Homeschooling: It's not what we do, it's how we live.

Religion: Education vs. Indoctrination

If the topic of religion is a hot topic, then the topic of religion in schools may best be described as nuclear… which is kind of odd to me since it should be a non-topic, what with that whole pesky ‘separation of church and state’ thing that those darn Atheist Americans are so insistent upon.

Depending on which camp you’re in, there is either too much or not enough religion in the school system. Atheists constantly clamor for further reviews of curriculum and push for more science-based texts while creationists complain that atheists are infringing on their rights by saying that science should take precedence over the bible’s version of the beginning.

My interest in this particular topic comes in when you start differentiating between education about religion (more rightly termed ‘religious studies’) versus religious indoctrination – two very different concepts. Obviously as a homeschooling family, whether or not religion is in school is not relevant to my children at this time, but I am interested in the subject, and rightly so, because though we’re homeschooling now and plan to continue, plans have a bad habit of changing without notice.  As a parent who values research and evidence-based information, this is a topic that I keep my eyes and ears on.

I’m addressing it here, in a homeschooling blog, because I think that a lot of people assume that all/most homeschoolers do so for religious reasons, or to secure a religiously themed academic program for their kids. That’s hardly true, but it is a widespread misconception. I think it’s relevant here because the difference between education/study and indoctrination is key and as secular homeschoolers, we’re not indoctrinating our kids into a religion, but we do think that the study of religions and their beliefs as an academic subject is extremely valuable.

‘Religious studies’ is commented on as follows at Wikipedia:

Religious studies is the academic field of multi-disciplinary, secular study of religious beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. It describes, compares, interprets, and explains religion, emphasising systematic, historically based, and cross-cultural perspectives.

While theology attempts to understand the intentions of a supernatural force (such as deities), religious studies tries to study religious behavior and belief from outside any particular religious viewpoint. Religious studies draws upon multiple disciplines and their methodologies including anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and history of religion.

Religious indoctrination is defined and distinguished from education as:

the process of inculcating ideas, attitudes, cognitive strategies or a professional methodology (see doctrine). It is often distinguished from education by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned. As such it is used pejoratively, often in the context of political opinions,theology or religious dogma. Instruction in the basic principles of science, in particular, can not properly be called indoctrination, in the sense that the fundamental principles of science call for critical self-evaluation and skeptical scrutiny of one’s own ideas, a stance outside any doctrine. In practice, however, a certain level of non-rational indoctrination, usually seen as miseducative, is invariably present.

So, to recap, education requires critical thinking skills; to examine the information and evaluate it. Indoctrination discourages such practices.

Now, I know that there are some out there who would read that and dismiss it as a criticism of their religion. Years ago, I would have said that my religion actively encouraged its members to ‘seek out the truth’; to study and ask questions so that you can be sure of your faith. However, looking back now, I can clearly see that even though what was said from the platform was ‘ask and study and seek’, what was unspoken was definitely the opposite. People who asked too many questions were booted. The constant message from the platform was to be ‘sheep-like’, ‘meek’ and to follow the instructions of the church leaders. Your faith and dedication was called into question should you fail to fall in line with what was preached. It was made abundantly clear that you should not ask questions. The spoken message and the unspoken one were contradictory, and yet still allowed the members to ‘feel’ and ‘believe’ that they had the freedom to ask questions (make waves) without consequence. Because they felt that they were encouraged to study the claims presented as truth, they were less likely to do so, based on the false logic that ‘only those with the truth will invite criticism’. This example, to me, illustrates perfectly the difference between the two ideas.

Over the last few weeks as I was putting together this post, I’ve come across a few articles that deal with this subject. One is at There are a couple of articles on children and indoctrination; Forcing Children into Faith is Ethically Objectionable asserts that indoctrinating children without their consent is an ethical violation, and Religions use Cult Indoctrination Techniques discusses the many insidious ways that religions go about indoctrinating their members, especially children.

Religious Education is not Mindless Indoctrination asserts that there is value in having religious knowledge and the study of religion as a human phenomenon, and that the classroom is the logical place to get that information in the hands of small humans.

In short, there is more to teaching religion in school than mindless indoctrination. Religion can – and should – be taught as a sociological phenomenon – and one that is found in every human culture.

No doubt some of the practices that pass for religious education need to be examined. And no doubt some of the practices that pass for religious education in some of our state schools are questionable.

But that should not mean that these classes ought to be scrapped completely. If the education provided in these classes provides balance to different forms of religious expression, allows children to understand the practices of their peers and avoids indoctrinating children into a particular faith, then there should be no more harm in teaching children about religion than there is in teaching them philosophy or history.

