Were you indoctrinated?

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There’s a difference between being educated and being indoctrinated. According to our old friend John Loftus, the latter is what those brainwashing institutions also known as “Bible Colleges” do. Speaking of his own experience, he says, “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.”

Even if you’ve been to Bible College and you’re pretty sure you got an education and not an indoctrination, be warned: Loftus doubts you. However, there is one place where John is prepared to say that indoctrinating isn’t going on – John Brown University. Over there, students are getting an education. What’s the difference there? What is Dan Lambert at John Brown U doing that counts as an education and stops the class from falling into an indoctrination setting. It’s elementary really:

He is using my book, WIBA [Why I became and Atheist], in several different teaching venues, including college/master’s level classes, and even at an adult study group for a church.

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.

And there are the ingredients: “He is using my book,” as are others, thereby “doing their very best to educate rather than indoctrinate.” We can be sure that this is a real education because as John says, students have to “think through my book.” To top it off, students get a conference call with John Loftus himself.

OK, OK, enough. Yes I’m taking pot shots and no I’m not immune to a bit of cheap self-promotion myself. OK, so now that the scene has been set, describing what a real education looks like (namely, having to read Loftus’s book), why are Bible Colleges being raked over the coals as centres of indoctrination rather than education? What are they doing that is so terrible and different?

Loftus defends his initial claim – that Bible colleges indoctrinate, and that he doubts anyone who claims that their experience was different, by describing his own expreience at great Lakes Christian College as follows:

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.

As I read through this description, two thoughts come to mind: Not true and not relevant.

Why would I think this is not relevant? Well, John doesn’t unpack much of this so I don’t know about any specific instances, but let’s imagine that everything he says here is totally true and applies to every aspect of a Bible college education. Now, consider a parallel:

In my university zoology class, by contrast, I was never asked to read any young earth creationist literature and the books we were required to read were on some sort of unwritten approved list. We read Darwinist books by Dawinist authors, some of which were written by our own university lecturers. 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.

I think any reader would grant that this scenario is true for many students who do go to university to study zoology. Is it indoctrination? Maybe in a way, given that students are going to these classes to be taught the scientific orthodoxy of the day. There’s not much wrong with this. When they’re more qualified themselves then of course they will be better equipped and will be welcome to challenge what other academics say on all sorts of issues. But there doesn’t seem to me to be anything pernicious about what is described here. Now of course, part of learning the scientific orthodoxy will involve learning about disagreements between one Darwinist and another over finer points – and something would be wrong if all such disagreements were eliminated, and only one view was presented on every single issue. But in general, students expect (and pay) to be taught from a particular perspective. So this type of “indoctrination” just isn’t relevant.

If a student were to go to university and study chemistry, we wouldn’t take seriously her complaint that she sat through hours of lectures and was not once encouraged to read the works of those who embrace metallurgy, and that nobody even so much as acknowledged the strength of the argument that you can turn lead into gold. That is just not the perspective one expects to be taught from in a chemistry class. So yes, what one is exposed to there is indoctrination in one limited sense of that word, since certain perspectives are just never presented, but it is frankly irrelevant that indoctrination of that sort goes on.

Surely the same is true of a Bible college to some extent. A Bible College is a Christian college where Christians decide to go to gain a fuller knowledge of the Christian faith. I don’t think I can recall meeting a Christian who ever said “I do not know whether or not Christianity is true, so I will go to Bible College to get a fair hearing of both sides, and then make my mind up.” This is just not the purpose that Bible Colleges serve. People go there for all sorts of reasons: as part of their training to become Christian ministers, missionaries, counsellors, or perhaps (as was the case when I went to Bible College to do my undergrad studies) as a stepping stone towards a higher degree later. Within that setting, I know that the Bible College of New Zealand (now Laidlaw College) gave me an education. Yes, I thought some lecturers were biased, but there was nothing secretive about where they stood. Where issues came up on, say, the authorship or date of a particular book of the Bible, the text-critical issues connected to a given passage or any other issue over which disagreement arose, there was certainly no brushing over alternative perspectives from that of the lecturer, and differing views were permitted to speak for themselves. Of course, they could have said “and there’s this other perspective that the whole Bible is a pile of nonsense so the question we’re trying to address here is moot anyway,” but that would surely have been off topic.

