What is the Difference Between an Education and Indoctrination?

[Written by John W. Loftus] When I went to Bible College I was not educated. I was indoctrinated. While other believers will protest that their Christian college was different, I wonder if that's true. In order to test this let me explain my experience, compare it with what a good education is, and see what you think. Okay?

Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Dr. Dan Lambert of the Evangelical school John Brown University. He is using my book, WIBA, in several different teaching venues, including college/master's level classes, and even at an adult study group for a church. I had written about this before. He's not the only one. My friend Dr. Richard Knopp is using my book in his college/master's level apologetics classes. I had written about this before too.

There are others, so I'm told. I would like to applaud them all for doing their very best to educate rather than indoctrinate their students. Some skeptics may claim they're indoctrinating their students anyway, but this is the best we can expect of them. I don't think the word "indoctrinate" can apply to doing what they're doing, even if they are arguing against me in their classes. Could we really expect them to do differently?

Dan is using my book along with Antony Flew's book There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Quite a contrast isn't it? Maybe he considers me a "Notorious Atheist" too? ;-)

Dan is forcing his students to think through my book. Some of them come from Bible thumping backgrounds and are a bit annoyed by it. At the end of his classes he schedules a conference call with me answering questions from his students. Many of them are a bit nervous about that part of the class because they picture themselves talking to Satan, or something like that. But afterward they realize I'm just a human being and even a bit funny. Most Christians stay inside the conclaves of church circles and never meet or talk with a known atheist. It's eye-opening to them. They can no longer demonize me.

In Bible College, by contrast, I was never asked to read any atheist literature and the books we were required to read were on some sort of unwritten approved list. We read Christian books by Christian authors, some of which were written by our own (non)denominational authors. We were taught what to believe in my undergraduate years. Just coming out of High School we were taught the party line for the most part, or at least the classes I took from the professors there.

At Lincoln Christian Seminary it was different, of course, and I wrote about that experience in my book. But by that time with the indoctrination I received from Great Lakes Christian College I was aligned with my conservative denomination on most points of doctrine, and I was never asked to seriously question my faith.

Great Lakes Christian College is different now as far as I can tell, given that I know some of the newer professors there. But at the time of my education ('73-'77) it was as I say. I wonder if this is changing among undergraduate evangelical colleges? It appears to be.

In any case, both Dan Lambert and Richard Knopp are educators not indoctrinators. Maybe with the recent wave of atheist writers they have been forced to do this, I don't know. What Dan wants to do is introduce his students to the arguments of the atheists so that they won't lose their faith outside of the classroom after they graduate, when they encounter these same arguments. I can't fault him for that.

As I have said before, if a Christian reads through my book and his faith is strengthened then it did him no harm. In fact, it did him good. If however, reading through it destroys his faith, then that faith was not worth having in the first place.

Become educated. If all you ever do is read Christian apologetics books in response to the arguments of atheists like me, then you are not being educated. Here's an example of what I mean. Look at my friend Dr. Norman Geisler's review of my book (the former self-published edition, Why I Rejected Christianity), and what I wrote about his review. There is no comparison between reading his review of my book and reading it yourself, as I've said before.

Again, become educated, not indoctrinated.


As I said in a comment below that I'd like to highlight here:
You can tell when indoctrination is taking place in an educational setting when only one side is continually being presented on a topic of investigation. I remember taking a few classes on several books in the Bible where the professor told us the meaning of the passages rather than first telling us how several other authors interpret that same passage. That's indoctrination.

I see no reason why anyone would ever teach an accredited college class on the topic of whether the Holocaust took place, but if a teacher did decide to teach such a class, then required reading should be from the authors who present that case.

The same thing applies with apologetics classes. It is to be considered indoctrination when no atheist author is used in such a class since the class is arguing against atheism.


Joshua Jung said...

When I was at Moody Bible Institute and started to have some serious doubts, I got really, really mad at the school for the way they went about educating.

