There was a discussion at the last Salt Lake Atheist Meetup where we talked about brainwashing. Some well-trod comments came forward, i.e., the Mormon lifestyle is brainwashing, etc. I was about to state my case for my views on indoctrination, but I held back. I think that I need to refine them a little more.Let me start with the American Heritage definition of brainwashing, as reported by (you’ll have to scroll down to the third entry):

brain·wash·ing (brān’wŏsh’Ä­ng, -wô’shÄ­ng)

  1. Intensive, forcible indoctrination, usually political or religious, aimed at destroying a person’s basic convictions and attitudes and replacing them with an alternative set of fixed beliefs.
  2. The application of a concentrated means of persuasion, such as an advertising campaign or repeated suggestion, in order to develop a specific belief or motivation.

These definitions describe the two basic usages of the word. The first describes our traditional notion of communist governments kidnapping someone and replacing their ideals with something else. It also fits the idea of cult programming. The second is the more common usage, for example, ad campaigns and the like altering your brand loyalty.

It seems to me that “brainwashing” can be correctly used in one of two extreme cases; that is, when you’re talking about the real, insidious extreme of mind-altering treatments, or when you’re talking about the innocuous extreme of repetition of a label. Because of this, I think that we (secularists) often misuse the term to describe something in the middle.

When applying the first definition, it barely relates to religion at all. “Brainwashing” when applied to belief in the supernatural could only correctly be applied to cults and extreme sects; for example, the small, insular organizations like Heaven’s Gate that alter someone’s personality, or the small churches that instill abject fear of Hell and Satan. There are likely people that are affected this way by larger religious groups, but I would argue that they are few and that they might be susceptible to radical changes in belief. Most people grow up in a religion and are not “brainwashed” into it. The first definition describes the removal of basic convictions, not the instillation of them.

The second definition can obviously be applied to religion, but it can also be applied to fast-food chains, toothbrush brands, charities, political candidates, ISP’s, and the list goes on. To attempt to apply this definition to any meaningful disscussion of religious practices would be meaningless. I’ve got an anti-voucher sign in my window that I hope has the effect of the second definition of “brainwashing,” at least to the point where someone thinks about the issue enough to ask questions.

What many atheists and other secularists try to say when they refer to Mormon “brainwashing” is actually “indoctrination.” I think that it’s obvious that a meaningful discussion on indoctrination can occur, because indoctrination is spectral. On one end, there is the basic advertising aspect of indoctrination, and on the other, there is the horrifying, forceful aspect. Mormonism lies somewhere in the middle, probably slightly right-of-center, but certainly not at the extreme.

Mormonism has a large set of rules to follow in order to lead a virtuous life under the Church’s definitions of virtue. Deviation from the mainstream is looked down on by the community. The community encourages doubters to return to regular meetings, so that repetition of doctrine can be used to encourage active membership in the community. Children are raised within this community, so that their set of norms is more in line with what lies within the community than without. It’s intellectual armoring against the out-group. All this is typical of any conservative religion. And none of it is brainwashing.

Members are allowed to leave at any time, and many do. It can be extremely difficult, but that’s only because the indoctrination is so heavy. It’s not forced (note that I’m not talking about the treatment of some homosexuals within the Mormon community; that’s a much more specific case, and I think that it’s abhorrent; what I’m speaking about is the average member). The outside world seems very alien, so some retraining (in varying degrees) is often required to adapt to life without the Church.

Yes, there are secret rituals that are inaccessible to outsiders. That still doesn’t make it brainwashing. That makes it a club.

To sum up my point, I think that we should start calling a spade a spade. To call Mormon indoctrination “brainwashing” is ignorant. It encourages the idea that Mormons take converts and secret them away, and turn them into different people. It detracts from the main concern, which is that Mormonism is a belief system that doesn’t fit with today’s society.

The Church’s treatments of women, homosexuality, sex, and vice are backward. They encourage a lifestyle that makes each member feel unmoored when they move away from it, not to mention incredibly guilty. They also preach millennialism, which in my opinion is a philosophy that is one of the biggest threats to our survival as a species on this planet.

In short, let’s actually address the Church’s indoctrination of its members, instead of trying to fight the nonexistent specter of “brainwashing.”

Reposted from Godless on the Wasatch Front. Please see the comments of the Ken Jennings interview for some further discussion by the author of this article.

John Moeller

I'm a Software Engineer living in Salt Lake City. I'm also an amateur photographer and a casual gamer. I am also an atheist, a humanist, a rationalist, a skeptic, and a left-of-centrist.

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8 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    I think this article fits well with aerin’s article from the other day: It’s annoying when other people deliberately misuse terminology for their own purposes, so we should be careful to avoid doing it ourselves. There’s no real advantage to claiming that Mormons are “brainwashed” — it just annoys them (see here), and hinders us from doing a realistic analysis of the situation.

  2. Hellmut says:

    I agree. Brainwashing is too strong. Indoctrination is much better.
    What really damages people is when sanctified ideas conflict with reality but the members do not feel free to adapt.

