April 6, 2007

'Jesus Camp' and the art of brainwashing children

I recently picked up the DVD of Jesus Camp and I let it sit on the shelf for a couple of weeks. I was reluctant to watch it because I knew how upset it would make me. Well, I finally watched it, and let's just say that it didn't disappoint.

A lot of what I saw in Jesus Camp was expected, such as the ideologically far-right evangelical bent and the insane close-mindedness. But what I didn't expect was the sophistication of evangelical proselytizing techniques. Even more disturbing is how American evangelicals are using these strategies to brainwash their very own children.

These kids don't have a chance.

Far right theocratic ideology

American evangelicals are quite clearly situated at the extreme right of U.S. politics. They are polarized so right of center that their outlook is nothing less than ideological. They have framed the world in such a way that they only perceive things in black and white: there are the true believers and then there's everybody else. As one parent noted in the documentary, "We believe that there's two kinds of people in this world: people who love Jesus and people who don't."

The paranoia and sense of fanatical mission is palpable throughout Jesus Camp. The struggle to spread the Good Word has escalated beyond door-to-door evangelizing. The spread of liberalism and scientific naturalism in the U.S. has forced evangelicals to take it to the next level. They've declared war against their enemies and assumed ownership of the United States; they are working to reclaim what they see as God's country.

The language is not merely rhetorical. “This means war!" shouts an evangelical teacher to her young students, "Are you a part of it or not?” A cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush looks on. The allegiance to the Republican Party is assumed and undeniable, and for this the evangelicals make no apologies.

And it's not merely a battle for political power -- it's a culture war in which ideas themselves are under attack. Evangelical children are recruited into this struggle at a tender and suggestible age.

They are shown expertly produced and highly entertaining videos that mock evolutionary biology and laud creationism. "Do you really think we come from goo?" asks the man in the video, his hand covered in green slime. The children laugh at the absurdity of the suggestion. The word 'science' is bantered around like a pejorative.

In one scene a boy named Levi is shown at home being schooled by his mother. She asks, "Did you get to the part yet where they say that science hasn't proven anything?" She then turns his attention to global warming. If it's something that scientists have informed us about, like 'evolution,' then the evangelicals feel that something fishy must be going on. Climate change is dismissed out of hand. Silly scientists, what do they know?

Expert evangelical techniques

Ironically, evangelical parents and teachers are unknowingly applying memetic and neurolinguistic techniques in their practice. They teach their children to frame the world in a very specific way -- and they do it in such a way that they become 'locked-in' to that frame.

They teach and reinforce complete submission to God and are told that people are nothing more than vessels. As a result, children learn to see themselves as tools rather than free thinking agents. They are taught that independent and 'out of the box' thinking is deviant behavior and a sign of evil or weakness.

They are also taught how to identify those ideas that could subvert God's mission and how to deal with those contingencies. Children are instructed to recognize aspects of the world in one of two ways: it is either pure and righteous, or dirty and defiled. The idea that certain things are unclean and impure are anchored into their psyche. In one scene children are given an opportunity to cleanse themselves as the teacher pours bottled water over their hands. The look of desperation on the children's faces as they wait their turn is disturbing. Evangelicals have mastered the art of teaching shame.

It should come as no surprise that fundamentalist Muslims use similar lock-in techniques. This is an example of convergent memetics -- a similar phenomenon to what's often seen in evolution when different species acquire the same trait independently. Religions, particularly those with an evangelical focus, have independently acquired and refined those tactics which ensure practitioner lock-in and a desire to spread and defend the memeplex.

This is why fundamentalist religions are so hard to escape from psychologically. The mind has been programmed to respond to certain stimuli in a preconceived way and to perceive that response as a guide to action. Moreover, the desire to transcend the programming has been subverted by feelings of guilt, shame, or uncleanliness. At a deeper level, doubt or independent thinking is rationalized as the work of an outside force, namely the devil or non-believers.

