Does Teaching Religion “Brainwash” Kids?

 Bartolomeo Schedoni, The Holy Family with the Virgin teaching the Child to Read (1615)
Bartolomeo Schedoni, The Holy Family with the Virgin teaching the Child to Read (1615)

Is teaching children religion brainwashing? The question was posed at Debate.org, and an astounding 86% of respondents said yes. So why should Christian parents share the Gospel with their children?

The clearest answer to this comes from St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the relationship of faith and reason (fittingly, called Faith and Reason, or Fides et Ratio). The encyclical opens this way:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).

Already, this is a radically different understanding of religion and intellectualism than what a lot of people assume. He’s not saying “watch out for science,” or “come to church, but leave your brain at the door.” He’s not even saying “you don’t need reason anymore, because you’ve got faith.” No, he’s saying that faith is a gift from God, but so is reason, and both faith and reason are given to us to help us to respond to this hunger we all have to know the truth. And in fact, this intellectual hunger is itself a gift from God. Maybe you haven’t noticed this, but man is the only animal that has this yearning to know the truth about God, the universe, and himself. That hunger can be the cause of a lot of unhappiness, when we’re lost and confused. But it’s precisely in working through this hunger in a faithful and reasonable way that we come to know and love God, and learn the deepest truths about who we are.

For purposes of the “brainwashing” question, the most important passage is from paragraph 31 of the encyclical:

Human beings are not made to live alone. They are born into a family and in a family they grow, eventually entering society through their activity. From birth, therefore, they are immersed in traditions which give them not only a language and a cultural formation but also a range of truths in which they believe almost instinctively. Yet personal growth and maturity imply that these same truths can be cast into doubt and evaluated through a process of critical enquiry. It may be that, after this time of transition, these truths are “recovered” as a result of the experience of life or by dint of further reasoning. Nonetheless, there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.

Let’s unpack that a little bit:

  1. “Human beings are not made to live alone.” Nobody enters this world in isolation. You didn’t arrive on Earth fully formed and alone. No, you entered the world as a helpless infant, totally dependant upon everyone around you. A strange amount of the time, we ignore this reality or deny it: we approach topics like abortion or welfare as if we were never radically dependant… or as if we’re still not radically dependant. (If you were left wholly to your own devices, suffice it to say you would have neither the leisure nor the capability to be reading this blog post right now). A lot of the arguments about religious education being “brainwashing” imagine a world in which people enter the world fully competent adults, yet with minds that are a total blank slate, so that they can rationally pick out which things to believe. That’s not the real world, and we should be glad of it. We’re made for one another, and we can’t ignore the role of family and of society in this discussion.
  2. “From birth, therefore, they are immersed in traditions which give them not only a language and a cultural formation but also a range of truths in which they believe almost instinctively.” If you had a child and decided not to teach them how to speak (so that they could choose a language on their own as adults) you would be an awful parent. Likewise, if you avoided teaching your child right and wrong. And it would hardly be an excuse for you to say that other people speak different languages, or have different conceptions of right and wrong. So why should we approach the question of religion any differently? This is particularly true since a full explanation of right and wrong ends up needing some sort of reference to God.
  3. “Yet personal growth and maturity imply that these same truths can be cast into doubt and evaluated through a process of critical enquiry. It may be that, after this time of transition, these truths are “recovered” as a result of the experience of life or by dint of further reasoning.” Look, it’s true that parents can raise their kids with bad theological beliefs, just like they can impart a bad moral code, or teach them bad grammar. But these are a starting place. At some point (whether the grammar, morality, and theology are good or bad) the kid needs to make these his own.

    It’s probably worth mentioning that many of the atheists decrying “brainwashing” are still going through this time of transition. If John Paul II is right, we should expect to see atheism in these times of transition into adulthood. And that’s exactly what we do see. Amongst atheist adults in America, a full 40% are aged 18-29, and fewer than a quarter are over 50. They tend to be financially-secure unmarried white men who have never finished college, and fewer than a quarter of them are actually parents. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that they can’t have an opinion (I mean, I’m an unmarried millennial, after all), but it is worth pointing out when they’re bloviating on a topic with which they have very little practical experience or knowledge.  And here, I don’t just mean that they aren’t parents. I also mean that they’re still figuring out what they believe.

  4. “Nonetheless, there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification.” In the last point, John Paul II pointed out the value of personally verifying the things you’ve been taught. It helps to make the teachings more fully your own. But he’s quick to point out that you literally cannot do that in all aspects of your life.

