Indoctrination is the act of training people to accept a stance without question. This can lead intelligent people to believe outrageous and dangerous ideas.
One of the symptoms of indoctrination is to immediately write off the notion that it applies to you. If you consider yourself to be a rational person, I encourage you to push past these pervasive thoughts and say, “If indoctrination is real, I want to know about it."
The vast majority of the time, indoctrination is not malicious! It’s important to remember that those who indoctrinate others were often indoctrinated themselves. Many of the methods listed below are not used consciously, but are simply considered to be an innocuous part of a worldview's customs and tradition.
This is a large, multi-faceted topic, but I did my best to narrow it down into quick, easy-to-read bullet points.
When Indoctrination Works Best
Indoctrination works best during childhood, after a traumatic event, or through brainwashing.
Traumatic events usually involve a near-death experience, the untimely death of a loved one, or extreme depression. Brainwashing is usually only used by extreme cults that want to alter the beliefs of rational adults (methods include starvation, sleep deprivation, drugs, torture or some combination of these). But the most common time people accept irrational beliefs is during childhood.
Nazism: In 1933, the Nazi regime forced “politically unreliable" teachers out of public schools and replaced them with Aryans who would push the Nazi platform. Hitler Youth took it a step farther by incorporating military training for children between 10 and 18.
Islam: The Islamic State sees children as their most lethal fighters, as they have been taught to accept violence from birth. Many schools in Islamic nations have purged art, philosophy, and social studies from their curriculum and replaced them with classes about the Qur’an.
Christianity: My church once passed out pamphlets warning against the large number of college students leaving the faith. It said that children who don’t attend church regularly often stray as adults, and encouraged parents to make church a mandatory part of their children’s lives. An extreme example of Christian indoctrination in youth can be seen in the 2006 documentary, Jesus Camp.
Country: Patriotism is taught from a young age and is usually integrated into most elementary schools. Children learn how to respectfully fold the American flag and are often taught a watered-down version of American history.
Products: It would be a stretch to say Happy Meals are a malicious attempt to indoctrinate children, but establishing brand recognition at an early age certainly helps retain long-term customers. Cigarette advertisers knew the benefits of targeting children and paid to have their products used by cartoon characters.
Questions to ask yourself: Do I still hold any beliefs I learned as a child? Have I ever drastically changed my beliefs in the aftermath of a traumatic event? Do many people come to accept my worldview as emotionally-stable adults?
(North Korea: every pixel a kid)
Method of Indoctrination #1: Repetition
Songs, creeds, and rote memorization are common forms of repetition that can play a part in indoctrination.
Nazism: Mantras, slogans, and images demonizing Jews were repeated through every form of Nazi propaganda including newspapers, textbooks, and films.
Islam: Daily and weekly rituals include the repetition of prayers, songs, and verses which reinforce the teachings of Allah. The Qur’an is also known for it’s abundance of repeated words and phrases.
Christianity: “Bible Memory” made up a huge part of my homework from 3rd to 8th grade. To study, I would repeat the verses again and again (For God so loved the world. For God so loved the world. For God so loved the world). Church services were filled with repetition including creeds, hymns, and verses. In the early 2000s, there was a movement away from praise and worship songs to what my dad jokingly called “seven-elevens;” songs which repeated the same seven words eleven times.
Country: Many Americans will scoff if you suggest they grew up dedicating their lives to their government, completely forgetting that The Pledge of Allegiance was a daily requirement in the vast majority of US schools. The Star Spangled Banner is sung before every sporting event, and to opt out is taboo.
Products: The most effective commercials try to get a jingle stuck in your head.
Questions to ask yourself: Was repetition encouraged when I was first learning about the new idea?
Method of Indoctrination #2: Strong Support System
Indoctrination is hardest to escape when it's reinforced by everyone we know. A strong support system can include family, friends, teachers, pop-culture icons, and politicians. In many cases, outsiders are demonized.
