The weakness of atheist brainwashing

1 Mar

Are you being brainwashed?

That’s the question I want to ask you at the beginning of this article.

Atheists are quick to accuse Christianity of brainwashing and Christians of being brainwashed. And they aren’t merely suggesting that some Christian sects engage in brainwashing, or that some Christians have been subjected to undue influence through mental and emotional manipulation. If some secularists are to be believed, all organised religion involves brainwashing.

Is this true?

On the basis of over thirty years of experience of many dozens of different churches and many thousands of individual Christians, I very much doubt it.

But rather than make the case that Christians are not brainwashed, which others have surely done very well elsewhere, why don’t we ask ourselves whether there is perhaps a certain element of brainwashing to secularists’ arguments against Christianity?

How does the boot fit when it is on the other foot?

I found a great example this morning. This picture popped up in my Facebook feed:

But is it true?


But is it true?

The photo is a collage contrasting ornate, heavily gilded Catholic churches and cathedrals with a picture of a severely emaciated African boy who is clearly on the brink of death by starvation. Alongside it, the caption: “We simply cannot afford to feed this person”.

The message is clear: according to the creator of the collage, the Catholic church possesses vast wealth, on which it sits, twiddling its thumbs, whilst people in Africa starve to death. Apparently the Catholic church does not care about starving children and is not lifting a finger to help them.

Or does it? A quick visit to Wikipedia found this:

The Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of education and medical services in the world. In 2010, the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers said that the Church manages 26% of health care facilities in the world, including hospitals, clinics, orphanages, pharmacies and centres for those with leprosy.

The Church is also actively engaged in international aid and development through organisations such as Catholic Relief Services, Caritas International, Aid to the Church in Need, refugee advocacy groups such as the Jesuit Refugee Service and community aid groups such as the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.

Hardly the work of an organisation more interested in the gold on its spires than in feeding the starving, wouldn’t you say? In fact, here’s a picture of a girl getting water from a borehole that was made possible by British Catholic charity CAFOD (The CAtholic Aid FOunDation – geddit?):

Some secularists can't see this well.


Some objectors to Christian faith
can’t see this well.

If you look at news reporting of any major disaster in developing countries, you will soon find that churches and Christians, including the Catholic church, are quick to respond with lifesaving assistance. Very often it is Christian organisations that respond first to crisis situations and remain long after the TV cameras have moved on to other places, and after politicians have stopped making headline-grabbing promises.

While some may still claim that the Catholic church should still sell its remaining treasures and give the proceeds to the poor, it is not doing nothing, as the picture implies. I understand that some of the church’s critics are legitimately concerned with genuine instances of excess and waste on the part of a minority of Christian people. A great many Christians are concerned about that kind of greed too – indeed, it’s one of the sins from which Jesus came to deliver us.

Yet the reality of the church’s work in this world is a far cry from armchair “preaching” by haters. Do Catholics care? Does one’s faith make a difference to one’s compassion? How many hospitals or feeding stations are owned and operated in this world’s poorest countries by General Motors? General Electric? Time Warner? The communist party? The City of New York?

So what of brainwashing?

The image above was posted on a Facebook page entitled (please excuse the expletive; I’m only quoting) “Holy Shit“. The group’s URL includes the description “Free Thinkers”. At the time of writing, Holy Sh[you know the rest] has 22,000 followers, while the image itself had almost 200 likes and had been shared to people’s Facebook walls over 100 times within 13 hours of publication. Of course this is only one of thousands of such groups which exist to lambast the church for its failures – whether real or perceived.

It’s deeply ironic that such a baseless, blinkered, and frankly libellous accusation should be spoonfed to social media users in the name of free thought.

Nevertheless, that’s where much anti-Christian sentiment is at, at least for the man in the street (or the adolescent on the smartphone): Think of a negative about Christian faith or practice. Don’t ask yourself whether or not it is really true. Turn it into a generalisation. Repeat it wherever and whenever possible. Don’t apologise when contradicted by reality. For bonus points: Now tell yourself that it is Christians are brainwashed. Return to repeating the previous generalisation when the sting of being corrected has faded and you can cling to it comfortably once again.

Militant atheists and other secularists usually pride themselves on being the ones in possession of the facts. Science, evidence, rationality and truth are all supposed to be their forte.

