Is a Religious Upbringing a Kind of Brainwashing?
There's a fine line between religious instruction and coercion.
This week, an article about my departure from Catholicism was published by Catholic author and commentator Austin Ruse at Catholic World Report. The thrust of the piece was that somehow, fighting the problems in the Church was the thing that led me (and others) out of it. An excerpt:
Skojec explains how he got a very raw deal at the hands of the Legion of Christ and its lay movement Regnum Christi. I have no way of judging his charges. But he was very involved at the same time the Legion founder abused boys, fathered children, and plagiarized. Such a culture can only result in the abuse of the rank and file. Skojec describes psychological abuse; he says he was brainwashed. When he tried to leave, he says the Legion went all Saul Alinksy on him: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy.”
Skojec spent part of this college years at Steubenville as a “Legionary counter agent.” Over the next several years, Skojec was quite obviously and seriously vexed about issues in the Church; sexual abuse by priests, the liturgy, changing of doctrine, Francis, the Bishops, Covid, and much else. He fought like hell. He fought and fought and fought. And then he left.
Long ago, I figured Skojec would leave the Church.
His story reminds me of Rod Dreher’s who spent years looking into the abyss of priest sexual abuse. I have gone on record that Rod was right about all that and I was wrong. But maybe where Rod did go wrong was spending so long looking into the abyss and feeding his anger, which led him to question the theological claims of the Catholic Church. He left for Orthodoxy.
Their stories remind me of Joseph Sciambra, a man I deeply admire. Joe spent years living in the homosexual abyss and came out of it quite damaged. He looked for succor from the same Church he accuses of encouraging his behavior and abetting his abuse. Understand that Joe is the guy who tries to save gay men by going to the most sexually perverse San Francisco festivals wearing a “Jesus Loves Gay Men” tee-shirt and handing out rosaries.
Sciambra tried for years to convince various Churchmen that the Church was allowing the rise of homosexualism in the Church. He pointed to openly homosexual parishes in San Francisco and New York. He tried to convince Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles that Fr. James Martin ought not be featured at the annual education conference in L.A. No one would listen. I think the only Bishop who formally met with him was Cardinal Burke, a meeting that I arranged.
It seems to me that when you set yourself up to fight the institutional Church, you run the risk of walking out the door. Make no mistake, Rod’s fight was just. Joe’s fight was just. I am not sure exactly what Steve’s fight was because it seemed so immense and multi-faceted, but without a doubt, he believes it was just. Even so, when you set yourself up to fight the institutional Church and you never give up, you run the risk of allowing your frustration and anger to lead you right out of the Church.
This is, I think it’s fair to say, an oversimplification of my story. But that’s fine. It’s hard to know whether the things I write about here are reaching the people who seem to be wondering about me. (I know both Rod and Joseph as well, though none of us have ever met in person. I’ve exchanged stories with both, and I’ve done probably four full podcasts with Joseph.)
I left a somewhat lengthy comment on the piece in the hopes of better explaining my departure:
My issue was that I was fighting for the preservation of an illusion. When I realized that's what I was doing -- fighting for something that wasn't even real -- I also realized I was doing it because I had been brainwashed from infancy to see it not just as real, but as the most real thing. I didn't believe in God because Christianity made sense to me. I believed in God because I was told from the youngest age a child can understand anything that I must do so. I understood that to make any other choice was to lead to eternal perdition. I understood, too, that the Church was his instrument and proxy, that her authority was supreme, and that to leave her was unthinkable.
So I didn't think it. Yes, doubts would crop up from time to time, and I'd indulge them a little before ruthlessly suppressing them. "You mustn't think such things." Never question the institution. Never betray the brand.
Of course, the only way to really fight for the thing I was raised to believe in was to safeguard the rules and regulations, the doctrines and the laws. To fight for orthodoxy was to go deeper and deeper into an ever-narrowing spiral of "doing more for God." More reverence. More sacrifice. More observance. The Church was an idol, and her web of legalisms her sacraments.
At some point around 2018, I started realizing that the Church took herself way less seriously than she claimed to want us to take it. That her protestations about never contradicting herself were silly. That some of her dogmas -- like papal infallibility -- were at best useless and likely false. And as the veneer of unassailable authority began to dissolve, as the eschatological gun to my head that was the hell that awaited me if I ever deviated from the True Faith™ started to look a great deal more like a powerful but ultimately irrational manipulation, it fell apart.