Nazism: The Nazi Propaganda Ministry censored all forms of communication to give the appearance that everyone in the country supported the Third Reich.
Islam: Villagers in the most remote Muslim nations can go years without facing outside ideas.
Christianity: The most devout Christians in my life attended church 1-2 times per week and considered it their primary source of social interaction. Most of their friends attend the same church, and these relationships were often strengthened by small group gatherings during the week. “Are they Christian?” was a common question when telling parents about new friends. Before attending The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was warned by several people to be careful in the non-Christian environment.
Country: Obviously the majority of people living in the United States are surrounded by other Americans, but it is also common for Americans to demonize outsiders. Refugees and dissenters are treated as a threat to patriotism.
Products: Peer pressure is vital for the spread of new products. If our friend has one, we usually want one too. Marketers understand and encourage this; if we want our phone bill to be cheaper, we should partner up with our family and friends for a discount.
Questions to ask yourself: Have I traveled outside my comfort zone? Have I been exposed to individuals with vastly different beliefs from my own? Was pop-culture restricted or denied to me at an early age? Did my teachers and mentors hold the same beliefs as me?
Method of Indoctrination #3: Rewards for Devotion
Nazism: The most obedient and proficient soldiers were promoted, and systems were in place to reward the highest officials with wealth, power, prestige, and sex.
Islam: On Earth, devout Muslims are praised and respected in their communities. In the afterlife, they will be rewarded with eternity in paradise filled with gardens, delicious food, and virgin companionship.
Christianity: On Earth, devout Christians are praised and respected in their communities. In the afterlife, they will be rewarded with eternity in paradise where they will be reunited with loved ones and experience unmatched joy.
Country: Though it’s a bit of an abstract concept, The American Dream is often touted as the highest reward for those who give in to the system.
Products: Best Buy, Home Depot, and most clothing stores have reward programs to encourage loyalty. If you stick with Apple products, you will be rewarded with a seamless workflow.
Questions to ask yourself: Is there the prospect of money, fame, or respect if I dedicate myself to my belief system? Do my rituals have their own benefits such as peace of mind? Have I been promised other-worldly rewards in exchange for my devotion?
Method of Indoctrination #4: Punishment for Lack of Devotion
Nazism: It’s estimated that 77,000 Germans were killed for refusing to align themselves with Nazi values. Many of them were sent to concentration camps if they were even suspected as a dissenter.
Islam: On Earth, those who refused to follow the teachings of Islam have been beheaded, publicly hung, thrown off buildings, burnt alive, and dragged behind cars. In the afterlife, non-Muslims are subjected to Jahannam where they will experience shame and physical suffering in fire and boiling pitch.
Christianity: On Earth, those who turn from the faith can lose the respect (and sometimes love) of their family and friends. For Christians who spend the majority of their time with other Christians, de-converting could turn their lives upside down. Corporal punishment is still used regularly against disobedient children in Christian households. In the afterlife, those who do not accept Jesus as their savior are punished for an eternity in the fires of hell.
Country: Public figures in the United States face devastating social backlash if they refuse to stand for the National Anthem. If you refuse to pay taxes, you will be threatened with guns and put in a cage. In some countries, burning the flag is punishable by imprisonment or death.
Products: In extreme cases, people who refuse to use certain products can become social outcasts.
Questions to Ask Yourself: What would be the consequences if I change my mind? What are the spiritual consequences? Is there any evidence that the spiritual consequences are real? Or were they told to me by other people who have also been indoctrinated?
Symptoms of Indoctrination #1: Contradicting Values
Indoctrination seems to create a separate “mind" which works outside the rest of the brain and even has it’s own system of logic. This can create a strange duality in a person’s value system, and pointing this out can trigger a short-circuiting of the brain leading to defensiveness and rash justifications.
Nazism: Nazi soldiers were just as loving and devoted to their own families as anyone else, but they could tear families apart in concentration camps.
