In defense of religious ‘brainwashing’

Originally published at the USU SHAFT site.

Ive enjoyed several of the videos produced by The Thinking Atheist. This video, however, should make them reconsider their (already rather smarmy) name.

In the video, several atheists relate their Christian upbringing, which they now not-so-fondly remember as brainwashing. Dawkins has sometimes gone so far as to claim that religious education is a form of child abuse. It can be, but the complaints made by the atheists in the video struck me as petty. There are too many grave injustices in this world for me to care about your being dragged to church every Sunday as a child. (Though Ill admit that my religious upbringing wasnt very strict, and I generally dont regret my experience in Mormonism.)

The main point of the film is that its wrong for religions and religious people to target the youth. But if you believed in a real, literal Hell, youd be obligated to do all you could to ensure that your kids averted it. Just as you wouldnt let your kids drink poison to find out its lethal, you wouldnt expose them to or let them hold poisonous (read atheistic) beliefs that would imperil their salvation. If that requires a degree of so-called brainwashing or indoctrination, then so be it. Were I ever to have kids, I would of course try to teach them to be open-minded, critical thinkers. Id even encourage them to investigate the worlds religious traditions. But thats a luxury I have as someone who doesnt believe in the threat of Hell.

To be sure, I think the degree to which religious parents inculcate religious beliefs in their children is often detrimentalespecially when those beliefs are terror-inducing, like the concept of Hell. But this video misidentifies the problem. The problem isnt the indoctrination so much as its content. It doesnt make sense to ask Christians to stop steeping their children in their respective religious faith or to stop proselytizing. To ask this of a Christian is to ask them to be a hypocrite. Again, if you believe in a real Hell, its imperative that you save people from it. No, the only appropriate response is to challenge the very belief (in this case, Hell) that is motivating the actions.

And another thing: Isnt everything you teach children a form of brainwashing? Kids are evolutionarily primed to be sponges for information. Kids may be born atheists, as the video asserts, but they are not born critical-thinkers. Theyre curious, granted, but theyre nonetheless impressionable. Critical thinking is a skill that requires a fully-developed brain and years of intellectual exercise. Even were you to teach your children skepticism, they would accept those lessons unskeptically.

Whats more, I have a hard time believing that the people interviewed here are not raising their kids to be atheists, just as the religious parents raise their kids to be religious. Why is the latter brainwashing, but the former not? Because Christians host concerts and pizza parties (how nefarious!)? Give me a break. Were not talking about a pedophile luring kids into his van with candy, but sincere religious people concerned about the spiritual well-being of their children.

Im very supportive of the movement for nonbelievers to come out of the proverbial closet, but it seems many new atheists expect religious people to go into one. Id rather everyone have a voice in the public square, the marketplace of ideas. The more debate and discussion, the better. This video, though, trades in the kind of lazy accusations and caricatures of religious people that do little to advance our dialogue.

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150 Responses

  1. Seth R. says:

    Daniel #40

    You’ve exactly proven my point.

    You do equate religious views with an absence of critical thinking. Which fits the pattern of contempt for religious belief that I’ve gotten from you time and time again, on various forums.

    It’s a little late for you to be complaining now that you don’t like how unfair that makes you look.

    There is a great deal of critical thinking that goes on in formulating a person’s religious beliefs – even concerning things you can’t measure in a lab. The problem is that you have incorrectly narrowed the TYPE of evidence to which critical thinking can apply. Which is a common atheist foible. Only certain types of evidence count. Everything else is just elves and unicorns.

    Never mind that a lot of perfectly legitimate and important aspects of the human experience get unceremoniously shoved under the rug when you do this.

  2. Seth R. says:

    Now, it is correct enough that testing a scientific theory is theoretically possible in the absence of any sort of emotional motivation whatsoever.

    But no scientist does this. No human being does this. Emotional motivation is at the heart of ALL human action. And emotionally-driven goals are at the heart of all of it as well. And all science is conducted in the name of overarching ideals that you must simply accept on faith.