I didn't love God. God never showed up in my world of rubrics and reverence. It was a monologue, a soliloquy, a one-way street of worship and admiration directed at a father who never came home, never protected his own children from the things that, if the Church was to be believed, his children were supposed to protect each other from. As heresy and scandal inextricably intertwined with the allegedly divinely-given authority structure of the Church herself -- and history shows this wasn't exactly something new -- I realized that I needed more than the word of a bunch of untrustworthy messengers that the things I was commanded to believe on pain of hell were actually true.
But there is no way of knowing. No way of verifying. God does not speak to me in any way I can perceive, and ignored my many pleas to help me see what I was missing. My "brand" has never really been Catholicism. It's pursuit of truth. And since I can no longer say with sincerity that I believe Catholicism is true, I am unwilling to simply pretend.
My entire religious life was lived out of a sense of fear and obligation. Not love. How can I love someone I don't have any way of knowing is even real, or cares about me whatsoever?
I continue to pursue the answers to the questions of "does God exist" and "what is God like" and "does any religion have him right" because I think those things are very important. But the Catholic Church made clear through her institutional structures that she no longer wishes to be taken seriously, and so, I have obliged her.
And I’ll add this observation from a friend: “Why live to fight another day for an institution that promotes men who don’t believe in it? Why fight for something that its agents don’t even believe in?
You shall know them by their actions.”
I left the same comment on Ruse’s Facebook post of the same article. Someone who read it took issue: "I don’t understand this claim of being 'brainwashed from infancy.’ Is everyone who teaches their faith and says it is true guilty of brainwashing?"
Although I didn’t see it before, I now recognize that when you teach children a religion from a young age, accompanied by the threat that they will be tortured eternally if they deviate from it (or even seriously doubt it), you actually are brainwashing them.
Whether you mean to or not.
By definition, brainwashing is, “a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas.” The way we teach children is literally (and in the original sense of the word) indoctrination, backed by the threat of unrelenting eternal force.
I understand that this method of doing things feels perfectly normal to everyone who grew up in a religious home and remained religious as adults. “If it’s true,” they think, “then I have an obligation to teach them in this manner.” An obligation that carries with it its own heavy penalty for failure. And of course, the Church's catechetical methods and teachings reinforce this. (If you question just how coercive the Church is comfortable being on such matters, spend a little time reading up on the case of Edgardo Mortara - a horrific episode I nevertheless used to feel compelled to defend the Church about.)
“Indoctrination" has a clear a pejorative connotation. But what does it mean? Indoctrination is "the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically." In other words, the term indoctrination exists because it describes Catholic catechesis. Think of rote memorization of doctrines and moral teachings (along with the associated consequences for failing to observe them) as expressed in something like the Baltimore Catechism.
In the definition of indoctrination above, the part about the teaching of beliefs happening in an “uncritical” manner matters. As does the threat of force. Think about it: most Christian parents don’t teach their children a set of religious beliefs and then allow their children to choose whether they believe or wish to observe them. The teaching is accompanied by compulsory participation. As Catholics, for example, we force our children, under our own sense of obligation and sin, to go to Mass, abstain from meat on Fridays, participate in certain prayers and devotions, receive the sacraments regularly, etc. In most cases this is done under threat of both temporal and eternal punishment. It’s how we were raised, and it’s how we tend to raise our kids.
We do it out of love — but we also do it out of fear. We are afraid that if we don’t raise our kids right, they’re going to go to hell. We fear that if we fail to raise them right, God’s going to hold us accountable for that too. We cower in fear of punishment even as we compel by reinforcing that same fear in our kids.
And so, unsurprisingly, by the time our child is grown and free to make his own choices, the fear of extreme negative consequences for doing so have already long-since taken root. While many folks will say, “I do this because I love God,” — and they sincerely may feel this way — there is nevertheless a cultivated, reflexive terror of ever choosing anything that falls outside the scope of the indoctrination, lest hell await. And in no few cases, that “love of God” isn’t actual love at all, even when we don’t consciously realize it. It’s appeasement. It’s a sense that we must love him, or face his wrath. It’s that feeling many of us with angry fathers know well: “I just have to stay on his good side, whatever it takes, so I don’t attract any negative attention.”