Islam: Many moderate Muslims will condemn the actions of suicide bombers but still support the death penalty for apostates.
Christianity: Christians are generally horrified by abortion, but in the context of their religion, they readily accept God’s systematic slaughter of babies. They have excellent definitions of "love,” but refuse to hold God’s love to the same standard.
Country: State programs such as welfare, the war on drugs, abstinence education, and gun control often have the opposite effect of their intentions, yet people continue to support them. Tax dollars are used to bomb hospitals, yet most Americans consider this normal.
Products: Although many Apple users would be appalled at the use of sweatshop labor, news of unsafe working conditions and the use of child workers did little to dissuade people from buying their products.
Questions to ask yourself: Am I regularly adjusting my values to form a coherent, non-contradictory worldview? Or am I letting my biases force me into an irrational system of beliefs?
Symptoms of Indoctrination #2: Defending Monsters
Nazism: Hitler ordered the death of approximately 11 million people. At the peak of his power, approximately 8 million people were registered Nazis.
Islam: Muhammad was a misogynistic warlord who married a preteen and captured his own slaves. Approximately 1.6 billion people still revere him.
Christianity: According to the Bible, God killed loved ones out of anger, demanded unquestioning servitude, restricted knowledge, sent bears to maul children, forced brothers and friends to kill each other, and sanctioned the rape of 32,000 young girls. Approximately 2.2 billion people have found creative ways to defend his actions.
Country: 2016 saw the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, possibly the two sickest nominees the United States has ever seen. Despite their perverse personalities, hateful words, flip-flops, threats of violence, accusations of rape, and accusations of destroying evidence, social media is tearing itself apart to defend them.
Products: People don’t just buy Chris Brown albums, Roman Polanski movies, and Tiger Woods clothing, many of them rush to the defense of their favorite celebrities.
Questions to ask yourself: When someone mentions the objective atrocities committed by a prominent leader for your worldview, do you find yourself recoiling in disgust or searching for justification? If the same claim was made about the leader of a different worldview, would you have the same reaction?
Symptoms of Indoctrination #3: Logic Does Not Apply
This is mostly true for religions. Whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Scientology, belief without evidence is both required and praised. This is called faith, and it is in direct opposition to reason.
Contrary to everything we know about the universe, Christians believe that two Kangaroos traveled from Mount Ararat to Australia after everything edible was destroyed by a worldwide flood; Muslims believe Muhammad flew through space on a horse without a spacesuit; Hindus believe part of our consciousness is transferred to another being after we die; Scientologists believe that our mental disorders were given to our ancestors by aliens and passed down to us… and all four religions believe in multi-dimensional beings and magic, none of which is supported by evidence.
Questions to ask yourself: Does faith work for people of other religions? If not, why do I assume it works for me? If someone presented me evidence that opposes my current worldview, would I change my mind?
Symptoms of Indoctrination #4: Refusing to Consider the Possibility of Indoctrination
Muslims and Christians will stand together and recognize that Nazis were indoctrinated.
Nazis and Christians will stand together and recognize that Muslims were indoctrinated.
Muslims and Nazis will stand together and recognize that Christians were indoctrinated.
Yet few of them will recognize indoctrination in themselves.
Questions to ask yourself: Have I felt compelled to stop reading this article? Did any part make me feel conflicted or angry?
When formulating my thoughts on this topic, I quickly realized I would need to turn the mirror on myself. So I did.
When I look back on my childhood, I can see it was littered with every method and symptom of indoctrination. The result was 26 years as a Republican and 28 years as a Christian. When I look at my shift to Libertarianism and my de-conversion to atheism, I find none. (I’ll focus mostly on religion for the following list, but the same applies to my change in political views.)
When Indoctrination Works Best: I was 28 years old, not a child, when I fully de-converted from Christianity. I was at a good place in my life. No one drugged me or deprived me of food or sleep.
