An Issue of Indoctrination

Indoctrination, the word comes up all the time in conversations between theists and non-theists but let’s actually look at it closely; what is indoctrination? Is it necessarily a bad thing? Or is it just a matter of what we indoctrinate people with that’s the problem? Well first things first let’s define the word. Merriam Webster defines indoctrination as follows:

Indoctrination: 1) To instruct especially in fundamentals or rudiments.

2) To imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle.

So looking at the definitions given one can see that a case could be made, without much difficulty, that there are cases where the first definition of indoctrination is a good and necessary thing. Someone might argue, for instance, that children should be indoctrinated with proper fire safety lessons, proper respect for the dangers associated with sharp objects and the risks of crossing the street.

I disagree with this argument for the simple reason that I personally prefer education over indoctrination in all cases and situations. What is the difference? Well there is, at least to my mind, a huge amount of difference, though it can often be subtle. Indoctrination is, very simply, teaching someone WHAT to think, it is the implantation of sound bites into a person’s head, propaganda. It is “teaching” through repetition and rote without the benefit of multiple viewpoints or considered study. Education on the other hand encourages the person in question to study everything they can from every perspective they can, to take it all in and THEN judge what they’ve learned according to their own intellect, morality, sense of right and wrong and so forth in order to form a worldview.

Religion uses the indoctrination model over the education model for very specific, and quite obvious, reasons. Those reasons boil down to the simple fact that everything we actually KNOW demonstrates that their worldview is often factually wrong and always at the very least highly improbable. If theists were to send their children into schools without any previous indoctrination and allow them to study and learn and draw their own conclusions I honestly believe that the number of theists in the world would drop off sharply, and so do they (that’s why they don’t do it more often). Would they endanger the existence of their various theologies doing so? Sadly, no probably not, because for every person who is freed by study and considered rational thought there are two more who are more than willing to suborn their reason in favor of a collection of comforting promises that no fellow human is actually qualified to give them.

If you look at the growth in atheism and non-theism in the last century there is, I am certain, a correlation between it’s rise and the enhancement of global education systems. It becomes harder and harder to insulate and isolate oneself from the proofs of science and the considerations of reason. Oh it can be done, and as a matter of fact it is done regularly by a great many people but in order to accomplish it you have to do one of two things A) Actively segregate yourself from any topic or content that might challenge or infringe upon your faith (as my wife’s creationist friend who I’ve previously mentioned does) or B) To compartmentalize yourself in such a way that you can accept all of the gifts and truths of science, history, and the other secular disciplines with one part of yourself and with another still fully embrace whatever your particular set of ancient myths, precepts, and strictures are.

This second kind of person is by far the most prevalent form of theist on the planet. This is the personality type of the “religious moderate” who is, in every other facet of their life, a perfectly rational, reasonable, capable and intelligent human being. If you were to insist to this type of person that the local river had spontaneously turned to tomato sauce they would not believe without some sort of evidence, and would tell you so in no uncertain terms and yet at the same time they will admit unapologetically that they subscribe to a system of belief based on nothing more than a two thousand year old collection of writings and an ill-defined personal feeling.

These moderates are as much a product of indoctrination as the less frequent fundamentalist. In the case of the fundamentalist the indoctrination is total, becoming not just the core of their worldview but the entirety of it. There is nothing but the indoctrination. The bible says god hates fags (and it does) and so it is the simple unvarnished truth and, as in the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, the people who believe and spout this ignorant, hateful rubbish will tell you quite unashamedly that they are doing so for your benefit, and even out of their love for you, that you may come to see the truth. As terrible, sad and shocking as this outlook is it’s the moderate group that shocks me more however. Their indoctrination is a more subtle, quiet, and insidious kind. They don’t present the loud mouthed, wild-eyed frenzy of their fundamentalist cousins, they don’t spout the ill-considered rhetoric or shoulder the garish and offensive signage, or even dismiss the benefits of modern technology and medicine yet somewhere inside them there exists an invisible but impermeable wall that no amount of fact, or reason or evidence can penetrate.