It finally hit me that they had made me sign a doctrinal statement at the beginning of my education and that they were going to be making me sign the same doctrinal statement at the end of college or else I would not get my degree.


At that point I realized I had basically specifically paid *to be indoctrinated*. I went in knowing what I believed, was going to be given a ton of information, and I was supposed to come out believing the same thing.

That's not education: that's brainwashing and a form of intellectual blackmail. "You will believe the same things you believed when you first came to school or else you will not graduate!"

What's the point of learning something new if it is never supposed to change the way you think?

How in the world was I supposed to know, before going to school, just how bad the evidence was for Christianity? Instead, they rope you in, make you sign a document at a time when you could not know better, before they give you the information that might change your mind about the document. Then they give you tons of information about the problems with the Bible... then, they make you sign the document again!

It was a regular occurrence for both students and teachers to sign it even if they didn't necessarily agree.

So much for Christian honesty.

Would Jesus sign the doctrinal statement?

Micah said...

So, when one doesn't honestly attend to the other side's argument, one is being indoctrinated, rather than educated?

That doesn't sound right to me. (Perhaps I misinterpreted what you mean. If so, I apologize.)

In school, we never read arguments for antisemitism, racism, etc. We always read why people should be considered equal, but we never were confronted with any serious attempt to attack this ideal. (For the record, I'm not saying that there are good reasons to be antisemitic or racist.)

Does this mean I was indoctrinated with regards to the Holocaust, etc.?

Of course, we never read articles by the Holocaust-deniers, so I guess my believe that the Holocaust was real is a product of indoctrination rather than education.

Was I indoctrinated to believe evolution because my school did not teach the other side?

TheFamDoc24 said...

Hi, I am a graduate of Oklahoma Christian in OKC. I have a couple degrees, a B.S. in Religious Education, and an M.A. in Youth Ministry. I don't say that to brag, just to give you my background. I really appreciate what you say in this post. As I think back to my experience I see that there was lot more indoctrinating than educating. In some aspects, I think that is okay. What I mean is, if you are going to identify with a particular religion (or denomination if sticking within Christianity) then you should know why you are identifying with them. But, I think there is a responsibility for all educators to present all information and allow students to make educated decisions.
I am by no means an atheist, but i have become fascinated lately with this way of thinking. This is not out of a desire to renounce my theism, but out of a desire to understand where you and others are coming from. I am definitely a seeker, and I hope that I can ask questions of you as I continue to read your blog. I am looking for a place where I can ask questions, and learn some things without being ridiculed for my faith. I applaud your blog for appearing to be that kind of "safe place".
First question is an easy one. How may I get ahold of your book?
Looking forward to dialoguing with you and others.

Anonymous said...

Micah, nice Christian name you have.

You can tell when indoctrination is taking place in an educational setting when only one side is continually being presented on a topic of investigation, yes. I remember taking a few classes on several books in the Bible where the professor told us the meaning of the passages rather than first telling us how several other authors interpret that same passage. That's indoctrination.

I see no reason why anyone would teach an accredited college class on the topic of whether the Holocaust took place, but if a teacher did decide to teach such a class, then required reading should be from the authors who present that case.

The same thing applies with apologetics classes. It is to be considered indoctrination when no atheist author is used in such a class since the class is arguing against atheism.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kern, nice to hear from you. Yes, the goal of DC is to be as safe of a place as possible to discuss the issues that divide us.

If you'd like to get my book then follow this link, which offers some recommendations of it. It also has link to Amazon where you can buy it.

Let me know what you think of it.


Matt McCormick said...