    Concern for human welfare, is a faith-based ideal. Belief in the inevitable triumph of human progress is a faith-based ideal. Democracy is a faith-based ideal. Belief that your pharmaceutical company is benefiting humanity and going to provide you with a stable job is a faith-based notion. Heck, the entire stock market is essentially faith-based – you can even see the fluctuation in the DOW numbers measuring the temperature of the collective faith of investors.

    All human action is motivated by faith. We, at a certain point, just have to accept that we are uncertain about some big things that impact our lives. Yet we have to set that aside and dive in anyway. And it is through participation in the system that you believe in that you get evidence of its truthfulness.

    We learn by doing – and that’s true of religious paradigms as well.

  3. chanson says:

    Steh @52 — Yes, everyone is biased in ways they don’t recognize. Everyone uses some component of emotion when reasoning. It’s not humanly possible to be purely objective.

    However, you can respond to that information by

    1. sincerely trying to recognize your bias, to compensate for it, and to use every tool you can to get accurate information despite your bias, or
    2. telling yourself that all conclusions are really just [equally biased] opinions, hence you don’t need to even try to reach accurate conclusions; believing whatever you please is the just same.

    There’s a real difference between these two responses to studies about how bias works.

  4. chanson says:

    Which leads me to a funny thought experiment:

    Suppose I say to you: “I really am completely objective. I never use any emotion in any of my reasoning. I did when I was younger, but since then, I’ve trained myself to have no emotional bias at all.”

    Can you prove me wrong? What kind of evidence would you use?

  5. Seth R. says:


    But who said that bias is bad?

    Do you honestly wake up each morning and try to examine whether your belief in “human freedom” being a good goal is well-founded or not?

    At a certain point, you just have to pick the hill you’re going to die on.

  6. Seth R. says:

    That is an interesting experiment.

    I don’t think you can prove the person wrong. Mainly because it’s hard to prove that emotions exist at all.

    Sure, I could hook you up to a machine measuring your physical biological reactions – reactions that we ASSOCIATE with emotion. But does that prove it? Not so sure.

    And of course, if we accept the parameters of Internet discussion, it is utterly impossible for me to prove you wrong Chanson. I can’t see you for one thing.

    But our own human experience of interacting with people (which is also faith-based) tells us that everyone has emotions. So your claim would seem unlikely to most of us based on mere experience.

  7. chanson says:

    Bias isn’t necessarily bad, but it often hinders people from reaching accurate conclusions.

    Do you honestly wake up each morning and try to examine whether your belief in human freedom being a good goal is well-founded or not?

    I didn’t claim it’s important to continuously re-hash subjects you’ve already considered at length — especially in the absence of new arguments and/or new evidence.

    I think that — when you encounter new arguments or evidence — you should try to ask yourself: “Do I have an emotional attachment to some conclusion that would make me want to dispute/dismiss this argument?” And then try to be aware of that bias and compensate for it as much as possible (which is, admittedly, very difficult). I think it’s also important to examine the invisible assumptions that you don’t realize that you are holding, which is even trickier. But not totally impossible. 😉

  8. Seth R. says:

    I don’t disagree.

    However, I would point out that the reasons that most Americans believe in stuff like “freedom” are very similar to the reasons people believe in their own religion as well. I don’t think most Americans have deeply examined why human freedom is a good thing as opposed to the alternatives – other than repeated superficial gut-checks.

    We believe mommy, daddy, and our third grade school teacher when they tell us that freedom is good. And we live in a system designed to perpetuate the bias in favor of it. And we watched episodes of GI-Joe and He-Man that told us so.

    But I don’t think most people really critically examine societal assumptions like this.

  9. Jonathan says:

    I agree that I’m removing the special religious meaning of faith because I don’t see that there is a real difference between religious faith and the kinds of assumptions that we make to remain functional. (Of course I disagree that I’m emptying it of all meaning.) So I don’t buy the criticisms of religion that are rooted in its use of faith. We all use it to some degree, so people in glass houses are wise to avoid throwing stones.

