Brainwashing our Kids with Religion

How do you teach your kids about Jesus but also teach them to think for themselves? Christians are often accused of brainwashing their kids by atheists. But even with all their emphasis on critical thinking, atheists seem not to realize that they too are brainwashing their kids.

We will all “brainwash” our kids. We are mimetic; we imitate. There is no way around it. I read an article a few years ago about a summer camp for atheists, an alternative to the religious camps that Christians go to every summer. They interviewed the woman who lectures the campers daily on religious history and she said, “I feel really strongly these kids shouldn’t be indoctrinated.” Many of the campers, who range in age from 8 to 17, “don’t know what they are” yet when it comes to beliefs.”

But in her lectures every day, she is indoctrinating the campers. She can’t help it. It’s inherent in every act of communication from every system of authority.

And it’s not just atheists. I have talked to several friends who have felt tricked by religion into believing that things are black and white when they are often various shades of gray. They still love Jesus but they don’t want to do that to their children. A very noble goal. But in their attempt to protect their children from the deceit of the religious system, they often swing the pendulum the other way by “not indoctrinating” their children – which really means either allowing someone or something else to indoctrinate them (peers, family, or culture in the form of television and advertising) or indoctrinating them with a doctrine of “no doctrine.”

For our family, we have decided that we are Christians and that we will raise our children as Christians. But along with our personal beliefs and the Christian tradition, we will indoctrinate them with a Christian faith that (1) respects religious diversity, (2) respects Christian diversity, and (3) humbly accepts they might be wrong.

First, we teach our children that not all people are Christians. I am not sure why Christians parents don’t often teach their children about other religions. Perhaps it’s out of fear that Christianity won’t be as attractive or perhaps it’s just out of ignorance of other religions. But we want to make it clear to our children that there are religions out there besides Christianity. And we should love and respect every belief system. And that we are Christians because we choose to be and because we believe it’s the truest story, not because everyone who is not a Christian is evil. That is, we want to teach our kids to respect religious diversity.

Secondly, we teach our children that not all Christians believe the same thing. We want to expose our kids to the beauty of Methodism, Presbyterianism, Evangelicalism and Catholicism. We want to them to learn to appreciate the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox and the innovation of the non-denominational. Most importantly, we want them to love all of their family members in Christ, no matter how different their practices or beliefs may look.  We all worship the same Christ.

Thirdly, we teach our children that our beliefs are always changing. We don’t have all the answers, which is why we need wise people, the Scriptures, and our own relationship with the Spirit of God in our lives to constantly be challenging us, changing us, humbling us. We want to teach them the beauty of reading the Bible carefully, not being afraid either of questions or of the “I don’t know.”

How else do you try to raise critically thinking and respectful Christians who are both firmly rooted in the Christian tradition and yet freely challenge that tradition?

5Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!  6-9 Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.
-Deut 6:5–9, Msg

35 responses to “Brainwashing our Kids with Religion

  1. Pingback: Raising Your Kids Christian | Peter Enns

  2. I have two daughters, aged four and one.

    I think the problem comes when parents present their opinions as truth – whether the parents are Christian, Atheist, or whatever. Like it or not, your religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are your opinion. I plan on presenting my beliefs to my children in this way.

    I also intend to encourage my children to ask questions. I’ve already started doing this with my oldest daughter. I try very hard to answer all her questions to the best of my ability (and there are a lot of them!). I’m also not afraid to answer “I don’t know”.

    I agree that taking the path of not indoctrinating with ANYTHING can be problematic. Kids will find a belief system even if you don’t specifically teach them one.

  3. Pingback: Everybody brainwashes… « Ben Irwin's blog

  4. good stuff. i think early in our parenting we chose a different way out of fear – like if we showed them the beauty or, dare i say it, truth, which exists in other religions that they would choose that instead. like every other mistake i’ve made, the root is my lack of trust in God. at my core, i don’t believe he is big enough to capture the heart and soul of my children without my help. my bad. forgive me Jesus.

    thank you for this post.

  5. good stuff. early on in our parenting we were afraid to show our children the beauty, or dare i say it, truth, that existed in other religions for fear that they would pursue that instead of Christianity. oh me of little faith. at my core i still feel like God needs my help to make sure my kids follow him. forgive me Jesus.

    as to your question, i’m not sure i have any better ideas that yours. we do like to have spiritual discussions at the dinner table, so our kids (19, 17 & 11) see that we don’t have all the answers and we try to challenge them about WHY they believe what they believe – especially our youngest who goes to a Christian school and by rote accepts everything she is taught.

    thanks for this post. looking forward to checking out your blog.

