Christian Education Without the Problem of Indoctrination


Can Christian teachers and parents teach Christian beliefs without indoctrinating their students and children? The topic of indoctrination has long been associated with religious beliefs, due primarily to the historical association of indoctrination with religious instruction. This link between indoctrination and religious education is strengthened by the recent call from some educators to support religious indoctrination in schools. This is the position, for example, of R. Scruton and others who define and approve of indoctrination as the inducement of a closed mind.[1] Others, however, swing to the other extreme in their treatment of religious content. As noted by Peter Gardner, part of the anxiety about indoctrination, an anxiety shared by several writers, is that teachers who regard some ideas as certainties, such as some religious ideas, will present them in the way that other teachers normally reserve for less contentious ‘certainties’.[2] There are three main approaches available to educators and parents in religious education, namely teaching for commitment (the confessional approach), teaching about commitment (the phenomenological approach), and the latest, teaching from commitment.[3] This article evaluates the three approaches and proposes a non-indoctrinative approach to religious education.

The Confessional Approach

The first approach, “Teaching for commitment” or the confessional approach was traditionally used in ancient churches and has since been aspersed as promoting indoctrination. David Carr comments that “the daily ritual of Christian worship in schools may well have been successful in communicating something of what it is to operate as a religious devotee, but it may also have amounted to little more than a crude conditioning or indoctrination into views which are highly questionable, if not actually meaningless, in the cold hard glare of rational scientific scrutiny.”[4] This view is also voiced by Paul Hirst who objects to religious education on the ground that there are no valid objective tests for any strictly religious claims.[5] This, as Ieuan Lloyd has pointed out, is based on the scientific proof and testing assumed by Hirst.[6] Consequently, he conjectures that the best we can do is to teach about religious beliefs and practices, not the teaching of them.

However, the “glare of rational scientific scrutiny” is not the reason why this approach is frowned upon. What is indoctrinative about the confessional approach is that it aims to close the minds of the students to other options in an uncritical manner. This is inconsistent with the value of rational autonomy in a liberal society. It should also be pointed out that this emphasis on critical understanding is compatible with religious commitment, at least for the major religions in the world today; afterall, as Ronald Laura and Michael Leahy put it, “an authentic faith is an autonomous faith”.[7]

The Phenomenological Approach

The rejection of the confessional approach has given rise to the “phenomenological” approach which is teaching about commitment. This approach seeks to avoid indoctrination by concentrating primarily on different social and cultural expressions of spirituality, rather than induction into substantial spiritual beliefs.[8] Instead of simply teaching one religion such as Christianity, children are exposed to a wide range of religious views in a neutral and objective fashion. This approach is deemed to be most compatible with the tenets of a liberal society where neutrality, openness and pluralism reign. For example, Brian Crittenden speaks from a liberal pluralist perspective when he recommends that schools do not reflect any of the particular inclusive value systems or aim to promote any of the particular styles of life within the society. Instead, he avers that schools should play a more limited role in critically examining the assortment of inclusive value systems. According to Crittenden, “to critically examine” is to exercise one’s “critical or reflective rationality”. This holds that “persuasion and the acceptance of beliefs should depend on the strength of evidence and reasons; that any belief and practice in which a serious interpretation of the human or physical world is reflected should be open to criticism and the test of wide human experience.”[9]

This approach has been advocated in several liberal societies. For example, the Schools Council Working Paper No. 36 in England was based conspicuously on Ninian Smart’s phenomenological study. This approach, which teaches about the world’s major religions, became the dominant approach in England in the seventies and eighties.[10] In more recent years, the 1986 Swann Report and the 1994 OFSTED report both acknowledge the appreciation of religious or spiritual education through the phenomenological approach. Over at the United States, the Supreme Court in the Schempp/Murray case ruled against the teaching of religion in favour of teaching about religion in public schools. This is grounded on the distinction that the former involves a historical and comparative approach while the latter entails a dogmatic indoctrination of children in promoting only one religion as true.[11] The attraction of this approach is pellucid; if the students are not taught to be committed to any religious beliefs but are merely introduced to them in a detached and objective manner, no indoctrination can take place.

The phenomenological approach, however, has met with a number of objections as well. The most common criticism is that it does not represent the true character of religion in its Herculean quest to avoid any religious point of view. By being predominantly informational, the result is that “scraps and fragments of different religious traditions to which young people are exposed to … are liberal to be at best meaningless and at worst actually distortive of any real understanding of this or that religion or mode of spirituality.”[12] Corroborating this view is Gabriel Moran who questions the possibility and desirability of this approach. He claims that the idea of teaching about religion creates “an artificial notion of objectivity and gives over the language of teaching religion to many people who indoctrinate rather than teach.”[13] Observing that “objective” is interpreted as “not being involved at all in a subject” by the proponents of the phenomenological approach, he concludes that this approach is neither possible nor desirable since one cannot fully understand religion without a minimum level of personal interest in it.