I ran on this kind of guilt and fear for a very long time. I had real doubts on multiple occasions over the past couple of decades, but I was terrified of the consequences of entertaining them. I didn’t allow myself to really think it through — and this was reinforced in the confessional when priests who heard me admit my doubts would tell me to simply banish them from my mind without exploring them. It's almost a mantra: stop thinking, just have faith. It's the intellectual equivalent of "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
But it ate at me, because I knew it wasn’t honest. Eventually, I couldn’t hold it together anymore. I had to ask. And it had been building up for so long, even the gentlest probing of these issues unleashed an avalanche.
Once you drop your confirmation bias and actually look at some of these issues objectively — whether doctrines or dogmas, or apparent contradictions in teachings that are never supposed to contradict — it’s pretty easy to see that they don’t all make sense. Arguably, this is why so much effort is spent trying to keep people from ever actually doing that.
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I’ve told the story before, but I was reminded by a dogmatic theologian a couple years ago that to "even to obstinately doubt” a particular dogma I’d been questioning in public “is a damnable sin." Hell is a loaded gun, and it is held to the head of the faithful at every turn.
Rather than encouraging honest questioning and scrutiny of our "eternal truths," we are made to fear even thinking overly much about them.
In a podcast conversation with Jordan Peterson (that I’ve cited here before), physicist Lawrence Krauss said:
The difference between science and religion is, you can recognize later that those assumptions are wrong. That’s the beauty. That’s what, to me, is the distinction between science and religion.
We all make assumptions. I’ve loved the term I’ve often quoted from the X-Files where Fox Mulder says, “I want to believe.” We all want to believe! As a scientist, I want to believe. That’s why we’re all religious. We all want to believe.
The difference is science, eventually, as a technique, allows us to say, “Yeah, but that belief was wrong.” And that’s the beauty. That’s why I like science. It works in that sense. We all have to make some hypothesis, but the willingness to dispense with it — even if it’s central to our being, and that’s what I say to everyone — an education for everyone, if it’s at its best, should comprise one thing: that at some point you find that something that’s central to your being, something you feel that’s central to your existence, you find out to be wrong.
Catholicism sees itself as a divinely-founded and guided religion chock full of immutable divine truths that can not be contradicted. This means never admitting you got it wrong. It’s infuriating. I see theologians trying to explain away harsh doctrines of the past by means of utterly unconvincing arguments about “development of doctrine” or “more nuanced understandings” or the like. But the fact is, there are reversals on fundamental issues, disguised under heaps of mental gymnastics. Admission of actual change in teaching and belief is not permissible. (Space prohibits a digression into examples, but one could explore topics like the exclusivity of salvation to baptized Catholics, the teaching on moral permissibility of burning heretics at the stake, the teaching that the the death penalty is morally licit in principal, the former complete moral prohibition on usury, the pre and post-conciliar teachings on religious liberty, and so on.)
To return to Krauss, I think he makes a really important and under-considered point. Since I announced a year ago that my faith was slipping through my grasp, I've gotten tons of negative pushback from folks who think I shouldn't be talking about such things out loud. There is an overwhelming fear that I will lead people away, not from truth, but the Church. I am, therefore, “playing with hellfire.”
For these people, "truth" and "the Church" are synonymous. But this is begging the question. If the Church really does have the answers, why are so many of the answers she offers unreasonable? Why must one suspend reason and resort to faith to accept them?
I feel the remnants of my brainwashing every day. I feel the fear, the guilt, the worry of having deviated from the "True Faith™" every day. I worry that openly expressing my sincere objections and concerns will bring God's wrath upon me. I worry that I'm being deceived by some preternatural force that is somehow blinding me from seeing higher truth and thus inducing me to be an instrument of the destruction of souls. It doesn't matter how much my intellect screams at me that I've thought this through and that I'm just asking honest questions that really could use some answers, because I’m not going to lie my way through the recitation of a creed I can’t honestly say I believe.
Fear is such a potent and integral part of the human psyche that it is arguably the most easily exploitable emotion. The notion of an eternal hell is the most potent fear-based weapon ever devised. It constitutes an entirely unfalsifiable but also unimaginably horrific threat, the thought of which can coerce even the most intelligent men into doing whatever they must to avoid it, especially if they were convinced of it early enough in childhood that it was allowed to take root before they had the rational capacity to really question it.
The fact that infinite punishment for any number of finite transgressions is obviously and grossly disproportionate and unjust, and thus, disproves the idea of an all-knowing, all-loving, all-merciful God is almost an afterthought. The power of hell over the mind and conscience cannot be overstated.