    I believe that the distinction that we can draw between religion and science is in the kinds of evidence and reasoning involved. I find many of the evidences and reasons given by religious believers for their beliefs lacking in one way or another. I will argue against their reasoning or their use of the kinds of evidence they appeal to because I don’t think the evidence justifies the leap of faith, but I don’t waste my time complaining about faith itself.

  10. chanson says:

    Seth @58 — Yes, very true.

    Jonathan @59 — my main objection to your earlier comment was that you’re saying that I have to accept that XYZ is faith; i.e. that I have to accept your definition of faith.

    I agree that the definition you’ve stated is a possible definition of faith, but I don’t think it’s the canonical definition of faith. Indeed, I suspect that the word doesn’t have a canonical, universally agreed-upon definition. “What is faith?” is a complex semantic and philosophical question.

    We all use it to some degree, so people in glass houses are wise to avoid throwing stones.

    Here you’re assuming that saying someone believes “on faith” is an insult, and that calling something “faith” is a way of “throwing stones” to denigrate someone’s profession of belief. I reject that analysis. I think that’s an insult to people who consider faith a positive thing.

    I believe that the distinction that we can draw between religion and science is in the kinds of evidence and reasoning involved.

    I agree with this statement. That’s what I said @45.

  11. Daniel says:

    I say bias is bad. It gives wrong answers.

    I also know I’m capable of it. So what I try to do is become more aware of how it works and what kinds there are, and try to be as free of it as I can be.

    This differs from your approach, which is to take refuge in it. Everybody does it, or something like that. Relativism.

    This is not really fitting for someone who’s trying to learn more and overcome their cognitive weaknesses, though it fits very well with someone who’s staked out a position and wants to defend it, whether it’s right or not.

  12. Seth R. says:

    Not necessarily.

    Sometimes picking a side and vigorously defending it is the only way to take that side seriously enough to comprehend it.

  13. Daniel says:

    As you like.

    I need to remember that people may have different purposes than I do, and that’s fine.

  14. To clarify, I don’t think my definition is canonical. It just serves to point out that everyone makes irrational leaps of reasoning. It’s unavoidable if you want to avoid being paralyzed. I think we would be hard pressed to come up with a nontrivial definition of faith that applies to religion but doesn’t apply to some degree to science, atheism, etc.

    So I don’t think that saying someone uses faith is an insult, and those who use faith as an insult are only insulting themselves.

  15. chanson says:

    everyone makes irrational leaps of reasoning. […] I dont think that saying someone uses faith is an insult

    You just called faith “irrational leaps of reasoning” in this very comment — which is exactly what I’m taking issue with. I think a lot of people of faith would consider that in insult and wouldn’t accept that as characterizing “faith” (though some might be OK with it).

  16. chanson says:

    Maybe everyone does occasionally make irrational leaps of reasoning, and maybe I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the faith community, but I would guess that the people who have a problem with “faith = zero evidence” might also have a problem with “faith = irrational-style reasoning.”

    I doubt someone who says “I have had a spiritual witness that has built my faith, hence have a testimony of the church,” would be agree if you respond “Oh, I totally understand — I have lots of things I believe for irrational reasons too!”

  17. I should have explained that, in the way I’m using it, “irrational” isn’t necessarily an insult. I realize that it has a strong pejorative connotation. The way I am using it here, I mean to convey the idea that rational thought can only get us so far, that it can never justify certainty, so in order to act as though something were true, we have to make a gamble that can’t be justified by an appeal to reason. This kind of gamble, the leap of faith, is irrational, and we are forced to do it all the time.

    Maybe a better word would be “transrational”?

