Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Religious Indoctrination

I’ve attempted to establish that there's no real proof behind religion or spirituality; but if these concepts are just made up fantasies, why do so many believe in them? How can one convince billions of people, a significant percentage of whom are fairly well educated, to believe in unicorns? For the answer to that question, we can turn to some of the world’s least popular individuals and their use of brainwashing techniques. Hitler’s administration created “Hitler’s Youth,” Mao Tse Tung developed retraining camps for political prisoners (of course, the term political prisoner, in this case, refers to anyone who disagrees with the current administration), and Kim Jong Il has maintained control of half a nation using brainwashing techniques, some of which are based on principles relied upon heavily by those who practice religious indoctrination.

The documentary entitled “Inside North Korea” follows the journey of a medical team permitted to enter North Korea in order to provide care for victims of the ocular disease, glaucoma. At one point, the team finds themselves in the home of a family. A blind elderly woman is asked what she misses most about being able to see. Her son says, “The most difficult thing for my mother-in-law is not seeing Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.” When asked why, she chokes out through tears, “My Children and I live happily due to the honor of our Great Leader, so I want to see him, even a glimpse of him, so I can thank him.” This goes far beyond admiration and crosses into fanaticism. It is irrational that she should have such passionate love for a man she has likely never met, who has stolen her rights and freedom of choice, who has isolated her, her family, her community, her very nation, controlling not only their actions, but how they are permitted to think. Yet, the devotion on her face seems genuine, just as it does on the faces of her family when they join her in tears.

How is this possible? I’m no expert, but I've been exposed not only to the theory behind indoctrination and brainwashing, but also to its overt practice during my time in Basic Training. Here, let me state that I do not condemn the methods I witnessed during my four years in the military, because they're a means to a very important end, which is to defend a nation against those who would do it harm, and at this time, participants are volunteers; but it was fascinating to observe the techniques used and their effects on my mind and the minds of those around me. I witnessed individuals transformed in a matter of weeks, some of whom confessed later that they had led a life of crime prior to their military service. That transformation carried on into the rest of their careers. These were people who actively fought against authority figures in their lives, only to willingly, at times even gratefully submit themselves to their superiors by the end of their training. As a result of my experience, I feel that I can identify these three attributes of a successful, drug free religious indoctrination: fear, isolation, and repetition.

Fear is necessary, because individuals usually will not willingly participate in the process if there is no fear of reprisal should they choose to rebel. Obedience is paramount, as the most effective forms of indoctrination require participants to take an active role by listening, absorbing, reiterating, and often physically carrying out symbolic behavior. Fear also keeps the mind under constant stress, which tires it and promises relief if the participant can show his or her captors that the process has been completed.
Religion employs fear using baseless threats about the afterlife, as well as the subtle promise of social excommunication. In more extreme cases, parents might use the threat of physical pain on their children as a way of enforcing behaviors and thought processes that are based only on their religion. Don't get me wrong; fear of natural consequences is essential to a child's development. Unfortunately, many devout parents simply aren’t satisfied until their children are behaving in accordance with their rulebook. This is often encouraged by spiritual manuals such as the Bible and Quran, as well as religious leaders.

The idea of the afterlife, specifically in regards to heaven and hell, has been used to instill belief by using fear as a motivator for millennia. Without consequences in the afterlife, people would be left looking to real world consequences, which would leave religious institutions powerless, no matter how large their congregations became or how many people swallowed their messages. However, an afterlife not only offers comfort to those who have lost loved ones, as well as hope to those struggling with their own mortality; it provides an opportunity to motivate using a system based on reward and punishment. Most religions do very well capitalizing on the punishment side of the equation. Even those that endorse reincarnation assure followers that they will be reincarnated in undesirable forms if they stray from certain standards.

The sister religions of Christianity and Islam take the punishment further. Much like the “infinity plus one” argument, they invented a punishment so horrible that it is truly mind bending: hell. Throughout history, hell has evolved into a place where people burn eternally with a fire that can’t be put out. Since the sensation of burning is possibly the most painful one imaginable, this can create an intense level of fear in believers. Some religious sects and denominations try to combat this reliance on fear by suggesting that belief alone is necessary for salvation. However, these interpretations usually claim that actions are determined by belief, and therefore people still need to behave a certain way in order to avoid hell.

