In Praise of Brainwashing
I’ve been thinking about brainwashing recently. Many people would look at my life and say I’ve been brainwashed. I was brought up in a home where a certain set of minority beliefs were presented as true. I have adhered to the core of these beliefs for as long as I can remember and have never really had a time when I’ve rejected them for an alternative way of viewing and living in the world. These beliefs cause me to live my life in a way that is not only different from but seems outright weird to a majority of my peers. And to top it off, I’m so committed to these beliefs that I spend my life thinking about them and teaching them to others. On a popular definition of brainwashing, I think I probably qualify.
I began to realise this as I reflected on the concept of formation outlined by James K.A. Smith in You Are What You Love. As I thought through his suggestion that we should shape our corporate worship and our home life in such a way that it forms us into people whose loves are directed in a certain direction, I was struck that many people would see this as brainwashing, particularly when the idea is applied to parenting.
But then I realised that if Smith is right that all of us are constantly being formed by unexamined cultural liturgies – and I think he probably is – then all of us are constantly being brainwashed. My situation is no different; it’s just that fewer people have been brainwashed into the beliefs I have. Those who hold to majority beliefs are no less brainwashed than the rest of us.
The key question, then, is not whether we should allow ourselves to be brainwashed (or whether we should brainwash our children) but who or what we should allow to brainwash us and into what loves and beliefs. There is good brainwashing and bad brainwashing. The key is distinguishing between the two.
So why am I happy to have been brainwashed into Christian belief and why do I continue to actively pursue that brainwashing (or formation, as Smith would more gently put it)? I think there are three cumulative reasons, in the form of three questions that should be asked of any belief system.
Is it coherent?
To be worth adopting a belief system needs to be coherent. The issue here isn’t whether it is true or whether we want it to be true, but whether it could work if it were true.
Is it good, beautiful, and life-giving?
This question helps us think about whether we want the belief system to be true. It might be coherent but unattractive and damaging. We want to be shaped by beliefs that will do us and others good.
Is it true?
This is obviously the most important question. Does this belief system align with reality? Does it make good sense of what we already know to be true and of how we experience the world?
I’m happy to have been brainwashed into Christianity because I have examined it and found it to be coherent; I have experienced it to be beautiful and life-giving, and I think there are very good reasons to believe it’s true.
In reality, of course, I’m not a Christian just because I have received the right sort of brainwashing. No amount of brainwashing can bring life to one who is dead. Ultimately, I’m a Christian because of what the Father has done in me through his Son and the Spirit. The brainwashing is just part of how he has worked and is working in me. But I now realise that when someone suggests I’ve been brainwashed, I’ll be able to confidently say, ‘Yes I have, and I am so grateful for that.’ I’m sure it will prove to be a great conversation starter.