    In any case, many religious believers will openly acknowledge that their faith is irrational in the sense that I’m using the word. They’ll say that you can’t attain faith by using your intellect, for example. I think it was Uchtdorf who gave a general conference talk where he stated as much and may have used the word irrational although that’s probably just my hazy memory.

    So while religious believers will give reasons why they believe, they will also acknowledge that religious belief isn’t entirely a rational thing. While the word “irrational” tends to be pejorative, if we can set that aside, I don’t think what I’ve said about faith would be that controversial to most religious believers. Perhaps some would object, but it’s mostly other kinds of believers that tend to deny that their belief isn’t perfectly rational.

  18. Seth R. says:

    Well, I guess I certainly like “transrational” better than “irrational.”

    The problem is that the definitions here are so woolly. “Rational”, “logical”, “evidence”… what do those words even mean? What can be included in their scope?

    Half the debate consists of one side trying to limit the definitions and the other side trying to expand them.

  19. chanson says:

    I’ll grant that some believers are OK with saying that faith is not necessarily rational. However, my argument is that many will say that “faith” means there’s some other positive reason to believe — regardless of whether it’s “rational” or not. That’s why I don’t think it’s a compliment to people of faith to say “everybody uses faith because everyone’s irrational sometimes.”

  20. I’m not trying to compliment or insult anyone, so I don’t particularly care either way. 🙂

    Stepping away from the semantic questions, where specifically do you see the distinction between belief based in science and belief based in religion?

  21. Alan says:

    Peoples rationality is actually not geared for truth, but is geared for winning arguments. So, in the end, both rationality and irrationality are employed when it comes to maintaining faith.

    Historically, it used to be very rational to have faith in God, because “evidence” of God was all around you. Atheists were the ones who were considered “irrational.” The tables started turning, I’d say, around the early 19th century. The point here is less about the actual existence or nonexistence of God, and more about how “rationality” is more related to the number of people believing something than about what and how something comes to be believed.

  22. chanson says:

    where specifically do you see the distinction between belief based in science and belief based in religion?

    I think this question is too complex for a quick comment. I’m just talking about the definition of the word “faith”. I understand that there are many common (conflicting) definitions. But the one I use is the following:

    Faith is a type of reasoning that intentionally accepts so-called “subjective” evidence such as spiritual witness or intuition (gut feeling) about what seems right.

  23. Alan, that’s an excellent point, though I think we can point to a set of thinking strategies that involve ratiocination that tend to point us toward a more accurate view of the world. They may not work perfectly, but on average can lead to better results. For the sake of this discussion, I’m calling these thinking strategies “rational”.

    chanson, that definition still proves my point because everyone relies on subjective evidence. All evidence is ultimately subjective sensory data and mental objects. We all use our intuition to fill in the gaps of our reasoning. Science is just better at mitigating the problems of subjectivity by preferring repeatability, statistical significance, peer review, empirical verification of our intuitions, etc.

  24. In other words, science is just biased toward making us do more reasoning and more verification of our beliefs whereas religion is often satisfied with less.

  25. chanson says:

    Except for the “intentional” part. I claim that there is a difference between intentionally embracing subjective evidence vs. making a sincere effort to compensate for it as much as humanly possible.

  26. Yeah, I think we’re saying the same thing. Science prefers to rely on faith as little as humanly possible whereas religion embraces faith as a virtue that should be magnified (at least when faith is placed in the right religion).

  27. chanson says:

    Close, but not exactly. You’re saying that every use of subjective reasoning (including unintentional) is faith, therefore every conclusion is (to some degree) based on faith. I think that that renders the word practically useless. I claim that only intentional use of subjective reasoning deserves the label “faith”, therefore not every conclusion merits the word “faith”.

    However — like I said — there are lots of possible definitions of “faith”. If people of faith can’t agree on what it means, why should we? 😉

  28. Seth R. says:

    Anyone who thinks science can ever replace religion is waaaay overestimating the actual role of science.

    You might as well claim that one day science will make music appreciation obsolete.