I tend to feel like religious study is necessary. I think that as the world gets more inter-connected, having a deeper understanding and familiarity with other cultures and belief systems will go a long way towards peaceful interaction with other people and countries. I don’t think that in today’s world my kids can afford to grow up with a small-town mindset. Thinking globally is more than just a catch phrase, and I think that since so many cultures are indelibly stamped by their religious beliefs and practices, knowing about them can’t do anything but help. My conflict with this last article comes in with the assertion that the school should be doing the educating.

As a parent,  and certainly as a homeschooling parent, I think it’s my job to educate my kids. This extends to religious studies as well – but I can definitely see the potential for some parents to withhold that information from their kids so that they’re properly indoctrinated into the parent’s religion. In such cases, then yes, having religious studies in school would help ensure that the children received at least a cursory introduction to other belief systems. I think that indoctrination goes the opposite way of understanding and respect for other cultures and people. How can you respect and value another person when you’re taught that they’ll be destroyed in fiery judgement because of their heathen beliefs?

In addition, I do think that indoctrination is an ethical violation. I understand the drive to share your faith with your children, but sharing is different from forcing them into it, and that’s what most parents are doing when they say ‘share’. I was raised in a religion where the indoctrination process is profound. It’s something that, like many religions who teach that their is the only way to salvation, is insidious and present in the very language of believers. Even now, I occasionally catch myself referring to the religion or the teachings using their terminology. I was baptized into my parent’s church at 16 – not because I believed the doctrine, but because it was expected of me. That was the next logical step. I was too old to coast along as a child anymore, yet too young to truly be aware of the consequences of what that commitment meant.

As an adult and non-practicing non/former member, any hope of my salvation within that religion is gone, because I have broken, irreparably, the vows I made as a child. Without ever having lived anywhere but in my believer-parents’ home, without ever being in any kind of situation to have my faith tested or even having access to information/education on other religions or cultures (beyond literature published on them BY the church), I chose a life-long commitment with only the indoctrination I received as a child. There’s no way that you can ethically be expected to make the kind of commitment that baptism or dedication requires when you’re not yet an adult. Even many adults don’t know what they’re getting themselves into when they make commitments; to expect a child to make and keep those kinds of vows is nine kinds of unethical.

We refuse to indoctrinate our kids. However, education is an entirely different matter. We want them to have a well-rounded and solid religious education – not to practice any one religion (unless they choose to and until they’re old enough to understand what that means), but to know about religions in general – the people, the cultures, the beliefs, the practices – and how those religions and their members have shaped history and modern science and education. I think that an academic knowledge of religion is necessary to understanding and relating to art and literature, and feel that there is a certain benefit in knowing what ‘you/they’ believe to further clarify what ‘I’ believe.

Since we’re raising our kids without religion, inevitably, there are questions asked and comments made. These are good questions, and often asked out of a sense of true concern. I can respect sincere requests for clarification, but once you take off the ‘god goggles’, it becomes obvious how ridiculous these questions/comments and others like them really are. Some of my favorites:

  • Without God/The Bible/Religion, where do your morals come from?

Our morals come from the same place yours do – unless your position is that you really and honestly require a book to tell you what is right and what is wrong. I would imagine that if you lost your faith right this minute, you’d go the rest of your life without stomping on kittens and robbing banks. Wrong is still wrong and knowing those things come from inside… unless you’re a sociopath.

  • You have to have a foundation in something. If not God, then what? (and other variations on the ‘you have to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything’ theme.)
As research and evidence-oriented parents, we don’t need ‘faith’ to build a foundation on. Our foundations are firmly rooted in reality; in what can be seen and known and reproduced or extrapolated based on known values. I don’t profess to know the origins of the universe, but I am confident that at some point, we won’t ‘require’ faith to explain such things. Just as once upon a time, our ancestors believed that their sacrifices drove the sun across the sky, or made their crops grow, now we have a very clear understanding of how such things work. It’s only a matter of time.
  • What about salvation? Aren’t you afraid for their futures?
And salvation… all I can say about that is that I find it odd that people willingly choose to worship a deity who created mankind with all the inherent personality flaws and propensity for mischief that man has, then punished them for being what he made them. That seems kinda messed up to me.
So what about you… how do you differentiate between education and indoctrination?

One response

  1. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post!

    We’re doing a unit study on world religions in the fall, and my kids are already excited and curious about it. I think it’s important to know ABOUT religions because they affect our culture and politics. But I don’t want to burden my kids with the guilt, superstition, and fear that I grew up with. (And I occasionally feel guilty, superstitious or afraid as I rethink my old beliefs! Old habits die hard!) My kids are never required to agree with me or to accept anything I teach them without thinking it through for themselves. Which is another reason I want them to be familiar with the teachings of other religions.

    Because of the stereotypical ideas about homeschoolers, people assume that we took our kids out of school for religious reasons. Actually, our decision to homeschool had nothing to do with religion. Disruptive students, huge class sizes, emphasis on testing and grades, etc. Religion might the the only factor we didn’t consider!

    June 14, 2011 at 10:43 am

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