Battle over brainwashing

This story reveals the sickness of religious indoctrination of children in a way even better than do obviously evil entities like the Westboro Batshit Church. Two parents, each of whom presumably believe s/he is well-intentioned, are in this tug-of-war over who gets to indoctrinate the kid. The mother wants Judaism. The father wants Catholicism. The mother managed to get an order barring the father from so much as exposing the daughter to any other religion. Both parents here seem to totally recognize that the kid has no will whatsoever; that she’ll grow up believing in whatever church gets her in her clutches. And this doesn’t seem to bother them — each simply wants it to be his/her own church that gets to do the indoctrinating. Needless to say, I doubt that either parent has stopped and thought about the fact that s/he was also indoctrinated the same way…


17 Responses to “Battle over brainwashing”

  1. Tomer Says:

    Of course they don’t think about the fact they were ‘indoctrinated’ since they just believe they are saving the child’s soul, teaching her the truth and so forth.
    It comes back to the challenge you rightfully raised today, which I think didn’t get the full attention as people were concentrating on other more fundamental lack of clarity, but there is no way of getting out of it in a way that lets you truly say you are tolerant. If toleration includes letting everybody do whatever they please with their children, it’s not a very compelling concept. If it isn’t, you have to draw a line and it’s going to be an arbitrary line, in the sense that it will by definition include your point of view and exclude the other point of view that you are ostensibly tolerating. That maybe just and right, but we can spare the euphemism of toleration.

  2. ben Says:

    The father’s decision to “expose” his daughter to Catholicism hardly amounts to an effort to brainwash her. Indeed, it could simply be an attempt to prevent her from having an artificially constricted view of what’s out there. To you, of course, it’s still too constricted because it involves a different religion. But your characterization of what’s happening is tendentious in the extreme and entirely unsupported by the article you’ve linked. Where, for instance, do you get the idea that the father believes his child will have no will whatsoever, much less that he wants her to be a Catholic? He’s a Catholic, sure, but maybe he wants it at most to be the case that if his daughter isn’t it isn’t because she didn’t have the chance.

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Attributing that belief to the father, I daresay, suggests that he also holds the belief that she wouldn’t “have the chance” to be Catholic if the Catholics don’t get their crack at her while still a child — you might interpret that as precisely my point.

  4. ben Says:

    I think that if she’s not allowed to be exposed to any other religion than Judaism, that would pretty much suffice for her not having a chance to become Catholic. Given how well publicized his taking her to the church was, I read this as simply forcing the issue, making a point, whatever.

    I know you belong to the brand of atheism that holds intra ecclesiam nulla salus, but really, this is a little silly.

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    You’re missing the point completely. The point — the actual point — is that the behavior of both of these parents, as well as parents in these situations generally, amounts to a recognition of the prime importance to religion of getting them young — of getting these ideas into the heads of children before their reasoning capacity develops.

    Without this belief, forbidding her father from exposing her to any other religion than Judaism would certainly not pretty much suffice for her not having a chance to become Catholic — it would simply defer that chance to adulthood. One can only think otherwise if one thinks that religion is something that sets in before reason does. (Sorta like chicken pox, but with more scarring.)

    And then it’s an appalling failure of metacognition to not wonder about the implications of that for one’s own upbringing and current beliefs

  6. Brandon Says:

    It seems to me pretty obvious that there’s a more natural explanation here, which is that the parents are doing what parents often do in such cases, namely, acting selfishly in an attempt to make sure that the child has more in common with themselves than the other parent, regardless of the child’s age. It’s not difficult to find parents doing it with activities, I’ve known people who did it with political differences; it’s thus not at all surprising to find that they do it with religion. At least, it seems a fairly simple application of Ockham’s razor to say that any other explanation needs to be supported by distinctive reasons in the case itself; vindictive sabotage of the other parent’s interaction with the child is a much more plausible interpretation of the case than the possession of a particular educational theory. There’s clearly nothing particularly religious about it; you could have the same scenario between two parents, one of whom is religious and the other of whom wants the child not to be exposed to the first parent’s religion; you could have a closely similar scenario between two parents with political differences; you could have a closely similar scenario between two parents with differences about some ordinary topic of morality that relates to childraising, for instance, whether exposure to nudist life is the most healthy way to raise them.

  7. Phoebe Says:

    I don’t know these people – I just read the Jezebel post on them – but would just add that sometimes when Jews don’t want their kids exposed (beyond what’s inevitable) to Christianity, it’s less about religion (or in your terms, brainwashing) than it is about not wanting the child to grow up feeling it has to be like everyone else. It’s more about a minority-majority message a lot of the time, particularly when it comes to Christmas, but perhaps in some messy divorces as well. So I’d say for many, many Jews, including I’m willing to bet some Jewish atheists, the desire to explicitly raise a kid Jewish so as to raise it non-Christian is basically like not letting the kid watch TV or eat artificially dyed cereals, except with a bit more historical/political significance.

  8. Paul Gowder Says:

    Brandon — interesting. My sense is that these sorts of disputes arise more often about religion than about other aspects of childrearing. But I have little to no evidence for this sense… I’d like to look closer into a political difference case — it would be very interesting to see parents who demand that their child not be exposed to, say, Republicans. I’d be inclined to suggest a similar educational theory in that sort of case — that they recognize and implicitly endorse the brainwashing potential of immersing a child in an environment of like-minded believers.