Loftus basically acknowledges this. Someone in the comments section of his blog pointed out that when we study the holocaust, we don’t present and give equal weight to the holocaust denial perspective. Loftus agreed, on the grounds that the subject would be the study of the holocaust, not asking the question of whether it happened at all. Likewise, when wrestling with complex issues of authorship, dating and text criticism of ancient documents, it would be an unwarranted intrusion into the subject to stop and ask what those who think the Bible is pure fantasy and unworthy of our attention would have to say about the question. Instead we focused on the work of biblical scholars. That being said, there are some fairly extreme voices in the field of biblical scholarship who do embrace far out fringe views. Think of the Jesus Seminar or Bart Ehrman. Dr Ehrman hadn’t attained his current celebrity status when I was in Bible College, so it’s understandable that we didn’t consider his perspective, but we certainly were exposed to the voice of liberal scholarship.

So in general, a Bible College – a good one at any rate – will give an education. But what about one narrow part of the curriculum – apologetics classes? Will a Bible College give an education here, or just an indoctrination session? Before I answer that, let me describe an experience I had at University – a good experience for that matter. I was taught meta-ethics in a secular university by a lecturer (Charles Pigden) who regards an error theory of ethics (“nihilism”) to be correct. He told us right at the start of the course 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. The lecturer’s textbook faithfully represented opposing views and was well supported by quotations from proponents of those views.

The issue in deciding whether indoctrination is taking place surely cannot be reduced to the question of whether or not students are required to read through the textbook of everyone that the lecturer disagrees with. The issue seems to me to be simply one of fairness. Are the perspectives of others presented truthfully? Are they given a fair hearing, being presented in their best light? If the point of the class is to evaluate the strength of particular views, are students given the opportunity to offer defences or further criticisms of the view(s) in question? These, surely are the relevant questions. So the question is, is it really true that Bible Colleges never do this? Really? I say that this claim about indoctrination is generally untrue.

The only way for Loftus to make a case that the claim is true is by doing research. Check the curriculum of a decent number of Bible Colleges. Talk to students of their apologetics classes. Find out if what is happening is indoctrination or education. But Loftus has done none of this. Nor does he really need to, because surprisingly, after his sweeping claim that Bible Colleges don’t educate but indoctrinate, Loftus retracts! He says:

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.

It appears to be? So now Bible Colleges do educate, and don’t indoctrinate? Why then the sweeping claim at the outset: “While other believers will protest that their Christian college was different, I wonder if that’s true.” Why say this if in fact he concedes that Evangelical colleges aren’t really like this?

Fortunately, the point can be detected. Basically, the salient claims in the blog post are:

1) Bible Colleges don’t educate, they indoctrinate, and I doubt any claim to the contrary
2) Some colleges use my book.
3) By the way, 1) isn’t really true.

Claim 3) cancels out claim 1). So the point of the blog boils down to:

Some colleges use my book.

Now John. If that’s all you wanted to say, nobody would have held it against you. 😉

Glenn Peoples

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • ZenTiger January 4, 2010, 5:07 pm

    I hope his book doesn’t contain the same sloppy thinking.

  • Anon January 4, 2010, 11:11 pm

    That circling animation has indoctrinated me!

  • John W. Loftus January 5, 2010, 12:07 am

    I’m surprised that you do have an education the way you misrepresent my post. I used anecdotal evidence and was not claiming anything about any other college nor did I say a college must use my particular book. Where are your reading skills?

