well meaning intention of the parents that is so insidious. Because we think parents can only have the best interests of their children in mind, and in most cases do, we don’t question this “indoctrination” But parents such as your wife (and myself, I should add. I raised three children as Christians, the last less enthusiastically, but nonetheless…) need to seriously look at what they are doing. We are imposing on them a viewpoint that might not be good for them, or for that matter society as a whole. It seems that at some point we should make it clear that they should make up their own minds, but in practical reality, it doesn’t happen that way. You can say to them, “make your own decisions”, but you don’t tell them that when they are 2 years old, but much later. From birth to the point of telling them this, in the spirit of open mindedness, if you take them to church, and constantly reinforce church teaching, you are indoctrinating them.

    I’m guilty of it. My kids are turning out OK, but who knows what kind of repressed feelings and hangups they received at the hands of their church upbringing. Only time will tell.

    Of course I say this with the 20/20 hindsight of a deconverted atheist, so it’s too late for me. The damage, if any is done.

  3. It’s difficult not to indoctrinate your kids — or stand idly by while other family members do so. My ex-wife, with whom my teenage son lives in a different state from me, probably didn’t know she was passively indoctrinating anyone. She gave a minimal nod to her background by sending him to after-school religious classes, really softcore stuff. As an out-of-state dad, I had no say, and felt that making an issue of this “training” would only further alienate my ex-, who was already finding little ways to make fathering as tough for me as possible. Plus, as Cragar points out, why put a little kid in a position where he feels that he has to choose sides?

    When my son became a teenager, I felt he was old enough to hear my irreligious views, without my having to worry that I was indoctrinating him, myself. (Meanwhile my relationship with my ex- had improved significantly, so that she wouldn’t take my talk with him as an attack on her core values.) I told my son that I was an atheist — even though he visited me to “celebrate” the winter holidays each year — and that I thought all religions, including the one in which he’d been raised, were nonsense. We didn’t debate religion at all; I merely stated my position, explaining why I didn’t accept the existence of any gods or supernatural beings. My wife told him that she, too, was an atheist. We named a few of our close friends whom he had met and liked, and said that they were also nonbelievers.

    I gave only this advice to my son about religion: Question everything. Don’t try to make yourself believe what you, yourself, really don’t believe deep inside. It doesn’t matter who told you that something or other is true; trust no one who tries to force his or her religion on you. I don’t care what you believe, as long as you sincerely believe it; but don’t ever spread or practice bullshit just because a relative, teacher, or friend tells you to.

    I felt a bit like that idiot, Polonius. But as my son has gotten older, he actually seems to be slowly but surely washing years of crap out of his mind. I don’t think he calls himself an atheist just yet; maybe he never will. However, I know from comments he makes in passing that he’s very skeptical about any and all religious traditions. That makes me happy, indeed.

  4. Great article. The other sad factor to consider it the perpetuity – each indoctrinated child will probably do exactly the same thing to their children, and so on.

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  9. I found this blog because I have a Google alert set to catch the search string “childhood indoctrination”. My purpose is to research current attitudes for a book I am writing that is tentatively entitled “Saving the Children from Religion”. It is a fact that all religions insist on taking children into their institutions at an early age because they know that their sect would quickly vanish within a few generations if children were allowed to mature. I find little to support the notion that parents give the decision to consign their kids to a religion any extensive thought. They certainly do not question their right to do so and I have heard plenty of strong reaction for even suggesting the present wide latitude granted parents rests on shaky legal and moral underpinnings that really need close scrunity. The fact is that under the Convention of the Rights of the Child (UN, signed by 147 countries, but not the US and Somalia) a child is the only one who can decide about which religion to follow or to follow none. Unfortunately in our god besotted country, children are still treated as chattel in the same way that women were until very recently (fundamentalists still try to treat women as the property of their husbands, sad to say). Parents have gained plenary rights to make decisions regarding religious training, education, and medical treatment. To help people maybe gain some insight and to provoke some conversations among family members I devised a 20 question list for parents to consider before consigning their children to a religion. I would be very interested in comments regarding this list. The URL is:

  10. I raised my kids as Catholics. Four of the five do not now practice nor believe. I am glad that they are not dogma or group-morality bound. (One of them works for Planned Parenthood!) But I regret that teach tem about Christian heroes (Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chávez,Archbishop Tutu,Oscar Romero, etc.) nor lead them to act in accordance with true Christian morality with the poor, against injustice, environmental rape etc. I think I had the vehicle to teach them my values but blew it. But maybe not completely. They are good people and seem to be able to tell wheat from chaff.

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