“The obsession with children, and with rigid control over their upbringing, has been part of every system of absolute authority… Indoctrination of the young often has the reverse effect, as we also know from the fate of many secular ideologies, but it seems that the religious will run this risk in order to imprint the average boy or girl with enough propaganda. What else can they hope to do?”
– Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great
“Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility….Let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.”
– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
The other day someone called me indoctrinated. Usually, such a claim would bounce right off me but this time I was called indoctrinated by the one person in the world I would label most responsible for attempting to indoctrinate me. So as not to reveal her identity all over the interwebs, we’ll just call her “Bob.” Let me give you some context:
Bob and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum on almost every subject. We got into an argument that started off on the topic of politics but which inevitably turned to religion. She basically made the assertion that my higher education indoctrinated me into godless liberalism. It is a claim she has made before, but for some reason the use of the term indoctrination was like a slap across the face. For a moment, I didn’t realize what had actually transpired. Then, slowly, my brain registered that someone I viewed as so utterly blinded by cultural and religious indoctrination had turned the term around and applied it to me. What in the world was going on? Was it opposite day?
To be indoctrinated means to be imbued with specific biased beliefs or a specific point of view. So, this is what Bob believes happened to me as a result of higher education. Our colleges and universities are just big indoctrination machines, taking in sweet children raised in good Christian homes and cranking out liberal heathens.
There are some serious problems with Bob’s claim. First and foremost, I was indoctrinated long before I ever set foot in a university. I was raised in a Christian home, called a “Christian child” (even though I hadn’t the wherewithal to choose that label for myself at that point in my development), and made to memorize prayers and catechisms. I was taught that my parents’ belief system was superior to all other belief systems, but I wasn’t told how that could possibly be. I was taught about heaven and hell and who gets sent where.
As a young adult, I was a choir girl, a Sunday school teacher and eventually a Bible camp counselor. I made life decisions based on the myths my parents filled my head with as a child, including which schools to go to. I chose to attend private, religious universities for both undergraduate and graduate studies. The result of all this? At some point I became a full-on, brainwashed, atheist zombie.
In truth, education helped me unravel the years of religious indoctrination I endured as a child. This is not to say that everyone needs a college degree to be an atheist, or that all atheists are college graduates. Perhaps some people are smart enough to figure it out on their own, but not me. I needed distance from my family and my upbringing. I needed access to a ton of books and enlightened professors who welcomed me to study, think and decide for myself. I found all this while in school and yet years passed before I finally called myself an atheist.
Bob is the product of indoctrination. She was raised in the religion of her parents who were raised in the religion of their parents. As a child, she was brought up in a primarily Christian nation and so she believes there is profound truth to that particular worldview. I’ve never asked but in all likelihood it has never occurred to her what beliefs she would so vehemently defend if she had been born and raised in ancient Egypt. Or modern India, Saudi Arabia or anywhere Christianity is not the dominant religion.
Perhaps saddest of all, she is the product of a failed education system. She was taught that the United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles, even though in reality the founding fathers were men of reason who knew the difference between what it means to be Christian and what it means to be an American. She wasn’t taught about evolution in school because it is controversial, although the controversy is entirely cultural and not scientific. Publicly in school and privately at home, she heard the same consistent message and learned that to question that message too deeply would be denying who she is as a human being.
I heard the message too, but I was fortunate enough to get away from it long enough to have some exposure to different ideas. My family taught me what to think. As I matured, I learned how to think. That doesn’t sound like indoctrination to me.
It should come as no surprise to you readers that Bob also takes issue with the way I’m raising my own child. I have a strong desire to break the cycle of religious indoctrination. This is mistakenly taken for indoctrinating my child into atheism. I wouldn’t call my child an atheist child or a Christian child, or any sort of child. Those labels have no meaning to children too young to sort through these complexities for themselves. Nor is my child denied access to religious education. We have 3 versions of the Bible, an English version Koran, writings by different Buddhist thinkers, in addition to all of the books on theology and world religions my husband and I amassed in college. My goal is not to protect him from being exposed to religion, but rather to present religion in a comparative context and to let the glaring incompatibilities speak for themselves.
In the end, my altercation with Bob was a learning experience for me. I don’t think Bob got much out it of it, however. As is sometimes the case with heated debates, each side just ends up getting further entrenched in their original position. You can’t reason someone out of a belief that was never based in reason to begin with. Poor Bob.