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 dictionary.com (you’ll have to scroll down to the third entry):
brainÂ·washÂ·ing (brÄn’wÅsh’Äng, -wÃ´’shÄng)
- 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.
- 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.”