The skinny on indoctrination

Indoctrination is the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. Indoctrination is being taught what to think, whereas critical thinking is being taught how to think. It is my contention that our society, as a whole, doesn’t teach the latter at all. In fact, it’s tacitly forbidden.

Of course, atheists love to say that we shouldn’t subject our children to religious indoctrination. I personally don’t like religious indoctrination either, which is why I’ve advocated practicing the art of faithfully questioning everything. You can read that post for further explanation of what I mean by that.

There is a lot of indoctrination in churches. I see the result of it whenever I lead a Bible study. Oftentimes, I will ask my participants what the passage we’re reading is saying to them (without referring to study notes) and they will look at me with a blank stare, or parrot what they’ve been taught.  Then, when I tell them what it’s saying to me, they ‘ll write that in their notes! This is why I prefer to teach people how to have the Bible study them, which is a much more fruitful endeavor.

But proper critical thinking is not being closed minded or trying proving everything that you disagree with to be wrong. It’s just as much about proving whether something is so, like the Bereans….

11 These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11 NKJV, emphasis added)

The point is, we birds of a feather tend to flock together. We check out new churches to see if we agree with the pastor before committing to it. We tend to equate spiritual maturity with being more informed about what we already believe.

The problem with this is that breakthrough in our lives usually comes from a single moment in time when we let go of our assumptions and look at things from a new point of view. One example for me was about 15 years ago when I let go of reading the Old Testament indiscriminately, as if Jesus never happened. I started to read it through the lens of Jesus Christ and His finished work on the Cross. This shift in perception totally revolutionized how I read Scripture. I had to unlearn a lot of things that I was taught (and I’m much more joy-filled and free because of it!)

If we were honest we would admit that we’re not really that open to differing doctrinal viewpoints or theology. We actually fear being too open to them. And that gets to the root of the problem. We’ve been taught what to think and not how to think.

But I see the same non-critical parroting going on with modern atheism and their favorite echo chambers. They will come here using the same trite cliche objections to believing in God without really thinking through what it is they’re concluding. Their critical thinking is no more than trying to disprove the Bible’s veracity instead of seeing if there’s merit in what it says about them as human beings. They don’t believe because they’re really not open to having their minds changed (or changed again for deconverts).

This type of deconstruction is why I believe scholar Walter Wink was spot-on when he said,  “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt” (Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation).  Or, as C.S. Lewis said in The Abolition of Man:

“You can’t go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.”

The irony of all this is that a lot of the most important things in life absolutely require faith to believe in…or not believe in. And at the top of this list is the question of the existence of God, because we cannot prove He exists with scientific method, nor can that even address His existence, let alone answer the question of why we exist, which I would think would be the most important question of all for us to ponder as human beings.

Of course, we can just ignore these kinds of questions and tell ourselves it doesn’t matter.

We also see this in our current GroupThink politics, where even people of the same feather are shouted down for not marching in lock-step with with the radical ideologies of the “bewildering herd.” These are just a few of the reasons why it’s just naive and even silly to think our only problem is religious indoctrination, or that we ourselves are not victims of of much more ubiquitous form.

I will close with two of the main culprits of this critical dumbing down of our Western society as a whole. They are public schools and the news media. I will close with an interesting video clip that explains why this is so. I encourage you to watch it and invite you to share your own insightful thoughts on the subject.


About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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17 Responses to The skinny on indoctrination

  1. pkadams says:

    You are playing my song, both in what you wrote and that video. I’m a long time fan of John Gatto and his expose’ of the reality of public schools. I also agree with your points that we look for churches and preachers and articles that confirm what we already believe. We must be brave and read the other side and use our own brains and knowledge of the Scriptures to make our theological conclusions.

    • Mel Wild says:

      One of the benefits of learning how to think is that other points of view do not frighten us. And when we do listen to them it helps us better formulate our own thinking. I’ve found that people who passionately hold a view that’s different than mine probably have some good points that I need to hear.