One of the most extreme cases of fear being used for the purpose of religious indoctrination can be found in Sharia, or Islamic state law, wherein all individuals within a nation’s borders are under constant threat of harsh abuse if they choose to live in a way unbecoming to Islam. It appears as if the more intrusive a worldview becomes, the more intense the fear tactics must be to keep people in a state of subservience.

Isolation removes participants from the influence of truth. It's interesting to note that every totalitarian government relies on censorship to some degree. China and North Korea are modern examples of this, although China seems to have loosened its grip over the years, perhaps because the current administration has found it impossible to compete economically without exposing citizens to modern thought through education and limited access to the internet. North Korea, however, still refuses to give its citizens internet access, and its borders remain closed to any and all outside influences. This gives the controllers of the brainwashing process exclusive sway over the thoughts of participants. Even the simplest idea that originates from an external source can form into a dangerous question, such as, “If we’re supposed to be the greatest nation on earth, why are so many people without enough food, and why is disease so rampant?” Questions then tend to germinate and develop into full blown theories that inspire action if left unchecked.

Finally, repetition is key. Truth is much easier to believe than a lie, because our brains are naturally programmed to value reason, so indoctrination usually requires some amount of upkeep. In religion, we note that people gather together, usually at least once a week, to affirm one another’s beliefs. They often take part in ritualistic behavior, such as prayer and worship, which can be manifested physically through such vehicles as song, raised hands, and kneeling. Of course, the behavior itself is meaningless, but the process of indoctrination benefits from its symbolic nature. The act of kneeling, which means nothing when someone is merely attempting to get a better vantage point to, say, fix a tire, represents something beyond itself when it takes place in religious ceremony, such as submission to a god. Singing songs that affirm church doctrine is another form of repetition. Those whose beliefs are rational and natural need not be constantly reminded of them to continue believing in them, but those whose beliefs are irrational, unnatural, and have been absorbed into the mind by indoctrination must constantly be maintained through Sunday school, Bible study, church, Youth Group, Bible classes in private schools, prayer meetings, and the like (all of which I was subjected to during my developmental years, and even throughout my college experience), lest the repressed conflict created by continuous cognitive dissonance rise from the unconscious to the surface.

In the military, I recall having to stop whatever I was doing outside and stand at attention, saluting the base flag every time the national anthem played over the loud speakers. Service members who were not in uniform stood at parade rest while they, too, faced the flag. This would often create a base-wide living statue effect for people who were on their way to their vehicles, coming and going from the grocery store, or simply out for a stroll. While I stood there, willingly participating in patriotic indoctrination, I couldn’t help but note the similarity between our behavior and the citizens of Islamic Sharia nations, while their prayers were pumped through their own loud speakers.

These same methods of repetition are not just used for maintaining indoctrinated beliefs, but also for creating them. As a river becomes polluted over time when waste is pumped into it, so the mind tends to slowly conform to the beliefs surrounding it when kept in fear and isolation. For children, who are already eager to imitate their parents and absorb new material far more readily than adults, this process is swifter and more deeply impactful, as newly indoctrinated values need not struggle against preconceived notions. A child who is taught religious principles with the same level of certainty as a school subject is likely to build an entire worldview based on them, just as the extraordinarily complex worlds of math and science are built on basic principles. Furthermore, children become accustomed to the cognitive dissonance created by conflicting truths, such as the scientific process and carbon dating, as opposed to faith and the seven day creation myth. Why shouldn’t they? If they have known nothing else, they have no way of knowing what clarity feels like.

The combination of faith and indoctrination in some form or another is found in all major world religions that have stood the test of time, including, but not limited to, Evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This shouldn’t be surprising, as these are the most effective methods for controlling large groups of people, having been implemented by dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Kim Jong-Il. It's simply a question of survival of the fittest; any religion that didn't indoctrinate its followers couldn't have outlasted the advent of modern science and philosophy. The shrewdness of successful religions is, once begun, they're self-sustaining. They contain all of the elements necessary to maintain control over their own populations, so even without a malicious dictator or oligarchy, they continue to thrive. There's no one to blame, as those in power truly believe what they teach. It's the system itself that enslaves.