It's somewhat common to hear those critical of organized religion level the accusation of brainwashing toward those who practice a faith - particularly Christianity - and particularly when it comes to educating children in the basic tenets of the faith. In other words, there are some who feel that teaching and propagating the Christian faith is akin to brainwashing - people only believing what they believe because they've been told to believe it often enough that it just becomes a part of their reality, disassociated from any critical or reasonable thought.
One of the main ideas imparted to me during my seminary education was that of differentiation of self: the idea that in order to better understand reality and other people, one must be able to step outside of one's self and see how one has been formed and influenced by culture, family, relationships, religion, etc. Why is this important? Because there are many things that you and I believe to be right and true, not necessarily because those things are right and true, but simply because that's what we've been taught or have observed our entire lives, and we've never questioned those beliefs. In other words, we've been brainwashed in some areas of our lives and understanding, albeit unintentionally and without any kind of malicious intent. It's just a natural product of being linear, cultural beings. We repeatedly observe the world in a particular way, and we make conclusions about reality based on those observations, and moreover, we assume that our observations and subsequent conclusions are normative, or that they are prescriptive for all people in the world. In a very real sense, we are all brainwashed. And the teaching of self-differentiation states that the more we can identify this unintentional brainwashing, the more sensitivity and tolerance we will have toward those who have observed the world in different ways (because of cultural influences) and have come to different conclusions about reality (worldview).
This concept was the foundation of spiritual formation philosophy at Bethel Seminary. The more we know ourselves in truth and why we think/believe the ways we do, the more we can grow in our knowledge of truth, understand why others envision God in the ways they do, and engage in dialogue with them through which we can all grow spiritually. I believe there are several good elements of this philosophy, but there are also at least two very significant problems.
The obvious problem with this practice is the propensity for truth claims to be seen as a simple byproduct of cultural persuasion: in other words, you only believe Idea X to be true because it is a product of your culturally/religiously influenced observation of the world. In this sense, no one can be absolutely sure of any truth claim, because our understanding of truth is suspect due to our heavily influenced way of seeing the world. Nor can we condemn any ideas as being absolutely false, since our reasons for doing so can always be called into question, due to our unseen, yet formative, persuasions. This is one of the basic tenets of postmodernism.
A secondary problem with this practice is that it seems to me to be self-refuting. Differentiation of self intends for us to do our thinking about life, relationships, truth, and the world with as good a grasp as possible on the propensity for our influences to color our thinking and interpretation of truth claims. But the problem I see is that the process of self-differentiation is, itself, subject to those same influences. In other words, if my influences color the way I see and believe truth, then those same influences change my ability to discern those influences. Yes, I realize it's a bit of a mind bender, and it's also something of an infinite regression. Put simply, it's akin to the reality that the claim "There is no absolute truth," is a statement of absolute truth. The two cannot both be right. In the same way, we can't discern our influences without have that process be influenced by external factors.
So then, we can conclude that everyone examines truth within a social, cultural, societal, religious, ethnic, etc. context, and these factors shape the way we think about truth claims and determine what is true. In a sense, these influences "brainwash" us into seeing the world in a particular way. But is that a good thing or a bad thing? And what about the claim of critics of Christianity that Christians are brainwashed, and that they brainwash their children? Are they right?
I'll try to tackle these questions in a subsequent post. I've been thinking about these issues because of some stuff that has come up in my personal life recently, and also because of this article that was just published today on the Gospel Coalition website. It makes some great points on some of what I've said here, but I want to comment more on it at a later time.