David Barnett

British Council


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In what way is Religion like brainwashing?

I am an English teacher in Spain. Recently a student gave me a presentation on World Youth Day...a congregation of Catholics from all over the world who get together to talk about how to live Christ's message. She described feeling exultant...being surrounded by smiling people 24 hrs a day, giving one another positive reinforcement...never saying no...never shirking a task...walking all day...praying most of the night...eating quickly and poorly...being constantly tired but happy.

Thing is, I'd just read Divine Madness by Robert Muchamore, in which an Australian Cult get rich people to join them by acting in EXACTLY the same way.

Is there a psychologist out there who can confirm or disconfirm whether this is brainwashing or just bonhomie and camaraderie?

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    Mar 12 2012: Nobody wants to get brain washed, they belive it because they trust in their religion and faith. If someone comes to me with the same idea, i wont spend my time and money for them, because my beliefs are different.
    If some one can do the same thing and earn the trust of a person who have no interest in any religion or whatsoever then it might be a kinda brain washing. But i guess these peoples already had that beliefs and was just waiting for an opertunity to involve in that.
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    Mar 11 2012: Religion should be accepted on its own intrinsic values, based on altruism, which means people come to it, rather than it having to force itself on people (via brainwashing).

    One of the problems with religion right now is its willingness to be used as a political or commercial lever to achieve outcomes that have become too far removed from the altruistic aim of engendering morality, spirituality, understanding and peace.

    If a religion has to resort to brainwashing people in order to get them to follow it, it usually means somewhere in the background, there may be personal, political, or commercial gains taking place.

    I happen to think that spirituality and religion are evolved psychological imperatives that cannot and should not be ignored. I also think that what we see now in religion is a grotesquely distorted version of it, as it gets subsumed into this crazy version of reality we now live in, where things seem to matter far more than people.
  • Mar 11 2012: There is some very good science out there these days about exactly how religion is like brainwashing and precisely how it works. There is good science that shows that humans really like having something that helps us achieve a state of mental relaxation which eases our worries and as an added bonus gives us a social glue that provides community and connection.

    All of the truth and science in the world will always have a hard time competing with that until and unless we can show people that you can meditate without a belief in god and you can have community without the priests to tell you how to do it....
  • Mar 22 2012: What you are actualy seeing in these big events as World Youth Day, or the Hajj, or other big scale Religios events is more the result of Brainwashing. As the Indoctrination of most Religious people beginns in there early youth they have been conditioned to belive that these events are going to be big euphoric events that will make them feel the presence of god. Sleep deprivation and mal nutrition leed exhaustion in order to compensate and keep the organism roling we produce endorphins which leed to euphoric feelings and so full fill the prophecy. So in the end you get a sort of self endorsed brainwash...
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    Mar 12 2012: Hi David

    Based off what you said on your post I am not sure how this would constitute as brainwashing. People being happy and coming together as some sort of community does not seem to be a bad thing and it seems to imply that happy people are to a degree brainwashed...

    But if I understand the question itself (in what way is Religion like brainwashing) I think the answer is quite simple: you get people to believe what you want them to believe by telling them they should be certain about things that they are certainly not certain about...also you implement fear into them......

    to put thing simply you appeal more towards softening their existential anxieties as opposed to their intellect but this of course is more effective the younger the individual is.

    An former professor of mines who is a self-proclaimed atheist once stated to me that he feels "guilty" and often times "scared" of his belief because of the fear that his former catholic church drilled into his mind.
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      Mar 12 2012: I don't consider being scared into something brainwashing. I meant manipulating vulnerable people mentally and physically into a certain state where they are willing to be led...subtly...slowly and never revealing the true reason why. In the book I mentioned, the people come out of their first encounter feeling very good about themselves and having had a wonderful time. Step 1. Next step...get them alone...get them more involved...show trust... acceptance... Step 3 Take away importance from the individual and make them see the common goal they're tying to achieve...Step 4...Get them to do Step 1 with new people...showing how the great the organisation is...Step 5...Working full-time within the organization...being a fully accepted member...Step 6...Move in.... Step 7...Donate your belongings...

