Top-down religious indoctrination is so last century – these days it’s all crowdsourced

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

Stained GlassOne 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.

Paper ChainThat 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.

Images courtesy of kslyesmith and hoefi, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

5 responses to “Top-down religious indoctrination is so last century – these days it’s all crowdsourced”

  1. chicagoja says :

    Nice post. Everyone wants to belong so badly that they will virtually accept anything that is served up. Discerning minds seem to be a thing of the past.

  2. Chris says :

    Cheers for that. It’s a very refreshing take on indoctrination, and one which chimes with my experience, too.

    On the academic study of cults: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2012/05/14/podcast-eileen-barker-on-studying-cults/

  3. Speedster says :

    I think cult generally comes from one group who sees a segment splinter off from its beliefs in enough ways and practices to where it is no longer true to the main group. That’s usually what cult means in the proper sense. So to Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses would be a cult, though to an atheist, or recovering agnostic, Christianity itself could seem cultish. But in that sense, everything could have cultish tendencies, as everything could be a subgroup of something with enough contradicting viewpoints to void admission into the norm.

  4. Hausdorff says :

    very interesting idea. I wasn’t indoctrinated by the church, they encouraged me to do it myself. Not sure I agree with this idea completely, but I do think my own personal indoctrination enhanced everything that the church stuck in my brain.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I wouldn’t like to state absolutely that “real” indoctrination doesn’t happen – it does, and there are plenty of people around who can testify to that from personal experience. But as you say, there are two sides to it, and while the church will obviously teach specific doctrines as fact, I think there’s generally a lot less “push” behind them than there used to be. Catching more flies with honey than vinegar, you might say.

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