Among the many words we tend to misuse and conflate, teaching and indoctrination are two of the most important. In order to fully understand the danger of religious indoctrination we must understand just what indoctrination is, and how it differs both in method and effect, from teaching.
Teaching, in it’s most basic form, is the reduction of prior uncertainty. That is, teaching is the communication of information. This definition may seem a bit broad, but it is useful to start here and work our way in towards more exact descriptions. From our current vantage point, we can see that almost any communication at all could be called teaching. When I enter a building and see a sign pointing me to the receptionist’s desk, I am being taught in the same way as when I read a textbook for a university course. Someone has written down information which was unknown to me, and upon reading it, I am less uncertain than I was before.
Intuitively, when we speak of indoctrination, we know we’re talking about some kind of teaching. But it’s obviously something more than just the communication of information. So, we must dig deeper. If we examine various instances of teaching, we note two very important things about communication:
- Information that is taught is not necessarily fact.
- There are different purposes for teaching both fact and falsehood.
When a person signs up for a class at a university, say in physics, he intends to be taught the physical laws which govern the interaction of matter and energy in the universe. On the other hand, if someone asks their grandfather to tell them about what it was like to live in The Great Depression, they’re not necessarily looking for hard facts, but rather someone else’s perspective. When we read a fictional novel, we are being taught, but the knowledge we gain does not correspond with anything that actually exists or is true, except as concepts. In all of these cases, the “truth value” of the knowledge we gain is different. The fictional novel is meant only to entertain us, and perhaps to illustrate some principle of human existence. The physics class is meant to convey factual information and avoid errors when at all possible. The narrative from our grandfather is a way of connecting to our own culture.
There’s one other form of teaching that is crucial to this discussion — critical thinking. Contrary to the popular notion, the ability to think rationally is not common, nor is it always intuitive. In fact, our human instincts are often directly at odds with principles of critical thinking. Because of this, we must be taught how to think. Most education programs are well aware of this concept. We do not want to teach children by rote. We want to teach them methodology. Of all the forms of teaching, the one that is most important must be critical thinking, for without it, we cannot discover the fiction writer’s allusion to real life, nor can we apply the physical laws of the universe to individual problems, nor can we discover the personal relevance of our grandfather’s struggle with poverty. All forms of learning are dependent on critical thinking if we are to effectively incorporate information into a rational life.
At this point, I’d like to use an analogy which will lead into a definition of indoctrination as opposed to teaching. Let’s examine cooking. 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, but 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, for I do not remember the recipe for those particular sugar cookies, but I can follow any cookie recipe and make delicious cookies. Similarly, though I don’t remember how to make “cheeseburger casserole,” I know how casseroles work, and I can invent my own based on my adult tastes.
Cooking is a method, and it also involves certain truths about the physical universe. Stale bread is better for some applications, while others require fresh. Emulsifications are built in a certain way. Humidity affects baking time in a predictable fashion. Garlic cooks very quickly in a hot skillet. Onions release sugars when cooked. In order to be a successful cook, we must learn both the facts and the methodology.
Now, 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. 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 in his own right, and has a very good mastery of Italian dishes and styles. His mother has taught him well.
Suppose, however, that in the course of this culinary training, 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, preferring to home school them so they are not exposed to dangerous ideas like evolution and cultural diversity. They are 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.” (Evolution is true, of course, and there was no first human couple. So, from whence comes original sin?) They are taught that their religion is true because they know it in their heart, but all other religions are false becausethose people’s 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.
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.
Parents often object that it is their inherent right to indoctrinate their children into their own religion. After all, it’s part of their personal culture, and who am I to suggest that they do not have a right to their own culture? Of course, under current law in America, they’re probably correct. Part of the freedom of religion is the freedom to teach religion to one’s own children. However, the argument against religious indoctrination is not, at its heart, a legal argument. It is a moral one. Indoctrination of any kind is, by definition, stifling to the exercise of critical thinking. Critical thinking, as we have seen, is the grease that allows the gears to turn, and facilitates our incorporation of all other forms of teaching. Without the ability to effectively process information, we are learning by rote, or we are reaching false conclusions through faulty logic. Indoctrination is the opposite of critical thinking. Therefore, if we want children to learn to think critically, we must not indoctrinate them.
Other parents will argue that they are not indoctrinating their child, but rather teaching them about religion. They are, after all, free to make up their own minds when they’re old enough. This is the most common objection I hear from moderate and liberal theists. Unfortunately, this is just an emotionally appealing red herring. These children are not being taught religion as they would be in a college course on comparative religion. They are being taught one religion, and they are being taught that it is true. By the time they are old enough to “decide for themselves” they’ve already spent 95% of their life being taught what their conclusion should be. They are not being taught the method by which they should choose which, if any, religion they will adopt. They are being taught by rote that this religion is the correct one. This is still indoctrination, even though it may not have all the hellfire and damnation of a more fundamentalist indoctrination.
Finally, many parents will object that religion is a personal thing, and part of their culture, and it is presumptuous for anyone to try to destroy their heritage. This argument, like the others, disintigrates rapidly. Religion can be taught without being indoctrinated. Culture can certainly be maintained through intelligent informed choice. By insisting that children be taught to think critically, I am insisting that they be given the chance to make an informed decision about whether their culture is worth maintaining. If there is merit to being a Christian, then a child who is given all the options and taught how to weigh them critically ought to reach the conclusion to be a Christian once he is old enough to do so. If it’s such a great “culture” then we should not fear to stand it up next to all other cultures, for its inherent truth will be readily obvious to anyone who is sufficiently skilled in critical thinking.
The real issue here is not whether or not parents should be allowed to teach religion. It is whether they should be allowed to actively squelch the critical thinking skills necessary for their child to make an informed, rational decision on their own. Yes, parents have rights with regard to their children, but their children are also human beings with rights of their own. If it is wrong to withhold necessary information from an adult, or to present them with an outright falsehood regarding something as life altering as religious choice, then it is wrong to do so to a child — more wrong, in fact, for children have no other frame of reference, and believe their parents above all other people in the world.
So, when a theist informs me that they are teaching their children about religion, I ask politely if they are presenting their child with information about the evolutionary origins of religion, the diversity of religious views around the world, and the evolution of religion itself from shamanistic to polytheistic to monotheistic to new age and spiritualism. If they are not, I humbly reject their claim of teaching and accuse them of sugar coating indoctrination.