If asked, I would bet dimes to dollars that projection bias is present in at least 90% of theist accusations against atheists. Over the years, I’ve been genuinely shocked at how difficult it is to find a claim against atheists as a group that doesn’t involve projecting theist faults onto atheists.
Earlier today, I noticed some scuttlebutt about a Facebook page denouncing Camp Quest. Now, before I go on, I should mention that I have not been to one of these camps, but I have talked with several people involved in the project. I don’t mean this entry to be a defense of Camp Quest in particular. Instead, I want to illustrate a very important difference between the way theists and non-theists approach teaching.
From all I can tell, Camp Quest is a non-religious alternative to Bible Camp, where children are taught about the natural world with no religious context. I am told that if and when religion is ever addressed, it is presented scientifically, as a claim about the universe that must be examined critically before being believed.
Critics have leveled the accusation that Camp Quest is simply a front for atheist indoctrination and intolerance of any and all organized religion. Nasty words, to be sure, but do they hold up? For Camp Quest, I don’t know. I haven’t been there. But, I do know how to evaluate the claim, and I’ll be happy to share that knowledge with you, gentle readers, so that if you have the chance to see it for yourself, you can make your own decision.*
Very simply, teaching is communicating new information. We all teach each other, and we have teaching materials nearly everywhere. When I am driving in unfamiliar territory, the street signs are teaching me things like how fast to drive, where to stop, where to turn, and when I can pass other cars. When I let someone watch me cook, I am teaching them a recipe and several cooking techniques.
Of course, when we talk about teaching, we usually think about schools, but teachers really aren’t doing anything different. They’re just doing it systematically for pay. Professional teachers have to meet certain standards of knowledge before they are allowed in the classroom. But for practical purposes, they’re doing what all of us do on a regular basis.
There are several things about teaching that we must observe: Teaching, by itself, doesn’t guarantee truth. This is why we insist that science teachers study science, and (hopefully) keep up with current discoveries. Mothers and grandmothers have been teaching for decades that uncovered feet cause colds. That’s why we don’t let them teach classes on biology. They don’t have the knowledge they need to teach truth. But falsehood can be taught and learned as easily as truth.
There are many reasons for teaching. When we go to college, we hope to learn information that will help us land a good job. When we ask our grandfathers about what it was like in the War to End All Wars, we are learning about our shared past, and connecting with our culture. When we read a fiction novel, we’re seeking entertainment. In each of these cases, we are being taught something, and in each of these cases, the truth value of the information we’ve gained is different in kind.
Finally, there are many ways to teach, and this is where we will discover the difference between indoctrination and teaching. At this point, I’d like to use two examples which will lead into a definition. When I was quite young, my mother used to enlist my help when she made sugar cookies. Of course, she didn’t need my help. She was teaching me how to cook. She’d let me crack the eggs (and often, dig out the pieces of shell from the bowl until I became better at cracking eggs) beat the wet mix, measure the dry mix, and so forth. As an adult, it is obvious to me that she was teaching me methodology. I don’t remember the recipe for those particular sugar cookies, but I can follow any cookie recipe and use the skills I learned to make damn good cookies.
Cooking, very clearly, is a method, and it also involves certain truths about the physical universe. Stale bread is better for croutons, while club sandwiches demand fresh. Emulsifications are a class of colloid using two liquids. Vinaigrettes are emulsions of oil and vinegar. Humidity affects baking time in a predictable fashion. Garlic cooks very fast in a hot skillet. Onions release sugars when cooked. In order to be a successful cook, I need to know the facts about ingredients and be practiced in the methods for frying, baking, mixing, and otherwise manipulating them.
Now, for example two, let’s imagine a young boy in an Italian family. Italian cooking has a long history, and many people take great pride in the tradition — for good reason, in my own opinion. Our subject is taught by his mother from the day he is old enough to hold a spoon. As he grows in both intellect and physical dexterity, his mother gives him more information and teaches him new methods. By the time he is a teenager, he is quite an accomplished cook, with a solid mastery of Italian dishes and styles. His mother has taught him well.
Suppose the mother also instructed her son, through harsh rebukes, dire warnings, and threats of horrible food poisoning that any cuisine other than Italian was not just bad food, but was in truth, the source of all gastric suffering in the world. The poor boy was taught that sushi would inevitably lead him down a path of culinary oblivion, and that all the spices in Thai food were just covering up the inherent rottenness of the food itself. Morevoer, should he ever even think about trying other food, he would be committing a sin equivalent to betraying his national heritage.
This sounds absurd to us, but it is a perfect analog for what passes for religious “teaching,” particularly in Islamic and American culture. Parents keep their children out of school, home schooling them so they are not exposed to dangerous ideas like evolution and cultural diversity. They are taught — nay, brainwashed — into believing that to even pick up a science book on evolution would be sinful. They are taught that their bodies are evil, corrupted by a nonsense doctrine of “original sin.” They are taught that their religion is true because they know it in their heart, but all other religions are false because their hearts are misled by sin or demons or the devil himself.
This, in a nutshell, is indoctrination. It is the opposite of critical thinking. It is not teaching a method for discovery. Rather, it squelches curiosity and puts certain lines of thinking outside the realm of acceptability. Yes, it is teaching, in the broadest sense of the word, but the purpose of indoctrination is not the intellectual development of the child, but rather the adherence to a particular dogma. Indoctrination is meant to instill particular beliefs, not to search for truth.
There is a very effective litmus test for indoctrination. While you are listening to the teacher, do you hear any threats? Any cries for the squelching of other teachings? Any warnings against trying other ideas on for size? Any moral judgments based on your belief in this or that teaching? Most importantly, do you hear anybody saying that you should trust this regardless of what anyone else says?
These are the telltale signs of indoctrination. If someone purports to be teaching objectively and doesn’t pass the litmus test, you should be very, very suspicious. Remember, we have a way for telling what’s true and what’s false that doesn’t have anything to do with the person making the claim. It’s called the Scientific Method.
So… is Camp Quest a secret organization intent on indoctrinating young, impressionable children into the ways of atheism? Or, is it a summer camp where children get to be little humans without being taught that one particular religion is definitely true, and Goddamnit, you’ll BURN IN HELL IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IT!!!!
(Pardon my snark.)
So there it is. Indoctrination is imposing beliefs by suppressing, oppressing, restricting, brow-beating, and coercing. Is that what they’re doing at Camp Quest? I don’t know. If you’re concerned about it, why don’t you go see for yourself one day? Who am I to tell you what you have to believe?
* Once you’ve finished this entry, you should realize that I am engaging in teaching without indoctrination, and this last sentence was a perfect example of how that’s done!