  3. exmoron says:

    When I teach my sociology of religion courses I talk at length about brainwashing (for a good treatment of this in sociology see Eileen Barker’s book “The Making of a Moonie”). The key point I try to make with my students is this: Can people leave? Is it “forced” using “force”? If people can leave, regardless of how difficult it might seem to leave, it is not brainwashing.

    So, John, I absolutely agree (and so do the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association). Brainwashing does certainly take place in some extreme religious groups (brainwashing is not a criteria of a cult), but it isn’t taking place in most religious groups. It may feel like you might suffer violence if you try to leave Mormonism (I know my mom wasn’t happy when I told her and if we had been in the same state she may have tried to hit me), but rarely is that actually the case (if it is, then yes, you are being brainwashed).

    Good post!

  4. John Moeller says:

    Thanks all for your comments.

    Exmoron: I’ve been having a similar debate over on Friendly Atheist with someone about the usage of the word “cult” as applied to Mormonism. I view the debate on its usage as being very similar to the usage of “brainwashing.” What do you think?

  5. aerin says:

    I definitely think of A Clockwork Orange when I think of brainwashing.

    I agree that a better term could be indoctrination.

    Certainly, I don’t think any of us could deny there is a tremendous amount of repetition. Words and phrases are said over and over – repeated in songs – to a point where children/young people don’t even know what they’re really saying. Does this happen in other religions/other places? I’m sure it does (think the nursery rhyme – rock a bye baby).

    I guess I would question why (if the LDS church is all true) it would be so necessary to talk about reverence, obedience and integrity all the time. And to use guilt and fear tactics on the membership – particularly those who are being raised mormon and really don’t have a choice about whether or not they should be there.

    As far as leaving goes, for minor teenagers they are typically not allowed to leave without a tremendous struggle. Obviously it’s somewhere easier for independent adults not living with their parents.

    And with that said, there are still some members who promote brainwashing type beliefs. They refuse to read/watch anything not created by SLC. They teach their children that questioning is never appropriate (the prophet would never lead us astray). They teach in classes that members should not talk to apostates or non members (even if those people are family members). That’s what’s dangerous (IMO).

    It’s some of the minority within mormonism that promote these dangerous/brainwashing type ideas. Not the vast majority of people who happen to be mormon and just trying to do the right thing.

  6. dpc says:


    Considering the fact that parents are authorized by law to make religious choices for their children, it seems strange that you would point to the ‘struggles’ of teenager trying to leave the church as a possible sign of brainwashing.

    I’m sure that any person who leaves the faith that they grew up in goes through a tremendous struggle, especially if there are external pressures to remain a member. It works in reverse as well: people who convert to Mormonism from various backgrounds sometimes have friends and family who shun them. It’s not just a Mormon thing, it’s a human thing.

    When you go to church, school, work, or watch TV, you are being indoctrinated (IMO).

  7. aerin says:

    I was specifically responding John’s assertion that members can leave at any time and many do.

    I think that whether or not parents should or should not force their teenagers to attend LDS services could be debated. I don’t think it has been fully explored legally.

    Obviously, every situation is different. Yes, it is also true that teenagers who join mormonism can be shunned by family and friends. So in that sense it does work both ways.

    Strange that some LDS can be activists about parents allowing their teenager to join the LDS faith but if a teenager in their own family decides to leave, it’s not acceptable.

    With that said, from my antecdotal experience, most parents in other religions allow their teenagers freedom to question and make up their minds. If a teenager really didn’t want to attend mass or another service (even on Christmas or Easter) because of religious disagreement, it might be a heated discussion, but it was typically accepted.

    Most LDS parents that I’ve met are very strict about their children and teenagers attending services regardless of the teenagers’ beliefs. Legally, the law may support this. Morally or ethically though, I think it’s a grey area. At one point is a parent really trying to do what’s best for a child/teenager – and when are they forcing the teenager to take part in a seemingly “volunteer” organization. An organization that involves a great deal of indoctrination and other socially conservative issues (like the ones John mentioned above).

    I believe many LDS parents think of forcing their teenagers to go to church the same as school. No doubt it’s the mindset because that’s what typically happened with them (if their parents were mormon). That doesn’t make it right.

    The search for independence and identity as a teenager (specifically a mormon teenager) needs to allow that person to fully develop their own personality and belief systems. Most major mainstream religions allow their teenagers and young adults that freedom. I don’t think the leadership should encourage parents to force their teenagers to attend LDS services.

  8. Kullervo says:

    Aerin said: Certainly, I don’t think any of us could deny there is a tremendous amount of repetition. Words and phrases are said over and over – repeated in songs – to a point where children/young people don’t even know what they’re really saying. Does this happen in other religions/other places? I’m sure it does (think the nursery rhyme – rock a bye baby).

    Yes, it happens in other churches to a far more extensive degree than it happens in Mormonism. But they call it “liturgy.”

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