Good post, John. I teach one of the only college courses on atheism in the country. And it's received a lot of attention. I frequently get questions that show people are confused about the difference between indoctrination and education. I've come to think of it this way. I put reasoning clearly and intellectual growth first, not ideologies or doctrines. If the reasoning indicates that I should reject an atheist argument then so be it. But honestly acknowledging the weaknesses of arguments for conclusions that I value can be a very difficult challenge. I suspect that people's reluctance to do that is responsible for the majority of the dissonance that we see between atheists and theists in these arguments. Being able to separate yourself from a position and have the humility to see that you were mistaken or reasoning poorly is a virtue that takes years of training. That's what a liberal arts education like you get in a "secular" university is devoted to. Religiously affiliated universities, as John has pointed out, have reversed their priorities. They put doctrine and ideology first and an education that might liberate a person's mind from dogma last.


Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

There is indoctrination, education but also a another aspect which is instinct and intuition. I believe during the course of a human life, we probably receive and process information in all these various ways.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It is still indoctrination if one is studying things about "faith issues". So, there is not much accomplished other than understanding the differences of another's faith claims.

The skeptical position I think is more tenuable, because everything that speaks about the transcendent is above reason anyway, as we cannot observe that realm. We can only observe those that perscribe to religious traditions.

Rob R said...

I was trained to attempt understanding differing view points on two different levels. As they are held and on their best possible terms. Course if I don't demonstrate that, it's not as if I always recieved good grades.

Art Klym said...

I graduated from a Seventh-day Adventist college in 1974. I had a minor in Religion, which meant I took 30 credit hours of classes studying primarily SDA doctrine. Nonetheless, I learned some very valuable approaches and information. It was the first time (and I had spent 6 1/2 years in SDA schools prior to college) that I Iearned the Bible was a collection of very different books written for very different purposes. I was surprised to learn that each book in the Bible had been written for a particular audience and that the audience was not us! We worked to learn the intended message and purpose of each book. Of course, the man and woman in the SDA pew would neither have recognized nor approved what I learned. Most of the Theology/Religion profs had advanced degrees from "worldly" (read non-SDA or secular) colleges. It showed.

Glenn said...

John, you surely cannot think (please tell us you don't!) that Bible Colleges as a rule do not encourage students to read the literature of skeptics and unbelievers when discussing atheism and skepticism. Where would you get such a ridiculous thought?

I'm sure you could locate some that operate this way, but in real life I have yet to actually come across one. Yes, even one. In fact back when I was at Bible College, I took an education paper where we specifically covered the distinction between education and indoctrination and the importance of avoiding the latter. I have a hard time thinking that you actually believe the sentiment that you are expressing here.

What sort of survey have you carried out? You have surely done one, as you actually go so far as to reject in advance the claim of anyone who thinks that their Bible College is different.

What sort of results did you find when you checked this, and how large was your sample? What kinds of questions did you ask? I'd like to look at those, because the conclusion is gibberish to me. I don't even recognise the world you're describing. It isn't even close to being a match to what I have experienced.

PS - what happened to your comment system? For a while I was able to use name/URL, but not anymore for some reason.

David L Rattigan said...

I consider myself very fortunate to have attended a denominational Bible college (in the UK) where I nevertheless received quite a rounded theological education. Part of it was that the college had two degree tracks - Applied Theology and Biblical-Theological Studies. The latter, which I chose, was much more academic, and included modules such as Philosophy of Religion, New Testament Interpretation and Contemporary Theology, in which you couldn't avoid mainstream critical scholarship and the gamut of views, both Christian and non-Christian. (I think those on the other track could easily have completed all their studies without being exposed to more than a token amount of challenging non-evangelical thought.)

Ironically, then, we were given the critical tools that later enabled myself and several of my peers to leave conservative Christianity, or in some cases Christianity altogether.

The academic emphasis was at odds with many of the denomination's leaders and members, who clearly felt that a Christian education should be about giving students the right answers, instead of giving them the ability to think for themselves.

I believe it is less academic nowadays, and I was not surprised when it lost its accreditation with the University of Manchester to become accredited with a less prestigious institution.

TheChristianAtheist said...

I think Micah has a pretty good point. The difference between indoctrination and education has to be a lot more than just "presenting both sides." I would suggest that a further condition for the label of "indoctrination" would have something to do with a lack of skepticism.

