Overcoming Religious Indoctrination and Helping Others Do the Same

Front view of the San Juan Cathedral in San Juan.
Front view of the San Juan Cathedral in San Juan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a child is taught a set of beliefs and values from birth by people on which he or she is dependent for basic survival, the beliefs and values tend to endure. This appears to be the case even when the beliefs are false and the values are morally suspect. Take something like overt racism or sexism as an example. A child who is raised in an environment where racism or sexism are modeled and taught will adopt these beliefs and values at least temporarily. This should not be surprising to us, as we generally agree that hate and bigotry are learned. The young child does not know any better, and he or she has little choice other than to trust the primary caregivers.

Fortunately, the effects of such an upbringing are not necessarily permanent. With age and life experience, the individual can question aspects of his or her upbringing. Parental values can be critically examined, rejected, and replaced with healthier alternatives. And yet, this process is often lengthy, difficult, and dependent on environmental events. That is, such an individual may need prompting of some sort in order to begin such a critical examination in the first place. This is probably one of the reasons that racist beliefs tend to be a bit more difficult to maintain when one has regular contact with members of various racial groups.

Religious Indoctrination

What does this have to do with atheism? Quite a bit. I tend to think that religious belief and values work in much the same way. The child who is raised by Christian parents and taught from an early age to accept Christian dogma is likely to do just that. And why wouldn't they? People they trust and on whom they depend are presenting this stuff as true; of course the child is going to accept it. While we know that the effects of such indoctrination are not permanent (many of us are former Christians), we should not expect people raised this way to discard their religious beliefs until they have had an occasion to examine them critically. I know quite a few adult Christians who have never critically examined their religious beliefs, and I suspect you do too.

How should we feel about such adults? Well, I don't think that despising them makes much sense. After all, they are doing what we should expect them to do. If they have never seriously questioned the beliefs and values into which they were indoctrinated, I'm not sure why we would expect them to be any different from how they are. Could the same be said of the person who was brought up with racist or sexist beliefs and values? Probably.

This brings us to our central question: if we would like to encourage the religious individual (or sexist individual or racist individual) to critically examine and ultimately discard these beliefs and values, how should we do so? I recognize that some atheists see encouraging religious individuals to discard their religious beliefs as an important goal, and others do not. To the degree that we do accept this as a goal, how do we attempt to accomplish it?

Helping Others Overcome Religious Indoctrination

I would suggest that we begin by realizing that changing someone's mind like this (i.e., helping them realize that what they learned through years of indoctrination is false) is not an easy task and that it must be something they want to do. We cannot simply erase someone's religious beliefs (or racist or sexist beliefs) in an instant and against their will. We might be able to shame, threaten, and humiliate an individual into keeping such beliefs private, but it seems unlikely that such tactics would bring about the sort of changed mind we say we want. Instead, we must encourage and facilitate the process of their critical examination of these beliefs. And in order to do this, we probably need to begin from a place of empathy.

What I mean by beginning from a place of empathy is making an effort to understand the person's experience and worldview. Empathy does not entail agreement; it is merely an effort to see the world from the perspective of the other party. For a quick example of why this is so important, I encourage you to consider the possibility that some religious individuals would feel terribly guilty about questioning their religious beliefs because they would interpret such questioning as a rejection of their parents' values. If their religious beliefs are wrong, this suggests that their parents were wrong. This can certainly provoke guilt and interfere with the process of critically examining such beliefs.

When I see atheists verbally attacking Christians on Twitter, I can interpret it in one of two ways. First, I can tell myself that the atheists are trying, however crudely, to push the Christian to examine his or her beliefs and realize that some of what he or she learned from an early age is likely false. In the best case scenario, perhaps the atheist is simply saying, "I'm an atheist and have managed to live my life free of gods. You can too." I think this can be helpful, especially if the atheist can refrain from personal attacks. Alternatively, I can interpret many of the statements I see from atheists as reflecting strong anti-Christian attitudes and a lack of understanding of how belief works. Those who do little more than angry name-calling may be strengthening the religious beliefs of their audience.

Indoctrination is an effective process that typically unfolds over several years of someone's life. To think we can undo it in a flash - especially in the form of personal attacks - is not just wrong but probably counterproductive. If we are truly interested in changing minds, we need to think in terms of how best to encourage the critical examination of one's beliefs and then support those engaging in such a process. A little patience and empathy might go a long way.