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Posted by on May 8, 2007 in brainwashing, faith schools, reason, religion | 8 comments

Religous schools and brainwashing (II)

Thanks for the insightful comments on my previous post.

I guess the first thing I should say (as I do in The War For Children’s Minds) is that of course various purely causal mechanisms are inevitably going to be applied to shape belief in and out of the classroom, and yes this is, to some extent, a good thing. Giving a kid a sweetie or a hug when they do well can be a form of “emotional manipulation” but is certainly not brainwashing. Getting kids to repeat stuff and learn by rote is obviously not brainwashing either.

I also doubt whether a very precise algorithm-like definition of brainwashing can be given – certainly not in terms of “necessary and sufficient conditions”. Brainwashing is, I suspect, what Wittgenstein calls a “family resemblance concept”. There is a range of indicators for brainwashing, and the more are satisfied (and the more strongly they are satisfied) in a given system, the more like brainwashing it is. There is, if you like, a sliding scale from education to indoctrination to brainwashing, with no precise boundaries between them.

Taylor’s specification of the five “core techniques” of brainwashing: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation, while not perfect, is certainly helpful. I am inclined to add a fifth (necessary?) condition for brainwashing – that the regime must not encourage (either explicitly, or covertly) independent critical thinking and questioning of central tenets.

It seems to me that, if there is no such encouragement, plus all five of Taylor’s boxes are strongly checked, then you are probably looking at, at the very least, indoctrination, and probably something very close to brainwashing.

Juliana’s point that learning by rote is not brainwashing, and the lack of a definition in terms of “necessary and sufficient conditions” does not undermine the above suggestion.

Juliana is right that what people like to call “brainwashing” depends to some extent on the content of the beliefs involved. If we like the beliefs, we call it “education”; if we don’t, we call it “indoctrination” or even “brainwashing”. I kind of made that point myself when I issued my faith schools challenge here.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t possess a fairly robust notion of brainwashing – something very much along the lines that Taylor is talking about. We do. And while many religious schools certainly aren’t guilty of it, many, I think, do come perilously close. Much closer than some of the faithful are prepared to admit… (which was much the point I was making with my faith school challenge).

If you want to know why I think reliance on purely causal techniques for inducing belief (incl. brainwashing) is a very bad idea, whether or not I happen to approve of the content of the beliefs being inculcated, scroll down to my 1st and 3rd May blogs.


  1. I too agree that reason or logic is a better method for reaching conclusions. At the same time it is obvious that we are not able to do this from birth. We cannot ‘reason’ with a baby to stop it from crying and we accept that often an authoritarian approach may be required with small children in order to ensure their safety. Studies in Developmental Psychology point to the ability to think abstractly and hypothetically – necessary to reason one would think – developing sometime after age 11. Accepting this is the case one would therefore have to conclude that all learning that takes place before this is to a certain extent, little more than indoctrination.It is also worth considering that to study mathematics is to study logic. Mathematics is also universal in its subject matter and methodology. It makes no sense to talk of ‘Christian multiplication’ or ‘Islamic trigonometry’. I know little about faith schools but I would imagine that mathematics is one of the least contentious subjects taught within them. The very fact that its subject matter and methodology does not raise objection from religious groups suggests that they are not, in principle at least, opposed to the idea of themselves or their children learning to use logic. Part of the concern over faith schools seems to be that in later life, people educated thus will use this religious education as the basis for making decisions as opposed to reason. The use of reason can only get us so far in making certain types of decisions however. When we decide where we stand on a moral issue, ideally it will be after examination of both sides of the argument. But if neither opposing view is logically compelling, a method other than logic or reason will have to be the final arbiter. A criticism of religious teaching is that it seeks to bypass the initial reasoning and use doctrine as that arbiter. But if it is already established that a problem does not lend itself to a logical or reasoned solution, what rationale can we provide for its use in that instance at all

  2. Hi JulianaRe. the suggestion that instilling “faith” in children is acceptable where reason cannot settle the matter. This sort of justification may have some bite in some areas. But not when it comes to religion. For whether or not the Judeo-Christian God exists is something reason can settle pretty decisively. See my entries on the God of Eth.It may be that moral positions cannot ultimately be justified in a non-circular way. It doesn’t follow that reason is not an invaluable moral resource that children and adults cannot afford to do without.Many of the great moral breakthroughs were brought about by those willing to question the prevailing moral framework. Encouraging critical thinking is important. If we suppress it till late on, that might be a problem. In fact, there’s empirical evidence that it is a problem. See e.g. J. Glover’s book Humanity, or the research of the Oliners on those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. They found that it was those who had been raised to think and question and reason who were most likely to rescue Jews. religion, by contrast, was not much of a factor.(this is all in The War For Children’s Minds, chpt 3.)Also, reason can (i) reveal unacknowledged consequences of a moral position (such as that, given what else I believe, I cannot consistently condone racism and slavery) (ii) logical inconsistencies in a position (iii) given certain moral principles to which most of us sign up, and certain empirical facts (e.g. that women are just as smart as men) that certain moral conclusions do follow, (iv) reveal that certain moral arguments (e.g. homosexuality is unnatural, therefore its wrong), despite being popular, are just bad arguments.Given reason is such an invaluable moral resource, shouldn’t we make sure children are familarized with it as soon as possible? See my latest post for suggestions as to when its possible.Of course, religious schools aren’t averse to using reason in maths classes, etc. But they can be very uncomfortable about letting reason/critical thought have free reign in the RE class, can’t they?I see no good reason why they should be able to get away with suppressing it….