As an interesting aside, when asked how they can justify the proselytizing of their children in this way, the evangelicals counter by claiming that the Muslims are doing it as well. The difference as they see it is that they have the true word of God, and it is better to get to their children before someone else does -- namely the enemy. As Camp organizer Becky Fischer noted:
"It's no wonder, with that kind of intense training and discipling, that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have... excuse me, but we have the truth!"
Child abuse in the name of God

Children are also taught how to deal with non-evangelicals, particularly if they are teased or rejected by them. They talk about how non-believers build walls around themselves and how they refuse to be happy or fulfilled. Children are encouraged to 'help' these people by proselytizing. They learn how to do cold approaches and are given opening scripts. They apply field tested techniques to help in the interaction and offer the target some literature.

At the Jesus Camp itself, the organizers recruit a series of expert speakers. These are presenters and teachers who excel at interacting with children. They know how to reach out to kids, maintain their interest, impart information, and keep them entertained.

And they do this extraordinarily well. Too well.

Children are treated as puppets to be manipulated and are frequently brought to tears. There are more scenes of kids crying in Jesus Camp than I care to mention. Speaker after speaker reinforce different points, and you can practically hear the doors of cognition slamming shut in the minds of the children. In turn, when the children actually speak and articulate their thoughts they sound as if they're channeling adults.

In one scene Levi says, "At five I got saved...because I just wanted more of life."

Say what? Now, what five year old feels he needs "more of life." I'm sorry, but five year olds do not talk or think in this way. This is a sad case of children regurgitating scripts fed to them by their parents and instructors.

Indeed, the evangelicals know exactly what they're doing and they're consciously going about the business of not just conversion but of refining their techniques as well. "I can go into a playground of kids that don't know anything about Christianity," says Fisher, "lead them to the Lord in a matter of, just no time at all, and just moments later they can be seeing visions and hearing the voice of God, because they're so open. They are so usable in Christianity."

Outspoken religious critic Richard Dawkins has a term to describe these types of individuals: child abusers. He believes that teaching religion to children is a form of abuse because they have not yet developed the psychological faculties to defend themselves against proselytization.

The trouble is, moderates and liberals cannot and will not struggle against evangelicals with equal fervor. Moderates are, well, too moderate. Moreover, the damage inflicted by ideas is much more difficult to ascertain than something like physical abuse. At the same time, religious and free speech rights are held with high esteem.

The answer, it would seem, is elusive. A good place to start, however, would be to ensure that each and every child receives a liberal and diverse education. Children deserve at least this much.

What happens at home may be beyond the purview of the state, but at least they can be given a chance at school.


Anonymous said...

I was exposed to this same type of fundamentalist brainwashing when I was a child during the 70's. However adolescence happened, I started to think for myself and realized none of what I was told made any sense.
Needless to say I did not make my parents very happy when I declared myself an atheist when I was 14. I never regretted it.

Anonymous said...

In the same vein, and perhaps even more extreme, is the story of the Phelps family of Kansas and their Westboro Baptist Church which Louis Theroux captured very well in his BBC2 documentary The Most Hated Family In America.
Video clip here

Anonymous said...

I also wanted to add that there is a new social network for transhumanists at transhumanists.org. Sorry if this seems like comment spam.

Anonymous said...

I cannot stress how much I think these people are going to be among the most dangerous people to the future in the coming years, and nothing short of a radical counter-movement will be needed to secure the future from their grips. These people are not rednecks; these kids are going to become bright doctors, lawyers, engineers and politicians. The mental faculties of the human brain work independently to a large degree, and the virus of religious dogma can develop unperturbed inside an otherwise brilliant mind.

I myself have escaped this fate, but I'm still considerably neck deep in these people's circles, and it's nothing less than an orgy of self-delusion and ignorance. The biggest problem with them is that they are all deeply well-meaning at heart, even with their twisted mentality of the world. This movement needs to be curtailed at all costs otherwise we could lose the future to their ultimately suicidal cause, because it's evolving into the perfect neural parasite.

Anonymous said...

