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.

  • Bereft

    Very good piece..

  • chie

    I feel that regardless of what you say, it is brainwashing. I know it’s a call for a higher moral order for people, but a lot of things written in the bible are simply bogus. Christianity like most religions are ideologies sold to people, probably for extortion, control, unity, or for the betterment of human kind. I don’t really care. It’s a tradition and sometimes you have to question the tradition if it’s really necessary. To some I guess it is, but it brings about a sense of bigotry in other people and cause them to be judgmental for those who are doing things that goes against what they have been taught. I was told many times that I’ll go to hell for not eating my food. The religion teaches about how it’s not good to have sex while you’re not married, not commit this, not commit that, etc… Yeah it’s a great deal good cuz it probably stops the spread of diseases but I hate how a whole lot of them use it as an excuse… like “praise to god I won, because he doesn’t believe in god, he’s miserable and unhappy.”

    I’ve been happy and I’m not an atheist. I’m just an agnostic. But I’ve come to realize that no matter how hard you try, you just can’t convince someone out of their beliefs no matter how much proof you give because no one has exactly proven that God exists or God doesn’t.

    As things are unexplainable I believe in a higher being hmn prolly cuz science has yet to explain how the hell I am existing in this world. It takes as much faith to believe there is a god and to believe there is no god.

    It’s just that a lot of religious practices… like wedding ceremonies, asking for money, etc. They all suck and are utterly unnecessary.

  • LBD

    I respectfully disagree. Though I was taught by my parents to question everything and did so for 9 years at religious schools before finally realizing that my faith was gone, I had considered myself a true Christian. So much religious brainwashing happened in those years – it really was to the point that even after being an atheist for years I didn’t realize that sin didn’t exist it was so forced into my being (it’s in every song on the radio, in every sermon, it’s in our whole world vocabulary that it took me years to see how it was a man made idea to control others)… and they taught that you could not be raped in marriage (which took me years to realize was not true)- they taught that women must always submit to a husband- especially sexually. So many screwed up teachings. These were mainstream Christians that brainwashed me as a child in this school even though I KNEW to question and search for myself. I will be lucky if I am half of a normal person in 20 years after all that damage that happened decades ago.

  • Thanks for sharing. There are some pretty horrendous things that you mentioned that would be shameful for anyone – Christian or not – to promote. I’m really sorry to hear of them.

    I think that many ideas and beliefs – religious and otherwise – are often presented as ‘truth’ and passed down to children in an uncritical manner. And for myself I know that my thinking is both the product of what I have thought through and what I have simply absorbed. Our emotions and our reason interpret the world and the messages coming at us and I don’t know of anyone who has scrutinised everything through a purely critical lens. In this way, we have a great responsibility to those around us – and especially parents with children – to be careful and thoughtful with the messages we’re giving out.

    Still, the charge that ‘all’ religion is brainwashing I feel doesn’t hold. Much of it may be labelled this way. But at the core, Christianity doesn’t set itself up in this manner. Jesus offers an invitation, not enforced indoctrination. Jesus offers freedom rather than oppression. Granted, there may be some – or many – who in the name of Jesus push, enforce, dictate beliefs. But I would argue that this is not in line with Jesus’ teachings or actions.

    Thanks again for your input. Much appreciated.

  • Thanks chie. You make some good points. Many religious practices do ‘suck’!

    One point you made – “sometimes you have to question the tradition” is, to a point, something I broadly agree with. Christianity doesn’t ask to be uncritically believed, but rather investigated, and if the evidence is there, asks someone to commit to it.

    The second part of your point said we ought to question religion to see “it it’s really necessary”. I think at would want to change that to, “if it’s true”. I would find it hard to come up with criteria for how “necessary” something like belief in God is. But if God does exist, if he’s true, then it would be proper for me to believe in him!

    Like LBD (in the comments) I think many religious beliefs may be communicated in a manner tending towards ‘brain washing’ but that, I don’t think, means that all do.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • steven edwards

    As a child, my parents had me go to Sunday School, Bible classes and, of course, Church. You all know what they preach and teach. Children are easily influenced. What better age to drill into our heads, their concepts of religion. Look at all the TV preachers and how easily they convince people to send them millions of dollars a year. ALL of them live lavish lives, living off the stupidity of people who “believe”. Look how many have been exposed for what they are. Some have quit. Others have returned, starting their charade again. It’s disgraceful. Look how many millions of people have been killed in wars because of religious beliefs. To me, and this happened many, many years ago, I came to my senses. It’s called reality.

  • Thanks for the comment Steven.

    I think there comes a point where everyone, not matter how they were raised, has to ask what they believe for themselves. I think there are plenty of bad reasons to believe – you mentioned some – but I also think there are plenty of good reasons to believe in God.

    We can reject bad preachers when we see inconsistencies, and it’s a great shame that a good message is tarnished by people. But I guess this is people. All walks of life, all professions have bad people making the whole look bad. But we shouldn’t write off God for being poorly represented as we shouldn’t write off, say, the legal system on account of a corrupt judge.

    The Christian should always be pointing beyond themselves, to God. There’s only ever been one perfect person: Jesus Christ. Christians aren’t perfect, and do make mistakes, but should by their lives point to this perfect person. I’m really sorry to hear of your experience, and hope you meet some better examples!

    On your point about wars caused by religious belief, have you read our Religion v Science article?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  • ItsSecret

    Hm, you explain brainwashing but it isnt brainwashing.. Ok!? This just shows the narrow thinking of religious people.

  • ubishere

    It’s brainwashing, especially when your own parents and their friends, family etc all go along with it, what choice does a 5 -13 yr old child have. I could never truly believe although I wanted to please my parents, it has been the biggest thorn in my life, wondering if eternal damnation awaits me, then I think what type of God would do that and come to my senses that it is all made on the back of mad men and lies.

  • Thanks for your comment, and for sharing your own story. I don’t think it’s right for any child to be feel forced to act a certain way to please their parents, and I’m really sorry to hear that you felt that way.

    I don’t think I can jump straight to ‘all religion is brainwashing’, though, just because a child is young and some things may be beyond the comprehension of a 5-year old (although they are often already quite switched on then!). It could be equally argued that atheism is brain washing, if that position is put upon a child of the same age.

    I think a lot of it comes down to how parents and others communicate their beliefs.

    Christianity is a in essence a relationship. This means that Christian parents will be looking to tell their children about their relationship with God, and invite their children to develop their own relationship. Forcing anyone to believe anything isn’t right. It’s not what God asks of us, and I don’t think it’s the role of any loving parent to force any belief on their child.

    But if the parent believes in God, and understands the reality of the world to include God, they surely feel a duty to pass that information on to their child. To not do that would be cruel.

    I grew up in a Christian family, but ultimately it was upon my own thinking and upon my own relationship with God that I believe. My parents were very helpful in introducing me to God, and I know they also wanted me to believe. But I was allowed to make my own changes (at some points, away from God and which clearly hurt them) and ultimately when I was older I made my own choice to follow God.

    I’d be really happy to share more of my reasons with God with you if you like (some of them I’ve written about in other articles here). Thanks again for commenting. I appreciate that.