However, when they repeat, with wearying regularity, accusations such as the one in the picture above – many of which can be quickly debunked with a few minutes’ googling – they are being neither scientific (since they do not investigate to see whether the hypothesis is true), nor basing their beliefs on evidence (almost by default, since they refuse to look at anything that might contradict their position), nor rational (since they are seeking to comfort their own distorted views rather than being objective), nor truthful (since they are repeating propositions that are demonstrably false, or at least making out that propositions that are only true in part are true in all cases).

They are, however, spreading untruths in order to foist their prejudices upon others.

And that, by anybody’s definition, is brainwashing.

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4 Responses to “The weakness of atheist brainwashing”

  1. Michael C. March 1, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

    As an atheist, I’d have to say that I agree with most of the sentiments expressed in your article. It is true that often pictures like the one shown are spread in an attempt to elicit an emotional response. And the facts don’t support these claims. At the same time, for all the good that religious organizations do, they do not do it because they are religious. They do it because they care about humanity. If these people weren’t religious, would they be less inclined to help? I highly doubt it. And if they are only helping because of their beliefs, are they really doing it for the right reason? Your beliefs do not make you a good person, your actions do. But my problem comes when told that I am immoral because I don’t share a particular group’s beliefs. And plenty of churches spread this message. I have heard it firsthand.

    • cookiejezz March 3, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

      Hi Michael! Thank you for your respectful post.

      While I welcome the spirit in which you write, I don’t think your assessment of religious altruism is accurate. Indeed (and this may be only a minor point or my misunderstanding), you seem a bit unsure of people’s motives yourself, arguing firstly that religious organisations do not do good because of their beliefs and then saying that they might after all.

      Perhaps an insider’s perspective will help to clarify matters.

      From my experience of Christian faith (which is the only faith about which I will comment here), it is precisely because of the effect of their faith that Christians become more motivated to help others.

      This ought to be evident from the core tenets of Christ’s teaching: “Love God”, and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” People will naturally tend to live out the values with which they are inculcated, so that one should hardly be surprised that Christians are more prepared to sacrifice for the wellbeing of other people than, say, non-religious people who are surrounded by self-centred, consumerist value systems; i.e. they are being constantly encouraged to get what they can and look after Number One.

      The missing link in the chain of causality as you sketched it out is that individuals who experience “the love of God […] shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:5) then feel able, and genuinely empowered, to love and serve others. This has certainly been my experience: my faith in God and experience of the Holy Spirit frequently challenges me to love people who do not love me. Growth in these matters is continual.

      You are right that beliefs alone do not make a person good:

      “If one of you says to [a person in need], “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:16,17)

      Christianity seeks not only a declaration of faith but the fruits of a changed life, which show that our faith is real.

      As to the question of morality, I agree that many people seem to be very moral who do not claim religious affiliation. However, how much of this do they owe to growing up in a society which is identifiably founded on Christian principles? The biggest political projects that expressly rejected all forms of religion resulted in people spying on their own families and betraying loved ones to the authorities.

      One might also add that many secularists have a very different definition of morality from that of most Christians: we might think of their attitudes to sex, divorce, abortion, substance use and euthanasia. There is no merit in saying that one group is as moral as Christians if one first does away with much of morality.

      I think more evidence for Christian morality is found in the fact that Christianity, like no other science or belief, is capable of transforming people who were the world’s worst and turning them into genuine saints. Furthermore, almost without exception, born-again Christian believers would say they are better people for having allowed Jesus and the Holy Spirit to transform them and become their guiding influences and role models.

      On the other hand, I have yet to hear of a criminal giving up crime, or a drug addict being set free from drugs, or an adulterer becoming a loyal spouse, because they woke up one day and discovered that there was no God. But Christian faith is responsible for millions of such conversions.

      Apologies for the long post….

      One final thought: while some non-believers are indeed very moral, the real standard God demands of us is holiness: the principle of being set apart, not only from evil deeds, but also set apart for God. And that can only come about if we first receive salvation through Christ Jesus, for:

      “…it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works [religiosity or good deeds], so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

      We can do all the good we want, but we must turn to God if we want to be saved from our sins.

      God bless you!
      Jeremy

      • Michael C. March 4, 2014 at 2:45 am #

        “The biggest political projects that expressly rejected all forms of religion resulted in people spying on their own families and betraying loved ones to the authorities.”