  29. Seth R. says:

    And faith isn’t really something that runs in opposition to science. Nor is it something that exists as an alternative to science.

    Faith is merely belief that motivates devoted action. Those beliefs can be true or untrue (as you like). But the mere fact that it is “faith” does not mean it conflicts with science. In fact, faith of some brand motivates just about all the science we do, when you boil it down to the basics.

  30. 🙂

    Maybe I’m not understanding. Are you using “intentional” to mean the same thing as “knowing”? If you are, then an unintentional/unknowing use of faith is only ignorance of what’s going on. Otherwise, I’m not sure how we disagree.

    My definition of faith is useless if you want to draw a sharp distinction between religious beliefs and other beliefs (because I think such a distinction is mostly artificial). It’s useful if you want to recognize that it is possible to apply critical thinking skills to the question of religious belief and still come to religious conclusions because critical thinking is not absolutely incompatible with religious belief.

  31. chanson says:

    Faith is merely belief that motivates devoted action.

    Yet another definition of faith. So, would you say you disagree with my definition @72? (Just curious — I’m willing to agree to disagree on it…)

    BTW, at the moment, I don’t feel like I’m up to moving on to the questions: “What is science? Is it inherently in conflict with religion? Is that the same as being in conflict with music appreciation?”

  32. Seth R. says:

    Yes Chanson, I do reject the definition of faith in #72. It trivializes and inappropriately limits the word to “gut checks.”

    That’s not how I live faith, that’s not how Mormon theology views faith (unless you are talking about people who have a rather superficial view of the theology), that’s not how anyone who has read and understood Alma 32 views faith.

    This is emphatically NOT about gut-checks.

  33. chanson says:

    What if I were to remove the part about intuition? (I actually only added the term “gut checks” because you’d mentioned it earlier in this thread.) What if I limited it to evidence based on spiritual witness. Then would it suit you?

  34. Seth R. says:

    I think that limitation doesn’t really work – because often faith does operate on evidence that is not spiritual – but rather more material (two more vague words) in nature. The dividing lines just aren’t that clear.

  35. chanson says:

    OK, well then I’ll just go with “deliberate use of (some types of?) subjective evidence” as my working definition.

  36. kuri says:

    Anyone who thinks science can ever replace religion is waaaay overestimating the actual role of science.

    You might as well claim that one day science will make music appreciation obsolete.

    I think one day science will understand exactly how music appreciation works. That’s unlikely to make people appreciate music one whit the less.

    I think it’s also possible that one day science will understand exactly what makes people religious. That, on the other hand, might well make many people less religious.

  37. Seth R. says:

    Well Kuri…

    Those are some interesting faith-claims you have there. We’ll see just how far this confidence in lab results is born out, I guess.

  38. chanson says:

    I think one day science will understand exactly how music appreciation works. Thats unlikely to make people appreciate music one whit the less.

    Have you read Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by neurologist Oliver Sacks? I’ve only read the first few chapters, but it’s quite interesting so far.

  39. kuri says:

    The music part isn’t faith-based; I saw it on Nova tonight! 😀 But seriously, though, there’s a lot of progress being made on that. But I don’t see how understanding music appreciation would make people appreciate music less.

    My sense is that less progress is being made on religion. But if we obtain a good understanding of religion, and if it proves to be “all in our heads,” then it seems quite possible that that could be a serious blow to religion.

  40. kuri says:

    I don’t know if you can access this from Switzerland, but a Nova episode with Sacks exploring music and the brain will be up and streaming here quite soon.

  41. Seth R. says:

    Well, you asserted that one day our own efforts at science will completely comprehend and understand music appreciation.

    Whatever that Nova special told you, I’m sure the message was NOT that “we now scientifically know everything about music appreciation.” Nor am I convinced we ever will on our own steam. That’s why I called it a “faith-claim” on your part.

    But that misses my point anyway. I never said that lab experiments would never enrich or complement things like art and religion. What I said is that they will never render them obsolete.

