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In Defense of Indoctrination

Trent Horn

I’m currently finishing a new book with Leila Miller, a Catholic author and mom of eight children, that will help the countless parents who have sought our advice here at Catholic Answers how to explain issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and pornography to their children. Our book will discuss what the Church teaches on ten important moral issues and provide ways to communicate these teachings to children of any age. This includes little ones who may be prematurely exposed to these issues through influences like classmates or the media and need a sensitive response.

Many parents will welcome such a book. Some others, I have no doubt, will accuse us of “brainwashing” or “indoctrinating” children rather than letting them learn things for themselves.

Here’s our response to them: “So what? What’s wrong with indoctrinating children?”

Education or indoctrination?

Have you ever heard someone say, “You shouldn’t teach children!” or “Don’t impose your views on children through education!” Surely not.

People think it’s wonderful to “teach” or “educate” children but that it’s wrong to “indoctrinate” children—even though teaching, educating, and indoctrinating all have the same root meaning.

Of course, a word’s meaning can change over time (something linguists call a “semantic shift”). For example, the word awful used to mean “awe-inspiring,” not “bad” or “terrible” like it means today. Similarly, indoctrination now has a pejorative meaning on par with “brainwashing,” or the coercive imposition of knowledge or opinion.

If someone ever claims that you are “indoctrinating” your child when you impart Catholic teaching, ask the person to explain what he means by “indoctrination.” For example, atheist J.D. Brucker says:

Indoctrination means to heavily influence someone into believing a particular set of ideas, whether they are political, cultural, or religious. Most often, this is done when the individual is particularly young, when he or she lacks the ability to reasonably conclude whether or not a statement is true.

Likely, though, you will be able to show that such definition leads to contradictions. For example, under this definition, atheists who teach their children that “marriage is just the union of two adults who love each other” (and so same-sex marriage is good) would be practicing indoctrination. They are heavily imposing a cultural idea onto young children who can’t critically examine what they are learning (such as by comparing it to the case for natural marriage).

An atheistic parent might give reasons for why two men or two women can marry (“because marriage is for people who love each other”) but a religious parent could also give reasons for why marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Moreover, if atheists are justified in teaching their children the value of reason over faith, then Christians are justified in teaching their children the value of faith working in harmony with reason.

Bruckner complains that children who are indoctrinated “had no choice in the matter” but that’s true for any child’s education. Atheist parents teach their children what they believe is true, and religious parents should have the right to do this too.

Rhetorical sleight of hand

To say that religious parents practice “indoctrination” whereas non-religious parents only “educate” is nothing more than anti-religious bigotry. Speaking of which, Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, asks in that book, “Isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?” Dawkins then essentially claims that since we would never say that a four-year-old was a “Republican” or a “Democrat” we should not say a certain child is a “Christian child” or a child of any religion.

The only thing being abused here, though, is common sense—when Dawkins equates a common cultural label with physical or emotional violence. Furthermore, labels like “Christian” or “Jewish” are closer in kind to labels of nationality rather than political party. We might say a child is “American” or “British” because he is a citizen of one of those countries and because the child is being raised with specifically American or British values. Likewise, an infant can be said to be a “Christian” because through baptism something has objectively changed in the child’s soul and he is now a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20) and is being raised with heavenly values.

This also rebuts the claim that children should not be taught the virtues of religion because that is something they should be able to decide for themselves when they are adults. I agree that once a child becomes an adult he should be free to renounce either his religion or his citizenship. But until that time, parents should be free to teach their child what they believe to be true and necessary for the child’s development. Just as we wouldn’t withhold medical treatment from a child until he was old enough to decide if he approved of Western medicine, we shouldn’t withhold faith from a child just because he isn’t old enough to make an adult choice about what he believes.

Indoctrination and religion

Some atheists claim that indoctrination is necessary for religion to exist and that all children would naturally reject it if given the chance. A.C. Grayling claims, “We are all born atheists… and it takes a certain amount of work on the part of the adults in our community to persuade [children] differently.”

This is a bad argument for a couple of reasons. First, atheism involves the denial of God’s existence or at least the claim there are no good reasons to believe God exists. My colleague Jimmy Akin says in his book A Daily Defense that babies are not atheists but “alogists” (from the Greek a-logia, meaning “without concept”). They can’t even understand the concept of God, much less reject it. In addition, recent research has shown that, contra Grayling, children are naturally predisposed to believing in God (which makes given that religion is a universal human quality). According to Justin Barrett in New Scientist magazine,

Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language. The vast majority of humans are “born believers,” naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive.

The real issue

A recent visitor to my Facebook page said that children are “born atheists until they’re old enough to be indoctrinated.” I replied, “That’s like saying everyone is born an amoral anarchist until they are ‘indoctrinated’ to follow rules. Such an observation neither makes atheism look good nor indoctrination look bad.”

He then responded, “Not all indoctrination is created equally. Some forms are necessary for becoming a functional member of society. Others are more, shall we say, optional.”

And that’s the issue: indoctrination itself is not wrong, because children have to be taught something in order to grow up to be functional members of society. The question is, what should they be taught?

Just because some parents might teach their children false or harmful ideas does not mean that the majority of competent parents should lose the right to raise their children according to their own values. I think atheism and Islam, for example, are false, but I believe that Muslim and atheist parents should have the right to raise their children according to those belief systems, provided that none of the particular beliefs they teach violate the child’s rights (e.g. imposing child marriage or female genital mutilation).

Atheists might object, “Children have the right to not be taught what isn’t true!” but this could be used against atheists who teach the lie that God is as fictional as Santa Claus (or parents who teach small children that Santa Claus exists), as well as parents who teach that homosexual behavior and transgender identity are normal. Rather than having imposed on them a single standard for what they can teach and what they can’t, parents should have freedom to teach their children beliefs upon which there is reasonable disagreement in our society.

This means that Catholics and other Christians should have the right teach their children about God and his moral law without being unfairly labeled as practitioners of “indoctrination.”


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