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THE PSYCHOLOGICAL PROCESSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF FUNDAMENTALIST INDOCTRINATION Joshua A. Cuevas Introduction It can be argued that throughout the past two centuries, religious fundamentalist movements around the world were relegated largely to the margins of politics and culture. Their influence was limited to relatively small, peripheral segments of various populations, especially in industrialized nations. Over the last two decades we have seen a monumental shift in the influence of fundamentalist movements, both here in the United States and abroad. Christian fundamentalist movements were arguably the most decisive factor in the last two American presidential elections, and the current president is closely associated with fundamentalist groups. From the Middle East, radical Islamist fundamentalists have reached out to coordinate attacks in the United States, as well as in several European countries, Africa, and Asia. They are currently fomenting hostility in small but volatile pockets around the globe to an extent that is unprecedented in world history. Indeed, the most incendiary conflicts the world currently faces can be viewed as emanating from a tension between the fundamentalists in the West and those in the Middle East. While these conflicts involve a number of complex issues, such as economics, military influence, and political dynamics, it cannot be denied that fundamentalist ideology is central to the dilemma. If the nature of fundamentalist thinking and indoctrination is not better understood, human progress will be at risk, just as peace has already been a casualty. Erich Fromm’s research on the indoctrination of the public by the Nazi regime was the first to examine the psychology behind authoritarianism, followed most notably by the “Berkley” research by Adorno, et al. in 1950.

1 But suicide attacks as we know them today did not exist before the 1980

2. Japanese Kamikaze pilots do not fall into the same category, because they were a part of a military organization taking action against another military organization in a situation of mutual combat, and regardless of the morality of the strategy, many soldiers throughout history have sacrificed their lives for similar causes. This modern conflict pits religious ideologies against one another to an extent the world has not seen since the Middle Ages. The unique aspect of this conflict is that citizens in relatively large numbers have been willing to commit suicide while at the same time killing random and innocent civilians. The extreme circumstances of this development make it necessary that we examine the processes behind fundamentalist indoctrination. 10.1558/eph.v16i2.57
58 Defining Indoctrination Schweitzer argued that a distinction be made between religious education and indoctrination.

3 He also stressed that empirical research on religion is necessary. However, the rationale put forth for the distinction between religious education and indoctrination was vague and ambiguous. In addition, Schweitzer suggested that religious education should not be modeled according to expectations of science. This is an extremely precarious position to take, on one hand asserting that religious education is different from indoctrination and that increased empiricism is called for, but on the other hand providing no criteria for the distinction between religious education and indoctrination and suggesting that scientific standards should not apply. This argument simply does provide sufficient criteria in regard to rigor or consistency. In contrast, Hand put forth a framework for the definition of indoctrination in purely logical terms, specifically in regard to children: One can impart knowledge on another person in a number of ways.

4 One way is to appeal to reason and rationale by showing evidence of what is known to be true, such as with a math formula or a scientific demonstration. Another is to appeal to reason and rationale by acting as an authority figure who has witnessed the actual evidence for what has been shown to be true, which may be the case with anyone who has experience in a specific field. Clearly these two instances are not indoctrination, because each includes both an appeal to reason and a reference to what has been proven to be true. And because the acquired knowledge is based on active reasoning, it allows for that information to be amended and revised in the future should additional or contradictory proof appear. Indoctrination takes place when one circumvents reasoning and imparts a way of thinking based on something other than the force of evidence, so that the child holds the beliefs irrationally, without regard for evidence. Teaching religious beliefs cannot entail either of the first two methods, because evidence for what is known to be true cannot be demonstrated for religious belief, and the authority figure cannot have been witness to evidence to support the religious belief.

5 The very existence of a variety of religious doctrines, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. makes it clear that none has been shown to be decisively true beyond argument. Scientific evidence that contradicts certain areas of these belief systems further illustrates the point that no religion can currently be proven to be true. Since teaching of religion cannot fall into either the category of demonstrating direct evidence or being derived from an authority figure who has personally witnessed the direct evidence, it must fall into the third category: bypassing decisive rationale, reason, and evidence to impart beliefs by exerting psychological pressure or acting as a false authority figure. This is indoctrination.

