Indoctrination can be amusing but is always harmful.

Lately I’ve been thinking of indoctrination again, mostly because of a conversation I overheard at my son’s school sports day, which I’ll get on to in a bit…

I’d forgotten that I became aware of indoctrination quite early on. When I was around seven years old, I’d noticed how several other children in school with me had a different dentist. When they went to get their teeth fixed, they were excited about it. They came back to school with packets of sweets, sample toothpaste, and other cool stuff. Their dentist was hip and cool and made their appointments fun by giving them stuff if they behaved well. Whereas I always behaved well and my dentist didn’t seem to care. He was an old bastard named Doctor Sanc, in Wynberg, Cape Town. Sometimes he didn’t wear gloves and I could taste his chubby fingers. When I returned to him for a molar filling at 19 years old, he explained that “You’re an adult so you don’t need anaesthetic any more” and then gave me a filling without anaesthetic. (That was my last time there.)

The point is, the other kids were excited about their dentist because he made the appointments fun, just like other kids who were excited about the stuff they did in church. I knew this when I was already seven years old, and maybe that was to my advantage because I was able to see behind the curtain. I didn’t know the word “indoctrination” and I didn’t know what brainwashing was, but I understood. My mother didn’t allow myself or my brother to attend other churches because she was afraid of just that… My brother once went to a friend’s church and they got him involved in the youth activities (he was really young, a preteen), and she abruptly put a stop to it. So she knew how it works too. She recognized that indoctrination happens, but not in the Roman Catholic church, because that’s the “one true” church… It’s amusing and ironic.

But I did get sucked in. Despite seeing through the way it was done, and knowing nothing other than a Christian upbringing, I did get brainwashed to some extent. I was excited to participate in my First Holy Communion, just like everybody else. I received keepsakes, and we all dressed up and did it together. It was a big deal. My Confirmation was similar, except by then I had begun to doubt the existence of god so the ritual of Confirmation felt weird.

Getting back to the conversation that reminded me of this… at Josh’s sports day I was sitting beside my former sister in law, who was also Josh’s foster mother until December 2015. I overheard her talking to another couple she is friends with, because they all have children about to do their First Holy Communion. And that brought it all back. Like my mother, they are oblivious of the brainwashing effects of the ritual and how that sense of fellowship convinces children that the nonsense of communion is meaningful and important. Maybe those sorts of rituals, where the whole class gets confirmed together, are a large part of what cements the idea that religion (and god) gives believers’ lives meaning? The ritual and the sense of community, of belonging, that comes along with it, becomes an event that’s remembered with nostalgia. Even if the exact details are lost, it becomes something sentimental, a vague memory of times in our youth where we were part of something… something that later becomes “spiritual”, or at least leaves a lasting impression of meaning that we as adults perceive as being part of a creator’s plan for us. Maybe even a “personal relationship with god”? Meanwhile in reality, no deity was involved and we were just dragged through nonsense by excited parents capturing photos of it all and brainwashing us. I don’t think parents are at all aware of the harm they do when dragging their children through these primitive rituals. It’s a case of “monkey see, monkey do”, and it saddens me that more people don’t see through it.

I am so glad that Josh is no longer a part of any of that. Make no mistake – he was already indoctrinated to some extent. When he learned that I don’t believe in any god, or a soul, or an afterlife, he asked lots of questions. Questions like “Who made the first man?” and “If there is no god, how were we created?” assume creation. Those questions don’t come naturally to us, but are part of the mindset of someone who has been taught from early on that a particular god exists and created us. However he also expressed doubts, saying things like, “[Redacted] says I must listen for god’s voice, but I don’t hear anything” and “I’ve never seen god. I’m not sure he’s real”. And unlike religious people who discourage doubt and questioning the dogma, I encourage it. So I think I got Josh at just the right age where, even though he’d already been indoctrinated to some extent, he still hated church, and I pulled him out of that before that hatred and boredom got changed into something else, before he found meaning in the meaningless and fellowship in the foolish rituals.

In early 2016 when my family members realized that I’d pulled Josh out of church and Sunday school, they initially resisted it. I was asked questions like, “What about his first holy communion?” by my mother. My brother argued with me about it with some determination. I think this reveals what they know deep down but will never admit: That their beliefs and relationships with their god are more about the sum of the experiences they had in their religious upbringing. In other words, subconsciously they know that if a child does not have such experiences they will most likely not end up a believer. (Imagine telling an educated adult who never heard of religion about a virgin birth, talking snakes, a worldwide flood with more water than we find on the planet, walking on water, coming back from the dead and so on. They will think you are crazy.) Thus they were quick to oppose my choice. The irony of course, is that they realize the importance of indoctrinating children but not the effect of it; they don’t see the end result for what it is – brainwashing. And that brings us back to: Monkey see; monkey do.

