What Is Indoctrination and Why Is Religious Indoctrination a Problem?


To an outsider looking at the United States from abroad, it must seem odd that belief in ancient gods and other supernatural entities (e.g., angels, demons) is thriving in an age of so many scientific and technological advances. Science, medicine, and technology have clearly demonstrated their worth, and almost everyone living today eagerly benefits from them. Why then do so many people in the U.S. still cling to antiquated and long discredited systems of belief? Why did god belief become so entrenched here, and how does it stubbornly persist in spite of all we know today?

The answer is far too complicated to tackle in a single post, and I suspect there are many contributing factors, some of which have to do with the history of the U.S. Still, I think it is fairly clear that indoctrination is an important mechanism through which god belief persists in the modern age. Far too many parents are still teaching their children that this nonsense is true. Not surprisingly, that means that many of their children grow up believing it is true. I'm less confident about the importance of indoctrination for some other supernatural beliefs, but it seems critical at least for those involving religion. After all, so many of these beliefs would probably be recognized as absurd if one was not taught them from a very early age.

Defining Indoctrination

According to Dictionary.com:

In·doc·tri·nate tr.v. : 1. To instruct in a body of doctrine or principles. 2. To imbue with a partisan or ideological point of view: a generation of children who had been indoctrinated against the values of their parents.

In·doctri·nation n. : teaching someone to accept doctrines uncritically.

Based on this definition, we see that indoctrination has two components. First, it involves instruction in a set of information. This could be "family values," the Christian bible, or even a particular worldview. Of course, it could also be a system of liberal politics, environmentalism, or just about any belief system or body of information. So far, no real problem. Any parent who attempts to teach his/her child about his/her view of the world is engaged in this first part of the definition, and this includes all parents.

The second part of the definition involves teaching uncritical acceptance of the doctrine, and this is what distinguishes indoctrination from education. It is also this second part that makes indoctrination so problematic.

The Problem with Indoctrination

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, warrants uncritical acceptance. Anything worth knowing is worth questioning, criticizing, exploring, and ultimately understanding.

Consider two people on a quest for meaning, both of whom find meaning in the environmental movement and become activists. Jim attends a lecture in college on conservation and later reads a book on the subject written by the lecturer. He joins an environmental group, surrounds himself with activist friends, and embraces the point of view of the movement to the point where it defines him. He is unwilling to consider opposing viewpoints and dismisses critics as "fascists." In his mind, you are with him or against him.

Susan attends the same lecture and begins to read voraciously on the subject, plowing through several books written by respected scientists, including some environmentalists and others who would not be considered environmentalists. As she becomes more politically active, she seeks exposure to many different viewpoints. Noting that there are many people who disagree with environmentalists, she attempts to understand their position. She comes to believe that it is important to protect natural habitat area while at the same time making sure that displaced workers (e.g., loggers, miners) are not forgotten. In short, she understands the big picture and arrives at her views through careful consideration of the important issues.

Which of these individuals is more deserving of our respect? Even if they were to end up in a similar place, I'll take Susan any day. Jim has become a soldier in an ideological army who has embraced a doctrine with minimal critical thought. Susan has struggled with the issues, understands that every complex domain is going to involve multiple viewpoints, each of which merits understanding. She has arrived at her position through questioning, through struggle, and through challenging herself to consider alternative possibilities.

Indoctrination and Religion

My example above doesn't work so well for religion because of at least one important difference - there is scientific evidence documenting the dangers of exploiting our natural environment; there is no evidence whatsoever to support the existence of supernatural beings. Thus, Susan could go through a well-reasoned, soundly researched, and critical analysis of environmentalism and still ended up valuing it. It would be much more difficult for a believer to undertake a similar journey and reach a similar conclusion because there is no evidence supporting the existence of gods.

This is where indoctrination comes in. For religious belief to survive, its teaching must involve the second component of indoctrination. The believer must not seriously question the basis of the beliefs or rely on the distorted reasoning found in apologetics to fool himself or herself into thinking that the questions have been answered. In fact, the manner in which the belief system is taught must attempt to protect the believer against questions, criticism, skepticism, and reason itself. That is, the believer must be taught to accept the belief system uncritically. Without uncritical acceptance, the system unravels as the evidence against it is overwhelming and the evidence for it is nonexistent.

Believers grow up today surrounded by the benefits of science and technology. In school, they learn about the scientific method, and most gain at least some understanding of how science works (maybe this is becoming less true recently). Many gain some exposure to critical thinking. However, they have been prepared through indoctrination to believe that there is one part of their lives that should never be subjected to any sort of critical analysis...religion.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005. It was revised and expanded in 2018.