  6. If you’re going to “indoctrinate” your kids, why not indoctrinate them with what we KNOW to be true, and not the things we WISH were true or think MIGHT be true. This means telling them that you BELIEVE Christianity, but you don’t KNOW it, and they should wait until they’re older to figure out what they BELIEVE. There’s a huge difference between telling them that Jesus is God (as a factual statement) and telling them that the earth goes around the sun. One is an opinion. The other is fact. If you’re going to indoctrinate them, let it be with facts! At least, that’s my opinion.

    • I think the irony of this statement is that the scientific community used to KNOW that the sun went around the earth. I am not arguing that Christianity is a “surer” foundation, only the irony that fundamental atheism and fundamental Christianity are actually more alike than different. Always believing there are “opinions” and “facts,” and I happened to have the keys to tell the difference.

      What do you think? Are there things we KNOW to be true? How often do we encounter such things?

      • Wrong. They didn’t know. They believed. They just didn’t realize at the time that knowing and believing are two different things.

        Thanks to the scientific method, we can now tell the difference!

      • I apologize but I am not understanding your epistemological categories and why the Scientific Method would change those epistemological categories. Science is descriptive, never prescriptive. Nothing about the Scientific Method guarantees that the laws of nature will remain constant or that our understanding of them are complete. Could you further explain how the Scientific Method insures our epistemological strategy?

      • I can’t reply to your comment below, J.

        I think the scientific method can help us know the difference between knowledge and belief. For example, you say the scientific community used to KNOW that the sun went around the earth. That is not true. Science goes beyond mere observation and makes testable predictions based on actual measurement. So those who claimed that the sun goes around the earth were not cosmological scientists in any sense of the word. They made up stories and presented them as truth, as religion has been doing for millennia.
        Mere observation might tell me that the mountain range ahead of me is a few miles distant. Then, when I actually walk to the range and measure the distance, I find that it was closer to a hundred miles. My senses had deceived me. How is this NOT a better epistemology – one that relies on repeatable measurement? Some guy can come right behind me with his own measuring tape and we’ll both come to a more accurate conclusion than “a few miles.”
        You say below: “Nothing about the Scientific Method guarantees that the laws of nature will remain constant or that our understanding of them are complete.”
        You’re right about our understanding being complete. Nobody is arguing that it is. But I think most of us can agree that are understanding is far better with the realization that the earth goes around the sun. Just because we share a lack of complete understanding with the superstitious religions of the past doesn’t mean our understanding is equal.
        And nothing about ANYTHING guarantees the laws of nature will remain constant. That’s more of a philosophical quandary that really has nothing to do with how we live our lives. Might the world be swallowed in black hole tomorrow? Perhaps. But why be paranoid? We’ve been going around the sun for quite a long time now, and there’s no reason to think we won’t continue to do so for quite a long time to come. As far as we can tell, we aren’t in any imminent danger from asteroids or black holes or the sudden suspension of the “laws of nature.”
        Not sure if this makes sense. It made sense in my head… 🙂

      • As for what the scientific community ‘knew’ and now ‘knows,’ Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a fun little book.

  7. How else do you try to raise critically thinking and respectful Christians who are both firmly rooted in the Christian tradition and yet freely challenge that tradition?

    Of course, that question would not make sense if you believed an eternity in Hell awaited the child who didn’t end up believing exactly the right set of beliefs! :^) Your teaching points are a wonderful expression of your beliefs.

    Text below is from an article by a secular parent, your post reminded me of it. It quotes a conversation between his daughter (who is sorting out her religious beliefs) and her teacher, who is a theist of some sort:

    “I told Mrs. W I think God is just pretend. But I said I’m still thinking about it. And I asked if she thinks God is pretend.”
    “So what’d Mrs. W say?”
    “She said no,” Laney said, matter-of-factly. “She said, ‘I think God is very real.'”
    “Uh huh. Then what did you say, Laney?”
    “I said, ‘That’s okay–as long as you’re still thinking about it, too.'”

    I love the “I’m still thinking about it.”

    • “Of course, that question would not make sense if you believed an eternity in Hell awaited the child who didn’t end up believing exactly the right set of beliefs! :^) ”

      This is EXACTLY why this is such a big deal for parents. Until you can first convince them that their kid won’t burn forever if they don’t make a “commitment” by the “age of accountability”, you aren’t going to have much luck asking them to be nuanced in their approach to teaching their children about God/religion.