Not everybody finds their way to critical thinking and the rejection of their indoctrination. The fact that about 70% of people are religious is testament to this. Most people, no matter how much they are taught to think critically, are unable to reject their firmly held religiously brainwashed beliefs. I’ve realized that when debating theists and even family members in the last few years. This is why, for me, it was of utmost importance to stop my son’s indoctrination before it went too far. And there’s no way of knowing how far is too far. It seems to me that since I am the only atheist in my family, allowing anyone to continue indoctrinating my child would have been a serious mistake.

5 thoughts on “Indoctrination can be amusing but is always harmful.

  1. Sorry for this long comment, but please realize that most people on both sides of the Christian vs skeptic debate are very irrational and you cannot (fully) judge a theory by its proponents. Disclaimer I have very little training in philosophy but there are philosophers (including a I don’t know what he is, hyper-skeptic hyper-Calvinist, I suppose, which means he’s obviously inconsistent but its impossible to make him even consider the possibility that he is) and theologians in my family.

    [Quote] Make no mistake – he was already indoctrinated to some extent. When he learned that I don’t believe in any god, or a soul, or an afterlife, he asked lots of questions. Questions like “Who made the first man?” and “If there is no god, how were we created?” *assume* creation.[Endquote]
    Hmm. When I was about 7 (can’t remember the exact age but there’s considerable evidence embedded in my memory that I was 9[^footnote1]), my Calvinist “indoctrination” led me to the following self-argument (using terminology which I obviously had learned only later):
    1. Who created me and gave me morals?
    2. God.
    3. That assumes God created me, which is obviously false since:
    3.1. Who created God and Who gave God morals?
    3.2. This leads to infinite regression which contradicts the more fundamental assumption of a beginning implied by creation. /*Logic error since every level of “god” you go up does have a beginning, but you can forgive a 9-year old. Anyway, the next point undoes the damage of my error here.*/
    4. Or is the assumption of causality obviously false?
    4.1. The Bible and universal (accepted by all mainstream Christian churches worldwide, including Reformed, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Messianic) confessions teaches God is eternal, static and consistent. Furthermore, God created time and therefore causality.
    4.2. Therefore the questions “who created God and who gave Him morals” are meaningless and cannot prove Christianity false.
    5. I still have an assumption and I can use similar tricks to my point 4 above to prevent the major problems with the null hypothesis that God does not exist:
    5.1. The universe may be eternal. Time may be a local phenomenon, but not universal in the universe. The universe may be consistent.
    5.2. Therefore asking where does everything that exist come from and where does the laws of nature come from are meaningless and cannot prove atheism false.
    6. How can I now determine which of the following hypothesis are true?
    6.1. Christianity.
    6.2. Atheism.
    6.3. Some other religion.
    7. My memory gets unreliable here but if I remember correctly, I got stuck on 6 above. I did manage to get an answer based on the anthropic principle but rejected it as untestable.

    As you can see above: The Reformed philosophy and especially the Calvinist philosophy is the Christian version of Atheism’s skepticism in some regards.

    [Quote]Those questions don’t come naturally to us, but are part of the mindset of someone who has been taught from early on that a particular god exists and created us.[Endquote]
    Irrelevant. Observe a similar argument which is equally (but more obviously) irrelevant:
    1. Question: How many irrational numbers do you have for every rational number.
    2. Argument: This question doesn’t come naturally to a seven year old but is part of the mindset of someone who has been taught about the real number system.