    (Fair point, Phoebe.)

  9. Phoebe Says:

    Thanks for the parenthetical agreement. I should add that I pointed this out not to say that the woman is justified in her behavior – the whole case sounds pretty messed up – just that the motivation is likely not as relevant to the reason-versus-faith question as you present it in the post/comments.

  10. Justin Martyr Says:

    The umbrella fallacy.

    The obvious rebuttal is always morality. Would Paul raise his children to have ethical beliefs such as ‘murder is wrong’ or ’samesex marriage is morally permissible’? If so, then why is ethical instruction privileged over religious instruction? The second objection is about atheism. Would Paul raise his own children to be atheists? If so, then why is raising children to be atheists permissible but not religious?

    The only way that Paul’s argument can be salvaged if you accept two implicit premises. (1) Arguments for the existence of God (or that the existence of God is a justified basic belief) fail. In fact, they fail so badly that all priors are swamped by the evidence against God. So faith is not even a live option for a rational person. And the second premise: (2) arguments for the existence of moral facts are strong.

    At best Paul’s argument is massively question-begging. At worst it is that technocratic tyranny of people who profess to support liberal ideals but in reality do not.

  11. Paul Gowder Says:

    Hi Justin,

    You’re missing the main issue, which is not about raising children to believe X, but about the affirmation that it’s unsafe to even expose children to beliefs ~X, in virtue of the fact that reason can’t get you to X without special protection from opposing arguments.

    So: yes, had I children (I don’t intend to ever produce any), I would raise them to be atheists. However, I would not object to their being exposed to religions, and I would be confident that atheist arguments could stand on their own — I wouldn’t feel the need to shelter children from any and all religious information the way the religious often feel the need to shelter them from atheist information or information about other religons.

    Likewise, yes, I would tell my children that same sex marriage is morally permissible, but, again, I would not shelter them from arguments on the other side.

    This is the difference between having a meta-belief that one’s beliefs are based on reason, and can stand up to opposition, and the absence of that meta-belief.

  12. Justin Martyr Says:

    Hi Paul,

    Your objection is well-taken, but I don’t think that is applies to this particular case. The two parents agreed to give their child a Jewish upbringing. The father even converted to Judaism so he clearly approved of the arrangement. Then after the divorce he changes he mind a tries to his his child Catholic. I see putting a child in a tug-o-war between two parents as different as fundamentally different than the way you’ve framed it. If someone changed the rules on fundamental issues of childrearing after a divorce, I’d be upset too. I think anyone would.

  13. Justin Martyr Says:

    Likewise, yes, I would tell my children that same sex marriage is morally permissible, but, again, I would not shelter them from arguments on the other side.

    Quick little follow up: I suspect you would apply the principle of charity and discuss what you feel to be the strongest arguments against samesex marriage. But that’s no different than what a Christian like myself would do with arguments for samesex marriage. I don’t conflate that with “exposing my child to secular ethics.” Rather, it would be more like an immunization.

  14. Paul Gowder Says:

    But I guess the question is “why do the parents care so much?” Again trying to model (however imperfectly) how I’d feel if I had a child, had a divorce, and then my partner started taking the kid to church — I’d be upset, sure, because I think religion is a pernicious influence on children. But I wouldn’t be that upset — not upset enough to seek injunctions — because I’d expect that in my time with the kid I could discuss the issues with him/her and make sure that the atheist side gets a hearing.

  15. Paul Gowder Says:

    Hmm… interesting. So what’s the difference between your immunization and “exposing my child to secular ethics?”

  16. Paul Gowder Says:

    Quick little follow-up of my own — I wish more religious people were like you — my objections aren’t so much to people who actually have arguments for their faith, and have struggled with the hard issues — I think you guys are wrong, sometimes stunningly so, but not actually dangerous like those who simply mindlessly accept what they were taught in church as children. I’d be curious how you were raised…

  17. Justin Martyr Says:

    Hi Paul,

    The feeling is mutual! I love libertarian blogs like overcoming bias and I’m delighted to find an equally geeky progressive blog. I do think you should try to post every weekday.

    1. I think your assessment is correct. That is exactly how I hope I would feel if my wife and I got divorced and she changed her religion. But an ugly divorce is different than indoctrination.

    2. I think sending my child to take a class about ethics under the tutelage of someone that I consider to be an epistemic peer would be “exposing my child to secular ethics.” But “here are the basics of utilitarianism, Rawlsian social contract theory, and Dworkin’s refinements, and here is why they don’t work” is immunization. Personally, I suspect both you and I would be comfortable with the exposure route, but most people would not regardless of their beliefs.

    3. I was born in a secular household and grew up reading Gould and Dawkins. I was an atheist until meeting my wife. She led me to the Lord. I suspect that is why I’m one of the few Christians who are not a part of the echo chamber – I had no choice but to leave it because I was already familiar with atheism.

    4. I have to invoke the umbrella fallacy once again. Atheists have many basic beliefs – the world is not the illusion of an evil demon, we all see the color red the same way (barring the colorblind), there are other conscious minds besides our own, that really is a tree outside my window and not a cardboard cutout, samesex marriage is morally permissible, and so one. Few atheists could actually give an evidential argument for any of these propositions, but they all believe them. Why do Christians have a uniquely difficult standard of proof?

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