Facing Up to Indoctrination and Self-deception in Religious Groups, New and Traditional

Roderick Hindery

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, symbol of faith, power to indoctrinate or....

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, symbol of faith, power to indoctrinate or…. (1)

The terms propaganda and indoctrination, often convertible, variously connote systematic mass suggestion or the manipulation of individuals, through logical deception, emotional exploitation, or both. In any of these forms, indoctrination is coercive, even violent, and contrary to human liberation. What often precedes or accompanies indoctrination is self-deception, a kind of self-enslavement or violence against the self. As a form of psychological denial, self-delusion also prevents subjects from recognizing how pervasively it functions in tandem with indoctrination by others. Since neither you nor I enjoy immunity from these realities, I invite you not merely to follow my assumptions or sequence of thoughts, but to interact with them and compare them with opposing positions.

Below I argue towards a conclusion that all religious believers should investigate not only suspicious looking cults and or exotic sects, but also their own traditions for symptomatic features common to indoctrination and its ally, self-deception. If whatever is true has little to fear from honest inquiry, then, such investigation will strengthen beliefs, insofar as they are solid, and single out factors, which thrive on indoctrination. After examining some of the features commonly cultivated by indoctrination, we initiate further discussion about why intellectuals, religious ones included, may be high-profile candidates for self- and other-delusion. We shall conclude with a query: should not the proponents of religious and other cultural beliefs, yours as well as mine, accept equal opportunity for the same liberating cross-examinations, which philosophers and other intellectuals are expected to undergo?

“Surely not my own religion?”

Many individuals recognize that indoctrination is widespread politically and culturally, at the right, the left, or at mainstreams in between. Yet, to accept that deception or manipulation have entered the domain of their most cherished and profound religious beliefs verges on the unthinkable. “Perhaps indoctrination has permeated other religions, but surely not my own.” Such acquiescence would challenge our heritage and self-respect, as well as future trust in our reasoning and feeling. In the case of our own religious heritage, the idea that we may have deceived or have been deceived, even with unquestionable integrity and sincerity, is almost too much to face.

A thought experiment

In the following reflections, therefore, you and I will play a game. We shall assume that we are speaking not about our own religious or cultural traditions, but only about those of other peoples. To make our task easier, we may also exclude larger (“major”) religious traditions, which have professed noble ideals, such as, peace, love, and justice–even if, at the level of performance, their adherents have often contradicted them.

In our initial game-plan, therefore, we address not our own beliefs, but only those of smaller religious groups, new and traditional–groups less often admired, even by many adherents who were initially seduced into them. If we find indoctrinating features within smaller coteries, with whom we identify less, we may be able to face them more boldly within larger traditions, even our own. As our honesty and courage variously permit us, we may or may not perceive that the indoctrinating characteristics, which blatantly manifest themselves in various new religious groups and cults, also often lurk within our own revered traditions. In a subsequent phase, beyond the province of this paper and perhaps more appropriately reserved for our own private assessments, you and I may further evaluate whether or in what respects those features affect our core beliefs, as well as those which are peripheral.

The Jones Cult

For some critics, the People’s Temple of Jim Jones exemplifies a religious cult, which illustrates how tenets, initially inoffensive to basic human values, imperceptibly evolve into beliefs and practices, which become murderous, rigorous to the point of extremism, and crippling to human freedom. In defense of this cult’s adherents, it should be granted that, for better or for worse, physical and intellectual growth, like other human change, are often perceptible only from the outside, rarely from inside the subject.

In the opinion of many, even the Jones Cult had strong points, say, perhaps, its initial experiments with racial equality or economic independence. However, what at first seemed to represent mere rumors about Jones’s authoritarianism and his indoctrination of minds and feelings culminated in the tragic mass suicide to which he led nearly a thousand of his congregation in Guyana. How could followers of Jones have recognized the terror of his indoctrination in time to prevent such tragedy? Were there any features, which held clues to this horrific subversion of the human spirit and the human quest?

In my recently published book about the characteristics of indoctrination at the political and religious left, right, and mainstreams in-between, I have identified several clues which point the way to such recognition.* These include tendencies to


  • excessive certitude
  • uncurbed self-interest for one’s self or one’s group
  • subtle deceptions by others and by one’s self
  • exploitations of feelings.



Illustrations about each of these leanings follow. You may be able to suggest clearer examples.

Tendencies to excessive certitude often function as defense mechanisms. We conjecture, for example, that if we shout loudly enough about an idea or program, such as the death penalty, perhaps our opposition will yield. Or, in a colossal self-deception, we propose that if we claim certitude with enough passion, say, about the justice of specific wars or military actions, perhaps we shall not have to look doubt in the eye. In basic confusion that decisiveness is incompatible with previous doubt, we declare ourselves in effect infallible. In the case of religious indoctrination “My country, right or wrong” becomes “my religious, cultural, or activist beliefs, no matter what.” In their early stages, indoctrinations (religious, political, or even terrorist) should be recognizable for their pretenses to infallibleness.