Repetition: I never memorized any creeds about science, nor did I sing songs about lacking a belief in a deity. The only argument one could make for repetition is that I regularly listen to secular music, but it would be a stretch to claim it made me trust science more than holy books.
Strong Support System: At the time of my de-conversion, I had no interactions with atheists in my life, nor did I look up to any atheist mentors or authority figures. My family, close friends, and wife were all Christians.
Rewards for Devotion: The only reward I received for accepting atheism was the comfort of a rational worldview. The downsides, however, were tremendous. I lost several friends. I was told I shouldn’t be allowed around children. I’m not allowed to run for office in seven states. I’m reward only with nothingness when I die. And whether my former worldview is right or wrong, I will never see my father again.
Punishment for Lack of Devotion: If I discover new evidence which proves God is real, I will not be punished for rejecting atheism.
Contradicting Values: Although I don't have a “source” for my morality, I always strive to make sure my values fit together as a cohesive whole. This has led me to change my mind on many issues including climate change, abortion, gun control, and the war on drugs while admitting my ignorance on topics such as immigration and unions.
Defending Monsters: I condemn God, Muhammad, Clinton, and Trump. If you kill out of anger, sleep with children, bomb hospitals, or threaten to bomb hospitals, I will not worship, defend, or vote for you. On the other hand, three of the most well-known proponents of science include Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking. Three of the most well-known proponents of Libertarianism are Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, and Penn Jillette. I can’t think of six more honest or ethical people. (However, if I learn they’re responsible for monstrous acts, I will readily condemn them!)
Logic Does Not Apply: I have faith in nothing... and this includes abstract concepts such as love. I am on constant look-out for my own biases (though I do admit it’s impossible to always see them). And whether it’s in religion or politics, I will always change my mind when presented with new evidence.
Refusing to Consider the Possibility of Indoctrination: Hopefully this section has proven I’m capable of self-reflection!
Inside the Brain
(The following explanation is based on our current understanding of neurology, behavior, and conditioning. Relating these concepts to indoctrination is my own idea, so scrutiny is welcome.)
Every time the brain has a specific thought, the neurons associated with that thought branch out, strengthen, and grow more permanent. This makes it easier to have the same thought in the future. Once we understand this, it becomes overwhelmingly clear why the methods of indoctrination listed above are so successful.
When Indoctrination Works Best: The mind of a child is a blank canvas. Kids are not born devoted to a religion, country, or product, but are open to all ideas. All of their neurons are equally weak which makes their brains malleable. When a new idea is introduced, the pathways to those ideas are reinforced. Brainwashing works to weaken or confuse old neuron branches making it easier to forge pathways for new ideas.
Repetition: Every time a person repeats, “I pledge allegiance to the flag” or “For God so loved the world,” the relevant pathways grow stronger. And the stronger they are, the more likely the repeated sentiment will affect our behavior and cement our beliefs.
Strong Support System: A strong support system ensures that only the “correct” neurons grow while preventing new ideas from strengthening the “wrong" paths. Travel, diverse friend groups, pop culture, and schools with opposing ideologies can make us think outside the box and strengthen neurological pathways to new ideas. Children who are exposed to these things are harder to indoctrinate, and if they are indoctrinated, they have a better chance at de-converting in the future.
Rewards for Devotion: Including a system of rewards provides another reason for our brains to use the “correct” neurons, which, again, makes them more permanent.
Punishment for Lack of Devotion: Threatening punishment is a useful tactic because it scares the brain from even considering alternative ideas. If we truly believe we’ll be punished for thinking about new worldviews, other pathways are never allowed to gain strength. Eventually, opposing ideas become so unfamiliar that no amount of logic can change our minds.
The Big Questions
Knowing that indoctrination can lead to a dangerous mindset, do you think people should consider the possibility that they too may have been indoctrinated?
If you discover you were probably indoctrinated, do you think it’s ethically responsible to actively change your views?