In his book, That All Shall Be Saved, which I’m currently working my way through, David Bentley Hart does a masterful job of underscoring the absurdity of this idea:
We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. If we were not so stupefied by the hoary and venerable myth that eternal damnation is an essential element of the original Christian message (which, not to spoil later plot developments here, it is not), we would not even waste our time on so preposterous a conjunction. From the perspective of Christian belief, the very notion of a punishment that is not intended ultimately to be remedial is morally dubious (and, I submit, anyone who doubts this has never understood Christian teaching at all); but, even if one believes that Christianity makes room for the condign imposition of purely retributive punishments, it remains the case that a retribution consisting in unending suffering, imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will, must be by any sound definition disproportionate, unjust, and at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty. Again, it should be enough to make ourselves reflect seriously upon what the word “eternity” actually means. Moreover, given that—as I have just argued—no rejection of God on the part of the rational soul is possible apart from some quantum of ignorance and misapprehension and personal damage, we would certainly expect divine justice to express itself in a punishment that is properly educative, and therefore conducive of moral reform. A number of Christian thinkers down the centuries have been sufficiently aware of this, and of the impossibility of striking a plausible balance between finite sin and infinite misery (since the imbalance is, after all, soberly calculated, an infinite one), that they have felt moved to explain the problem away by any number of cunning or desperate devices. The most august of these is the claim that the guilt for any crime must be measured not by the intention of the criminal, but solely by the dignity of the one offended against; and this supposedly explains things adequately, because God is infinite, and infinitely good, and infinitely worthy of obedience and love, and so … well, you can fill in the rest. Then again, why bother? It is nonsense, after all. As before, we are confronted by a claim that no one would seriously entertain for a moment if not for the emotional pressure exerted by the conviction that he or she must believe in an eternal hell that is somehow the work of love and justice, rather than of malice. Any logical definition of penal justice requires a due proportion between (in forensic terms) a mens rea and the actus reus—between, on the one hand, the intentions, knowledge, and powers of the malefactor and, on the other, the objective wickedness of the transgression. Otherwise the very concept of justice has been rendered entirely vacuous. But, of course, absolutely no one could really then fulfill the requirements of a justice that eventuates in eternal damnation, because no one could actually achieve perfect culpability; therefore, such justice is no justice at all.
It is my view that if the faith were truly compelling, if God were truly and obviously good, the carrot would be sufficient without such a barbed and wicked stick. The fact that we must be threatened with unspeakable torments to gain our compliance and silenced when we question is indicative of a serious insufficiency.
Whether this insufficiency is an artifact of a religion that is wholly made up, or one that is merely distorted in its representation of the divine will, I do not feel I have the competence to say. The entire thing hinges on God’s silence. He does not deign to come down and correct any of it. Not his wayward popes and bishops, not their harsh and unreasonable teachings, not an increasingly scandalized and scattered body of the faithful. Logic suggests, then, that he is either indifferent or non-existent. If he cares about souls, it is impossible to imagine him restraining himself from correcting a church that has had a couple thousand years to drift off course. Then again, if he cares about souls, the idea that he would send so many of them to an eternal hell is a non-starter in any case, but especially so when they are often led there by wicked leadership claiming to act in his name.
When it comes to my own children, I have always shied away from making them afraid of God, at least through instruction. Like my own father, I have often alternated between anger and aloofness, so they may, like me, have imputed those characteristics to their own conception of a divine father. It is exceedingly difficult to disambiguate that human relationship from the divine one, especially when religion reinforces the idea that God will almost always be silent but must nevertheless be appeased. When we were sacramentally devout, I would oblige my children to come with us to Mass, or to confession, but not to receive communion or to confess. I believed in leading them to water, not waterboarding them with it. I did not want them to suffer the anxieties and scruples I did. Now that my faith has left me, I’ve been honest with them about it. They’re smart kids. They know. Some of them, now teenagers or tweens, have questions of their own. I’ve told them that it is of critical importance for them to explore these questions and make up their own minds about belief. That if they worship God, they should do so because they believe in him and love him, not because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t. And I’ve told them that I know I could be wrong; that my hurt over the way faith was used to manipulate and control me, the way that it was prioritized above everything else in my life, could be clouding my judgment, and that I don’t want to taint them by my own experience. To the extent that I have any power over such things, I will not allow them to be lazy in their pursuit of truth.
But even were I to have a Damascus moment, I would never brainwash them. The damage this kind of upbringing does down the road is too severe. I should know.
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