Childhood Indoctrination: Creating Christians

A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents.
-Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

What is indoctrination? According to Oxford Languages, it is "the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically."  

I'm not aware of any religious institutions that teach their parishioners how to critically examine the religion being taught. No, the religion is presented as non-negotiable truth and any real scrutiny is discouraged.  This is especially true for children.  Children are taught at an early age by their parents that their chosen religion is fact.  Kids are not taught how to think, but what to think.  

Bubble of Religious Indoctrination
Indoctrination exposes children to what is inside the bubble, at the expense of the virtues outside of the bubble

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins compares religion to "mind-viruses".  The religions that are most likely to be spread from person to person are the ones that are best suited to survive and propagate.  And how does Christianity (or any religion) propagate?

One of the most effective methods is "infecting" minds when they are at their most vulnerable--as children.

Dawkins posits that over eons of brain evolution, humans developed the type of mind that believes anything during the formative years.  As a pre-historic example, if Timmy's mom says, "Don't go near that cave, a Saber-toothed Tiger lives there", it is in Timmy's best interest to believe her.  It would cost him his life if he did not.

But that also means that if Timmy's mom happens to be infected with a mind-virus, then Timmy has no defenses against it.  If Timmy's mom tells him there is a giant worm god living inside the mountain, and they must continually sacrifice cats in order to appease it, then Timmy will believe her.  He will sacrifice the cats because it is in his best interest not to question his caregiver. And when Timmy grows up, he will pass the mind-virus on to his own child (poor cats).

Let's fast-forward a few millennia to the present day.  At Sunday School and at home, children are taught that there is an invisible entity in the sky watching them all the time.  He is monitoring their thoughts.  He knows everything bad they will ever do until they die.  

They are taught that mythology is fact.  They are told that a talking snake tricked a woman to eat an apple, and as a result, we all deserve to be burned for eternity.   They are taught that sky dad once drowned all the people and animals on the earth because they were so wicked.  If they just believe that sky dad killed his sky son in order to appease his anger, then they can have eternal life.  And when we say some magic words over these pieces of food, then they turn into sky son's actual body.  When we chant different magic words over some water and pour it on a person's head, that means sky dad came down and touched that person (or something, I never really did understand what all that meant).

They are not taught how the Bible came to be. They are not taught about the contradictions, the tampering, the mistranslations, and the other dying and rising gods that were being invented at the time. They are not given all the information. 

The goal of all of this is to pass on the religion.  Not to think critically.  Not to make an informed decision.  

And the kids just accept it because they trust their parents and their minds are at their most vulnerable.

The impact of this goes far beyond the religion itself.  One study, published in Cognitive Science, looked at how well religious kids and secular kids were able to differentiate between real stories and fantastic stories.  According to the researchers, "The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children's differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories."

So what's the harm? 

  1. Children are forced to involuntarily accept mythology as fact, before they are at the age to think critically about the belief or to question it.  By the time they are older, the damage has been done and the indoctrination is difficult to undo.
  2. When children reach the age of reason, they are often pressured to "confirm" their beliefs in a public religious ceremony, or get baptized. At this age, they may be starting to doubt the beliefs they inherited, but they feel obligated due to familial and societal pressures to conform.  This whole process can cause a lot of anxiety and resentment within the child.  
  3. The process of indoctrination of mythology can damage a child's critical thinking skills and make it more difficult for them to differentiate between reality and fantasy.
  4. Religious indoctrination teaches to hold on to an unsupported belief even when there is evidence to the contrary. Once this "skill" has been learned, the child may grow up into an adult anti-vaxxer, science denier, and staunch user of confirmation bias.
  5. If the child is fortunate enough to possess some sense of rationality, at some point, they may discover that what they have been taught is not true.  The journey out of religion can be treacherous.  The process of unlearning a false worldview can lead to a loss of sense of identity.  This can also cause a huge rift in family bonds, leading to isolation, loss of trust in caregivers, and other harmful effects associated with losing a family.
Personally, I was fortunate--I was indoctrinated at church, Sunday School and at home, but I went to public schools and watched secular TV and was never shielded from the secular world. My family is wonderful, and I am convinced that my parents believed they were doing the right thing by teaching me Christianity.  Even though my life was filled with anxiety due to the fact that I could never make myself believe in Christianity (even when I desperately wanted to), my journey out of religion has been positive. I am at peace now like I never was before.  

Others are not so fortunate.  If you need support, join this Facebook group to be part of the post-deconversion community.


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