Unbridled self-interest, like tendencies to excessive certitude, also lies at the heart of what transforms beliefs into intransigent ideology. Capitalists, as well as socialists, cross the line from working theories into ideologies, not because they uphold lofty ideals, such as initiative, efficiency, or fair social distribution, but because they subordinate these ideals to the narcissistic interests of their own individual selves or collectivities. Captivated by their own ideals, and refusing to test them pragmatically, they proclaim: “All programs and movements are ideological except our own.”

Incipient deceptions by others are as difficult to recognize as self-deceptions. Why? Because they are so often accompanied by sincerity, piety, enthusiasm, and apparent good will–all positive traits, shared by fundamentalists and other persons of good will.

Exploitations of emotions are as difficult to recognize as many self- and other-deceptions. Their invisibility works with special effectiveness, whenever indoctrinators disclose the truth, sometimes even the whole truth, for worthy motives, but also to smooth their path towards manipulating and dominating the feelings of others.

Internalizing self-deception

Religious and other indoctrinations succeed, the more they can be internalized through self-deception. The religious slavery of women to men or the subordination of religious laity to clergy became most effective, whenever women and laity help by imposing it upon themselves. Economic subordinations of the many to the few remain most operative, when, through various devices like vicarious living, bamboozled subjects delude themselves with sincere yet erroneous convictions that everything will either eventually trickle down from the rich to the poor, or else will become inherited by a future socialist proletariat. Other-regard for generations in-between gets cast aside.

The delusion of intellectuals’ immunity

The most intriguing maneuver among the tactics of indoctrination is to leave undisturbed the delusion among intellectuals that they are exempt from viruses of indoctrination and propaganda. Far from immune, intellectuals have exhibited unique vulnerability to these viruses. Whatever their superior abilities in logic or assessments of data, intellectuals remain, as persons, no more important than others, and no less vulnerable to indoctrination and manipulation. They stand equally subject to negative emotions, such as hubris, fear, resentment, and subtle loathing for one’s self and others. In addition, intellectuals suffer common psychological aberrancies and group-think.

Some intellectuals pursue noble and critical causes so rigorously, that they either burn themselves out or become counterproductive. Over-compensating with familiar neuroses of rigor, extremism, and other negative aspects of fundamentalism, they alienate potential allies from the vital ideals, which they pursue all too scrupulously or compulsively. Confusing what is trivial with the substance of admirable values and praxes, such intellectuals become both casualties and agents of indoctrination and self-deception. Their quest for core fundamentals washes ashore in scrupulous and self-defeating literalism. Saddest of all, their potential allies are less attracted than repelled.

Intellectuals are often premier candidates

In many areas, from politics, business, and the media to academe and religion, intellectuals often become the foremost victims of propaganda and indoctrination, because they live in realms of ideas, rather than on terrains, which are less pliant, like those of technological and financial facts. Like putty, ideas are more malleable than durable goods. Because intellectuals can expand and contract concepts at will, they erroneously conclude that they do so correctly, thereby becoming more susceptible to indoctrination than others. In youth and old age, from political and religious left or right, and from Nazi or Maoist eras to the terrorist present, intellectuals, religious ones included, are often targeted as premier candidates for indoctrination and self-deception.

Propaganda and self-delusion are equal opportunity maladies. Regardless of intellectual or economic class, the best defenses against religious and other indoctrinations and self-deceptions entail aggressive quests for logical coherence, honesty about one’s assumptions, and fairness about listening to opposing viewpoints. There is nothing irreverent about subjecting religious proponents and prophets to the same common-sense tests, to which we subject philosophers, politicians, and other human beings. Otherwise, forgetting destructive crusades, tragic inquisitions, and religious dominations of the past, we continue to repeat their errors. Blinded by ideological and secretly self-serving rigor, we need to test all ideological or religious claims with the prophetic injunction: By their fruits you will know them: for example, violence, deception, intrusion, and lording it over others; as distinguished from peace-making, honesty, and respect for the freedom and equality of others.

No religious tradition or sub-tradition is exempt from scrutiny through such criteria. Neither are other cultural movements, military, economic, political, ecological, health, or dietary. In a pluralistic world, there is room for many sets of ideals, if not ideologies. But in a fair, considerate, and liberated world, the overriding issue becomes: how are our specific human endeavors implemented practically and productively? How do our own religious or cultural views and practices affect our relationships with others– coercively, with indoctrination, or with honesty, respectful interaction, and persuasion?

* Roderick Hindery, Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought? Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. Parts of this paper develop or overlap with the previous paper about “Viruses in Academe: Indoctrination and Intellectuals”; and were incorporated in a presentation to members of the Society for Christian Ethics, W. Region, 2/15/02

Discussion questions.

  1. Should the beliefs of religious groups, both new and traditional, face the same cross-examinations as other cultural groups? Why or why not?
  2. What types of indoctrination commonly appear in religious, political, or commercial advocacies? Which types are unique?
  3. Can religious claims be challenged at their roots as well as peripherally?
  4. Does critical thought act as a friend or an enemy to religious beliefs?

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