    [quote]However he also expressed doubts, saying things like, “[Redacted] says I must listen for god’s voice, but I don’t hear anything” and “I’ve never seen god. I’m not sure he’s real[unquote]
    1. I asked myself the same questions.
    2. The answer to the first question is: What “God’s voice” means depends on the context. It could mean:
    2.1. God’s Word (i.e. Jesus Christ or His example and/or -teachings, see John 1 and 1 John 1).
    2.2. God’s commandments.
    2.3. The work of the Holy Spirit in us. This is admittedly, by nature rather difficult to discern from our own intuition and emotion and from the effects of indoctrination. Some good tests (based on a combination of biblical principles and my own experience) are:
    2.3.1. Is “the voice” an idea/thought/feeling of mine a result of significant prayerful Bible study, centered around God and not myself and fully consistent. Is “the voice” consistent with God’s revelation through creation as interpreted by science or can I give a scientific/philosophical argument why the science itself is in fact suspect? Does “the voice” come with an overwhelming sense of peace. If the answer to all the above is yes, the thought is probably the combined effect of the work of the Holy Spirit reasoning and normal emotional responses to a solved hard problem[^footnote 2], and can generally be trusted.
    2.3.2. Is the “voice” a very sudden thought that I receive just in time to solve an urgent and unexpected problem. Is it based on the Bible and consistent. Does it go against my understanding of the Bible thus far or fill a major gap in my understanding of the Bible. Is it urgent to solve the above mentioned problem for the sake of the glory of God and/or the spreading of the gospel and/or the ability to practically live out my Christian love? Does “the voice” come with an overwhelming sense of peace. If the answer to all above questions is yes, “the voice” is probably a combination of the work of the Holy Spirit and normal expert (assuming you know the Bible very well) intuition and again the emotional reward for solving a hard problem together with the emotional reward for learning something unexpected randomly, and can generally be trusted.
    2.3.3. In any other case, be extremely skeptical that it truly is the Holy Spirit working in you.
    [Quote]… and “I’ve never seen god. I’m not sure he’s real”[Endquote]
    3. Remember the second question was: [quote]“I’ve never seen god. I’m not sure he’s real[Endquote]. It’s answer is:
    3.1. Partial answer: I’ve never seen an atom. I’m not sure it’s real. i.e. Non-observance is not falsification, no matter how much you try to observe something.
    3.2. Better answer:
    3.2.1. First note that this is a very difficult question posed by the skeptic to answer. A hyper-skeptic is not sure about anything, and frankly I’m not aware of any prove of anything any hyper-skeptic has ever managed (despite many attempts throughout history, some quite famous ;-)). So I’m going to assume you are a Scientist before you are a skeptic. (I don’t yet know enough about you to know whether you are a hyper-skeptic[^footnote3], any way.)
    3.2.2. In science we want things to be testable. The null hypothesis of atheism is not testable (which is admittedly problematic) but a more general hypothesis that Christianity is false is testable. The hypothesis that the Christian God exists and that the Bible is true (in a similar way to nature being true – i.e. our own limitations and sinful interpretations can still mislead us) is also testable. There are two reasons why Christianity is testable:
    3.2.2.1. Ironically miracles is one test: The null hypothesis (atheism) implies miracles are impossible. But Christian belief predicts miracles. Interestingly very few biblical miracles are actually sufficiently strong evidence (even if we can prove without any reasonable doubt that they did occur) since most don’t in fact violate the laws of nature. To test the Christianity hypothesis we need to test the fundamental miracles: If either the virgin birth or Christ’s death and resurrection is true that would provide strong evidence. The virgin birth requires either the appearance of information out of nowhere, which is equally impossible to the creation event or a rather different theory of conception than our current very well understood and very thoroughly verified one. However, the virgin birth is itself untestable. That leaves us with the resurrection. I suspect this is one of the main reasons for why people have debated the resurrection since the Apostle Paul and why it is still debated by contemporary historians. (Although I admit here that contemporary Christian historians often seems to be somewhat, um … lethargic, in properly responding to contemporary skeptic historians. That said, I don’t buy most of the arguments of contemporary skeptic historians on this issue I’ve read so far either.)
    3.2.2.2. The second test of the Christian hypothesis is an argument that goes like this: Creation is the revelation of God. Scripture is the revelation of God. God is all-knowing. God is completely trustworthy. Therefore God’s revelation cannot contradict itself. Therefore the union of creation and scripture must be consistent, i.e. If creation contradicts itself, scripture contradicts itself or creation and scripture contradicts each other Christianity is false. The problem with this is that all of the huge amount of “contradictions” I am aware, the apparent contradiction is due to either a logic error or a false assumption. It really is incredibly difficult to prove such contradictions with any degree of certainty.

    [Quote]And unlike religious people who discourage doubt and questioning the dogma, I encourage it.[Quote]
    Most Calvinists I know distrust anyone discouraging doubt and questioning dogma. The word “Reformation”, means to reform, i.e. to question/doubt your tradition, test it (by God’s scripture, which I reform to test it by God’s complete revelation) and if you find a mistake, correct the mistake.

    [quote]Imagine telling an educated adult who never heard of religion about a virgin birth, talking snakes, a worldwide flood with more water than we find on the planet, walking on water, coming back from the dead and so on. They will think you are crazy.[endquote]
    1. Watch out for a special case: “educated adult”, which is in some cases equivalent to “\”brainwashed\” adult” without changing any of the rest.
    2. Virgin birth. I already addressed this one.
    3. Talking snakes: Me and my father have independently of each other (as far back as we can trace our reasoning) determined that Gen 1 – 11 is prophetic revelation and not history. Even history is a very different genre in the old testament than in contemporary times. I seriously doubt there really was a talking snake.[^footote 4]
    4. Flood: Again part of Gen 1 – 11. Furthermore “worldwide” meant something a tad different in the old testament than it does today. The world was very small in Genesis.
    5. Walking on water: Not in principle against the laws of nature, though very unlikely in practice considering the technology of the time. In any case the miracle was performed by Jesus, who is providing us yet another test of His being God.
    6. Coming back from the dead:
    6.1. In the case of Jesus, He can resurrect *Himself* due to being God, i.e. the main test of His actually being God.
    6.2. In the rest of the cases:
    6.2.1. God can resurrect anyone even if it is against the laws of nature. That would be a miracle. Which would test God’s being God and existing.
    6.2.2. I’m not 100% sure someone else resurrecting you is against the laws of nature. (Although I am skeptical of it not being against the laws of nature and realize it is a philosophical nightmare if it is possible. See .)
    7. They will think you are crazy… unless you explain the background and they are sufficiently rational to grasp your world view. Just like I would’ve though you are crazy if I weren’t (at least to some degree) knowledgeable about the (generalized) world views of skeptics and Roman Catholics and capable of (to some degree) placing myself in your shoes.