This was in fact the reason for the growing dissatisfaction and subsequent rejection of Smart’s phenomenological method - it distances children from direct apprehension of religious experience.[14] The discordant voices climaxed in the 1988 Educational Reform Act in England which disavowed the phenomenological approach as a general approach for religious education. As the spokeswoman, Baroness Cox announced, the multi-faith approach, thematic methodology and secular philosophies had led to the “dilution of Christian teaching in a multi-faith mishmash” and “a position of extreme relativism in which all belief systems are included in a value free hotch-potch.”[15]

The phenomenological approach, by sharing a number of liberal assumptions like neutrality and subjectivity, also shares the criticisms plaguing liberal ideology. Commenting on the views of Crittenden, Francis Schrag notes that not all the interest groups in a liberal society accept his recommendation of critical rationality. He points out that these insular communities wish to live within and pass on a tradition which does not permit, much less require “an openness to criticism and the test of wide human experience” nor do they believe that “acceptance of belief should depend on the strength of evidence and reasons.”[16]

It is also questionable that indoctrination happens when only one religion is taught, which is the presupposition for teaching a plurality of religious views to children. Julia J. Bartkowiak has averred that whether indoctrination has taken place depends on how religious views are taught, not how many religions are addressed. She points out that “a teacher could, deliberately or inadvertently, teach comparative and historical material on religions in a manner that amounts to the teaching of a particular religion.”[17] Hence the phenomenological method which emphasises neutrality and pluralism cannot adequately provide a form of religious education that is non-indoctrinative. In fact, some have countered that religious liberals who embrace the phenomenological method can be as dogmatic as religious conservatives. H. A. Alexander maintains that “religious liberals are attracted to their own dogmas, from the secularist denial of any value in theological discourse, to claims that (the) ultimate authority for one’s religious posture lie(s) in individual autonomy or the positivist historical study of tradition.”[18] The final analysis is that the phenomenological approach, with the ostensible aim to avoid indoctrination, has presented a truncated version of religious education. It is therefore not an option favoured by parents and educators who want to share their religious beliefs while developing the rational autonomy of their children.

The “Teaching from Commitment” Approach

Due to the rejection of the first two approaches, namely “teaching for commitment” and “teaching about commitment”, more philosophers have canvassed for “teaching from commitment” in religious education. In this approach, children are introduced to a particular religion such as Christianity from within the religious system while ensuring that the child’s rational autonomy is enhanced. This approach sees the compatibility between initiation into a primary culture, and the development of rational autonomy. For example, David Carr states that there is no need to suppose that any form of initiation “has to be an uncritical process which deliberately shirks the serious doubts and questions about faith and salvation which have exercised the greatest teachers and interpreters of all the major world religions.”[19] Similarly, Elmer John Thiessen suggests that the initiation of the child in his early stages of development into a particular world view is not indoctrinative as long as the child’s autonomy is not stifled. This means that he aims at encouraging students “gradually to reflect critically on the committed perspective into which they have been nurtured” within the religious context, knowing that “they will eventually make an independent choice” for or against the religious commitment.[20]

It is significant to note that this approach of teaching from commitment does not necessarily reject the phenomenological approach to religious education. With reference to the Swann report, the phenomenological approach could be introduced to the students at a right time as part of its effort to cultivate their autonomy in religion from the basis of a particular religious tradition. Aiming at “autonomy via faith”, the short-term aim for educators and parents is to develop faith within a stable primary culture although the faith here is not impervious to any change or rejection in the future. In the long run, the ultimate aim is for children to exercise their autonomy in freely accepting or rejecting the faith.

