Cult or religion? The line between the two is often controversial, but the word “cult” is clearly understood to be pejorative. It often appears in the form of an irregular verb:
I have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe
You are religious
(S)he is in a cult
One of the more popular criteria for distinguishing between them is indoctrination, the idea being that cults indoctrinate, but religions are more respectable and allow people to believe without the coercion that word implies.
That seems like a pretty good working distinction, and it always seemed to fit with my experience. I’ve spent my life in the church, but I never felt that I was being coerced into any belief. Obviously, there was encouragement to believe this, or that, and I’ve been taught various doctrines, most of which I now reject, but I never felt that I’d been indoctrinated at any point. Except that looking back, it appears that I was.
One thing that I’m increasingly finding as I unpick the remnants of a lifetime in the church is that there are a lot of things I’ve accepted in the past that were complete nonsense, but I often couldn’t even remember consciously considering them. I regard them as fact, but I don’t know why – as if someone else has told me what to think. I don’t even realise that anything’s wrong until I come to examine a particular area of belief, which is a pretty good indication of indoctrination.
That’s shocking and disturbing, I’m sure you’ll agree. Religions, especially the moderate, mainstream types which have influenced my thoughts in this area, aren’t meant to be like this. I should be speaking out, naming and shaming the people involved in this, and making sure everyone sees the true face of religion. So I’ve decided to use this platform to tell my story.
But the church is innocent – I did all the indoctrination myself.
Here’s how it works. Whether by accident or design, successful churches are generally very good at making you feel welcome. A loving, vibrant community is just so appealing – you want to belong, so you want to believe (apart from the well-documented appeal of the beliefs themselves), and once that’s properly taken hold, your desire to fit in and a generous dollop of cognitive bias will be all that’s needed to keep you in line.
That doesn’t have to involve things that are obviously untrue. It can mean putting greater weight on any sources that support your viewpoint, or accepting a dodgy attempt to reconcile contradictory passages, or even believing that academic opinion is divided, when in reality it’s unanimous barring a handful of discredited and ideologically motivated cherry-pickers. I’m discovering that I’ve done all of these at one time or another, because I wanted to believe.
That’s how most modern indoctrination works – not through endless repetition of doctrinal statements until the mantra becomes fixed in your mind, but by offering something so appealing that your desire to have it dictates the shape of your thoughts.
Like a slick marketing campaign, the product was so desirable and shiny that I concentrated on anything that told me it made sense to buy it, and suppressed the small voice pointing out the many problems with what I was buying into. If you’ve ever experienced Buyer’s Remorse, you probably have some idea of what I’m talking about.
So if you’re looking for indoctrination, don’t pay attention to what the guy at the front says, but watch how the people in the pews behave, and how they get drawn into a welcoming group. That’s where it all happens.
Older son’s at an age where he’s realised that some things aren’t real, but he doesn’t know which ones, or how to tell the difference. He’ll be watching TV and ask me if Mister Maker is actually real, and then I’ll have to explain that there’s a real man who really makes things, but he’s not really called Mister Maker, he doesn’t really live in a cardboard box, and no, he doesn’t live in the TV either, which then usually leads to a long discussion about how TVs work.
He can get confused by the strangest things – I once had to explain how I knew the Octonauts aren’t real:
Well, animals don’t talk, and they don’t wear clothes, do they? And they don’t live in huge motorised underwater mobile homes, and polar bears aren’t really the same size as cats and penguins, and there’s definitely no such thing as vegimals, and above all, it’s a cartoon.
It’s not that he’s stupid – in fact, he’s very bright. But he gets confused because things that are real are mixed up with things that aren’t. He knows that Octonauts teaches him about all sorts of really amazing sea creatures (and does it very well – you should hear him on the subject of Snapping Shrimps or Vampire Squid). So he expects everything else about the programme to be real as well, even the walking, talking vegetables.
And this is the boy we pack off to Sunday school to be told all sorts of implausible stories by real people out of a real book. How’s he meant to know what to do in a situation like that?
He isn’t, of course – that’s the point. He’s meant to accept that the stories are true, because they’re being told by a nice person he knows. And he knows that you learn true things at school, so Sunday school must be just the same, but on a different day. Deliberate or not, and regardless of whether Christians are right, this is indoctrination. He’s being taught “facts” which are highly questionable at best, at an age where he isn’t able to rationally assess them for himself. That makes me sad.
