Refuting the “Indoctrination Hypothesis”

Cognitive Scientists of Religion have been working long and hard doing their best to answer questions like, “Why do so many people believe in God?” “What ultimately causes religious belief?” and so on. Scientists in this field propose hypotheses, travel the world testing them, gain empirical confirmation or disconfirmation, and then share their work with other scientists. Very standard scientific work. It’s the kind of work skeptics usually adore.

When it comes to testing hypotheses aimed at explaining religious belief, however, it’s almost as if science doesn’t matter. According to many freethinkers, all we need is a naturalistic account that sounds halfway decent. Forget science!

The Indoctrination Hypothesis

One such scientifically unsupported theory is the Indoctrination Hypothesis (IH). It says that religious belief is ultimately explained by indoctrination. Children, being the most credulous and gullible among us, blindly accept whatever religion their parents and culture brainwashes them to accept. What’s more, it’s claimed that without indoctrination, religious belief would altogether vanish. After all, if no one is there to do the brainwashing, religious belief would just go away!

Here’s atheist philosopher A. C. Grayling saying basically the same thing:

Remember that all this Christian teacher training is aimed at religious brainwashing of the young, not least the very young. Without brainwashing of the young, religion would wither and die of its own absurdity. The religions—all of them—depend crucially on recruitment by capturing the minds of children.

While the version that Grayling articulates is a bit extreme, the Indoctrination Hypothesis more generally does seem to have some initial plausibility. For starters, if IH were true, it would readily explain religious diversity. That is to say, it would explain why people born in America tend to be Christian, why people born in Saudi Arabia tend to be Muslim, and so on. The problem here is that a good explanation of religious diversity doesn’t explain everything; we still want to know how religion got it’s start (more on this below). Despite what little it has going for it, IH faces a number of serious problems.

I mentioned earlier about the scientists working in Cognitive Science of Religion. In his very interesting work Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief, Justin Barrett, an eminent scientist of religion, has the following to say about the Indoctrination Hypothesis:

As initially sensible sounding as the indoctrination hypothesis may be, and though I have had it suggested to me numerous times in informal conversations or in discussion sessions after academic lectures, this hypothesis has received little attention from scholars of religion.

Barrett says–in this quote and throughout the book–that IH isn’t taken very seriously at the academic level. Let’s briefly survey a few of the reasons why.

1) It’s a Caricature.

In his book, Barrett notes, rightly in my view, that the Indoctrination Hypothesis is a caricature of what actually goes on in the home. Thinking back on my own upbringing, “brainwashing” is hardly the term to describe it. I wasn’t threatened with the fires of Hell at every waking moment. My parents didn’t threaten to beat or disown me if I didn’t go to church and say my prayers. Instead what happened is that Christian belief was simply modeled in the home. We went to church, prayed at the dinner table, I was invited to youth group and went to summer camp; Christianity was just — what we did.

There’s still a worry here, however, in that some Christians do experience the fear of unbelief. I remember when I was really young, probably around 5 or 6, I thought I blasphemed the Holy Ghost. The next few days I didn’t get much sleep. I would lie awake at night worried that I was on my way to Hell. Eventually I found the courage to discuss the problem with my Dad. All I said was, “Dad, I think I blasphemed the Holy Ghost.”

I had no idea how he would respond. Was he going to be angry? Would he get hysterical and cry (after all that was the one unpardonable sin!)? Was he going to take me to our pastor for some emergency religious ritual? No. Instead, he laughed. “What??” I thought. I was convinced he would take this admission way more seriously. Noting my seriousness, he explained to me there was no way that I could have actually blasphemed the Holy Ghost. My eschatological worries were put to rest.

This story is anecdotal, but I would imagine many Christians have had similar experiences. Only in a minority of cases do we find the kind of harmful indoctrination needed to make the hypothesis plausible.

2) Indoctrination doesn’t always work.

Secondly, indoctrination doesn’t always work. Try convincing my 2.5 year old daughter that her favorite color isn’t pink; try convincing her that she likes sushi. Good luck! Many of her beliefs, even at a very young age, are nonnegotiable. What this means is that there’s no guarantee the kind of indoctrination required would actually work.

Think of it this way. If atheistic belief were natural, if that’s the way we were wired to think, then it would actually be pretty difficult to brainwash kids into religion (just like it would be difficult to brainwash my daughter into thinking that her favorite color is green instead of pink). Going back to the science, study after study has shown that religious belief is natural and unbelief is unnatural.

If that weren’t enough, indoctrination can, and often does, backfire. Instead of engendering the right kind of belief, religious indoctrination can lead to resentment and bitterness (see here, here, and here). There’s even a name for it: Religious Trauma Syndrome. Consider this quote from Barrett:

Adding to testimony a healthy dose of intimidation does not necessarily make things any better for the would-be indoctrinator. Outside of pre–Geneva Convention military-prison-camp-type brainwashing techniques, such strategies may backfire. Threatening dire consequences of disbelief or otherwise making an idea, such as the nonexistence of God, emotionally charged may mark out the idea as unusual or special, and thereby increase the likelihood of children entertaining it. We simply have no reliable scientific evidence that this kind of indoctrination strategy works well in the course of child rearing.