    Imagine a group of scientists who demanded that everything be proven and nothing be taken for granted or taken on faith. They would be unable to rely upon the scientific conclusions of anyone who had come before them (after all, who’s to say that they didn’t doctor their research?) and they equally couldn’t rely upon their colleagues. Instead, each of them would be forced to try to individually reinvent the wheel, recreating the whole field from the ground up. And that’s just at work. To grab a bite to eat over lunch, they would find themselves unable to prove that the cashier really did work there, that the food was properly prepared, etc. Such a life would be irrational and even unlivable. Modern life, and indeed, science itself, require that we be able to generally trust the people who came before us. This trust isn’t absolute (there are mistakes, frauds, and miscreants, after all), but we cannot escape believing more than what we have personally verified, and it’s hard to imagine how we even would verify many of the things that we believe.

  5. “This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.This is a strong conclusion. The world isn’t divided into theists who live by belief, and atheists who don’t. It’s divided into theists who know that they live by belief, and atheists who live by belief but don’t know it. In this context, religious education is simply teaching one more set of beliefs: an extremely important set of beliefs.

Two final points on teaching Christianity to kids. As Christians, we’re called to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world (Matthew 28:19-20), but in a special way, to teach the next generation about the faith. The Shema Yisrael, the core of Jewish morning and evening prayer, comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-7:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

So you can’t be a faithful Christian (or Jew) and not teach the faith to your children. But it’s more than that. Christianity isn’t just your dad sitting around musing about what the afterlife might or might not be like. The God of the Universe entered history in the Person of Jesus Christ, and He taught, died, and rose from the dead. And Christians don’t just believe in this as as an abstract idea, but have a personal relationship with this same God. So it’s not just speculation on the Christian parents’ part: it’s rationally trusting the expert, the one Person qualified to tell us these things. It’s also sharing the most meaningful relationship you have with your loved ones.

And finally, not teaching your kids still teaches them something. If you really believed Christianity was the most important truth in the world, if you really believed it was the surest way to knowing God and to happiness in this life and eternity in Heaven, you wouldn’t hesitate to share it with the people you loved most (especially those entrusted to your care for formation: your children). Choosing not to share Christianity with them signals that you either don’t care enough the faith to find it worth sharing, or don’t care enough about your kids to find them worth sharing with. Either way, that’s every bit as much a lesson as a bedside Bible reading.

15 Comments

  1. Nearly every dictionary defines brainwashing as ALTERING a person’s beliefs by force or pressure. A young child has no beliefs at birth, so the very word is inappropriate here – there is nothing to alter.

  2. I think ‘brain washing’ is actually a virtuous term if you look at the reality underlying most infant/child/youth education in modern times. The reality is that children are often raised immersed in the vices of their parents from their very conception, thus the psalm verse: “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.”

    Consider the sexual diseases, such as HIV, or drug addictions, or alcoholism that affects an embryo and fetus from it’s first days of conception. Even crocodiles, hyenas and scorpions don’t subject their offspring to such evils before their births. And this is only the effects of the physical vices before birth, afterwards come psychological effects caused by the vice filled behaviors of their parents. And actually, psychological trauma can occur even before birth also… if there is fighting, violence, screaming and prolonged agitation between the parents. So, in these circumstances a child is already losing ‘the game of life’ from it’s mothers womb, in comparison to all other animal life which does not practice such vices and physical addictions. And, especially if a young child sees a lot of violence, sexual promiscuity, smoking, heavy drinking, drug use, etc.. will the child’s perception of life be altered and taught lessons that will have negative effects on him for a lifetime. The science of psychiatry amply teaches on these things.

    So, where does ‘brain washing’ come into play? The real focus should be on virtuous and vicious living habits in the family environment. Is living and teaching virtuous behaviors through actually practicing and promoting loving behaviors, and charity in the home, ‘brain washing’? Is truly loving your child and giving him the affection and life education that he deserves as a child, which even wild boar parents provide their offspring…’brain washing’? Actually, an intelligent human should show MORE care for their offspring than, for instance, a less intelligent Coyote or Bobcat…but unfortunately, this in many instances is not the case. And this is because sinful human acts and habits cause humans to not only damage their own bodies and souls, but also damage the bodies and souls of all of those around them.