In relation to the problem of indoctrination, parents and teachers have to avoid implanting unshakeable beliefs in the children. This does not mean that any commitment to fixed beliefs is a product of indoctrination. Here Terence McLaughlin distinguishes a strong and weak sense of fixed beliefs; in the first case, the beliefs are fixed because they are “so pervasively and thoroughly established that nothing can shake them”.[21] This reflects the indoctrinated state of mind which is to be eschewed. In contrast, the weak sense of fixed beliefs is found in beliefs which are stable but open to subsequent challenge and change. The formation of such beliefs is in fact the purpose of providing a coherent primary culture to the children within a particular faith. This distinction is central to our aim of avoiding indoctrination by pushing for the compatibility between autonomy and faith. To lay the base for autonomy and guard against indoctrination, the critical faculties of the children should be developed gradually:

At an appropriate point, parents should encourage the child to ask questions and be willing to respond to the questioning honestly and in a way which respects the child’s developing cognitive and emotional maturity; make the child aware that religion is a matter of faith rather than universally publicly agreed belief … encourage attitudes of tolerance and understanding in relation to religious disagreement; indicate that morality is not exclusively dependent upon religion; be alert to even subtle forms of psychological or emotional blackmail; ensure that the affective, emotional and dispositional aspects of their child’s religious development takes place in appropriate relationship with the cognitive aspect of that development … respect the eventual freedom of the child to refuse to participate in religious practices, and so on.[22]

To further understand this approach for Christian education, it is useful to examine the merits of such an approach for Christian educators and parents who wish to teach in a non-indoctrinative way.

How Indoctrination can be avoided in Christian Education

This approach allows Christian parents and educators to provide a stable initial culture for children within a particular religious faith while encouraging the child to question, be open-minded and ultimately be free to accept or reject the faith. A primary culture in the sense of a shared framework of fundamental beliefs is essential to the preservation of one’s culture. This is especially relevant to religious minorities in liberal societies, as Mark Halstead informs us. Portraying a sympathetic picture of these minorities, he notes that their culture is threatened by prolonged exposure to liberal values. There is therefore a need for these communities to use education to maintain this shared framework of fundamental beliefs. Speaking from the non-liberal perspective, Halstead is not surprised that liberalism is viewed as oppressive and undermining particular religious traditions. In his words, “(w)hat Western educationalists see as universal liberal values may well be seen by others as secular and reductionist.”[23] The liberals, however, have their own worries of religious indoctrination. For example, Walter Feinberg expresses the liberal concern that fundamentalist parents are curtailing their children’s future ability to choose from the array of alternatives provided by the larger social order.[24] This, he surmises, is one of the strongest arguments prohibiting Christian parents like the plaintiffs in the Mozert v Hawkins Hawlegal case in America from shielding their children against what they perceive to be deleterious materials in class.

On the one hand, this form of Christian education can solve the paradox of liberal indoctrination as feared by parents who want to preserve their own religious heritage. It entails that Christian parents and educators have the duty to provide a primary culture which includes the religious beliefs for their children and students. At the same time, it avoids the pitfalls of religious indoctrination by some parents who want to insulate their children from all outside influences. Instead, parents and religious educators should expose the children to alternative beliefs and counter-arguments at an appropriate time. Our conception also effectively rejects certain false assumptions about exposure to a variety of values and beliefs, assumptions which are held by both the liberals and fundamentalists. Fundamentalists like the parents in the Mozert case have overrated the negative effects of such an exposure; they need to be aware that mere exposure does not constitute indoctrination. As pointed out by Nigel Blake,

To a person who already has the central beliefs of one creed, an incompatible creed seems likely to appear at best interesting, deserving of respect but wrong. Young Muslims in church schools can learn a lot about Christianity but seem unlikely to learn to be Christians. It seems equally unlikely that the comparative study of world religions in a maintained school might alter the religious affiliation (or resistance to religious affiliation) of any child who is being brought up outside the school with a particular set of religious or anti-religious beliefs.[25]

The above assertion is also borne out in my own observations through my teaching experience in a Christian junior college in Singapore. At that college, students of different religious faiths ranging from Islam, Buddhism to Hinduism are exposed daily to morning prayers and scripture reading, weekly chapel, religious instructions and other religious activities without any mass conversion to Christianity. Neither is there any report of the faiths of non-Christian students being shaken or adversely affected due to the mere exposure to Christian beliefs and practices in their two years of study.

The liberals, on the other hand, have overrated the positive effects of exposure in avoiding indoctrination and promoting tolerance. Julia Bartkowiak explains how exposure to a pluralistic culture can even result in children who are intolerant and religiously dogmatic:

Exposure to a variety of views, by itself, does not automatically result in tolerant children. Children can easily be taught to criticize the practices of others and become less tolerant when the exposure they have to the views of others is one that finds fault and grievous errors with such beliefs. … (T)eachers can easily fail to make exposure to religions positive. If teachers have dogmatic religious views, or even views that are opposed to all religious beliefs, they may teach about religions in a derogatory manner.[26]