    Yet atheists always seem to be assuming that the march and advances of the lab will always come at the expense of the realm of the chapel or temple. I categorically reject that way of looking at things.

  42. wayne says:

    Back to the original subject of Brainwashing. The question that keeps coming up for me is the difference between socialization and brainwashing. Is it Brain washing to insist repeatedly that your five year old keep his feet off the table. The child will see that it is important to his parents, and depending on how upset his parents get when he does will have corresponding levels of emotion connected to the thought of putting his feet on the table.

    Further, when he is on his own, and he does it on his own table he may even feel guilty. Why? Because his parents and possibly other adults reinforced the importance of keeping feet off the table. This is exactly the way cultural norms are handed down. Religious belief is really not different.

    On lab experiments and religion.

    In a test of altruism and belief in God vs. no belief. Amounts of money given as a measure of altruistic inclination, believers gave more than atheists when the believers were reminded of their belief. When they were not reminded they gave the same amount of money as the atheists. I could not find the specific study on line but here is another by the same researcher on belief in God.

  43. chanson says:

    Whatever that Nova special told you, Im sure the message was NOT that we now scientifically know everything about music appreciation. Nor am I convinced we ever will on our own steam. Thats why I called it a faith-claim on your part.

    So, to recap: Seth feels that believing something you want to believe — without having any valid justification — is “faith”. Just not “gut-checks”. Because gut-checks would trivialize faith. 😉

  44. kuri says:


    You may be right. Religious beliefs seem to be very “sticky” in the face of contrary evidence. Learning what the Book of Abraham facsimiles really say, for example, has had very little effect on Mormonism.

  45. kuri says:

    Apparently, believing that something will probably happen in the future — no matter what the justification — counts as “faith” too.

  46. Seth R. says:

    Kuri, that’s because what the facsimiles really say is not a problem for Mormon faith.

    And a lot of folks at FAIR see ex-Mormon refusals to accept their arguments as being every bit as blind and emotion-driven as the ex-Mormons claim that the Mormon defenses are. So who’s right?

    Probably for another discussion.

    Chanson, you haven’t caught me in a contradiction here – because I never trivialized Kuri’s beliefs down to “gut-checks.” Kuri has actual reasons for being confident in the march of science.

    But it isn’t inevitable. So I call it a faith claim. It’s a paradigm he feels he has lots of powerful and valid reasons to buy into, and he has given his allegiance to that ideal. But it isn’t as provably inevitable as 2+2=4.

    Few things in life are, actually.

  47. chanson says:

    Seth — I’m not saying you contradicted yourself. I’m saying I don’t understand your definition and your criteria for deciding whether a belief should be called “faith” or not. If someone says “I believe X for the following YZW reasons…” I’d be at a loss to guess whether you would call that person’s belief faith or not. Whereas, I think I understand Jonathan’s and Daniel’s definitions well enough to (fairly confidently) apply them.

  48. Jonathan says:

    wayne, in those situations, after I tell them to take their feet off the table, I try to tell my children why. Sometimes I have solid justifications, but sometimes it just comes down to explaining the value of conforming to social norms. In any case, I try to avoid using guilt and parental displeasure as motivations. FWIW.

  49. kuri says:

    Kuri, thats because what the facsimiles really say is not a problem for Mormon faith.

    Exactly. The debunking of the facsimiles hasn’t kept Mormons from believing in the Book of Abraham. So you might well be right. Learning what religious/spiritual experiences/feelings really are might not be a problem for religion.

    I don’t believe in some sort of “inevitable march of science,” BTW. I often extrapolate current trends into the future, but I’m well aware of the possibility of failure from reasons small and/or grand.

  50. chanson says:

    after I tell them to take their feet off the table, I try to tell my children why. Sometimes I have solid justifications, but sometimes it just comes down to explaining the value of conforming to social norms.

    Same here. For example, see how I explained about naughty words.

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