    It is only common sense that ‘true’ religious life (at least that type taught in the catechism of the Catholic Church) promotes virtuous and happy living habits. Excessive behavior and vice filled acts are discouraged, and a healthy, disciplined lifestyle encouraged. Also, prayer is by it’s very nature something that promotes tranquility and joy, things that are beneficial to all creatures, and this also is what we find being promoted in the catechetical teachings of the Church.

    So the question is, why would so many people think that teaching religion to children is ‘brain washing’?…if indeed it promotes joy, health, and virtuous living habits? Is it possibly that these same people who DO NOT practice this kind of truly happy and virtuous living, and might just be jealous of those that do? Are these same people who claim that religion is brain washing children, the same that have had 50 million abortions over the last 40 years…and still vigorously support it…the death of children? Is that a value they intend to teach their children, also? Do they also teach their children that being raised by two fathers, or two mothers is perfectly normal parenting, with no difference or impact possible on the well being of the child? Do they permit their children to be exposed to marijuana smoking, drunken bouts, opioid use, or other so-called ‘legal drugs’ …which is often the case in parenting lifestyles that are devoid of religious teachings and principles?

    So, who the is really is ‘brain washing’ their children….the people who live and promote vice by their very example and excessive and dangerous life styles…or Christians whose goal it is to practice moderation, joy, singing, prayer and all types of other good and healthy activities in their lives?

    The brain washing is actually done by those who promote vice, because they are ‘washing away’ by their bad examples the very lessons that youth need to learn to control their inordinate desires and avoid those very same vices. Christian parents don’t kill their children…but these vicious habits of people who do not follow Christian principles DO kill them. Just take a look at the homicide rate of youth in Chicago, for example. Or, the opioid overdoses by youth up in Vermont and Maine. These are the results of very poor catechesis of Christian principles and living habits. And it results in the deaths of thousands of youth each year.

    True Christian catechesis is not brainwashing….it is ‘life giving’; as compared to ‘life destroying’ …which is the end result of vice filled, ‘pagan style’, living habits and teachings.

  3. “Amongst atheist adults in America, a full 40% are aged 18-29, and fewer than a quarter are over 50. They tend to be financially-secure unmarried white men who have never finished college, and fewer than a quarter of them are actually parents. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that they can’t have an opinion (I mean, I’m an unmarried millennial, after all), but it is worth pointing out when they’re bloviating on a topic with which they have very little practical experience or knowledge.”

    Well, you should dig about atheists (or the like) in France, UK, Scandinavia, Russia or China (to name a few). Not your majority “white finatially-secure unmarried white men”. Anyway, your argument would invalidate any celibate man’s or woman’s opinion about children education. It might well be they are atheists because of other factors (when and where they were born), and not chiefly their age (as you seem to suggest).

    Alas, the phenomenalist sociological interpretation of pragmatic quotidian knowledge in the quote: “This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief” is both obvious and obfuscating in the discursive context whence it came. The kind of belief you must have to use a telephone, drive a car and operate a computer (without ever knowing how those devices work) is a social belief in social (and physical) objects. Belief in metaphysical, spiritual, entities is a social belief in an immaterial entity that cannot ever be shown how/why it/he/she works, except in a sociological way.

  4. Yes it does brainwash them. In Orthodoxy, there is the repetition of prayers is relentless–the Theotokos is praised with identical phrasology three times a day, the Lord’s Prayer is repeated three times a day, other shorter phrases are repeated many times more. In the prayers, you pray prayers written by saints. The same ones every day.

    Orthodoxy sings their entire liturgy, so you start finding yourself singing it to yourself when driving, at home, etcetera. “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us…”

    I cannot shake the feeling that all of this is done so someone unwittingly memorizes everything and it permeates their thought. A psychologist will call it brainwashing. My Priest tells me it is a matter of the words having power and how prayer has the power to change us inside-out.

    I can see how the latter is theologically true and the former as certain empirical grounds which lend it credibility.

    God bless,
    Craig

    1. The ‘sons of darkness’ think the ‘sons of light’ are brainwashing them and their children. And the son’s of light lament over the brainwashing of their children to the side of evil. It is a battle over the direction that soul’s travel. One way is towards the narrow gate to God through Jesus, and the other ‘the broad way’ which passes through the ‘gates of Hell’.

