Christian Crock of the Week: Childhood Indoctrination is Serious Brainwashing…

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From Marlene Winell, Ph.D.

From this graphic, it should be clear that a child in a fundamentalist Christian environment faces a powerful array of factors influencing indoctrination. Many of these techniques are quite deliberate, such as keeping children at home for their schooling to control what they learn and don’t learn.  The primary goal of sincere Christian parents is to pass on their faith, not help their child develop critical thinking to make a fully informed decision about religion.  Christians do not present their offspring with literature on all the religions of the world and make field trips to temples, churches and mosques to help them decide.  Yet in their theology they claim that “accepting Jesus” is a personal choice of free will and only those who reject God’s free gift of salvation will go to hell.

The fact that parents go along with churches inducting toddlers into the belief system and programs for preverbal children are readily available only indicates the depth of internalized fear and anxiety that would ignore such a blatant contradiction.   The saddest example of teaching toxic messages to preschoolers is the widespread use of the “Wordless Book,” with just colored pages for major concepts.  Gold is for heaven where you can’t go, black is for your sinful heart, red is for Jesus blood shed because of you, and so forth.  This is used in thousands of churches and now thousands of after-school Good News Clubs on public property.

The indoctrination of a child with immature cognitive abilities in the helpless context of a family is an abuse of power. Christians are likely to counter this diagram with wanting a vector listing the good things that are given a child – the love of God being the top of the list.  But in the fundamentalist scheme this comes at such a great price that it is greatly overshadowed by the anxiety of not knowing for sure about salvation and the intellectual suicide required to accept the irrationality of the system.

In effect, the indoctrination of a child with immature cognitive abilities in the helpless context of a family is an abuse of power.  The child has no perspective and no choice but to cooperate in order to survive.  The messages are received and embedded in the brain while certain areas of brain development are repressed through lack of stimulation, chief of which is critical thinking. This, combined with accepting the teaching that one is unable to trust one’s own thoughts, and the abject fear of terrifying consequences, completes the trap.  Even as the child gets older, there are social forces in place to enforce these dynamics and the circular reasoning can continue on, making the child feel highly disturbed but not have any idea why.

The typical pattern is for a person to keep trying harder to make the religion work because the doctrine always makes the individual at fault.  Many describe a pattern of highs and extreme lows much like the mind-twisting cycle of abuse in domestic violence. The victim is always to blame and escape is extremely difficult because there is periodic emotional relief but no overall perspective.  The attribution for the pain is always put on the victim’s bad behavior.  For Christians, even when they are living exemplary lives and still miserable, they are charged with searching themselves for “secret sin” to explain the problem.  It’s no wonder there is so much depression and “feeling crazy” when this mental abuse
is happening.

Finding a path out of this morass is also complicated by the Christian training against self-reflection.  Just thinking about oneself is considered bad, so it is very difficult to sort out feelings.  Believers who are troubled manage to stay in the faith using self-deception and medication for their mental health issues.  Those who leave struggle with recovery issues both from the faith and also the trauma of leaving.  Beyond basic mental health, they also have the task of catching up with important areas of human development.

The most difficult thing to overcome, by far, is overcoming the intense indoctrination of early years.  As an adult, for example, the fear of hell can pop up and cause panic attacks even if a person rationally rejects the doctrine.  They have to learn how to label the emotion as “conditioning” instead of “truth” in the process of healing what is essentially early brainwashing.  Gradually people in recovery can learn to trust their own feelings and discover critical thinking.  Self-trust is the key to reclaiming one’s own life, and not easy when there has been mental abuse.  However, understanding what has happened can help to disengage the power of early messages.

Marlene Winell, Ph.D., Journey Free: Resources for Recovery from Harmful Religion; Release and Reclaim Online Support Group
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