Coming back to the question I started with: Is indoctrination necessarily a bad thing? Or is it just a matter of what we indoctrinate people with? For myself, I do think it is always inferior to education for making intelligent, thoughtful, considering people, but then again that’s not really the aim of indoctrination is it? So yes indoctrination is always a bad thing. Encouraging mindless following of any precept or principle regardless of any altruistic or well-meaning intent is, in my opinion, wrong. Indoctrination robs people of the ability to truly learn, it kills the impulse to question, and shrivels the drive to discover. These abilities impulses and drives are the most fundamental right and responsibility we have as human beings and should be treated with more respect.


Posted on November 22, 2012, in Editorial, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Indocrtination leads to the ‘Nuremberg Defense’ when questions are asked later. Education requires the participant to think and act for themselves.

    • I agree completely. Education requires that we participate in our lives. Indoctrination lets us spectate without actually having to go through the troublingly difficult process of learning and thinking. Thanks for the comment

  2. Joe 'Blondie' Manco

    Indeed. In my opinion securing education for all is our safeguard against regression back into the dark ages. Statements like this are a cliche now but campaigning for quality education and the empowerment of the individual, especially women, although it does little to help the most unfortunate right now, is the best thing I think we can do for our future. Not just to protect us from religious fundamentalism but also to educate us on a large scale of the dangers of overpopulation, global warming etc.

    Unfortunately, it seems in recent decades our fundamentalist friends and powerful elites with vested interests have learned this too and ramped up their crusade against education. It is a never ending fight.

    • I agree Joe, education is the silver bullet. The solution to most of the problems our species faces is, I think, to learn to discard outdated ideas and prejudices in favour of study of actual evidence and reasoned consideration of facts. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I’ve read this through a few times now & I’m not sure where to take it. Your initially making a fantastic argument for a pure, intellectual model, but later (it seems) a point is made for (what i assume) is moderates perpetuating this “indoctrination”. At any rate, one only need to see studies done with feral children to see what (absolute) isolation results in, & is we (even slightly ) consider chaos theory, then the butterfly effect shows conclusively that any interaction results in affect. To that end, parenting, teaching, imbuing education at any level will leave residual effects from the teacher. 20muslims, crammed in a cold room, ricking back and forth as they re-site passages from the Koran, that’s scary, radicals handling rattle snakes with children, after a right to life rally, – Terrifying, You, sharing your passions with your son, enlightening, & for me that type of “Indoctrination” is A) (from a parental perspective) absolutely un-avoidable, & B) in the case of your family, refreshing

  4. I’d never advocate an absolute isolation, as a matter of fact I’m advocating exactly the opposite, a sort of forced exploration. Nor am I blind to the fact that anyone who learns something from another human comes away with that teacher’s perspective indelibly mixed with the pure data. What I AM advocating is a balanced fact based education in all things math, science, history, biology AND theology. I think it’d be hard to argue against the general statement that christian parents make christian offspring. Can we agree that they often do this by teaching their beliefs as fact to their children? These are not facts, they are beliefs, beliefs supported by very little and paralleled by a great many other systems both in the here and now and throughout history. Do you think it likely that the various parallel systems are given the same weight and exploration in your average christian household? or muslim household? or Buddhist? or hari krishna?
    My son will not be an atheist just because I am one. His mother is a practicing Wiccan, he won’t be one of those just because she is one either. One day he’ll come to me and want to know about all this god stuff he’s been hearing about and from me he’ll learn what christians think, and what muslims think, and what jews think, and what the people before them thought, and what scientists and historians think. He’ll ask questions and we’ll discover answers together. This will take a long time and there won’t be any easy answers along the way but slowly he’ll build a perspective all his own, and more importantly he’ll learn how to THINK, how to weigh data and sift fact from fiction. Eventually he’ll have his answer, just like I have mine, but not because I just gave him mine. Not because I told him what is so but because I showed him how to discover what is so all by himself. That is the difference between education and indoctrination that I’m advocating here. Thanks for the comment.

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