    [quote]And that brings us back to: Monkey see; monkey do.[endquote]
    I don’t know your family, therefore cannot say if your quote applies to them. If it was stated more generally (as many readers will read it), though, the quoted statement is irrational. Aren’t you skeptical of the following assumptions implicit in the quoted statement if it is generalized?
    1. All adult Christians are “brainwashed” and perpetuates the “brainwashing” due to monkey see; monkey do.
    2. No skeptics are “brainwashed” and perpetuate the “brainwashing” due to monkey see; monkey do.

    [^footnote1]: I’m not to worried about false memories because I’m an autistic and until I suffered a mental breakdown some years back, I had a nearly perfect memory of symbolic calculations and learned at a very young age to build in a sort of checksum-like system into that memory for additional reliability and reconstruction ability even in the presence of errors, for example by age 20 I had the ability to memorize an approx 1 KLOC Java program faster than I can read it – I deduced parts while reading, thus knew more than just the imput from my eyes. PS. I thank God for my mental breakdown for various reasons which are out of scope of this comment.
    [^footnote 2] I’m an autistic. I’m almost completely unaware of my emotions (except that I’ve learned to detect them from my body language – which I repress because my body language confuses normal people – and with very common emotions I learn to consciously “feel” an “avatar emotion” for the real emotion). I once had a panic attack due to a side-effect of mental medicine, but it took me a while to figure out what is causing these unusual symptoms. For me to feel an overwhelming sense of peace is truly a miraculous event.
    [^footnote 3]: And in any case just about any class of people has a vague definition, including skeptics.
    [^footnote 4]: I started from noticing how John quotes from Genesis 1 in John 1 and 1 John 1 and pretty much paraphrases Gen 1:1-5 without ever mentioning time except to say “In the beginning”. My father first noticed that all the symbolism in Genesis 1 – 11 has a perfected duel in the book of Revelations.

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  2. PS. Why do you refer to God as “god”. Even if I did not believe you exist, I still would’ve called you “Jerome” and not “jerome”. Furthermore, irrelevant of what I believe about your existence, you’ll probably find it insulting if you do exist and I call you “jerome”. At least I would find it insulting if you call me “gerhard” and I have very good reason to suspect that if God exists, He would find it insulting if you call Him “god”. That said, I would always use “He” if I’m talking about God, but obviously, I can understand if you don’t. There’s a difference between purposely breaking the rules of grammar in English (very insulting in this case) and not using the royal pronoun when you don’t believe Someone exists, let alone is royalty, let alone is godly, let alone is God.

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    1. @Gerhard Lemmer: Have a look at http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=god

      god (n.)

      Old English god “supreme being, deity; the Christian God; image of a god; godlike person,” from Proto-Germanic *guthan (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch god, Old High German got, German Gott, Old Norse guð, Gothic guþ), from PIE *ghut- “that which is invoked” (source also of Old Church Slavonic zovo “to call,” Sanskrit huta- “invoked,” an epithet of Indra), from root *gheu(e)- “to call, invoke.”

      But some trace it to PIE *ghu-to- “poured,” from root *gheu- “to pour, pour a libation” (source of Greek khein “to pour,” also in the phrase khute gaia “poured earth,” referring to a burial mound; see found (v.2)). “Given the Greek facts, the Germanic form may have referred in the first instance to the spirit immanent in a burial mound” [Watkins]. See also Zeus. In either case, not related to good.

      Popular etymology has long derived God from good; but a comparison of the forms … shows this to be an error. Moreover, the notion of goodness is not conspicuous in the heathen conception of deity, and in good itself the ethical sense is comparatively late. [Century Dictionary, 1902].

      Originally a neuter noun in Germanic, the gender shifted to masculine after the coming of Christianity. Old English god probably was closer in sense to Latin numen. A better word to translate deus might have been Proto-Germanic *ansuz, but this was used only of the highest deities in the Germanic religion, and not of foreign gods, and it was never used of the Christian God. It survives in English mainly in the personal names beginning in Os-.

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