  2. oneta hayes says:

    I find little evidence to support not teaching one’s doctrine and interpretation of what the Bible says (what it appears you are calling indoctrination). Do you suggest waiting until one’s child learns to “critically think” before he is taught the Bible? Obviously I do not believe you are suggesting that; therefore, I am at a lose about what you are suggesting. I do believe we (church and parents) do not arm our children sufficiently to prepare them for the “blast” which they receive upon meeting the evil teachings of the world, especially the college and university world. Meanwhile, I will continue to “brainwash” that Jesus loves them, that he died for them, that he rose again so we can see “gramma” or whomever someday when we get to heaven, etc. Hey, it is nice to have discovered how to be your follower. I’m making quite an entrance, huh? 😀

    • Mel Wild says:

      “I find little evidence to support not teaching one’s doctrine and interpretation of what the Bible says (what it appears you are calling indoctrination).”

      I’m not defining teaching biblical principles as indoctrination. All children must be taught, just like they need to know how to read, write, use logic in math and science, learn history, etc, as they grow older. They must all have reasons why they’re here. What I AM suggesting is that we teach them the “why” we believe these things are so (Bereans – Acts 17:10-11). This explanation would be age-appropriate, of course, but children can begin to critically think by age 5.

      One of the biggest problems with religious indoctrination (as opposed to teaching, equipping) is that we defend our views by saying things like the “because the Bible says so,” which may work when they’re very young, but doesn’t work at all as they older and are challenged.

      “Meanwhile, I will continue to “brainwash” that Jesus loves them, that he died for them, that he rose again so we can see “gramma” or whomever someday when we get to heaven, etc.”

      Amen! Absolutely! 🙂 And we can say why He loves them because He really did live and die, because of His teachings, and because of the transformed lives of billions of people who trust Him. And I would say it would take just as much faith to not believe any of this in spite of the evidence.

      Thanks for your “entrance,” Oneta. 🙂 I really appreciate your comments. Blessings.

  3. oneta hayes says:

    Thanks for the response. I find so many people who claim to be Christians who know so little about the Bible. Even basic Bible stories. I agree that “because the Bible says so” should be accompanied by why I believe the Bible to be true. And we can clutter the brain with so much questionable minutia that gives space for a battle ground. Blessings back to you.

  4. hawk2017 says:

    Truth. But I see no change coming. It is already too late.:*(

  5. tsalmon says:


    Am so blocked for some reason? My comments don’t seem to post.

    Sent from my Tony’s I Phone

    • Mel Wild says:

      Your comment came through fine on this end. Comments do go into moderation if there are links, but other than that, yours should be fine. 🙂

  6. tsalmon says:


    This is an area that I have given a little thought and study over the years, although I don’t claim to be an expert. I agree with what you and the film say about critical thinking, but I’m hesitant to buy all the conspiracy theories.

    For example, most of my public school teachers were diverse in their religious beliefs as well as their political beliefs, but I heard less about either than what they taught me about reading, writing and arithmetic. I saw more actual indoctrination when I attended catholic schools. Although I was later critical of that indoctrination, I now recognize it as a necessary foundation. One has to stand on something from which to launch against in order to move in a different direction, if that makes sense. In so much as public schools teach us our cultural metaphors (or “myths” in the broadest sense of that word), then they too build that foundation.

    The conspiracy theories about the main stream media similarly seem overblown to me. My experience since we got 24 hour news saturation is that the media mostly seems to run together from one direction to another chasing the latest shiniest object to keep us entertained with. More bread and circuses on steroids than an Orwellian two way TV run by Big Brother. I think that the natural state of the press throughout our history, however, is to represent competing factions. Most of my lifetime in the 20th Century has been a lull in that norm of extreme fictionalization and it began to return to the norm of warring factions at the end of the Cold War.