      All of this slowly, subtly...never giving people time to question, think or leave them with any excess energy. I don't think mainstream religion does this, but some cults definitely do...the ulterior motive nearly always being money, sex and power...nothing to do with religion.
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        Mar 14 2012: Getting people to believe whatever you want to get them to believe, despite the truth or falsity of the belief and you do this through methods of fear can indeed lead to or even contribute to brainwashing. Of course you can implement fear into someone w/o the motive of brainwashing but fear can indeed lead to fear depending on how impressionable one's mind is. We've seen this happen during the Gulag and Holocaust.

        I like how you mentioned the steps because it is obvious that this is a simple and basic way to explain how religions try to recruit new members...this is why I think appealing to one existential anxieties as opposed to their intellect is the only way to accomplish this because any reasonable person would not willingly accept propositional statements that make absolutely no sense. Ever since Constantine united Rome through Christianity, western religions have become more systematic and propositional as opposed to a way of life one should live. With this being said, control of ones mind is a must.

        I think this is where we will disagree:

        Mainstream religion does indeed do this...Just about every religion (perhaps with the exception of most of the eastern traditions) has some method of indoctrination (especially in the United States). You are correct that money, sex and power are motivating factors but leaving religion out the mix would also be a mistake.

        In U.S. Politics, religion is so influential. One of G.W. Bush's reasons for going to the middle east is because he believe that the biblical daemons named Gog and Magog were "afoot in the middle east and that the must be defeated" http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2009/aug/10/religion-george-bush

        You could not possibly get elected into public office or have some sort of leadership role if you "believe the wrong things"....you'd be surprised the power propositional beliefs have in the U.S. when it come to religion.
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          Mar 14 2012: Surely he didn't believe that...he was just saying that to get the backing of the religious lobbies...I'm sure George Bush never believed in anything other than money and power. I didn't mention sex because connecting those two ideas...Bush and sex, leads to disturbing thoughts.
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        Mar 14 2012: Certainly there can be big gaps between what a person profess to believe and what they actually believe but its actually hard to dictate that from the outside so the best we can do in regards to such a statement is be skeptical at best.

        Ever since Carter, it being a christian is a requirement for become president of the U.S. (not officially but socially, yes).

        Regardless, you are correct that he is trying to get those who are religious to support him (In this video Sam Harris made such an assessment when it came to voting)


        Anyhow, until proven otherwise, I take these people at their words, especially if they want to round up the troops to go out and risk their lives due to biblical propositions and from my perspective this is dangerous. This is why I think religion is a process of brain washing as opposed to being similar to brainwashing (as you seem to assert).

        and your right, bush and sex, I think we need to leave those two out of the same sentence
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    Mar 12 2012: Sounds interesting Roy. I'm a recent convert to atheism because it best describes my experience and way of thinking, but I certainly don't discount the possibility of a God or the fact that He may have created the universe. What I do think implausible is that He looks out for us and cares about us. I don't think the world has a purpose or meaning other than that which we give it. People often argue that something which is created must have a purpose...but I don't agree. He might have had a reason for making it but that doesn't necessarily give the world purpose...just as a cow breaking wind has a reason for doing so but the methane has no purpose once released...pardon the vulgarity...
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      Mar 15 2012: Hi David,

      If it wasn't for religious experience, I would be an atheist today. I have a background in basic nuclear physics and am well aware of the principles of evolution and cosmology. But I had experiences that I couldn't explain with either one. It led me to doing some research. I was amazed by what I found.