Neuro-cogntive memetic parasitism…indeed. And, given a commitment to the cardinal principle of free thought and free expression---what to do? I concur that such radical, delusional, hyper-unsophisticated and –unenlightened meme-propagations should be stopped. But of course we can’t do this coercively. Aside from being inherent wrong (unethical), from a pragmatic viewpoint, it would be self-stulltifying in that it would “prove” to the evangelicals that, sure enough, “those” secular-humanists, free-thinkers, and atheists are evil. As much as Dawkins himself disdains conversing—much less debating—with these tragic bumpkins, I would think this may be the best route to winning the (intellectual/memetic) day, at least in the long-run. The problem is, if they attain power, there may not be a (viable, reasonable, transhumanist) long-run. But not only do I concur that religious indoctrination IS indeed child-abuse, I think a fairly good case can indeed be made for that. Education should be such as to enable and enhance the inherent cognitive faculties of a child. To bring them, as it were, “up to speed” cognitively/intellectually so that they may critically examine whatever ideas, concepts, notions, etc. may come their way. To stunt, to truncate that cognitive development, again, is, it seems to me, obviously, child-abuse and should be encoded and treated legally as such. One may teach the Bible, but as (purported) history and mythology, not as divinely-inspired. And, along with such a teaching, would go a more secular teaching. Once the children are sufficiently developed neuro-cognitively, then by all means let them delve into the pros-&-cons and esoterica of metaphysics, science, spirituality, etc., and make up their own minds (though in saying this here, I presume I’m preaching to fellow-Choir members…!).

Nato said...

Having recently spent several years in the US Army, my opportunities (inevitabilities?)for extended interaction with evangelicals (mostly Christian, but plenty of otherwise) have been many. This experience has convinced me that neither stridently radical action nor relentless logical refutation works best. Certainly there must be some action, to prevent ourselves from being silenced, and there must be logical refutation of - and alternatives to - the critically damaging portions of their belief systems, but these never seem to change peoples' minds. The only thing that really seems to bring people out of the hole is demonstrated humanity amongst secular people. When folks see something they would rather be, then they finally have a reason to reexamine rather than defend their internal status quo.

To some extent I think Harris, Dawkins et al complicate matters by making religious people think that the secularist is primarily interested in showing the religious to be idiots. Frequently this is an unfair judgment, but there's enough truth in it to make it easy for leaders of the Christianist groups to present secular activists to their flock as being shrill and contemptuous.

That doesn't mean I support those who want to give religion a special pass - Dennett's Breaking the Spell is right on target in that sense - but I think we have to take psychology seriously if we want to hold a real conversation with the religious and provide anyone anywhere with a real choice of what they want to believe.

Anonymous said...

I, too, have been a little scared to see this film. But your bravery has inspired me.

Roko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roko said...

Great post - It's a problem i've been thinking about myself for some time. A while ago I stopped worrying too much about it though; for 3 main reasons:

1. It's true that evangelical religion will probably gain ground (especially in the US), the message that they spread will continually be weakened by the progress of technology. Indefinate life extension will hurt religion very very badly - who wants to chance dying and going to heaven when you can live forever here on earth?

2. The best news, however, is that AI, when it is invented, will be immune to religion; I suspect it this will remain true even if the AI is designed by a deeply religious person. (anyone agree/disagree?) And what's the likelihood of a religious person being the maker of the first AI? Are there many christian AI programmers?

3. I have spent a fair few hours arguing with the local christian student group, and of course logical argument does not work. These people have already decided, in advance, that they won't listen to your logic, it realy is the most pointless of activities. I know a fair few students who are members of extreme, prosletising christian organisations, and I have noticed that many of them are people with big problems in their lives - maybe they struggle with the academic work, maybe they are timid or ugly people who don't make freinds easily, or maybe they're geeky loser-types. This suggests that the real reason people believe in god is that they need something to make life worth living. They need someone to tell them that things will be better and that they have a purpose in life. It makes perfect sense that no amount of logic will persuade someone to stop believing in god - they need that belief; it's not just of academic interest to them.

What you need to stop someone believing in god is an alternative to religion - an alternative life philiosphy, an alternatve sense of belonging and worth, and an alternative worldwide network of local groups of like minded people. We have that alternative - we have transhumanism. I think that the transhumanist message itself is the best defence against evangelical religion.

