The term indoctrination has a very negative stigma. When people hear that phrase, they will think of parents telling their children what to believe and how to think. They think of religious zealots who are just creating more clones of themselves to perpetuate their religion for generations. When those children get older, they will teach their children how to be clones as well. But the problem will have more latitude than mere cloning (as disturbing as that seems to be). They will suggest that providing children with a religious education will onset severe psychological difficulties throughout the course of their adult life. Among these will be a deep-seated fear of Hell after they apostatize. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins even recounted the sad story of an apostate who sought therapy to help her to overcome the fear of Hell. With these dire consequences in mind, there are some measures regarding how to avoid indoctrinating children with mathematics and Christianity.
The keen observer will notice a bit of sarcasm in that title. If you read my opening paragraph thinking that I was actually suggesting that a Christian education would be indoctrination, then I think that I have done my job. I am simply trying to accurately represent the position outlined specifically in chapter nine of The God Delusion. Throughout this article, I will be addressing some of the arguments mounted by Dawkins and several other critics of religion. Religious education is not indoctrination in the sense that all of these negative connotations should be warranted. Religious education is comparable to education in mathematics.
We Should Teach Children What Is True
People often make the unfortunate mistake of distinguishing religion from other disciplines. They treat it as though it is something like an opinion or a personal point of view that should not be imposed onto others. Many people take a relativistic position when it comes to religion exclusively, but are more firm about other positions. For example, if somebody wanted the Cowboys to defeat the Packers, that does not mean that they should behave as though they won the Super Bowl. Some teams win and others lose. Some views are right and others are wrong. In the case of religious beliefs, some are right and others are wrong. It is not a matter of personal taste or opinion. We are discerning what is true and relaying those truths to other people, especially our children.
Nobody objects to educating children about what is true. Indoctrination is simply defined as “to instruct especially in fundamentals or rudiments,” or “to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle.” The word ‘teach’ is actually a synonym with indoctrinate. The word simply has negative connotations, often referring to uncritical acceptance of a certain set of beliefs or principles. But most good parents believe that it is important to teach their children that which is true. They will teach them the rudiments of mathematics and science. These are often partisan points of view that prevailed over rivaling theories in history.
Something similar can be said of Christianity. The reason that parents will teach children about Christianity is the same reason that they have for teaching their children mathematics. It is true. It is not akin to teaching their children to like one flavor of ice cream over another. It is more akin to teaching children ethical positions, such as, “Do not bully other kids,” “Kill them with kindness,” or even the dreaded, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Teaching children mathematics, ethical principles and Christian theology is not a matter of indoctrination. It is simply relaying true claims.
Is Christianity Always Accepted Uncritically?
One of the hallmarks of indoctrination in a more negative sense will be that it is accepted uncritically. Yet that could be said of legitimate disciplines. When children are taught mathematics, they scarcely ask the second-order philosophical question of whether it is true. They might question whether it is truly practical for them to have that knowledge, but they do not question if it is true. Of course, one could provide evidence that a simple algorithm is really true, but children are generally expected to just accept it. The same could be said of properly basic beliefs, such as the existence of the external world and the fact that there are minds other than their own. By the very nature of the case, these would have to be accepted uncritically and indeed, to even raise such questions would be a cause for concern.
However, one might rejoin that if the child were to ask these philosophical questions and pry into mathematics, they would find that the simple algorithm is true. Yet this is exactly the point that I am raising. Children might be taught that Christianity is true, but as they grow in wisdom, they might begin to ask deeper questions and learn why they should believe that it is true. Christianity does not have to be accepted uncritically. Claims such as “God exists,” will be very evident. When they begin to think about specific Christian claims such as the resurrection or the Bible, they will find evidence there as well.
The idea that Christianity has to be accepted uncritically is based on a caricature or on an atheist’s own personal experience with Christianity. It ignores the rich intellectual tradition of the Christian church that actually launched modern science. But as the experience of the apostate will indicate, it is certainly possible to teach Christianity without encouraging the children to think critically about their faith. But that will be more of a problem with the method rather than with Christian theology. An atheist could be guilty of the same sort of methodology, as we often see from atheists on social media.
The Doctrine of Hell Gives Children Nightmares
Mathematics does not give children nightmares. Adults do not stay awake at fearing that they might have to solve an equation as they recount the days struggling through them as children. Well, I should not say that. But those nightmares and fears would be mild compared to the fear that one has of Hell. Adults who have apostatized often live with a lasting fear of going to Hell. As children, their preacher will present vivid imagery of the terrors of Hell and that imagery stays with them even as adults. Young children might stay awake at night fearing for their souls, thinking about the horrible fate of the damned. On page 317, Dawkins cited an example of a young child who believed that her friend was in Hell because she was a Protestant. He cited a few other examples of adults who still feared that they might go to Hell.
