Is there a line between education and indoctrination?
By Rev. Dr. William C. Myers and Scott Blair | May 5, 2018
Believers bringing children up in their faith feel they are passing down life’s most important and joyous understandings. They may also hope to impart protection to their children by enrolling them in God’s care.
Parents may not view religious teaching as indoctrination or intend it to cause harm, but harm can occur (even as compassionate principles are also conveyed). Children may feel guilt over natural thoughts and behaviors. They might fear that their faith is inadequate and that they will fail to make it into God’s kingdom. I know children who have been terrorized by the belief that demons surround them in their own home. Many will engage in imagined supernatural causes their whole life rather than understand and address the world as it is.
Once when I visited a church, in a segment of the service, little girls in Sunday dresses and boys in child-sized bowties were called up front to sit on an area of carpet. An adult, using a tender voice, told the young ones a Jesus story. There was a sense of tradition, warmth, and continuity of generations. Adults in pews glowed and made nearly inaudible vocalizations of approval — giving every vibe that it is admirable to revere what they were hearing.
This ritual is part of a centuries-old process that psychologically cements a child’s self-image of “goodness” to belief in a fantastical story. A compromised ability to evaluate reality becomes tightly bound to the desire to be good and to be regarded as such by family and peers. The process is subtle and steeped in loving intentions but it is indoctrination.
Many atheists are Humanists. Humanists attempt to teach and demonstrate empathy, curiosity, and inquiry. We try to model effective ways of questioning and examining the nature of reality rather than passing down fixed beliefs. Critics may assume we indoctrinate, but the Humanist view is that inquiry should be dispassionate — that is, as free as possible from emotional and psychological attachment to claims.
Education promotes inquiry. Indoctrination tethers assertions to emotion and identity.
Scott, the 1950s called. They want their religion back! Yes, there are religious people who indoctrinate. There are religious people who do harm. But the same can be said for secular folks. Soviet-era communism comes to mind. Dare we mention what’s been done in the name of science? Tuskegee?
Your “Christian” has more straw than the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz! Secular or Christian: Some indoctrinate. Some nurture. The question is, how do we look at life?
Child: “Why was I born?” Secularist: “Well, Mommy and Daddy [fill in the blank] … .” Christian: “To love God and people … .” But don’t secular people love? Sure, I know many who love, care, share, and show compassion. The difference? People of faith know God is the source of such love and teach this faith to our children.
“We prefer to let our children decide for themselves.” Pastors hear this often! Usually from families whose children aren’t regularly involved in worship or church school. “We don’t want to impose our beliefs. We want our children to choose for themselves.”
Does this laissez-faire philosophy extend to every facet of their lives?
“We’ve chosen not to feed our children. We think it’s better for them to hunt and forage.”
“We don’t plan to potty train our children or teach them personal hygiene. We don’t want to impose our social norms on them.”
“We’re going to let our children decide for themselves whether to go to school or not. We want them to be free-thinkers.”
Sadly, there are people who raise their children this way, and many are considered unfit to be parents. But these aren’t the people I’m speaking about. The folks I’m speaking about are otherwise highly engaged in their children’s lives — some are even “helicopter parents” — except when it comes to matters of faith. Why would they leave the most important part of their children’s development to chance?
I honestly don’t know. I suspect they have questions about faith, or don’t know how to teach their children to have faith. Some might fear that teaching children to live by faith is the same as indoctrination. This couldn’t be further from the truth!
The theology of mainline protestants, largely responsible for the creation of the public school and university systems in America, is grounded in the liberal arts philosophy of learning, which includes the free and rational study of the arts and sciences, as well as theology. Our belief that “the life of the mind is a service to God” is the antithesis of indoctrination. As Graham Nash suggests, we strive to “teach our children well.”
“Hear, my child, your father's instruction, and forsake not your mother's teaching; for they are a fair garland for your head and pendants for your neck.” —Proverbs 1:8-9
If ideas are rational, the parents Bill describes can teach them to their children with a clear conscience. Parents can model curiosity, inquiry, and intellectual integrity so that in the future their children are free to adjust or reject assertions in favor of more supportable ones when necessary, without stress or identity crisis. Teaching ideas that can be evaluated for their compliance with reality is not indoctrination.
Faith (belief without evidence), in supernatural claims is not rational and may require some technique to weave into a child’s psyche — methods marginally convinced parents may not be comfortable using, hence their reluctance.
Attaching mythology that conflicts with the laws of nature to a child’s innate desire to be good and be accepted would seem to qualify as indoctrination.
Bill and Scott both recognize that parents are in a position to have significant influence on the development of a child’s character and that this position brings with it one of life’s greatest responsibilities. Whatever a parent’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof), modeling empathy and compassion are two of the most important parts of meeting that responsibility.