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.