When children are taught religion, they are indoctrinated. As parents we can’t explain how the world really works to them–they won’t understand and nobody has the patience–so we happily give them simple skeletons which they can build on, that they can organize the necessarily limited experience and information they stumble across. We hope that the skeletons are elegant and strong enough to gird all the good information our children come across and allow them to create a robust, useful picture of how things are. Of course the problem with indoctrination is that it shuts of lines if inquiry, creating intellectual bias. If the process of education moves people from cocksure confidence to thoughtful uncertainty, indoctrination attempts to stall or abort this process–on a few important areas of thought at least.
Indoctrination is a big issue in our multi-cultural, increasingly divisive, political and ideological climate. At least one writer — David French– contends that Evangelicals’ failure to properly indoctrinate their children is part of the reason they fall short in church growth compared to moromons. Citing the Barna Group’s conclusion that of the 84 million Americans who claim to be Evangelical, only about 19 million actually hold orthodox beliefs, French advocates that Evangelicals must follow the LDS lead in teaching their distinctive beliefs and culture early and well.
But indoctrination is an extremely inflammatory concept. It is almost universally condemned by those who don’t want children to be indoctrinated against their positions. But I don’t think indoctrination can or should have the bad rap given it by fervent opponents of religious indoctrination such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Arguably most childhood education in areas of history and even many areas of science smacks of indoctrination in one form or another.
Given its unavoidable necessity, I have started to take indoctrination of my own children more seriously. My kids are indoctrinated Mormons, their skeletons come from church. They have a surface-level, Sunday-school understanding of the church, salvation, and the righteous life. But because I am no longer what can be fairly called a believing Mormon, I want to temper this indoctrination with indoctrination of my own–one that reflects the understanding I have developed in my spiritual life and education. I am trying to find a way to explain Christianity differently without closing the lines of inquiry that I find critical. I want to add a few limbs to my kids’ conceptual skeletons without making their existing frameworks useless.
So, my project is to develop simple, short, easy-to-understand narratives of important historical events and religious principles- sort of like the Gospel Principles Manual in the LDS Church. Something that can give my children a place to start inquiry based roughly on what I think are proper conclusions about history and the world; a different narrative to expand and allow critical evaluation of the narrative they receive in church.
I thought the history of the Christian church was a good place to start. Mormons believe that the true gospel of Jesus Christ and his authority to act on earth was restored after about 17 centuries of apostasy. To begin to explain this doctrine, they generally indoctrinate people about the history of post-apostolic Christianity with this sort of narrative:
Throughout history, evil people have tried to destroy the work of God. This happened while the Apostles were still alive and supervising the young, growing Church. Some members taught ideas from their old pagan or Jewish beliefs instead of the simple truths taught by Jesus. Some rebelled openly. In addition, there was persecution from outside the Church. Church members were tortured and killed for their beliefs. One by one, the Apostles were killed or otherwise taken from the earth. Because of wickedness and apostasy, the apostolic authority and priesthood keys were also taken from the earth. The organization that Jesus Christ had established no longer existed, and confusion resulted. More and more error crept into Church doctrine, and soon the dissolution of the Church was complete. The period of time when the true Church no longer existed on earth is called the Great Apostasy. Soon pagan beliefs dominated the thinking of those called Christians. The Roman emperor adopted this false Christianity as the state religion. This church was very different from the church Jesus organized. It taught that God was a being without form or substance. These people lost the understanding of God’s love for us. They did not know that we are His children. They did not understand the purpose of life. Many of the ordinances were changed because the priesthood and revelation were no longer on the earth.
(Gospel Principles Manual, Chapter 16: “The Church of Jesus Christ in Former Times”.) Both Mormons and non-Mormons alike find this narrative lacking. Here is my very first attempt at a companion/counter narrative that touches on this and other issues:
Life is difficult and people look to God for meaning, support, and guidance to get through it. There are lots of reasons people want to be close to God (forgiveness, salvation, direction, comfort, etc.) and people explain the way God draws people to him many different ways. Jesus was a man who taught about a particular way to God that he believed was the best or only way to have a lasting relationship with God. Christians are those that believe Jesus on this point at least. Most believe Jesus was some sort of God.
The defining morality of Christianity is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This morality is a revolutionary, not-fully-set-forth way of approaching life and human relationships. Jesus wants people to live by the spirit rather than the letter of moral laws and he wants love to guide people and that other motivations should be subordinate. Christian culture has incorporated all kinds of other systems morality and ethics but these remain the core.
After Jesus was killed, many people who followed him established religious communities centered around his teachings and spirituality. Over time, these communities developed common beliefs and religious literature by writing about Jesus’ life and teachings and considering these writings reliable. The New Testament consists of what were generally considered the most reliable and important religious literature during the first century after Jesus. These religious communities also developed many traditions that guided what was taught, how the church was governed, and how religious literature should be interpreted.
For the first two centuries after the apostles died, Christianity was almost an underground religion, persecuted and made illegal by the government. The bulk of the believers considered themselves the members of a single Christian church operated as a group of independently governed local congregations. Around 250 years after Jesus died, the Roman Empire legalized Christianity and the church. The church became wed to the political power of the empire. About 750 years later this large multi-national split into two churches, the Orthodox church and the Catholic Church. Even today, most Christians are part of these churches.
About 1400 years after the original apostles died, a Reformation of the church was started by a few religious leaders who rejected the authority of most of the traditions of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. They rejected the authority of a priesthood, the sanctity of many traditions of the church, and believed the New Testament alone was the final– if not only– authority on Christianity. They also introduced another new tradition, the idea that people are saved from death and hell by faith in Jesus alone. Because the New Testament leaves many points of theology open for debate, the Protestant churches split into many factions. However, Protestants generally accept the same creeds.
Starting in the 1820s, Joseph Smith taught a form of Christianity that rejected the sanctity most of the important traditions both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions as well as the Protestant tradition the New Testament was the final, authoritative word on Christianity. He taught against the creeds of traditional Christianity and claimed that he had received revelations directly from God that supplement the New Testament. He rejected the older traditions as incomplete or simply incorrect in light of new revelation. Joseph Smith’s teachings were institutionalized by Brigham Young and other leaders of the LDS Church, where most Mormons claim membership.
In the past 200 years Christianity has changed and grown extremely rapidly compared to the first 2000 years of existence. There have been many others, like Joseph Smith, who have embraced the Christian scriptures, but have rejected the previous traditions used to supplement and interpret the scriptures. Jehovah’s Witnesses are an example of this. Christian churches have expanded and developed in the way they and their members approach the world and each other.
Because Mormons, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants all believe in the New Testament, they are most easily defined by the traditions that separate them. The Catholic, Mormon, and Orthodox churches believe their traditions that they the one-and-only church with direct authority from God to operate. Protestants believe in a tradition where people from all kinds of churches can be saved so long as they believe in the most important traditions. Catholics have made efforts to accept Protestants back into their fold because Protestants continue to believe in what are considered the most important traditions. Mormons are very different from most Christians in that they reject all of the historical traditions and focus on the new traditions introduced by Joseph Smith and expanded by other leaders.
There it is,a first cut for your consideration. Because I intend to put my project into practice on my actual children I am very interested in the feedback of other believers on (1) the project of creating such narratives to indoctrinate children, and (2) this particular narrative.