Anonymous said...

I will pick this up ASAP. I have recently been pondering becoming a card-carrying member of the Council for Secular Humanism and it seems like after watching this I'll be ready to pull that trigger.

Anonymous said...

Evangelicals saying there is a "God", does not make it so. Free thinking examines the flip side of this statement -- Secular Humanists saying there is not a god, does not make it so either. There is either a God or there is not. If there is a "God", humans saying he exists or not does not affect "His" existence. If he is, he is. If he is not, he is not. The reason Evangelicals are so radical is they have found the one who says He is. As he said to Moses: I AM that I AM. Our opinion does not affect his existence.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the movie, but after reading all these comments, I can only find encouragement that these children are not being taught to kill or blow themselves and others up for Allah as the Palestinian children are being taught(brainwashed). I would rather my children/grandchildren learn how to share the love of Jesus with others. The only blood shed is that of Jesus on the cross.

Anonymous said...

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. - Sinclair Lewis

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't go so far as to call religious education among the youth "child abuse." I myself was educated to be Jewish when I was a child, and became an atheist of my own accord later anyway. What is important, and something my family did provide for me, was an openness to whatever beliefs a child comes to when they are old enough to start using their own senses to tell them the reality about, well, reality.
Everyone has their own beliefs and spirituality; even as someone who does not believe there is a god or that there can be a being that is truly omnipotent, I do not judge people who believe differently until they start telling me I am wrong. Even then, they have a right to do so but they are subject to my judgement haha. My point is that the beliefs of individuals will always be different and therefore each individual should not necessarily expect others to agree completely with their own worldview. It seems even odder to me that, if someone disagrees, they are labeled as evil or misguided. If we were all truly honest about our faiths and followed this particular path, we would believe all others besides us are evil and that the self is the only good.
Religion serves as an outlet for a specific human need: that of faith. I choose to have faith in humanity itself, as well as the intricacy and chaotic genius of nature, which is how I can live my own life without stressing over death or looking for a divine comfort. What atheists and nonreligious people must provide to religious people if their intent is to stop indoctrination is a more attractive alternative, which must include an outlet for faith. This, however, poses a quandary, because how can a group of people who specifically do not believe in faith or organized religion possibly wish to attract other members to their "flock," as it were, or offer them some better, more fulfilling life? That sounds like yet another -theism to me.
Don't worry too much. Eventually we as humans will mature out of organized religion, although spirituality and perhaps individual belief in the powers that be will always be present. It is simply part of our nature to desire comfort.

liminalD said...

Religious instruction of those who have not yet developed the critical thinking skills to examine what they're told for inconsistencies, who are in a position of dependency for such basic provisions as food and shelter, where such provisions can be denied or withheld in the event of noncompliance, is ABSOLUTELY an abuse of power.

Where a fair and balanced provision of religious alternatives is offered, this is not the case, yet in how many instances are children actually exposed to the many possible religious and secular explanations of the world around them? Overwhelmingly, the child is presented only with only one account, and actually encouraged to disregard alternative explanations without examining them, and indeed to scorn those alternatives and all proponents of them.

This makes a child an instrument of their guardians' prejudice, and the child will likely encounter hostility as a result, they may have difficulty making friends, they will filter whatever they are taught in school, discarding anything that does not fit with their preconceptions, effectively receiving less than a full education.

Teaching a child to regard as nonsense anything that their guardians do not agree with cuts off their critical fuculties before they have even been given a chance to develop, and this may have lasting repurcussions for the remainder of that child's life. They may find it harder to pursue tertiary education or succeed in the job market as adults, they may have difficulty mastering social skills and find themselves without enduring, meaningful relationships, and suffer poor self-esteem and mental illness as a result.

Let me reiterate, it is not the exposure of children to religious themes, per se, that constitutes abuse, but the indoctrination of children into a particular worldview, with all its accompanying limitations. The solution? Children should be exposed to a range of alternatives and encouraged to think critically about them, or such education should be left until they are older and more capable of discerning for themselves what they believe.