One can indeed teach almost any topic (evolution, the Holocaust, Faust) with skepticism, and of course one can teach the very same topics without it. And by skepticism I mean merely questioning, not necessarily doubting to any particular degree.

Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg said...

I believe that if you evangelize or proselytize and you are asking someone from another religion to critically examine their cherished beliefs and you have not done the same with yours, you are acting in an unethical manner.

Flubber said...

I can't speak for other Bible colleges, but I graduated from Bible College in 1998...so, somewhat recently, relatively speaking. And I was definitely indoctrinated rather than educated.

I don't want to inject my whole story into a simple comment (you can find my own de-conversion story on my blog, if you care), but to sum it up, I began to question my faith after becoming educated in science and realizing that I had made decisions on various issues without really educating myself on both sides of the issue first.

In Bible college, part of our "general education" included two science classes: Human Biology and Physical Science. We used very, very old textbooks for these classes and none of them made any mention of evolution whatsoever...not even in Human Biology! As part of Human Biology class, we had to watch a series of videos that supposedly discredited evolutionary theory. The videos said that there was absolutely no evidence for evolutionary theory whatsoever. Because researching anything outside this view was strongly, strongly discouraged, I believed the videos without looking any further. I believed that that was the right thing to do.

When I became educated about evolutionary theory, I remember feeling very betrayed. I had entrusted myself and my education to these professors. I trusted them to tell me the truth. And they lied to me. They hid information from me, showing me only bits and pieces that largely misrepresented the whole. It was very difficult to accept that I had been indoctrinated...and essentially brainwashed.

I have learned to not entrust myself or my mind to anyone. Question everything. Demand evidence for claims before accepting them. And look at the whole picture before making a decision.

MuDdLe said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi Mark, thanks for your clarifications and input. Let me further clarify as well.

What needs to be understood is that if you want to call it education rather than indoctrination then educate don't indoctrinate. If you want to indoctrinate then fine, I guess, since our culture does this all of the time. That's why Christianity dominates in the western world and Buddhism dominates in another part of the world. But the context here has to do with an educational setting. To educate means to inform and force the students to think for themselves about the information presented.

I think you'll agree.

Indoctrination is by degrees, I suppose, since everyone has an opinion. It's just that the goal of education, if it's to be called education, should be to minimize indoctrination as much as humanly possible.

Of course, I must stress that in some college subjects like math and science the goal is to teach these subjects by informing students about them. This is not considered indoctrination because the students can actually work the math and do the experiments for themselves. If the math or the experiments don't produce the proper results then the teacher is not properly informing his students.

In the humanities where there is plenty of disagreement I think there should be a willingness to expose students to other viewpoints and let then come to their own conclusions.

And while some subjects are taught by a professor who wrote a book on the topic and he'll be certain to argue his case, he should still assign required reading of the best that the opposition has to offer, if he intends to educate.

But yes, I agree that one can educate without using an atheist textbook in his class. My contention is that if an apologetics class only uses textbooks by Craig, Moreland or Geisler then I don't see them being fair with the other side.

BTW: I just heard from Dr. Geisler and he too is using my book in his classes, but in what manner he didn't say.

Anonymous said...

For the record: My friend Mark Linville asked that I delete his comment since upon afterthought it might offend some people he didn't want to offend.

Glenn said...

Firstly - Geisler in the same category as Craig? Yikes!

Secondly, I was taught meta-ethics in a secular university by a lecturer who regards an error theory ("nihilism") to be correct. He told us that he thought this. He presented the array of meta-ethical theories and did his best to explain why he thinks they are not true. He actually used his own textbook as the course text. When he got to the error theory, he presented it, defended it and told us that it is true.

And yet, this was not indoctrination. It was an education, and an extremely good one. All biases were confessed up front. Other views were described absolutely fairly and their defences were presented faithfully.

I wonder - had this been a philosophy of religion class and the teaher had been a Christian theist - if you would have called it indoctrination just because Christian theism was being presented as true?