More than that, though, I feel guilty. I know this is going on, and I’m not doing anything about it. He enjoys Sunday school, there aren’t really any easy alternatives, and to be honest, I just don’t want to take on my whole family over this. I’ll keep trying to help him to think about things and not believing things just because someone he heard them from someone he trusts.
I just wish I didn’t have to face choices like this.
This is something I was trying to write a while back, before putting it aside for a while because I got distracted by an idea for a silly parody which seemed more fun to write. I’ve been thinking a lot about children, and how best to bring them up. No doubt I’ll post more on this subject in time.
It’s often assumed that children are naive conversion fodder who’ll believe anything they’re told. It’s true that young children haven’t developed the tools to evaluate claims for themselves, they believe lots of things before coming to realise they’re untrue as they grow up, and plenty of people have stories of how they were brought up with particular beliefs before finally rejecting their faith as an adult. But even so, I think this assumption might be an oversimplification of a rather more complex reality.
I was brought up in the church, and was familiar with the stories and ideas from an early age. But despite that, I remember my confusion on being taught about the feeding of the five thousand at school, aged probably seven or eight. I understood the story, but maybe there was a spirit of scientific enquiry already developing somewhere, because I wanted to know how it worked, and I wouldn’t let it lie. Did the bread and fish grow back every time a bit was broken off, I asked. “I suppose so” was the closest I got to an answer.
The irony is that in a complete reversal of the popular view, I stopped asking difficult questions like that as I grew up and became more “intelligent” and “sophisticated”. That’s not the sort of question you ask, you see, because it’s inexplicable. Asking such a stupid question is like passing wind in front of the Queen. It’s just not the done thing. So I learnt to accept that there were times when I couldn’t ask the obvious questions, because it’s a mystery.
I was reminded of this recently by something my five-year-old son said. “I don’t think God exists,” he said to me out of the blue. That caught me off balance a little, so I asked why he said that. “Because I talk to Him, but He never says anything.” A basic argument, but pretty good for his age, I think, and a specific rejection of what he’s being taught on Sundays. Even as he said it, it occurred to me that in a few more years he’d have learnt The Rules, been told that God talks in a special way that’s not like talking at all, and this incipient curiosity and scepticism would have been suffocated with a pillow of imagery and nuance.
That’s partly why I worry about him going to Sunday School. It’s hardly pushing fundie dogma, and even if I left the church I still can’t see any likely alternative while my wife’s still going, but every week’s likely to weaken that instinctive rebellion just a little bit more, drip by drip, until it’s gone completely, replaced by an identikit Christianity. Maybe I’m overreacting – I’d hope and expect that he’d develop beyond his current rather facile line of thought anyway – but it seems symbolic of the way his thoughts are being directed, and it saddens me.
Children may not simply believe everything they’re told (which is something of a relief, all things considered), but there’s clearly a lot of truth in the cliché: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The ideas we’re brought up with don’t completely determine our views as adults, but they frame our thoughts, putting us in a mental straitjacket from which many struggle to ever escape. How many people find that they still live with various church-related hangups many years after deconversion? I think that worries me more than children being taught any particular belief or doctrine.
I don’t want my children to grow up thinking someone else’s thoughts, even my own. They should grow up to think for themselves, and thinking about this has increased my resolve to do what I can to ensure that they have the information and freedom to do that. I may not be able to provide a completely neutral environment, but at least I can offer some thoughts and a listening ear, making them aware that people believe all sorts of strange things for one reason or another, and that they need to make their own minds up. After that, it’s up to them.
I don’t like to see children being indoctrinated with irrational, illogical or nonsensical beliefs. I’m careful to give my boys plenty of information, to be honest, acknowledge uncertainty and try to give them all the information and tools I have at my disposal to learn and investigate for themselves. I even insert my own asides to correct their dinosaur books when they mention brontosauruses. So why do I find myself telling them that there’s such a person as Father Christmas?
I tell myself that it’s traditional, that it’s something everyone grows up with, and which is more or less expected. I ‘m sure the boys will soon be old enough to draw their own conclusions about the truth or otherwise of the story. And I suspect the grandparents would be less than impressed if we were to tell the boys it’s all just a silly story. But I could say exactly the same about religious beliefs, and I clearly don’t treat the two in the same way.