The liberals have also been unduly concerned with the possibility of indoctrination from a fundamental religious upbringing. In the words of Francis Schrag, secularists believe that “the avowed contempt for progressive pedagogy enunciated by … Christian fundamentalist educators, dooms citizens who attend their schools to an unquestioning adherence to monolithic fundamentalist doctrine concerning the good life.”[27] However, Schrag relies on a study conducted in a fundamentalist school which shows that the majority of the students confess that they do not agree with the doctrines of the school, although they conduct themselves with “absolute acceptance” and “unquestioned obedience” outwardly.[28] In other words, the fundamentalist communities are more permeable than expected, and indoctrination, especially in a liberal society, is harder to discern. The root of the problem is the liberals’ over-zealousness in developing the rational autonomy of the children without taking into consideration the necessity of a primary culture. Eamonn Callan accents on the need to set aside the rational justification of beliefs at the initial stage in religious education. Commenting on the rational critical principle where the cogency of one’s religious beliefs must be proportionate to the strength of evidence available, he points out that one cannot examine a faith from a disengaged perspective if one wants to reject or accept it. Instead, the inquirer needs to enter into a way of seeing the world where some central beliefs are sustained by something that goes beyond evidence and argument. Herein lies the challenge for the liberals, according to Callan. For this endeavour to be successful, it presumes the ability for one to jettison the rational-critical principle and regard it as just one possibility among others as one discovers the best way to live. In view of the above, he cautions that if “we educate our children in such a way that they never develop that ability, their rejection of religion may indeed be as unfree an act as the acceptance of faith by the indoctrinated zealot.[29]


Rather than bifurcating the liberal and fundamentalist position on religious education, teaching from commitment seeks to reconcile the two. This idea of Christian education in a liberal society has been endorsed by Christian educators like Barbara Cowell who advocates that Christians join non-believers to search for an agreement about the proper grounds on religious questions, rather than being on the defensive. By doing so, she avers that “they would not only escape the first horn of their dilemma – the fear of indoctrination – but, eventually, turn it to profit; for, they must suppose, anyone who is really clear about the proper grounds would, when properly educated, come to the conclusions which they themselves favour.”[30]


[1] R. Scuton, A. Ellis-Jones and D. O’Keefe, Education and Indoctrination. An Attempt at Definition and a Review of Social and Political Implications (Harrow: Education Research Centre, 1985), chap. 4. If they are right, this has repercussions on moral education as well, given the close relationship between the two. In fact, Scruton, Ellis-Jones and O’Keefe also sanction moral indoctrination in schools through a “concerted attempt to induce a closed mind”. See ibid., 45. For a discussion on the relationship between religious and moral education, see Derek Wright, “Religious Education from the Perspective of Moral Education,” Journal of Moral Education 12 (1983) : 111-5; J. E. Greer, “Religious and Moral Education: An Exploration of Some Relevant Issues,” Journal of Moral Education 12 (1983) : 92-98; Edwin Cox, “Unfinished Agenda: a Comment on the Special JME Issue on the Relationship of ME and RE,” Journal of Moral Education 12 (1983) : 149-156; John A. Sealey, “Religious Education: a component of moral education?” Journal of Philosophy of Education 17 (1983) : 251-3; Stephen Theron, “Are our Attitudes to Moral and to Religious Education Mutually Inconsistent?” Journal of Moral Education 13 (1984) : 17-21; and Eamonn Callan, “Godless Moral Education and Liberal Tolerance,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 23 (1989) : 267-81.

[2] Peter Gardner, “Uncertainty, Teaching and Personal Autonomy: An Inquiry into Pedagogic Dualism,” Cambridge Journal of Education 23 (1993):158.

[3] I have adopted the descriptions for the three approaches, “teaching for commitment”, “teaching about commitment”, and “teaching from commitment” from Elmer John Thiessen. For a fuller discussion, see his Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination and Christian Nurture (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).

[4] David Carr, “Rival Conceptions of Spiritual Education,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 30 (1996) : 174.

[5] P. H. Hirst, “Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge,” The Philosophy of Education, ed. R. S. Peters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).

[6] Ieuan Lloyd, “Teaching Religious Understanding,” Religious Studies 17 (1981) : 255. He also notes that Hirst’s reliance on scientific method leads him to conclude that any true form of painting must accord with reality, like a proposition. See ibid.

[7] Ronald Laura and Michael Leahy, “Religious Upbringing and Rational Autonomy,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 23 (1989): 259.