To take this a step further, let’s say that the “reverse effect” illustrated above occurred in one out of every ten children such that even with indoctrination, 10% of children left the faith. Take some population of people. After a generation, only 90% percent would remain religious. After two generations, 73% would remain religious, 48% after three, 21% after four, and a whopping 4% after five generations. Given this, Barrett concludes, “If childhood indoctrination were the lifeblood of religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam would not last a couple of centuries. Yet here they are.”

3) The Regress Problem.

The third problem I’ll mention is that if everyone was indoctrinated by their parents, there’s still the question of how religion got started in the first place. This is the regress problem. Humans have existed a finite amount of time. So, there’s no way that everyone was indoctrinated by their parents. Somebody had to get the ball rolling. But who? And how? And even more interestingly, why these beliefs and these practices and not others? Indoctrination offers no explanation.

The best responses to these questions will go on to explain religious belief more generally. The same reasons that got religion off the ground continue to engender the kinds of religious beliefs and practices we see today. [1]

4) It’s culturally naive.

Fourthly and lastly, the idea that all religious belief would disappear if children weren’t indoctrinated is ethnocentric and culturally naive. Frederick Barth’s famous study of the Baktaman people, Ritual and Knowledge Among the Baktaman of New Guinea, “carefully describes a set of practices and beliefs that are exclusively the domain of adult males. As males reach certain levels of maturity, they are initiated into the secrets of the tradition in a stepwise fashion. Older men know more than younger men, who know more than adolescent males. Women and children are formally excluded.”

As Barrett notes, in light of the history of religious practices, Christianity’s inclusion of women and children is somewhat of an anomaly. This idea that religious belief would altogether disappear without the indoctrination of the young is culturally naive.

Muh Religious Diversity!

The best the Indoctrination Hypothesis has going for it is in explaining religious diversity. Christians raise Christians. Muslims raise Muslims. Hindus raise Hindus. The reason a Methodist family raises Methodist children is because the parents encultured that specific set of beliefs into their children. Here’s the important claim: if a child were not raised in a Methodist home, it’s unlikely they would grow up Methodist.

Barrett gives an interesting analogy of how our taste in food is similarly tuned up by our parents and culture. Nevertheless, we can’t conclude that if we were raised in a different culture we’d prefer bitter foods over sweet ones or that we’d give up food altogether. It’s more accurate to say that our food preferences, natural and innate, get tuned up by family and culture. Likewise, religious belief, natural and innate, gets tuned up and specified through enculturation.

Importantly, nothing of interest follows from religious diversity. Let’s grant the conditional statement ‘if I weren’t born in a Christian family, I probably wouldn’t have grown up a Christian.’ Fair enough. But what follows? Would it follow that I wouldn’t have any religious beliefs? No, that doesn’t follow. Does it follow that Christianity is false? No, that doesn’t follow. Does it mean that I’m unwarranted in my Christian beliefs? No, that doesn’t follow either.

For an in-depth treatment of the problem of religious diversity and its implications for Christian belief, check out this article.

Concluding Thoughts

In summary, the Indoctrination Hypothesis is a pretty lousy explanation of religious belief. It’s not taken seriously by scholars in the field, the standard way it’s articulated is a caricature of what really goes on in the home, indoctrination doesn’t always work and can backfire, it doesn’t explain the origin of religious belief, and it’s culturally naive. Even at it’s best (providing an explanation of religious diversity), it does very little.

This brings up an interesting point. If IH is not a good hypothesis for religious belief, which it clearly isn’t, some hypothesis has to be correct. Right? Yes! But why think the explanation has to be purely scientific? Why can’t it involve God?

Something to think about.


[1] The standard view in Cognitive Science of Religion is that religious belief is (in large part) the result of hyperactive agency detection. When you’re lying in bed at night and hear a bump in the kitchen, the natural thought that pops up is, “Is someone in the kitchen?” That’s your mind detecting agency even when it isn’t there (hence, being “hyperactive”). For a great talk on the subject, check out this lecture by philosopher Kelly James Clark.

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Brenda von Ahsen

(1) Anecdote is not evidence. (2) Strawman. Indoctrination need only work most of the time. Not every time. (3) Irrelevant. One need not explain the origins of faith to explain its transmission from one generation to the next. (4) Christianity does exclude women. Many denominations still do and of those that do permit women in the clergy it is only a very recent and controversial advance. Children learn the language of their community through indoctrination. It is not a valid criticism to say the theory that children in France learn to speak French from their community is wrong because it… Read more »


Were you indoctrinated into believing blaspheming the Holy Spirit was the only unpardonable sin? I mean didn’t you get that idea from other people claiming that was the case rather than using reason and evidence in order to reach that conclusion?


I thought this was a great article. Belief in God comes natural in my opinion. I didn’t officially become a born-again Christian until I was in my mid-twenties but I had always believed in God. God was never spoke of in my home growing up but no one in my home was an atheist either. My wife and her family were the same way. It seems to me that indoctrination comes in to play when children are exposed to God haters. I don’t know anyone who grew up atheist unless their parents taught them to be.