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Does Teaching Religion “Brainwash” Kids?

by Joe HeschmeyerJune 21, 20172 Comments

Is teaching children religion brainwashing? The question was posed at Debate.org, and an astounding 86% of respondents said yes. So why should Christian parents share the Gospel with their children?

The clearest answer to this comes from St. John Paul II’s encyclical on the relationship of faith and reason (fittingly, called Faith and Reason, or Fides et Ratio). The encyclical opens this way:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).

Already, this is a radically different understanding of religion and intellectualism than what a lot of people assume. He’s not saying “watch out for science,” or “come to church, but leave your brain at the door.” He’s not even saying “you don’t need reason anymore, because you’ve got faith.” No, he’s saying that faith is a gift from God, but so is reason, and both faith and reason are given to us to help us to respond to this hunger we all have to know the truth. And in fact, this intellectual hunger is itself a gift from God. Maybe you haven’t noticed this, but man is the only animal that has this yearning to know the truth about God, the universe, and himself. That hunger can be the cause of a lot of unhappiness, when we’re lost and confused. But it’s precisely in working through this hunger in a faithful and reasonable way that we come to know and love God, and learn the deepest truths about who we are.

For purposes of the “brainwashing” question, the most important passage is from paragraph 31 of the encyclical:

Human beings are not made to live alone. They are born into a family and in a family they grow, eventually entering society through their activity. From birth, therefore, they are immersed in traditions which give them not only a language and a cultural formation but also a range of truths in which they believe almost instinctively. Yet personal growth and maturity imply that these same truths can be cast into doubt and evaluated through a process of critical enquiry. It may be that, after this time of transition, these truths are “recovered” as a result of the experience of life or by dint of further reasoning. Nonetheless, there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.

Let’s unpack that a little bit:

  1. “Human beings are not made to live alone.” Nobody enters this world in isolation. You didn’t arrive on Earth fully formed and alone. No, you entered the world as a helpless infant, totally dependant upon everyone around you. A strange amount of the time, we ignore this reality or deny it: we approach topics like abortion or welfare as if we were never radically dependant… or as if we’re still not radically dependant. (If you were left wholly to your own devices, suffice it to say you would have neither the leisure nor the capability to be reading this blog post right now). A lot of the arguments about religious education being “brainwashing” imagine a world in which people enter the world fully competent adults, yet with minds that are a total blank slate, so that they can rationally pick out which things to believe. That’s not the real world, and we should be glad of it. We’re made for one another, and we can’t ignore the role of family and of society in this discussion.
  2. “From birth, therefore, they are immersed in traditions which give them not only a language and a cultural formation but also a range of truths in which they believe almost instinctively.” If you had a child and decided not to teach them how to speak (so that they could choose a language on their own as adults) you would be an awful parent. Likewise, if you avoided teaching your child right and wrong. And it would hardly be an excuse for you to say that other people speak different languages, or have different conceptions of right and wrong. So why should we approach the question of religion any differently? This is particularly true since a full explanation of right and wrong ends up needing some sort of reference to God.
  3. “Yet personal growth and maturity imply that these same truths can be cast into doubt and evaluated through a process of critical enquiry. It may be that, after this time of transition, these truths are “recovered” as a result of the experience of life or by dint of further reasoning.” Look, it’s true that parents can raise their kids with bad theological beliefs, just like they can impart a bad moral code, or teach them bad grammar. But these are a starting place. At some point (whether the grammar, morality, and theology are good or bad) the kid needs to make these his own.

    It’s probably worth mentioning that many of the atheists decrying “brainwashing” are still going through this time of transition. If John Paul II is right, we should expect to see atheism in these times of transition into adulthood. And that’s exactly what we dosee. Amongst atheist adults in America, a full 40% are aged 18-29, and fewer than a quarter are over 50. They tend to be financially-secure unmarried white men who have never finished college, and fewer than a quarter of them are actually parents. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that they can’t have an opinion (I mean, I’m an unmarried millennial, after all), but it is worth pointing out when they’re bloviating on a topic with which they have very little practical experience or knowledge.  And here, I don’t just mean that they aren’t parents. I also mean that they’re still figuring out what they believe.

  4. “Nonetheless, there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification.” In the last point, John Paul II pointed out the value of personally verifying the things you’ve been taught. It helps to make the teachings more fully your own. But he’s quick to point out that you literally cannot do that in all aspects of your life.

    Imagine a group of scientists who demanded that everything be proven and nothing be taken for granted or taken on faith. They would be unable to rely upon the scientific conclusions of anyone who had come before them (after all, who’s to say that they didn’t doctor their research?) and they equally couldn’t rely upon their colleagues. Instead, each of them would be forced to try to individually reinvent the wheel, recreating the whole field from the ground up. And that’s just at work. To grab a bite to eat over lunch, they would find themselves unable to prove that the cashier really did work there, that the food was properly prepared, etc. Such a life would be irrational and even unlivable. Modern life, and indeed, science itself, require that we be able to generally trust the people who came before us. This trust isn’t absolute (there are mistakes, frauds, and miscreants, after all), but we cannot escape believing more than what we have personally verified, and it’s hard to imagine how we even would verify many of the things that we believe.

  5. “This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief.” This is a strong conclusion. The world isn’t divided into theists who live by belief, and atheists who don’t. It’s divided into theists who know that they live by belief, and atheists who live by belief but don’t know it. In this context, religious education is simply teaching one more set of beliefs: an extremely important set of beliefs.

Two final points on teaching Christianity to kids. As Christians, we’re called to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world (Matthew 28:19-20), but in a special way, to teach the next generation about the faith. The Shema Yisrael, the core of Jewish morning and evening prayer, comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-7:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

So you can’t be a faithful Christian (or Jew) and not teach the faith to your children. But it’s more than that. Christianity isn’t just your dad sitting around musing about what the afterlife might or might not be like. The God of the Universe entered history in the Person of Jesus Christ, and He taught, died, and rose from the dead. And Christians don’t just believe in this as as an abstract idea, but have a personal relationship with this same God. So it’s not just speculation on the Christian parents’ part: it’s rationally trusting the expert, the one Person qualified to tell us these things. It’s also sharing the most meaningful relationship you have with your loved ones.

And finally, not teaching your kids still teaches them something. If you really believed Christianity was the most important truth in the world, if you really believed it was the surest way to knowing God and to happiness in this life and eternity in Heaven, you wouldn’t hesitate to share it with the people you loved most (especially those entrusted to your care for formation: your children). Choosing not to share Christianity with them signals that you either don’t care enough about the faith to find it worth sharing, or don’t care enough about your kids to find them worth sharing with. Either way, that’s every bit as much a lesson as a bedside Bible reading.

About the Author

Joe Heschmeyer

Joe Heschmeyer

Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a...

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