My indoctrination into Christianity was indirect at best. But a lot of other indoctrinations were happening at the same time, and those took much longer to recognize and escape.

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Indoctrination can be a good thing. I was indoctrinated at 17 in a little suburb of Los Angeles by Herr James Bachman. The subject was the German language. Five days a week I sat in a room with my peers as passive recipients of the information he imparted. Herr Bachman taught it, we repeated it, we wrote it down, it’ll be on the test. We were expected to accept what was taught without question.

It was indoctrination, pure and simple—the inculcation of a body of knowledge to be accepted without question or challenge. We even chanted in unison:

Mein, dein, sein ihr sein, unser euer…ihr Ihr!

Mein, dein, sein ihr sein, unser euer…ihr Ihr!

Indoctrination is a good approach to early language education.

If I stood up in class and said, “I’ve been thinking about this, and the first-person possessive pronoun should really be schmein instead of mein“—I’d’ve been aus dem Klassenzimmer gelacht!

Once we’re all indoctrinated into a language, once we’ve all absorbed the same elements and rules, we can walk around inside that system and do wonderful things. Within the circle of speakers of that language, we can communicate with each other because we have an agreement that this means this and that means that. It won’t work as well if we’re all given the freedom to create our own grammars and vocabularies.

Cardiac surgery is another good place for indoctrination. Procedures developed and refined over many years are received by the students. Do this, then this, then this. Don’t do this. That doesn’t mean one of these students won’t question the procedures at some later point and develop a better way. That’s how the field progresses. But first, the indoctrination. I want to know that my heart surgeon was indoctrinated into the best practices of the field first, not that they picked and chose the things that seemed right to them.

Religious indoctrination can have benefits similar to language indoctrination. If we all agree to the assumptions and beliefs and meaning in the system and hand it down intact from one generation to the next, those of us within the circle can more comfortably predict the actions of others in the circle. And we can live as if the universe cares about us and protects us, as if there is ultimate justice. There are real psychological and social benefits to this.

I’m just one of those people who think the benefits are (massively) outweighed by profound detriments. It’s those profound detriments that lead me to oppose religious indoctrination.

I thought of myself as never having been indoctrinated into Christianity. This was not true. My indoctrination was indirect, but no less real for that. Even growing up in a Box-Checking Christian home, I was subject to relentless messaging from the culture at large. Christianity was an unquestioned good, and all good people were Christians. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the only atheist on Earth. My early questioning was treated not so much threatening as a category error, like I had proposed schmein instead of mein.

Eventually I exdoctrinated myself from Christianity. But a lot of other indoctrinations were happening at the same time. Those took much longer to recognize and escape.

My many other indoctrinations

I was also systematically indoctrinated into US nationalism. As a child, I was required to pledge my allegiance to the flag of my nation on a daily basis. I’m not kidding. Nearly every major sporting event in my country includes the requirement to stand and face that same flag as our national song is sung. There’s often a military display along with it, which is only strange if you think about it.

I learned that we fight wars for moral reasons, that our influence on the world is overwhelmingly beneficent, our chief global exports being freedom and democracy, and that everyone else in the world wants to live here because this is The Greatest Country in the World.

For my first 18 years, I don’t think I ever heard it suggested that we fight wars primarily to maintain imperial hegemony and access to resources, that our chief exports are destabilization, exploitation, and environmental rape, or that most people globally are not actually clamoring to join the mashup of Hunger Games, Handmaid’s Tale, Squid Game, 1984, and Mad Max: Fury Road that we’ve got going on over here.

Or anything between the two.

It took a liberal college education to first open me up to the critique, then to convince me that it was largely true. Still, I childishly clung to the “patriotic” label long after it was even slightly descriptive of the contents of my head. I remember the exact moment that false label finally fell away. I was a young college professor, having dinner at the home of a sociologist colleague. In response to some question or comment, I said, “Sure, I’m as patriotic as the next guy.” My colleague scoffed and said, “No you aren’t.”

It instantly hit me that he was right. I just had to hear it out loud. I had no remaining remnant of patriotism but still reflexively clung to the label that had been branded into me, the thing that good people are.

I was also well into an educated adulthood before I began to question capitalism and the “Protestant work ethic.” Both had been presented as obvious goods, dressed up in Horatio Alger’s clothing, complete with bootstraps. Both stood as bulwarks against the obvious evils of socialism and communism. This was perhaps the deepest and simplest of all indoctrinations for Cold War kids: Godless communists want to kill us all, and only the goodness and power of America and the Lord God Almighty could preserve and protect our precious bodily fluids.

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When my son came home in seventh grade and said, “I think I’m a communist,” my Cold War indoctrination nearly flinched me down a flight of stairs. I was in my 40s at this point and knew in great detail what the word meant and didn’t mean, and was far more inclined to socialism and communism myself than to capitalism. He’d learned about political systems at school, you see, and the one that says everyone should get what they need so (in theory) no one goes hungry or homeless sounded good to him.

He had the advantage of learning this without aversion therapy electrodes clipped to his testicles. I, on the other hand, grew up in the 1970s. Before I could actually learn anything about communism, I’d heard it hissed so many times that I couldn’t think about it at all for years. All I could do was flinch as the current went through me.

Atheism was a double flinch, reviled both for its rejection of God and its equation with communism. Even though I’d been a de facto atheist for as long as I could drive, it took years of counter-conditioning to get comfortable with this simple self-description.

I was indoctrinated with toxic stereotypes of gender and sexual orientation and race, implanting internalized bullshit that I’m still unpacking as I approach the grave.

An offshoot of my indirect religious indoctrination was an implicit endorsement of Zionism. I never heard it suggested that the creation of Israel and its subsequent actions might be anything but entirely justified and good. Its origins and identity were so rooted in the horrors of the Holocaust that no one could doubt the rightness of Israel’s every action. Palestinians were obviously just suicidal terrorists arrayed against that unquestioned good. Don’t you watch the news?

Then there were drugs, the subject of a federal war depicting a monolithic horror that threatened to derail my future and turn my brain into breakfast.

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Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD, mushrooms—it was all “drugs,” an undifferentiated threat to my health and happiness. The possibility that any of them might have breakthrough benefits for mental health, not to mention creativity and profound insights into the human condition, or that the war on drugs was largely motivated by social control and institutionalized racism, never reached me. So I grew up with a generalized, avoidant terror of “drugs” that followed me far into adulthood.

This was overlaid on a hash of paranoia in the 70s and 80s that included constant warnings about Satanists, microwave ovens, subliminal advertising, “women’s libbers,” rock lyrics, vegetarians, and the metric system.

So no, I never had to deal with a paralyzing fear of hell. But the rest of these narratives filled the void and kept me from thinking my way out. At recess in elementary school, I visualized Soviet ICBMs streaking across the eastern sky, headed for the blacktop on which I stood. My greatest fear going into middle school was that somebody would slip LSD into my milk. For months I kept the carton closed until I was done eating, then opened it and drank it all at once. How could I think rationally about communism or drugs when they were doing their level best to murder me?

Unlike the German language, these indoctrinations were motivated not by a desire to teach me but to control me. If anything, they wanted to keep me from knowledge.

It’s tempting to just flip the polarity on my indoctrinations, declaring what was once all-good to be all-bad and vice versa, but that replaces one unthinking process with another. So at 60, I find myself engaging the Israel/Palestine conflict and psychedelics and alternative political systems and my own labels with whatever unflinching nuance I can muster.

But thanks to my many indoctrinations, whenever I come across certain words or ideas, I still feel that stupid, distant jolt.

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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