There are a few aspects of this that will need to be considered. First, there is a way to preach about the reality of Hell without using it as a mechanism to frighten parishioners. Sometimes preachers will appeal to their audience’s desire to live to keep them from falling away or to scare them into the faith. A more appropriate way to consider the doctrine of Hell would be to preach about God’s judgment as a consequence of sin. But the doctrine of Hell will need to be preached in conjunction with the redemption offered by trusting in God’s promises made on the basis of the cross of Jesus. It is not a message of terror but one of hope. Second, there are other doctrines related to the eternal destiny of the soul that are perfectly acceptable for evangelical Christians to accept, such as annihilationism. The doctrine of annihilation states that the soul is not immortal and that immortality is a gift given to those who are saved. Those who die in their sins would be annihilated, destroyed forever.
Second, concerns about whether teaching the doctrine of Hell is a bad parenting choice will essentially come down to what is true. Actions have consequences. A criminal might not like that he will one day have to face justice and he may live in fear that the law will eventually catch up to him. When Dawkins relays these stories of people who fear Hell, it seems like they are convicted over their actions. Justice will eventually catch up to them. Somebody might not like being told a hard truth. But if a bus is going to run someone over, you would tell them even if it means that they would live in fear until the second that the bus collides with them.
Is Religion Worse For Children Than Pedophilia?
In a chapter devoted to the religious indoctrination of children and the lasting effects wrought by religion, you would expect that Dawkins would outline some sexual scandals and systematic coverups. But it is a little odd that Dawkins has harsher words for the creation scientist than he does for the pedophile. In fact, when he raises the issue of pedophilia on page 315, he refers to opposition as “hysteria” a “mob psychology” and an “epidemic.” He went on to say that sometimes, pedophilia can be a “harmless experience.” He writes, “If… they [pedophiles] had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defense.” While he did (in passing) refer to pedophilia as “reprehensible,” it is still nonetheless disturbing that Dawkins would become an apologist for pedophiles.
In fact, when Dawkins was asked at a lecture in Dublin about the lasting consequences of pedophiles who use their position in the church to victimize children, Dawkins said that it is no worse than having been brought up Catholic in the first place (page 317). I suspect that audience in Dublin thought that this was nothing more than a slight against a religious upbringing. But I think there is a little more than that. In his answer to that question, Dawkins is expressing  the horror of being raised religious and  what he perceives as the very mild effect of pedophilia.
Of course, the reasons that Dawkins had for making the point that religion is worse for children than pedophilia will touch on issues that I am assessing in this article, so there is no reason to rehash them here. But I did think it would be worthy to point out Dawkins’ bizarre position on pedophilia. Without having your partisan atheist glasses on for a moment, think about whether you really think that teaching children about Christianity is as bad as molesting a child. If you found out that your child was going to church, would you really be more outraged than if you found out that he or she had been molested? Really?
Does Christianity Limit The Minds of Children?
Since Dawkins critique makes no effort to engage with the long intellectual history of the Christian church, many of his objections are based on a caricature. They are based not so much on Christianity itself but on how Christianity can sometimes be practiced. He objected that religious thinking limits the horizon and education of the child. Their mind is shackled by biblical precepts about science. After all, if you think that God created everything, then there is really no need for any explanations beyond that.
Yet this old ‘God of the gaps’ objection fundamentally misunderstands how and why Christians practice science. Explanations often have different levels. If a king sent a courier to deliver a message, both the king and the courier will be explanations for the arrival of the letter. If Michelangelo carves the Statue of David, both he and the marble will be different types of causes. There is both God and science. God is the efficient cause while science is the material cause. To say that you do not need God because you have science, or vice versa, would be as silly as saying that you do not need Henry Ford because you have thermodynamics. Religion does not limit the scope of knowledge. The religious person should be perfectly open to accepting scientific explanations.
Second, Dawkins principle does not really stand up to historical scrutiny. Historically, Christians have pioneered the great disciplines of science. Even the so-called Dark Ages was an era of scientific achievement. The reason that Christians expect to find law in nature is that they believe that there was a lawgiver. The rationality of the universe flows far more naturally when you believe that there is a rational mind behind it. One might argue that therefore Christianity will expand the mind while atheism will limit it.
The Distinction Between What To Think And How To Think
Of course, parents need to educate their children. Even Professor Dawkins acknowledges that. But he suggested that there is a superior method of education. Rather than teaching the children what to think, you should teach them how to think. That is to say that rather than giving them precepts and telling them to believe them, you should teach them how to analyze information and allow them to come to their own conclusions. Rather than teaching them about religion, you would teach them to examine evidence. Since you are instilling them with rationality, they will come to a correct view of the world. This might make sense on the surface, but there are serious problems with this distinction. Primarily, there is no way to teach a child how to think without teaching them what to think.
Every principle that you could teach regarding how to think will still be telling them what to think. You are telling them to use that principle. If you were to tell a child that she should examine evidence before coming to a conclusion, you would be telling them both  how to think (by using that principle and  what to think (namely, that principle is valid). If you teach them to use the laws of logic, you will be implicitly teaching them that the laws of logic are valid and binding. Every how will have an underlying what.