[8] Carr, 171. The phenomenological method adopts the term “spiritual education” instead of “religious education” as the latter is more popularly associated with the confessional method. For example, the OFSTED report distinguishes spiritual development from religious development in this way: “Spiritual development relates to that aspect of inner life through which pupils acquire insights into their personal existence which are of enduring worth. It is characterised by reflection, the attribution of meaning to experience, valuing a non-material dimension to life and intimations of an enduring reality. ‘Spiritual’ is not synonymous with ‘religious’; all areas of the curriculum may contribute to pupils’ spiritual development.” See Office for Standards in Education, 8. For a debate on spiritual education and its relationship with religious education, see David Carr, “Towards a Distinctive Conception of Spiritual Education,” Oxford Review of Education 20 (1995) : 83-98; David Carr, “Rival Conceptions of Spiritual Education,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 30 (1996) : 159-178; Jim Mackenzie, “David Carr on Religious Knowledge and Spiritual Education,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 32 (1998) : 409-427; David Carr, “Spiritual Language and the Ethics of Redemption: a Reply to Jim Mackenzie,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 33 (1999) : 451-461.

[9] Brian Crittenden, “The Scope of Parents’ Rights in Education,” in Philosophy of Education: Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Annual Meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society, in Normal, IL:, 1982, by the Philosophy of Education Society, 328.

[10] Dennis Bates, “Christianity, Culture and Other Religions (Part 2): F H Hilliard, Ninian Smart and the 1988 Education Reform Act,” British Journal of Religious Education 18 (1996) : 85. For an example of how world religions are being taught in a post-colonial world, see Naomi Southard and Richard Payne, “Teaching the Introduction to Religions: Religious Pluralism in a Post-Colonial World,” Teaching Theology and Religion 1 (1998) : 51-7.

[11] Julia J. Bartkowiak, “Fear of God: Religious Education of Children and the Social Good,” in Having and Raising Children, ed. Narayan, Uma (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1999), 199.

[12] Carr, 171.

[13] Gabriel Moran, “Two Languages of Religious Education,” in Critical Perspectives on Christian Education, ed. Astley, J. and L. F. Francis (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1994), 45.

[14] Bates, 95.

[15] Ibid., 96.

[16] Francis Schrag, “Reply to Crittenden,” in Philosophy of Education: Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Annual Meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society, in Normal, IL., 1982, by the Philosophy of Education Society, 335.

[17] Bartkowiak, 199.

[18] Alexander, “Science and Spirituality,” 385.

[19] Carr, 175.

[20] Thiessen, Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination and Christian Nurture, 255, quoted in Siebren Miedema, “Teaching From Commitment: A Developmental Perspective,” in Philosophy of Education 1995, ed. Neiman, Alven (Urbana: Philosophy of Education Society, 1995), 483, italics mine. Two observations can be made about Thiessen’s position. In his book, Thiessen is more concerned with Christian commitment but his argument is applicable to other religions that value genuine and autonomous faith in the adherents. Secondly, although Thiessen claims to argue for teaching for commitment (as seen in his book title), his conception is actually more like teaching from commitment, since he allows the children to freely choose or reject the religious faith. I think his conception is better understood as the effort of the parents and teachers to aim for commitment while teaching from commitment.

[21] T. H. McLaughlin, “Parental Rights and the Religious Upbringing of Children,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 18 (1984) : 80.

[22] Ibid., 81.

[23] Mark Halstead, “Voluntary Apartheid? Problems of Schooling for Religious and Other Minorities in Democratic Societies,” 267. Halstead proposes in the same article that cultural and religious communities should be given the right to establish their own schools which would offer common provision with regard to citizenship education, but distinctive cultural education. This solution rests on his distinction between political liberalism and cultural liberalism. It is however debatable whether such a demarcation is possible. For a critique of Halstead’s solution, see Neil Burtonwood, “Beyond Culture: A Reply to Mark Halstead,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 30 (1996) : 298-9.

[24] Walter Feinberg, “Liberalism and the Aims of Multicultural Education,” ,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 29 (1995) : 206.

[25] Nigel Blake, “Church Schools, Religious Education and the Multi-ethnic Community: A Reply to David Aspin,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 17 (1983) : 241.

[26] Bartkowiak, 197.

[27] Schrag, “Diversity,” 38.

[28] Alan Peshkin, God’s Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), 254, quoted in Schrag, 38.

[29] Eamonn Callan, “Faith, Worship and Reason in Religious Upbringing,” ,” Journal of Philosophy of Education 23 (1989) : 192.

[30] Barbara Cowell, “The Role of Christians in Religious and Moral Education,” Journal of Moral Education 12 (1983) : 163. This does not necessarily mean that the believer has to sacrifice or compromise his exclusive religious claims. What is suggested is the search for a common ground that already exists between the believer and non-believer.

Charlene H.P. Tan has a PhD in Philosophy and her research interests include issues relating to education, religion and indoctrination. Currently teaching at the National Institute of Education which is part of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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