    I do agree with you though, when you wrote:

    “The issue in deciding whether indoctrination is taking place surely cannot be reduced to the question of whether or not students are required to read through the textbook of everyone that the lecturer disagrees with. The issue seems to me to be simply one of fairness. Are the perspectives of others presented truthfully? Are they given a fair hearing, being presented in their best light? If the point of the class is to evaluate the strength of particular views, are students given the opportunity to offer defences or further criticisms of the view(s) in question? These, surely are the relevant questions. So the question is, is it really true that Bible Colleges never do this?”

    And in the comments of my post I had written:

    “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.

    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.”

  • Dan Lambert January 5, 2010, 5:40 am

    I am the Dan Lambert of whom John writes. I do believe you have missed John’s point, and there is a chance John didn’t really explain himself well, or that you didn’t read carefully enough. From my perspective as a professor at Christian university who wants students to be aware of the various arguments atheists make and how we can evaluate them with intellectual honesty, I believe it is incumbent on me to require my students to read first-hand primary texts written by atheists rather than books about atheists written by Christians. Indoctrination is cramming truth claims into people and interpreting opposing truth claims for them. Education is exposing students to viable alternative viewpoints and helping them learn to discover truth for themselves while explaining why I have reached the conclusions I have. I attended a Bible college and two seminaries, plus I have taught at a Bible college, four seminaries, and a Christian university. I am convinced that most Bible colleges and seminaries do indoctrinate (using my definitions).
    Indoctrination makes us feel good for a short time, until we encounter information, truth claims, or arguments that were not covered. Education equips students to evaluate, research, and think about new information in ways that allow for a lifetime of honest inquiry and dialog.
    If there is a God (and obviously I believe there is), then He created everything that is true (i.e., All truth is God’s truth). If that is the case, then Christians have nothing to fear by engaging in such challenging conversations. John believes I am wrong about God, and I believe he is wrong. My students deserve to be part of that discussion.

  • Glenn January 5, 2010, 2:56 pm

    Greetings Dan. One of the things that I said is that John’s characterisation is not true.

    Perhaps you disagree with my assessment about an irrelevant kind of indoctrination. I think there’s something to it. For example, the education in meta-ethics that I received would count as indoctrination according to John’s initial portrayal, but it certainly didn’t seem that way to me, due to the openness to critique and response. Being presented with a fair presentation of the arguments that atheists use seems to me to be just as good as reading through a set text written by an atheist as part of the course.

    But do you really disagree with my assessment that John’s description of a Bible College education is false? Maybe you do, and maybe you think that actually claiming that John is mistaken misses his point. I don’t see that it does. If John’s description is untrue, and Bible Colleges really do encourage students to grapple with the arguments and writings of unbelievers – as I think they do, and as John basically concedes in the end, then I made two points.

    For my part, I’m fairly sure I didn’t really miss the point.

  • Glenn January 5, 2010, 3:02 pm

    John, I wouldn’t be too quick to take jabs at reading skills when you say things like: “I used anecdotal evidence and was not claiming anything about any other college nor did I say a college must use my particular book.”

    Firstly, you did say something about other colleges. If you recall, you started out saying “While other believers will protest that their Christian college was different, I wonder if that’s true.”

    When you said “their Christian College,” that looks like a clear reference to Colleges other than the one that you went to. So you did comment on other colleges, and it’s no good saying that I have poor reading skills for thinking so.

    Secondly John, I never saiod that you claimed a college must use your book. If anyone’s reading ability is at fault here, it is yours. What I said is that you indicated that some students were getting a good education because they were using your book. In other words, you were treating the study of your book as a sufficient condition, rather than a necessary condition, of a good apologetics education. I also made it clear that I was merely taking a pot shot in saying that.

    So you actually did say what I indicated, and I actually did not make the accusation you now attribute to me.

    It’s commendable that you seemed to tone down your claims in the comments.

  • jonathan robinson January 5, 2010, 4:42 pm

    Loftus is a funny man! Honestly, I could spend all day on his blog. He’s a total time waster.