6 Without examining the obvious question of the morality, or immorality, of teaching someone something as truth that the teacher does not actually know to be true, it becomes clear that most religious teaching must fall under the category of indoctrination. However, if one were to arrive at religious belief completely independently as an adult, without prior guidance or persuasion from others, that individual would not have been indoctrinated. But this would have to be considered a rare occurrence given the climate in most countries around the world where familial upbringing is most often steeped in some form of religious education.

Evolutionary Theory Bering identified three possibilities for humans’ tendency towards religious belief: 1) it is simply a vestige of a time when human knowledge could not explain life and death, and religious belief filled the vacuum of knowledge; 2) it is strictly a product of cultural indoctrination; 3) it is an evolutionary product that humans are predisposed to developing.

7 If religious belief is a vestige of an earlier time, then it has outlived its usefulness now that science can more accurately describe life processes. If it is neither a vestige nor a product of indoctrination, then by Bering’s logic, there would likely be a genetic predisposition, an evolutionary root to religious belief. Of course, evolution has shaped behavior and behavior is the product of psychological states. In turn, religious belief is also clearly tied to the psychological state. However, this possibility could only have validity if the psychological state that led to belief in a deity had biological advantages or was useful to the survival of the species.

8 By attributing an event to a conscious intention on another’s part, rather than seeing it as a random occurrence or inadvertent act of nature, it causes individuals to be hyper vigilant, which tends to create a safer environment. For instance, if an early human walked through a forest and heard a branch snap, his chances of survival would be greater if his natural tendency was to initially suspect that it was a predator stalking him, rather than to first assume it was a dried branch falling. But that hyper vigilance also makes it more likely that the person will attribute a natural occurrence to an intentional act. This would create a situation where acts of nature where attributed to acts of god, therefore creating a climate predisposed to irrationality. If, on the other hand, indoctrination were at the root of religious belief, then we would logically see more irrational views of mysticism amongst more developmentally advanced humans. If there is indeed an evolutionary foundation, younger children would be more inclined to show those patterns. There is some empirical support for the evolutionary perspective. Bering’s 2006 study found that the younger children were the more likely to believe that the mental functions of a deceased animal would continue to function after death, although even preschoolers showed an understanding that the body ceased functioning at death. This would seem to contradict the cultural indoctrination theory, because in the indoctrination model it would be more likely that children would show this trait of a belief in continued existence the longer they were socialized into the culture. So if it was indeed the product of cultural indoctrination, older children would be more likely than younger ones to believe the mind lived after death, and this was not the case. One theory is that since no one knows what it is like to be dead, people will continue to attribute the mental functions, they cannot imagine being without, to the deceased.

9 Likewise, religious belief is dependent on the individual acquiring theory of mind because the person must be able to understand that there is a deity out there somewhere who has intentions and beliefs separate from the individual’s. This would point to a time early in life when a child is particularly susceptible to a number of factors: Whether the tendency is genetic or not, the child would have an ambiguous mindset in regard to death, knowing that death means the person is no longer “here,” but unable to contemplate an actual end to existence. During this time of ambiguity, the child may be particularly vulnerable to indoctrination, since the religious teachings would eliminate the 60 inherent contradiction in the child’s belief system. It has been speculated that conflict and contradiction are necessary to the learning process.

10 A lack of contradiction in the area may cause stagnation in the child’s learning process, and that child may essentially be locked into cycle of irrational thought. Indeed, Hand suggested that it is more likely that younger children will hold beliefs into adulthood than it is for older individuals to adopt those beliefs later on.

11 Group Identity and Intergroup Theory In addition to the child’s uncertainty about the nature of life itself and a mindset that is susceptible to irrational ideas that may help to quell that uncertainty, young children are also beginning to form ideas about social constructs. Humans are naturally a social species, so it is natural that they tend to classify stimuli, including people, into groups, and those classifications work to form social identities and intergroup attitudes.

12 Social categorization is a powerful psychological process that can lead to in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination, even when the differences are trivial in a real-world context,

13 such as the irrational argument that extending rights to homosexuals will somehow damage heterosexual marriages. However, when individuals view themselves as being defined by the parameters of the group, and therefore are part of an “identity group,” extreme behavior such as genocidal conflicts can result even amongst seemingly intelligent, educated, and rational people.