Second, there are some disciplines in which it is impossible to avoid telling children what to think. History will be one of them. The history teacher (at least an early level) might not be teaching his students so much about how to examine historical documents but more about what happened in the past and how it impacts us today. That is essentially what Christian theology teaches. Of course, as one grows in their faith, they will begin to learn more about methodology (the same as when one grows in their knowledge of history), but in the infancy stages, it will mostly be a matter of relaying historical information and telling the children how it impacts us today.
Should Children Have A Say In The Matter?
On page 330, Professor Dawkins raised the bizarre issue of personal autonomy. The reason that I refer to it as bizarre is that he said that children should have a say in the matter. They should get to decide what they are being taught. Well, there are plenty of children who would like to forego an education in mathematics. There is a pretty simple reason that you do not allow children to decide what they are going to learn. They are children. They do not understand the long-term implications of not knowing mathematics. They only know that they hate it. If you ask a child, “Which religion would you like to choose?” they are likely to choose the one that offers candy. It is the responsibility of the parent to teach their child that which is true.
A Christian Child Or A Child of Christian Parents?
Continuing in the theme that children should have a say in the matter, Dawkins expressed disdain at the term “Christian child” because the child is not old enough to make a decision about her religious beliefs. He said on pages 339-340 that instead, parents should choose to refer to their children as “children of Christian parents,” which will leave the option open for children to assess their religious beliefs. Again, though, this strips parents of the responsibility and the right to teach their children that which is true. Further, depending on the sect, some Christians might not identify their children as Christians. Baptists might be a notable example who would adhere to what is commonly referred to as the ‘age of accountability.’
Second, this will essentially, once again, come back to the fundamental question of what is true. While a child may not have developed the cognitive faculties to assess her beliefs, she could still rightly be referred to as a Christian. She could similarly be referred to as a “lover of mother.” Most people cannot tell you when they began to love their mother. They can only tell you that they do and basically always have. A Christian might not be able to tell you when she started to love Christ and basically knows that she always had. They are children of the covenant. That is what infant baptism will signify.
However, Professor Dawkins has no sympathy for this theological construction. When speaking of parents who indoctrinate their children, he writes on page 338, “Mightn’t the parents actually be investigated to see if they were fit to bring up children?” The implication is obvious. If you teach your children that which is true, then you might not be fit to raise them and perhaps they should be taken away from you. I suppose Dawkins will rejoice to learn of children being seized over Christian indoctrination.
Dawkins Encouraged Atheistic Indoctrination
The reader might be surprised to learn that Dawkins actually does think that children should learn about the Bible, Christian theology and various traditions. But, in a stroke of irony, he thinks that children should be indoctrinated to believe that it is not true. Of course, he did not use those words. He argued on pages 340-344 that children should be taught about Christianity alongside all of the other religious views throughout history. The story of Jesus and the letters of the apostles should be read in conjunction with Aesop’s Fables and Pagan mythology of old. “You see, children, just as people once believed these stories were true, they also believe that the story of Jesus is true today.” If you do not think that is the height of indoctrination and guaranteed to lead children to think that they are all myths, then you are probably an overzealous Dawkins supporter.
That is not to say that the literary quality of the Bible cannot be examined or even used in a secular classroom alongside other ancient religious documents. But the kind of presentation that Dawkins has in mind is one that is designed specifically to lead people away from the faith. After all, one of Dawkins chief arguments is the old, “Had you been born in India, you would be a Hindu.” He thinks that by teaching children that there is a cacophony of false religions that are believed fervently, that they will become more skeptical of their own faith. The last sentence in the chapter is telling. He writes, “We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.” In a book centralized by the profoundly clever one-liner, “who created God?” we can hardly be surprised at the hypocrisy of endorsing atheistic indoctrination just after howling against a Christian education.
How To Avoid Indoctrinating Children With Mathematics And Christianity
Professor Dawkins has an agenda in writing this book and in this chapter. The God Delusion is designed to glamorize atheism and make religion look foolish, wielding caricatures and misinformation. His chapter on indoctrination is part of his apologetic against religion. It is an argument about why you should not be religious and why your children should be religious either. But as we have seen, most of these arguments are either attacking a caricature or a method that is sometimes applied by Christians rather than a critique of Christian education itself.
To summarize the points that I have made:
• We should teach children that which is true
• Saying that Christianity is indoctrination is like saying that mathematics is indoctrination
• Children are often encouraged to accept truths uncritically in education, such as in mathematics
• Christianity does not require that you accept truths uncritically
• Dawkins ignores the rich intellectual tradition of the Christian church
• The fact that Hell gives people nightmares is comparable to a criminal fearing that justice will catch up with him
• Richard Dawkins would prefer that a child be exposed to pedophilia than to religion
• You cannot teach a child how to think without teaching her what to think
• God and science can both be an explanation of some phenomenon, therefore knowing about God does not limit one’s ability to learn science
• Loving Christ as a child is similar to loving mom as a child
• Dawkins advocated for atheistic indoctrination