  • Glenn January 5, 2010, 4:52 pm

    Well wait, I didn’t set out to ridicule John in this blog entry. Yeah, I took a shot at him promoting his own book, but that was meant to be light hearted.

    I suspect it’s fairly common for sceptics to assume that Christian colleges present apologetics unfairly, lopsided and in an unacceptably biased way – indoctrinating and not giving the other side a fair hearing.

    My position is just that this is itself an unfair assessment, as even John started to admit in his blog entry.

  • Kenny January 6, 2010, 6:43 pm

    Science education, as philosophers and sociologists have been pointing out for over half a century now, does involve a great deal of “indoctrination” (in one quite reasonable sense of the word). A little Kuhn anyone?

  • Ilíon January 8, 2010, 7:39 pm

    There’s a difference between being educated and being indoctrinated. According to our old friend John Loftus, the latter is what those brainwashing institutions also known as “Bible Colleges” do.

    Even if you’ve been to Bible College and you’re pretty sure you got an education and not an indoctrination, be warned: Loftus doubts you.

    And that’s OK by me … after all, I gravely doubt the intellectual integrity/honesty of “our old friend John Loftus.”

    Now, I never went to a “Bible College,” but I did attend a “Bible High School” (and, I could have continued for the final two hears, but choose to return to piblic school). And I know for a fact that I received an education in the parochial school. I also know (for I have experienced education) that public schooling frequently serves only, or primarily, as indoctrination, rather than as education.

    Lastly, I know that without the three year respite from the dangers — and I mean danger to life and limb, literally — of the public schools I’d never have finished high school, much less college.

  • Ilíon January 8, 2010, 7:57 pm

    Now, as to my “grave doubts of the intellectual integrity/honesty” of Mr Loftus … in this item you discuss Mr Loftus’ argument that “Bible Colleges” do indoctrination, rather than education. Specifically, you apply his argument itself to a slightly different context — one in which we all know he will reject the conclusion of the argument — and thereby show the argument to be invalid. But, anyone with much experience of Mr Loftus knows that while he might accuse you of having improperly applied his own argument, he will not acknowledge that the argument itself, and his “conclusion” from it, is logically flawed; he will not say, “Oh! I was mistaken, or I reasoned improperly, in asserting that “Bible Colleges” do not educate, but rather indoctrinate.”

    That is … Mr Loftus is a hypocrite in matters intellectual, in matter relating to reason and the application of reason.

  • Ilíon January 8, 2010, 8:00 pm

    “and thereby show the argument to be invalid[, or even absurd].”

  • Joseph February 19, 2010, 5:00 pm

    I cannot believe my eyes about how petty so many of these arguments are in most of these forums!

    Since when have any educational institution ever not dished out a core and/or SUGGESTED Bibliography? Is up to them! It never stops a person thinking for themselves before, during, and after any particular studies. i.e. reading outside the SUGGESTED Bibliography.

    Ok maybe when were all young and stupid we have a lot of influences, but some of us grow up to become mature thinkers.

    I was never suggested to read anything on God/Creation at my public High School – so does that make me a (programmed) atheist?

    I have read (and still reading) books by atheists, agnostic philosophers, Christian theologians, including books from other religions. Basically, unless someone hammers you into a physical closet and forced to read a particular thought, your pretty much free to make up your mind about anything, regardless of education.

    Hypothetically, if one were to read a hundred philosophy papers on why a horse cannot fart, I very much doubt it will change their perception of any previous established and grounded reality.

    So basically, it sounds to me like there is a load of nerdy frustrated people in here that need to get out and enjoy some sunshine! And if your against enjoying life, then I beg you, PLEASE do the world a favour and say hello to your little loaded cold steel of a friend, the Beretta!

    I’m off for a jog, I presume I won’t be back here again wasting my time, so have a “whatever” (because I really don’t care) day!

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