      The modern definition of faith is; unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence (taken from Webster's New World Dictionary, original copyright 1953). Compare it to this definition of faith; the ascent of the mind or understanding to the truth of what God has revealed. Simple belief of the scriptures, of the being and perfections of God, and of the existence, character, and doctrines of Christ founded on the testimony of the sacred writers, is called historical or speculative faith (taken from Noah Webster's Dictionary 1904 edition).

      In psychology class, I learned of split brain theory. The left hemisphere sees everything in logical expressions. The right hemisphere sees everything in associations. Religion developed in the age of mythology which is all right brain asociations. The unified field theory of physics developed in modern times from a left brain perspective. The right brain sees the creative forces of nature as a creator. The left brain sees them as mathematical models. They are both looking at the same thing, but see them entirely differently because they are using different brain functions to compute reality.

      Christ is the seventh energy chakra of Eastern philosophy. Hell, as we have come to know it, is a teaching of the ancient Egyptians. You won't find it in the book of Genesis. According to the Mayan calendar, the evolution of consciousness is following a schedule. Most religions are operating under herd mentality. People are taught what to believe, and when they question it, they are flooded with theological rhetoric. The bible says prove all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and I intend to follow that path.
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    Mar 12 2012: Have you ever been to a church where you tried to debate the current dogma? Galileo tried it and look where it got him. When I was in Catholic Sunday School, I often questioned what was being taught because the interpretation that I was being given didn't make any sense. The answer that I got was "who the hell do you think you are questioning a doctrine that has been studied for two thousand years!".

    After twenty years of research, I know who the hell I am. I have uncovered many misconceptions in what is being held as absolute truth. Look on my profile and you will find a website that highlights what I believe.
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    Mar 12 2012: Although it was called World Youth Day, it went on for a week
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      Mar 12 2012: Wow! too bad we couldn't chuck a few through a MRI at the end of it,each one would be different as they wouldn't know of a mri test.It would be interesting data.
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    Mar 12 2012: I'm not up to play on deep meditation but i understand that prayer is a form of meditation except it uses a sending out of energies to connect to the source, in this case the catholic god,the hard work involved is to tire the body to help in setting up the right conditions for the mind.the semi fasting also helps,in the end it's about conquering the body and establishing a deeper connection,during their youth day i would say those kids went through a brain chemistry change though it would usually take longer than 24 hrs for a true connection.

    This is old knowledge dating as far back as before cuneiform writing,my old native martial arts tutor use to take us through something similar.

    In the end any system can be put to the question and made to look like brainwashing,we've got a few in my country.
  • Mar 12 2012: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/ex_moonie_diane_benscoter_how_cults_think.html

    Have you seen this one, David? It doesn't really answer the question but it's on topic.
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    Mar 12 2012: Mildly surprised this one didn't get closed down.
    I find religious indoctrination of children very sad and disturbing.
    Children are so credulous and can be filled with damaging dogma.
    Teach them to think for themselves, to question, to challenge.

    Blind Faith is not a virtue
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      Mar 12 2012: I only asked "In what way..." People are free to say "in no way at all.." which they have done. I only admit that the people who are not truly religious but use religion as a means to get something else are guilty of this.
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    Mar 11 2012: Consider that religions, belief systems, schools of philosophy and overall anything that establishes your state of mind (in Belief systems) is/are a primary factor in perceptual cognition - a part of cognition.

    Continue to consider that - science, math, dance, poetry, art, physics, etc. (subjects of study) are tools to build on the primary - these are secondary factors.

    Now brainwashing occurs when you manipulate the primary factors... Religion cannot change the facts on the secondary, but rather change how we interrupt the secondary factors based on what we believe in the primary.

    So today's atheist culture does the same by being anti-religion... When things occur that are seemingly supernatural, unexplainable and a phenomena these scientist and practitioners of this trend totally rejects them as being a "fact" due to the empirical reductive-deductive process we internationalized as a western culture. This voids an IMMENSE amounts of data in process philosophy, fuzzy logic and other forms of analytical skills that are needed today to truly make opinions on reality.