        I’m curious as to what exactly you are referring to. Could it be the Inquisition, which lasted several hundred years and was conducted by the church to eradicate heresy (and not at all so that “moral” and “holy” men could conspire to destroy the lives and steal the wealth of people for very dubious reasons? Or maybe it was the witch hunts in England and the colonies that led to the death of countless innocent people for little more than superstition run rampant. Families forced to turn in other family members and co-conspirators under threat of death (which usually happened anyway). In fact, I would be hard pressed to not wear out my hands typing to give an exhaustive list of torture and abuses committed by “holy” “moral” members of various churches over the years. And the rebuttal is always the same. “Well, THEY weren’t TRUE Christians”. And if it was the work of Hitler to which you were referring (as most internet discussions usually end up at), remember, he was raised Catholic, and felt that his “work” with the Jews was justified given their historic fault for the death of Jesus. And if you want to say “No, I heard he was an atheist”, fine. Does that mean you can paint all atheists with a wide brush, and make hasty generalizations about our morals? Would you care to be defined by the actions of the WBC or a similar group of people? I could make generalizations to. Given the percentage of American prison inmates that identify as Christian, and the incredibly small percentage that identify as atheist, I’m am left with the conclusion that Christians are by far, more likely to commit a crime. Does that sit well with you? Why don’t we just try to live good lives and leave the judging to god (if that turns out to be the case)?

      • cookiejezz March 4, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

        Hi Michael, thank you for your response.

        I was actually referring primarily to communism, which tried to do away with God and put to death many millions of people, some for their faith in God.

        I think there is a good reason for there always being the same rebuttal: because it is true.

        Jesus made it very plain the night he was seized by the authorities that violence against others was not his will (see. e.g. John 18:10-11). The apostle Paul also makes it clear that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual forces of evil”. (Ephesians 6:12) As much as somebody may be said to be a Christian, at the point at which they take up the sword or put people to death in the name of Christianity, they are failing to act according to the teachings of Christ. There are plenty of objective standards of christlike behaviour in the Bible, put there so that Christians may know what is right and what is wrong, and God frequently makes it plain that He does not tolerate hypocrisy or sin on the part of those who claim to know Him.

        I would like to think that I do not make hasty generalisations about atheists’ morals, but rather some very considered observations about what happens when God is shut out of the lives of individuals and from society as a whole.

        It was man’s ability to blind himself to the idea that he might have to answer to God for his actions, allied with his rejection of the idea that man is created in the image of God, that enabled the holocaust and the communist pogroms. With his fellow man just an animal, and God and divine judgment non-existent, man thought himself free to do whatever his strength and power allowed him to do. And the same can be said of individuals’ attitudes and behaviours when they feel that God doesn’t exist and people don’t count.

        Now, if you tell me that you personally as an atheist would not involve yourself in those despicable actions, then I’ll believe you, but the fact remains that by removing consciousness of God, and of ourselves being made in the image of God, from our thinking, we become capable of all manner of evil. If we demolish the walls and break down the gates of the sheep pen, sooner or later the sheep will get out and the wolves will get in.

        Again, in your example of the prison inmates, nobody is more careful than born-again Christians to distinguish between genuine followers of Christ and those who are Christian in name only. Paul draws a parallel with the Jewish faith:

        Romans 2:28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.
        Ro 2:29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart…

        So I think that it is easy for people to produce statistics that make “Christians” look bad, without ever considering whether those statistics reflect people who are truly following Christ. Is is the heart attitude that God looks at, not just whether a man is observing religious rules and ceremonies.

        You are right in one thing: we need to look more closely, which is exactly what I am trying to encourage people to do.

        However, just living good lives won’t do it. At the heart of the Christian gospel (the real one preached by Jesus, not some halfway message built on traditions of religious observance) is the core truth that we need to change before we can be accepted by God:

        Jesus said to a very religious and upright man, Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3)

        It is this realisation that confronts us at the Cross: man by himself cannot raise himself up to God’s standards of righteousness, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. (Romans 3:23) It is by receiving what Jesus has done for us and putting on the new nature that we are saved from sin. That’s why we don’t just do our best and hope it’s enough.

        God bless you!
        Jeremy

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