Indoctrination And Free Will

Indoctrination And Free Will May 15, 2017

Free will is a fairly common subject on this blog, and I enjoy exploring the consequences of a universe where our actions are deterministic. If our actions are simply the result of our physiology, this changes how we shape our moral framework. If there is never an opportunity for an individual to “choose otherwise” as libertarian free will would imply, then this shapes how we want to react to the behaviors’ of other and try and influence others to make more morally sound decisions.

This is clearly one reason why many Christian apologetics revolve around the existence of libertarian free will. In order for a divine being to judge us for our actions (or more appropriately, our beliefs), then we must have the agency to either behave in ways that lead to either damnation or deliverance. It is unnecessarily cruel for a creator to establish this universe for us with no means to change our fate*. As such, libertarian free will is inextricable from the Christian worldview.

However, I think many of us have an intuitive sense that our environment necessarily shapes our beliefs and actions, simply because most of us accept the existence of indoctrination. We know that there is a direct link between the religious beliefs of the parents and the religious beliefs of the child, even when the child regularly interacts with people outside the family’s faith. It seems nonsensical to establish a totally free “choice” of beliefs when our worldviews are so clearly a product of environment and geography. Even the most diehard evangelicals certainly grasp this, even though they won’t admit it. If the belief in Christianity is such a free choice for independent agents, then it is odd that they try to focus their efforts on children between the ages of 4 and 14. They fully comprehend that children are developing beings, and that their environment today sets up the boundary conditions for their experiences and knowledge they will draw from to make choices tomorrow.

An adult is pointing at a globe to a child
Image via Pixabay

To me it appears that someone who accepts libertarian free will at the very least has to admit that indoctrination places constraints or certain weights on what moral choices a person will make in the future. A missionary who was raised in the church, from a Christian perspective, has the “choice” to renounce their faith at any moment, and work for Satan. But we know that this person is far more likely to die a believer in Jesus Christ than many of the people they are evangelizing to, simply because they were raised that way. Perhaps in the Christian worldview, this person has a weighted choice, where maybe the missionary has around 4/1 odds of staying within the faith, while the people they are preaching to who have never heard of Jesus might have 1/10 odds of joining the Church. The numbers here aren’t accurate, but the point remains that this “choice” is biased. In a universe where some people are born to certain families that are more likely to have them “saved” than others, this choice has been coerced by whoever established the system. There is an inequality of options, so to speak, and the game has been established unfairly.

While in principle, nothing is physically stopping a remote Pacific Islander from accepting Jesus Christ as his personal lord and savior absent of being evangelized to, that “choice” is meaningless. And even once missionaries come to give the “good news” to that adult, we know that this is likely a fruitless endeavor, because the Islander is no longer wired to be receptive to that information. They don’t have the developing mind of a child. This crystallized worldview’s resistance to choosing Christ illustrates further how poor of a choice there really is.

Of course, since we as secular humanists recognize a worldview where free will doesn’t exist, that leaves us a bit of a moral puzzle we need to solve when it comes to indoctrination. If we decide to become a parent, we will necessarily influence the choices of our offspring merely by establishing the environment where we raise this new being. Even the most hands-off approach to parenting will necessarily lead to the shaping of someone’s entire worldview, even if the parents provide as much agency and autonomy to the child as possible.

There seems to be an inherent revulsion to indoctrination within atheist circles. Since many of us are ex-believers, we have a strong negative response to the idea of raising someone into a belief system. One of the concerns that atheist parents seem to worry about is indoctrinating in reverse, such that they will unintentionally force a child into atheism. This seems to be largely “solved” by encouraging the child to question the world around them as they are raised, and to emphasize a healthy distrust of any one authority having all the answers, even the parents. This seems to provide plenty of agency to the child and allow them to develop their own choices (as much of choices one can make in a deterministic worldview).

Even if this epistemic problem is solved, it’s apparent that there is a strong disgust with shaping a child’s worldview in a significant way, simply because indoctrination is a reviled ethical crime for freethinkers. This notion almost assumes that there is a kind of perfectly neutral parenting environment that would allow a child to make their own choices free of any sort of influence whatsoever. To some atheists, any degree of influence whatsoever is some sort of imposition on the child’s agency as they develop. Raising them in a manner that biases them in any way towards some type of political or religious opinion is a thought crime to some degree, since it shifts the child’s thought in a way that would not have otherwise happened under different parents. However, no such neutral parenting environment exists. It appears to me that we must necessarily accept that no matter how neutral we try to raise a child that we will shape the way they think. But this is not some grand injustice, this is merely how the biological world works. We are not free agent souls that are waiting for our bodies to develop so that once we reach adulthood we can express complex thoughts and opinions absent of the world we were raised in. Our brains and the world around us are inextricably linked. While we have no choice to develop absent of an environment that shapes us, it’s only indoctrination if we are forced to accept only a certain worldview.

It’s not only acceptable to make sure that we influence this worldview, it’s necessary. Absent of education, we are forcing our offspring to essentially reinvent the wheel at every possible step. We have made great strides in how we as a society have answered moral, ethical, theological, scientific, and social problems, and when we educate them, we lift them onto our shoulders so they can make progress in the future.

This presents the question of “indoctrinating” our children into a certain political worldview as well, which may make some hesitant. While many freethinkers may have strong political opinions and have made a strong determination about what policies are best to implement, we also are concerned with “forcing” a child into a political worldview, even unintentionally. Perhaps we as freethinkers recognize the possibility that we are wrong, and we don’t want a child being raised to believe something dogmatically. I’m not a parent and I would encourage readers to seek out other freethinking parents who have thought and discussed this issue more, but I think this is largely solved similarly to the religion question. It’s fine to encourage children to develop certain values, even if they have political implications, so long as we encourage them to question the world around them and not accept us as an authority. By doing that, we can still recognize their agency and help move towards a better society. It’s important that we teach our future generations values like personal autonomy and respect for equality for all identities. This necessarily leads to children treating all races and genders fairly, fighting for the marginalized, and making decisions that supports everyone involved. These seem like perfectly good values to educate the future on, and if we educate children the right way they will hold these values for the right reasons, not because they were indoctrinated.

Ultimately, I find that the way we develop and the presence of indoctrination is incompatible with a universe with libertarian free will. It simply makes no sense. How does our “free will” develop independent of our body? How can we make choices we aren’t exposed to, and how can we make choices when we are indoctrinated away from any sort of choice? If we aren’t in an environment that gives us sufficient accesses to certain choices, do we really have a choice in the first place? The way the evidence points, it only makes sense to say our behavior is material and inextricable from the environment we were raised in. While this conclusion leads to certain ethical questions of its own, like most things it can be overcome by critical thinking and focusing on making sure that everyone else has the same freedom to think the same.

*Of course, Calvinism relies on the model that your choices ultimately won’t change your fate which has been predetermined, but this is more of a post-hoc rationalization of having an omniscient creator. One could also raise the point that even if someone has a free choice that leads to Heaven or Hell, the existence of eternal torment is still unnecessarily cruel. I’d agree with this, but neither of these have much to say about free will, so I don’t see a reason to go down that rabbit hole.


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