      But true ‘brain washing’, as distinguished from disciplined catechesis and penance, is part of the evil way, and inspired of evil, even though it might be under the appearance of Christianity. And behind the exterior cloak of Christianity it is difficult to distinguish, even as a wolf is in sheep clothing. And so, a person needs a keen eye to distinguish Christian truth from Christian heresy (sheep outside, wolf inside). But, luckily Jesus gives us some lessons, such as:

      “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”

      So. it is not only doctrine that is an identifier towards the authentic discipleship, but the spirit of the disciples as well. And, true charity must be exhibited in them, even as Jesus states in the quote above. And this is because Jesus’ greatest and most distinguishing virtue is His love both for His Father and His disciples here below. So, being imitators of Christ, we should try to also cultivate a ‘sacred heart’ as He had, by being ‘the least and servant of all’. In this way, men looking for God, might find them in the person of the ‘mystical Body of Christ’, even as Jesus said:

      “You are the light of the world. A city seated on a mountain cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house. So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14)

      Then again….86% of a survey might say those ‘good works’ are merely a ‘brain washing tactic’…as is also that pesky ‘light’ shining in the Christian disciple.

    2. Craig,

      The Holy God prayer is part of the Divine Mercy Chaplet! If you like repetition, I cannot recommend that one enough! lol.

      Matthew

      1. I too pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet once per day, and was fascinated to learn some time ago that the “Holy God” prayer which ends the chaplet originated in (if I remember correctly) the 8th Century in the Eastern Church, and is not part of the Western liturgy. That St. Faustina, a Polish Catholic nun of almost no education, knew an Orthodox liturgical prayer so well is quite remarkable.

        1. This is not really remarkable at all, since there is an old Polish para-liturgical sung prayer called “Suplikacje” (supplications), which first verse is the “Holy God, Holy Mighty…”-phrase (Trisagion). It then goes on with asking God to deliver us from all kind of perils and evils (fire, war, hunger, epidemy, sudden death etc.) St. Faustyna added only to the words “have mercy on us” the plea “and on the whole world”.

          There is even a rock version of “Suplikacje”:
          https://youtu.be/UaCXHxeHWVw 😉

          1. The Trisagion should also be sung in the Catholic Church during the Good Friday Liturgy at the unveiling of the Cross. Not sure though if this was so in the lifetime of St. Faustyna.

        2. Hi Bob,

          Sts. Cyril and Methodius, from Constantinople, around 800 or so, went as missionaries to the Slavic people in Poland, Slovakia, eastern Europe. Perhaps they played some role in the transference of this prayer from East to West. Both the R. Catholic and Orthodox Church venerate them.

          http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt138.html

          1. May the Right and Left Lungs of Christendom breathe together once again, as they were always meant to! I hope to live to see such a day!

    3. Interpretation is particularly important here. “Brainwashing” is obviously a pejorative, implying a diminution of reasoning ability in favor of an induced and rote mindset. Bishop Barron, in the “Catholicism” series, engages an excellent discussion of prayer such as the Rosary ‘rightly ordering’ the mind towards the Divine. This type of repetitious prayer is deeply contemplative, which is the antithesis of brainwashing, at least the way I understand the term as it originated in the Communist prison camp practices of the post-war era.

  5. Joe wrote…

    “Maybe you haven’t noticed this, but man is the only animal that has this yearning to know the truth about God, the universe, and himself.”

    We should reflect on what “the truth” actually is.

    First, I DO NOT mean, what is the correct answer, let’s leave that aside.

    What I do mean is that whatever idea one labels as “the truth” is only a symbol. As example, the word “Phil” is not me. The word “God” is not God. And likewise, whatever idea one proclaims to be the truth is not that which it is pointing to.

    We could argue all day long about whether I should be named Phil, or Bob, or Sam, or Mike, or something else, but I would still be the same me whatever the outcome of that debate. Thus, such a debate would be largely pointless.

    The real “truth” can not be found in any word, idea, concept, name, label, doctrine, conclusion or thought, for all these things are merely symbols. The real “truth” is the real world the symbols point to.

    The real “truth”, that which is beyond all symbols, can only be found in experience. In the Christian context this means that the experience of love is experience of God. But all the talk about God is just talk, only a pile of symbols.

    Once one gets this simple insight that a symbol is not that which it points to, theology can then be seen in an entirely new light. Instead of theology being seen as the path forward towards the truth, it is really more of a distraction from the truth. We can’t capture “the truth” and make it our personal possession. We can only experience it one moment at a time.

    Jesus said “die to be reborn”.

    When we die to “me” and all our ideas about God, God magically appears. “Me” and my ideas is not the solution, it’s the obstacle.

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