All Religion is Brainwashing

This blog contains (Jesus loves you) a hidden message.

One of the major assaults on Christianity from the heated world of the internet is that, along with all the other religions, it is set up to brainwash people (usually young, vulnerable people) into the unquestioning belief that our particular institutional power system is true, morally right, superior etc.

So, is all religion brainwashing?

First of all, I think we must concede that there are forms of ‘religion’ that are set up to control, to extort money, where thinking for yourself is discouraged, where dutiful mechanical behaviour is valued above individual expression. Now, part of the response to the challenge ‘All Religion is Brainwashing’ is to say that, as Christians, we don’t argue for ‘religion’.

Christians don’t think all religions are basically the same, or that ‘religion’ in a general sense is true. So what other religions do is no concern of ours, and we don’t have to defend them – in the same way that Per Mertesacker doesn’t have to pick up a man when Chelsea concede a corner (For non-football fans or Americans, Mertesacker plays for Arsenal…which is a football team).

However, whether we want to admit it or not, forms of brainwashing also occur within mainstream Christianity – and not just on the cultic fringes. I found the article ‘Cult of Confession’ quite helpful on this.

As Christians, where we see other Christians trying to control or manipulate, we need to challenge it and stamp it out. It is not acceptable for the body of christ to self-harm in this way.


Well, here’s the thing: an institution that churns out generations of non-thinking moralists; a church that demands money; a spiritual leader who coerces or uses emotional mind games…NONE of this is what Jesus taught or was about. NONE of this is The Gospel, and it has no place here.

But isn’t it still the case that bringing up kids to be Christians is brainwashing them, and stops them making up their own minds?


Why? Because Christianity isn’t the assent to a propositional truth. It isn’t the agreement with a statement about how the world is. It isn’t the maintaining of a set of moral rules to live by. It just isn’t. If you disagree, fine, but you’re wrong.

Being a Christian is not just something you think, or do, or believe. It’s something you are. It’s something you have freely chosen to be. And it happens by freely inviting God’s spirit into your heart, by welcoming into your life the greatest love in the universe. You cannot be brainwashed into love. Forced love isn’t love at all – it’s emotional rape.

I wasn’t raised a Christian, because I don’t think you can be. Until you make that personal free choice about Jesus, you can’t say you were a Christian.

I chose Jesus at 22, but although my parents were both Christians, I could never accuse them of brainwashing. All I ever saw from them was love of people and stories of God’s goodness. They let me make up my own mind, but they never hid the stuff that God was doing in their lives – that would have been dishonest.

I was eventually won over, convinced, but never brainwashed (although I admit that’s exactly the sort of thing someone who’s been brainwashed might say – only in more of a drone).

I wonder whether some people grab for the word brainwashing out of despair, particularly when they know seemingly well-adjusted Christians. ‘Here is a clever, lovely person who believes something that seems so ridiculous to me. They would never have reached those fairytale conclusions on their own, so there must surely be something insidious at work behind it – a sort of religious Kaiser Soze.’

We never want to be threatened or challenged by something we believe is wrong, so a technique that we all use is reductio ad absurdum. If you ridicule something and talk of it in terms that you find alien/offensive, you never have to be challenged by it. (Another technique I sometimes use is ‘Accio car keys’, but it never works. Stupid Harry Potter).

Finally, what we need to be aware of is that every worldview is passed down to you from someone else. You are not the first person to think as you do. You didn’t pluck it out of thin air. You are not, sadly, an original thinker. Tell me this – where did you get the idea that religion is brainwashing? Who caused you to think like that? What if you were brainwashed into thinking that?

Are we free from brainwashing in our society? Do we support wars that turn out to be erroneous? Do we think it’s ok to surround ourselves with luxuries at the expense of the people whose country the raw materials came from? Do we think we should have what we want, or that our own personal happiness is the chief aim of life? Are these things just brute facts, or have we been fed them so many times that we’ve started to accept them as truth?

Furthermore, what’s the difference between a family who tells their children that God exists and should be worshipped, and a family who tells their children that there is no God and the universe has no meaning? That sounds like a joke set-up, but it’s not supposed to. Isn’t it just as easy/apt to accuse secular/atheist parents of brainwashing their children as it is for Christians to be accused?

And you might say, as an atheist, ‘We want them to make up their own minds,’ which is great – so do I – but do you really make it that open-ended? Do you teach them that it might be true that Jesus is their Saviour? Really?

You might also say ‘Ah, yes, well, but the difference is that what we believe is true!’ In which case, the questions isn’t really ‘Is All Religion Brainwashing?’ but, simply, ‘What is True?’

I confess, I am going to bring up my kids telling them that God loves them, that because of that they should love others, and that in Jesus they can and will find life in all its fullness. Because I believe that. I believe it because I’ve met the guy – I trust Him with my life, and with theirs. Deal with it.