    Why did we have that period of relative press neutrality between normally warring factions? I believe that the existential threat posed by first fascists and then the Soviet Union required us to be more compromising in solving some of our own worst tribal issues. For example, as painful and contentious as Civil Rights integration progress was, I’m not sure that it would still have happened without the Cold War to focus us on our outward enemies rather than on each other.

    That said, I don’t disagree with critical thinking and constant questioning of the conventional norms, but I don’t see it as even a major problem, much less THE problem. To me, it seems that there are so many vectors of force at work in our scrambled social psychology that I distrust big answers to everything, especially if they tend to demonize certain institutions as THE main problem.

    I think that some conflict between those who challenge authority and those who caution stability is healthy but if we are honest most of really are sheep and always will be, and sheep can be lead to slaughter by revolutionaries just as easy as they can be enslaved by authoritarians. Think about the American Revolution verses the French Revolution. Our Founders walked that fine line and achieved an uneasy balance that was shattered for a while by the Civil War. The Jacobins just cut off heads until they got to their own and still kept going.

    Sent from my Tony’s I Phone

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your thoughts on this, Tony. You make some good points.

      I think the dumbing down by public schools the video is talking is not about religious indoctrination but about conditioning us not to question authority and be good “worker bees,” not free thinkers. This was the intention of public schools but, as you said, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a conspiracy. It was more expediency than anything else. Most people were living in the country in the 19th century and they needed to fill the city factories with workers. But I do believe it has had a dumbing down effect. It’s hard to notice now, 200 years into it, because it’s our normal. You won’t learn how to think in the average public school.

      As far as the press, all sides are totally biased and their goal is to sell advertisement, so they play to their viewers (right or left). I don’t watch 24-hour news, or read newspapers as Thomas Jefferson said, and I’m a lot happier for it. 🙂

      And I totally agree with you about healthy disagreement in civil discourse, which was the big difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Actually, the French Revolution is an example of the absolute evil that is possible with the angry mob mentality.

  7. Hmmm. Well, first off I saw a great meme that plays off of that CS Lewis quote, “We aren’t here to see through one another, but to see one another through.” I liked that.

    What I see happening in our modern world is a powerful desire for belonging, a need for approval, to be adopted by a tribe. So people aren’t necessarily brainwashed, they are desperate for belonging. A lot of politics, religion, atheism, is all about winning the approval and favor of your peers. Half the time what people spout isn’t even their own beliefs or what they desire to believe, but rather what they think will bring them approval and favor. They aren’t really “indoctrinated,” they are seeking social rewards and power within a tribe. CS Lewis wrote his famous essay, his graduation speech called, “The Inner Ring” that really applies.

    So my question would be, what’s the payoff? Why are we so willing to be indoctrinated or to subject ourselves to indoctrination?

    • Mel Wild says:

      I agree with your point on people’s need for approval and belonging. That’s what made Zuckerberg a billionaire! (I like to be “liked” and “friended.) And the powers that be can manipulate that desire (addiction, even) to make us the “bewildered herd.”

  8. John Branyan says:

    There are plenty of fundamentalists of all stripes who oppose “indoctrination” only when it applies to ideas different from their own. The atheists rage against “religious indoctrination” while staunchly employing “religious censorship”. The only religious ideas they’ll consider are grotesque theological caricatures. God is “a sky fairy” who “loves slavery” and “watching children suffer”.

    Atheists indoctrinate by subtraction. They remove everything remotely reasonable from theism and write books about unreasonable theism is.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Exactly. Atheist’s fallacious argumentation that you mention here is probably what’s most annoying to me and one of the reasons I stopped engaging them directly. And it seems to me that they’ve just traded religious fundamentalism for scientistic (as opposed to scientific) fundamentalism.

      I see major intolerance popping up in politics with the new radical left. Their Marxist ideology of identity politics and social justice just becomes the latest form of totalitarianism. No dissenting view are to be tolerated, not even from liberals.

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