I started out with high ideals. I was going to tell the truth, just not the whole truth. So if asked about Father Christmas, I’d say that I’d heard – or some people say – that he comes and puts presents in your stocking. If that wasn’t enough for an inquisitive boy, I’d add that I’d hung my stocking up every Christmas Eve and it had always been full in the morning. Not a word of a lie. It might even teach them to think carefully about what was actually being said. But that was a bit of a cop-out, and in hindsight, it was never going to last long, seeing that small children could have taught Torquemada a few things about interrogation.
It’s all very well having ideas about being carefully truthful, but you have to have the stomach for it, and you have to plan for every eventuality. Unfortunately, as Field Marshal von Moltke said, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. I made several small slips over time, and when my careful hedging was met with the retort “Granny says he’s real” and a baleful stare, I had to choose between my principles and my family. I caved, and the thumbscrews hadn’t even come out.
But in truth, I was clearly never all that committed to being honest, or I would have been direct in the first place – Father Christmas is made up, reindeer can’t fly, and the finances of an operation that revolves around giving things away with no obvious income stream would make the Lehman Brothers look solvent. Apologies if that shocks anyone. I was prepared to tolerate and tacitly encourage a belief in ridiculous supernatural events because it’s the social norm, I didn’t want either my boys or me to seem weird, and it seemed – still seems, I suppose – like a nice, harmless story.
So I’m inconsistent – a hypocrite, if you like. But I just don’t know what I should change. I’m still uncomfortable with religious indocrination (although that covers a multitude of sins, and could do with a lot more detail), but I don’t want to live in a world without innocent wonderment, where all stories have to be clearly identified as either fact or fiction. I’d like to believe there’s a watertight middle ground, but I don’t know what it might be.
At least I should have a while before I need to worry about the tooth fairy.
One thing I feel very strongly about is secularism – I think it’s an essential feature of a civilised democracy. Now, before anyone takes up arms, here’s what I mean by that. Contrary to how some seem to understand it, secularism isn’t about banning religion, or dictating atheist dogma – it’s about separating church and state, ensuring that all are free and able to pursue any religion or none, as they see fit. Basically, I don’t think any belief or lack of it should be given a privileged position in society, regardless of my view of the validity of those beliefs.
I don’t like the idea of having an official state religion. In many cases, it’s relatively harmless (and I can generally live with the situation in the UK), but it can easily create an uncomfortable and inappropriate expectation that the state religion will be reflected in laws, ceremonies and official practice, effectively imposing that religion on people who don’t share it. I think children should be able to honestly discover and learn about a wide range of beliefs and religions in RE, not subjected to years of Christian indoctrination interspersed with pat dismissals of other beliefs. I think creationism should stay in RE where it belongs, and come nowhere near a Biology lesson. And I don’t think schools should be obliged, as they currently are, to have communal “acts of worship”.
Ah, so I want to ban God from schools and government? No, I want a society where no one is discriminated against because they hold a minority view. I want it to be possible to go through life with any or no belief without being forced to choose between suffering for those beliefs or compromising them. If you think that sounds namby-pamby and politically correct, take a moment to consider how you’d feel if your belief was in the minority, and you were expected to regularly join in worship of a deity you don’t believe in, or adhere to associated religious laws.
Having said that, it does get messy. If religion shouldn’t be favoured or imposed on non-believers, how do you define a religious law? Is it fair to say any restriction on abortion, for example, is motivated by religion? How about divorce? Debt? Is it even possible to prohibit murder without falling foul of the Secularism Police? Honestly, I don’t have any simple answers, although I’m pretty sure we can all agree that murder is undesirable. The best I can suggest is to judge each case on its own merits. At the very least, there should be good secular arguments in favour of a law, not just “God says so”.
Personally (others may disagree), I’m content for religious bodies to be given tax breaks and positions in the House of Lords, provided that their recognition isn’t based simply on their religion, but is available to groups of all religions and none which meet the same criteria. So there would need to be specific non-religious reasons for this recognition, and it would need to be possible and reasonable for the same advantages to be won by other groups, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them. The state shouldn’t be supporting religion for the sake of religion.
So where does that leave us? We have an ideal and a basic structure of how to apply it. It may not be perfect or watertight, but it’s much more inclusive and tolerant of minority beliefs than the current situation, and that’s surely a good thing.