    For all we know the Abrahamics are correct, but not in the "immaterial" sense but in an extraterrestrial sense; aliens and what not. Yet that is even off the table of possibilities in primary and secondary practices today (majorly). Why? Now that's a good question.

    You suggest these people are brainwashing based off of what? They are happy? Yet you go into any book store and go into the psychology section I can bet ANYTHING more than half the books are about how to be "happy." It's an eternal question of human beings that Eastern philosophies have been concerned with for centuries.

    The only point in which these people are brainwashed is when they bring their primary factors into the secondary. When your existential arguments affect/effect the secondary, you are brainwashed. You don't need to be a fundamentalist of religion in order to be brainwashed, just as easily be anti-religion and be.
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      Mar 11 2012: Did anyone read the description of my question or just the question? I was talking about the subtle mind play combined with physical exploitation...fatigue...bad diet...never saying "no"...never being alone. I had to generalize in the question. I am not anti-religion, but I believe that anyone can be manipulated for just about any purpose...and many of those manipulators happen to be organizers of large-scale religious events, which is disturbing.
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        Mar 11 2012: See "many of those manipulators" is an unaware phrase and thus why you cannot see where I am coming from. Simply by implying "religion == manipulation" is take take both words and put them together into one thought... How can you not take the core question at face value?

        At your level of consideration, I addressed. Primary beliefs can be manipulated. Patriotism is just as religiously foundational as a fundamentalist religion would be. To die for a country? That is just as or more intense than religion.

        So I can ask the same question: Does American culture brainwash us? Into believing what?

        Culture houses religion, how can a religion be blamed when it is apart of many cultures?

        You're confusing a lot of separate arguments. Because ALL can be physically measured in some form of matter or process. Except in order to know if we are brainwashed we would need a control group to determine such a premise. Please, one COMPLETELY un-brainwashed society in the world on your terms, and I will tell you how wrong that determination is... What ever that may come down to; rationality vs. irrationality? knowing vs. not knowing? What exactly are you talking about if I missed the mark on your conversation at any point?
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          Mar 11 2012: I only think of brainwashing if the doer is aware of what he/she is doing and the receiver is completely unaware of what is happening...and what is happening is (taken bit by bit) seemingly harmless and totally unconnected from the final goal. I didn't imply anything in my question...people did infer things from my question, I merely asked "to what extent? Religion and Politics I wouldn't normally classify as brainwashing because they are too up front about their messages. If brainwashing does take place at all in these spheres, it is by people who are using religion to get at what they really want....10% of your income per year and your house when you die. God, the after-life and the rest of it is just a wonderful tool to get there because it preaches poverty and charity. The truly religious, in my opinion, rarely do anything other than good.
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        Mar 11 2012: In that broad sense of brainwashing it happens in many things besides religion constantly, everywhere and at this very moment. However sometimes the "doer" of the brainwashing doesn't even know they are performing the act, is that brainwashing or?

        This is why culture should be looked at and not just parts of culture. Because when you look at culture you look at the parts automatically, sometimes in seemingly chaotic ways, but all madness has order to it.
        • Mar 12 2012: The level of brainwashing in science cannot be compared to that in religion. The very nature of science is to question everything and religion can only exist if it isn't questioned. Brainwashing in the soft sense may be widespread in society but religion does so on a totally different level.
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        Mar 12 2012: Fundamental religions brainwash on a totally different level - modern Abrahamic religions, could be argued to do that, but even then cannot be measured by any control group.

        Present a control group (society) who is without "hard" brainwashing. Patriotism is on the same parallel to religion in that manner.

        I also didn't compare religion and science, in fact that comparison is wrong. Indeed religion can brainwash, but the question is, what objective truth are they brainwashed over exactly that you can prove empirically is false? Unless they are in fact religious fundamentalist, you cannot.
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    Mar 11 2012: Religion doesn't have the monopoly, we should include sports, lottery, tv soaps, just about anything that appeals to our emotions, or brings peer pressure to bear. I guess religion phobia appeals to 'Intelligencia' like Mr. Dawkins who repeats his mantra ad nauseam to the faithful. We are all susceptible & need to take a step back now & again.