      • I guess I believe in hell (but it is not a core belief and my ideas are rather in flux there) but I also believe that blindly indoctrinating my kids will potentially make them more likely to reject Christianity as they grow older and increasingly exposed to other ideas and ways of thinking. And since as elementary kids they already have friends from other faiths (as well as exposure to a “militant” atheistic kid) I do try to talk to them about other beliefs. I want my kids to have a solid faith but also to think through the challenges about their faith as they grow and to know that other people have different beliefs. They should know that we have tried to think through our beliefs and did not just blindly received them form our parents and that yes, there is always some questioning and doubt.

        So while I do agree that hell is why this might be a big deal for many parents, I believe that a single-minded, narrow approach to teaching about faith may often back-fire as kids get older. Shouldn’t parents want their kids to think about these things when they are still at the age when parents are able to easily discuss them with them?

  8. Thanks for this post. As the mother of two small boys who will soon be at the age to start asking questions, I appreciated your thoughts. Also, thinking back to your post on the problem of Sunday School, I thought I might recommend the Feasting on the Word Sunday School curriculum (, which we are using at our church for ages PreK through adult. It follows the Revised Common Lectionary and in my opinion is great at encouraging questions. (It also has the benefit of allowing parents and kids to study the same passages each week to hopefully encourage further discussion at home.)

  9. Pingback: Brainwashing our Kids with Religion | Dan's (Sur)f Log

  10. Yes! This is the discussion we’ve been having both with and about our kids. It’s not as clear cut as it was for my parents, but they need clear and simple answers. They aren’t old enough for the complex wrestling and intellectual exploration that we are doing. I really like your basic points. We will totally use that. Thank you!

  11. You need to first know the bible well .You need to read it often and study it truth.Then you can have a biblical worldview .This is about looking at the world through how God Word see it . Then you can judge truth from a lie. For we are to judge all things using the Bible.Then and only then can you teach your children .Warning those who fail to teach their children the truth of God word and the reason why we believe.Will one day find their children rejecting truth, because some public school or college teach told ones children it all BS.Your children being not educated in reasoning for the faith will fall ….

  12. Not sure I could agree that I “love and respect every belief SYSTEM.” E.g. I can’t say “I love the belief SYSTEM of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Perhaps it would be better to say we love and respect the PEOPLE in every belief system, and we aren’t afraid to acknowledge that there are good elements in any of the belief systems out there.

    • To be honest Joel, that’s what I meant to type but I accidentally left out the word “everyone” after “love.”

  13. This is exactly how I want to raise my kids in regards to religion when it comes time to even have kids. I also want them to know that if they grow up and decide not to be a Christian, I won’t condemn them for it too.

  14. Pingback: this went thru my mind |

  15. Teaching and indoctrination are 2 very different things. Brainwashing is absolutely not an inherent part of teaching. Additionally, no atheist parent I know (and i know many) is brainwashing their kids to be atheists. Most follow your prescription and want their children to have a rounded comparative religion and critical thinking education so that their best equipped to decide their beliefs for themselves. And most also would want their children to read the whole Bible without having someone else feeding them interpretations, something few Christian have done themselves. The last point I’d make is that teaching unconditional respect for all belief systems is not a good idea as anyone can easily think of belief systems which ought to not warrant respect, such as beliefs that inherently promote intolerance, bigotry, injustice, dishonesty, and selfishness.

    • I suppose we are disagreeing on what words mean but I would argue that taking an “objective” view of religion is always a “subjective” stance. Once we reject one ideology we can only do some from another ideology (as Zizek might say). I would argue that teaching my kids based on a “rounded comparative religion and critical thinking education” is just as much brainwashing/teaching as someone who teaches their kids not to be critical thinkers.

      I am curious about your distinction between teaching and indoctrination and perhaps if we could clarify the language I would agree. But what do you find to be the differences between indoctrination and teaching and what sources/concepts do you use to substantiate your argument?

  16. A beautiful little post, Jared, thanks.

    However, where the hell are the Anglicans!

    And has no one else noticed that the second sentence says that Christians are using atheists to brainwash their kids? It’s like an atheist sponge!

  17. Pingback: “I have talked to several friends who have felt tricked by religion into believing that things are black and white when they are often various shades of gray. They still love Jesus but they don’t want to do that to their children. A very noble goa

  18. Pingback: Blog Rewind | Jared Byas

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