There exists in some circles this notion that religious education is a form of brainwashing, that what happens if you go to church and especially if you allow your kids to get religious instruction, then you’re in danger of being brainwashed. Is this true? If non-religious people can see this and repel religious thought so vehemently, why would religious people not see this and subject themselves to what is often referred to as “brainwashing?”
Before we determine whether teaching religion is a form of brainwashing, let’s first define our terms. What is “brainwashing?” As far as the more cultic meaning of the term, “brainwashing” is a form of coerced psychological manipulation, a forced attitude change. It typically involves making people feel completely helpless by means of psychological and physical abuse, sleep deprivation, humiliation and isolation from the outside, loosening former values and beliefs. When exhaustion, pressure, and fear become unbearable, people begin to abandon their former beliefs (often to the peril of truth) to gain relief, and in the process, are rewarded with praise, privileges, food or rest. Cults use such powerful methods of mental manipulation to recruit members. It is a means by which beliefs are forced onto subjects. It’s the kind of thing that happens within cults and only certain religions in which such coercion is the norm. Strong forms of such coercion are bad no matter what form of education we’re dealing with. It’s just as bad in religion and as it is in physics or biology or history. And, of course, not all religions are created equal. In some religions, there is much more coercion than in others.
People typically entrust their children to schools expecting them to learn the truth about the nature of reality as a whole. Do we typically connect public schools to brainwashing centers? Not typically, no. Of course, inaccurate information can and sometimes are taught in public schools, and kids are in a much more vulnerable place in schools since they cannot leave and are expected to learn the material being espoused. This is not really brainwashing, but simply the teaching of potentially inaccurate information, which, if children or their parents are interested enough to research on their own, can and sometimes do find the flaws and errors.
Think about how people learn. Every fact that we learn changes our attitude towards reality, sometimes in such small measures that it’s hardly noticeable. Other times in bigger ways that are easily seen by everyone around us. Religion, since it deals with the most important aspects of our human nature, has the capacity to change personality in bigger ways than when people learn about, say mathematics. Does this difference in magnitude make religion a form of brainwashing? Absolutely not.
If there is no strong form of coercion in religious education, it cannot be considered a form of brainwashing. What is most important is to be discerning about what is being taught and testing it to see if makes sense and ultimately, if it is true. People love to give pejorative labels to things they fear or don’t understand. Those entirely against religious education will find any reason to reject it or demean it. They don’t want to consider the possibilities and are too afraid to even approach the issue.
Children are born and brought up in specific cultures that have their own specific preferences, and they are taught things accordingly. The kinds of beliefs that are taught are ingrained in us all even if we don’t take them that seriously into our adulthood. But adults can also change their minds about any number of issues, in a variety of ways, including religion. It does not necessarily need to involve brainwashing, especially in light of the fact that religion is not a preference.
Suppose a teacher is teaching students something that should not be controversial – that 5 + 5 = 10. Is this brainwashing? Well, the teacher is disseminating information, but to what extent does something like that count as brainwashing? After all, students are generally a captive audience with no absolute freedom to leave the room, they need to be there whether they like it or not…and they are being taught things, sometimes things that their parents may not agree with. No one would reasonably really think this to be brainwashing. Why is this? Now, let us suppose that we see this form of teaching to be “brainwashing.” Now, has this “brainwashing” produced knowledge? In other words, even in cases where the manner of teaching may be carried out in a forceful manner, it does not negate the validity of the teaching. 5 + 5 DOES equal 10 regardless of how the students come to know that. I don’t make this point to argue for brainwashing or for overly forceful teaching outside of the role of what schools and parents mean to children. I make it show that the truth of what is being taught is wholly independent of the manner of teaching. We can only hope that people who are provided information, handle the information in a mature fashion and discern the various ideas that they may come in contact with. Fear of information that people would label as “brainwashing” only goes to reveal an inner prejudice and the voice of pride willing to scream out for the persistence of its absolute autonomy. In short, people fear that which might change them to something they may want to resist to be.
When people refer to brainwashing in the sense of typical religious education, they are likely not referring to this sort of extreme psychological manipulation. Most of the time, what they probably mean by “brainwashing” is a change in the person’s belief system such that they take religion more seriously and other aspects of their life, less seriously. Now, it seems to me that this is only a problem if the specific religion people gain an education in happens to be incorrect in its moral principles and its relation to the objectivity of reality.
The psychologically manipulative technique to force people to change their view is hardly descriptive of Christianity. Christianity happens to be completely outside the scope of such manners of belief coercion. So to say that Christians brainwash the public into believing is utter nonsense. People either believe that Christianity is true by what they learn, see, experience, or are instinctively drawn to it without needing any such things. Otherwise, they simply disbelieve. However, that there is an intrinsic part of humanity which draws people from childhood to believe in God is now not a matter of debate. And this verifies what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans in the first century,
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” – Romans 1:20
All of this to say, that just because one may change his attitude from one of apathy, like I did, or from one of defiance against God, like many learned atheists have, such as C.S. Lewis did, to believe in God and take His words seriously, does not mean that it took place by a process of “brainwashing.” This change often happens as a matter of growth, learning, reasoning, and careful introspection. We simply go back to what we were intended to believe in from the very beginning.
While still agnostic many years ago, I was wary of not being duped by any religious teaching, but I did not simply throw my hands up and call the teachings a form of “brainwashing.” That would have been foolish. What it takes for people to be wise is to hear the facts and compare them and discern and come to conclusions about the nature of reality on their own. Those who are too afraid to open their eyes because the sunlight may be too bright are destined to live a life of blindness, tragically rejecting the only source of power that can free them from the darkness.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and a current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.