  3. Theism is a hard concept to defend, of course, for many theists try to defend it with reason and logic, the common enemy of religions. If theists try to defend theism with their religious beliefs, the justification is unacceptably circular. (Logically)Therefore, many theists claim to ‘just believe.’And with next to nothing to back up their beliefs, evangelists try to win people into their religion via brainwashing dogma and such. They think they can hide the truth by getting everyone to believe otherwise.Reason is applicable: religion isn’t.But personally, I think that if the teachings of logic were presented in a just-as-dogmatic way, I would think it unacceptable.Teacher: Class, roses are red and violets are blue.Me: Why?Teacher: Because they reflect those colors.Me: Uh… why?Teacher: SHUT UP, Nicklaus! THEY JUST ARE! Don’t QUESTION MY AUTHORITY! I swear you kids are just trying to drive me insane…That wasn’t an actual scenario, thankfully.

  4. Yes I agree with nutcasenightmare. But note that, even when times tables are learnt by rote, children are also taught to understand how they work, and why they are true, and if the school is a good one, they get to ask questions if they don’t understand why something follows etc.Of course there is a role for “authority” in the classroom. But there should certainly be space for questions to be asked, objections to be raised, etc. independent critical thought encouraged.Unfortunately, in many religious schols even today, no such space exists when it comes to morality and religion.

  5. I agree. You may very well have to resort to other methods than logic and cold reasoning in the classroom/as parents/etc. However, this position is logically distinct from the belief any teaching/instruction/etc., together with the method by which it is taught, should itself be ‘up for grabs’ – able to be criticised and reasoned through. The hallmark of fundamentalism must surely be strict adherence to some central dogma that is protected, and usually viciously defended, from rational analysis. It is this distinction that we should honour.[For example, you may wish to make the case that children under 9 should be taught their times tables by rote alone – without attendant understanding/etc. offered. This could perhaps be construed as a form of brain-washing. Yet provided the case for doing so was argued on rational grounds (e.g. children at this age wouldn’t benefit from, and might be confused by, such depths) and was open to criticism, this would draw a distinct line between the method and, say, mainstream religious indoctrination.]

  6. I am a little less optimistic about the ability of reason to settle the matter of whether a Judeo-Christian God exists. The reasoning outlined in your article is certainly sound but a central tenet of the Judeo-Christian belief system is justification by faith. Even if that faith is coupled with reasoning, removing the reasoning still leaves the faith intact. And while faith may not provide a rational basis for belief, nor essentially does inductive reasoning, the means by which we justify many scientific beliefs.I agree that the use of reason is valuable in of itself, even if only to identify cases in which it cannot be applied. All I was saying is that in deciding an issue, once avenues of reason have been exhausted if no solution has presented itself by this method alone, some other method of reaching a decision will have to be used. For a religious person this may be their holy doctrine, for a non-religious person it may be intuition or appeal to a secular authority. Obviously this is not grounds for reason to be abandoned altogether nor for declaring attempts to settle disputes using this method to have been without merit even if doing so proves unsuccessful. All I would say is that some questions cannot be settled by reason alone and in that case, the religious person seems to have at their disposal an additional decision-making tool. I agree that there is little more frustrating than encountering someone who has seemingly eschewed all reason in favour of their religious doctrine or chosen their doctrine’s conclusion even while accepting that reason strongly indicates the opposite, but such behaviour is hardly characteristic of all religious devotees or mandated in all religious teachings. The fact that religious teaching is often taught earlier than reason may not be any indication that it is more valuable or better in any way, only that it is able to be comprehended earlier and thus makes it more suitable subject material.I have been thinking about the point you made regarding reason in maths classes. I guess on one hand it is true that even the most thorough understanding of mathematical or formal logic does not entail the ability to use said methodology outside such confines or even realise that one could. On the other hand, an inability to do so suggests a less than complete understanding of the logical principles in question. In any case I only raised mathematics to show that in certain instances, religious and logical thinking could be perfectly compatible.

  7. If we like the beliefs, we call it “education”; if we don’t, we call it “indoctrination” or even “brainwashing”… But that doesn’t mean we don’t possess a fairly robust notion of brainwashing‘I’d be interested to hear what you make of my suggestion here: that ‘indoctrination’ =df methods that are inapt to transmit warrant (i.e. produce knowledge if the belief also happens to be true). This rule seems to yield plausible results when applied to any given case…

  8. In my school our religion teacher says how if youre not a catholic you go straight to hell.He pretty much brainwashes us to be catholics and if we weren’t we’re “evil”Religious schools are brainwashing!

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