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      Mar 11 2012: I am not anti-religion at all...I was just intrigued by the book and the supposed methods of sophisticated mind manipulators. It was the exhaustion...the bad diet...the never saying "no" which intrigued me. It tied in so well with this girl's description. And it was more than just blanket exposure to something...like sport on the television...
      Mr Dawkins goes too far in my opinion. I think John Lennox is a far better debater and he argues for the other side.
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    Mar 11 2012: What you describe is not brainwashing. It's humans happy to be part of something, enjoying themselves.
    Brainwashing is when you tell vulnerable people that truth comes from anything else than guesswork.
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      Mar 11 2012: I am not forced, morally or by peer pressure, to work till I'm exhausted...nor am I kept on a bad diet...never given the time to be alone...it was these aspects which intrigued me, and the way a long-term exposure to such pressure can have on someone.
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        Mar 12 2012: Again, this is not brainwashing, I think. It's just summer camp. All good stuff.
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          Mar 12 2012: That's what you're supposed to think...lifelong Summer camp.
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          Mar 12 2012: Wonder if there are some similarities with political youth movements, past and present.
          Get them young and ......
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    R H

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    Mar 11 2012: I would say it's like when politicians distort the message of the ideals of the nation for their own gain. Or when a boxer throws a fight. Or when a beautiful woman seduces a man (or viceversa) and steals all of his/her wealth. Or a business tycoon says he is supporting charities and the community then bankrupts the company legally and retires in luxury. Or when the board of education declares that all children are equal in their eyes, but only the rich schools, or the schools with the correct ethnicity get the computers. Or when a doctor says they 'believe' an experimental procedure is safe, and your child dies, but the hospital received incentives from the pharmaceutical company to promote its product and the cost of failure is built in to the price. It is in these ways, to me, that religion is like brainwashing.
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      Mar 11 2012: But most of what you describe is plain lying...not subtle mind manipulation
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        Mar 11 2012: I would have to counter that is what 'brainwashing' is in effect. It is using, or creating, perceived beliefs for a nefarious end, such as control or a private benefit. It is making/using something attactive to condition (or just plain forcing) someone/people for a partcular nefarious end. If it were not for it being nefarious, then I believe every kind of educational, politcal, sociological, scientific, and religious communication could be considered 'brainwashing'. Anything with an agenda would be 'brainwashing', in my opinion.
  • Mar 11 2012: How is religion not like brainwashing? Think of the repititiveness of it, for one thing.
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      Mar 11 2012: Life is repetitive...getting up, going to work, coming home, housework, childcare, sleep, work again...I wouldn't call it brainwashing, though. What i was getting at was more in the description of the question rather than in the question, which had to be simplified.
      • Mar 11 2012: David, do you think repetitiveness has nothing to do with brainwashing? When people do things repeitively, they tend to stop paying attention, lose awareness, act robotic. Think of the repetitive phrases used in religions. Do you think people utter them with intent, awareness of the content of the words they are using? I think religion is founded upon, exists on and continues based upon brainwashing that usually starts before children are aware enough to think for themselves about the subject matter and base their own thoughts and beliefs on their own experiences and their own reasoning and intelligence. It steals life from people, by imposing controls upon them that are insulting and inappropriate. Religions tend to make negative assumptions about people. That just ain't right. People are good and smart and can figure out life for themselves for the most part. Let's show some respect, especially for children. We don't need to warp their minds in the directions of dead people whose minds may have been warped by other warped dead people.
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    Mar 11 2012: Religion+your beliefs = denials and fighting best of luck my advice let them believe you wont change their mind they will need to make that choice of their own free will.