14 Eisold identified three important dynamics involved with an identity group: First, the group is formed based on differences the collective group members have with non-group members. Next, those differences become cause for action, or in other words, help to determine the group’s behavior. Finally, there is the need to protect those differences, and they become a source of defense mechanisms and possibly aggression.

15 Patterson and Bigler

16 studied intergroup identity among school children and found that children who attended schools segregated by sex or gender were more likely to form biases against those who were not identified with their groups. It would stand to reason that if schools or communities are segregated along the lines of religious beliefs, the individuals within that culture would be prone to form biases and possibly hostilities towards other individuals with different beliefs who they have not had the opportunity to integrate with. In addition, children’s biases were developed through cognitive processes from within the group, rather than taught by an authority figure or deduced via actual external stimuli in the environment.

17 Thus, the leaders who influence and indoctrinate followers into a fundamentalist movement may be more successful if they act not as leaders or teachers at the apex of the group, but as peers, and represent the ideology as a common struggle. In further support, Aronson identified three conditions that create an environment in which an individual is likely to succumb to the group exerting pressure and ultimately conform: if the group consists of perceived experts; if the members are of high social status; or if the members are comparable to the individual in some way.

18 An effective fundamentalist group or leader may construct a situation in which one or any combination of the three conditions are met. Therefore, the focus is placed on the perceived enemy or sinners, and those being indoctrinated do not pause to question the validity of their new positions.

61Another interesting finding was that minority groups showed more in-group bias than majority groups did, meaning the majority was more able to overlook group membership, as the minority “gets lost in the crowd.”

19 Those in the minority group seem to be more aware of their group status and identify more strongly with it, possibly as a defensive mechanism. Eisold also noted the importance of the minority group identity as well, concluding that subgroups form within groups based on the issues that are currently central to their thinking.

20 The subgroup members are then galvanized by their more specific interests and in turn influence the larger, more general group. For instance, Christian fundamentalists may form subgroups based on a common desire to limit the rights of homosexuals or abortion rights. Muslim fundamentalists may form subgroups based on a common desire to rid their holy land of “infidels.” These specific interests of the subgroups then influence the collective actions of the entire Christian or Muslim fundamentalist movements if the subgroup’s identity is tied strongly enough to those issues and the issues are not in direct conflict to the larger group’s goals. However, these subgroups may also create splits in the larger group, as Protestant groups did with Christianity. The more rigid and prominent the group identity becomes, the more likely the members are to hold extreme beliefs and possibly resort to violence.

21 Indeed, identity groups can be viewed as having psychotic patterns of thought and behavior due to a failure to develop more adaptive and balanced ways of thinking in regard to differences.

22 One of the psychological processes central to intergroup dynamics is psychological distance.

23 In extreme cases this psychological distance allows those from the in-group to view those from the out-group as less than human or not worthy of the same treatment we would normally provide other humans. By categorizing the out-group as enemies, the fundamentalist distances himself psychologically from his victims. Of course, the group must constantly recruit new members, and Hindery identified a number of characteristics common to the indoctrination process.

24 The first is the presence of repetitive formulas and self-hypnotic meditations. Obvious examples of these tendencies can be found in the rocking back and forth motion that often accompanies Muslim chanting as one recites the Quran, Christians who speak in tongues during Pentecostal services, and a variety of Catholic rituals, although more subtle forms can be found throughout most religious exercises. Another feature of indoctrination is binary thinking.

25 Eisold describes humanity’s tendency to form groups and categorize others as a natural product of social dynamics,

26 and Hindery emphasizes a conscious, almost conspiratorial effort by the fundamentalist to create two narrow, simplistic, and oppositional groups—good or evil; saved or unsaved; the chosen or the damned; Muslim or non-Muslim. One of the foundations of fundamentalist education systems is to encourage rigid, us-versus-them thinking,

27 even if making them one of us is also a foundation. Religious Education This religious perspective can be especially problematic when it is combined with political ideology, which undoubtedly calls for more nuance and sophistication than binary thinking would allow. The combination of religious indoctrination and politics leads to increased radicalization and isolation of the in-group, because the political policy
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