Last week, I showed you the 4-14 Window. That phrase means that if Christians don’t successfully indoctrinate a child between the ages of 4 and 14, that child is very unlikely to convert to Christianity in adulthood. Evangelicals in particular have been panicking about this concept for decades now. So I wondered what today’s evangelical leaders are doing about the ticking demographic time bomb going off in every one of their churches. Let’s check it out together!
(For Millennials, Zoomers, and Alphas: A cassette tape is a small plastic shell containing a very long length of narrow, spooled magnetic tape. Cassette players played these tapes. Often, the tape tangled up inside the shell or spiraled out of it. You’re a true Child of the 70s/80s if you knew exactly how to re-spool all that loose tape back into place. Tapes fell out of favor in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Incidentally, the joke from Good Omens is true. It’s the weirdest thing. But I don’t argue with the laws of the universe.)
(From introduction: OMG: Look at this!)
Fighting against the 4-14 Window with childhood indoctrination
When someone is given a set of claims and told to accept them without questions or backtalk, we call that an attempt at indoctrination.
So when we talk about successful indoctrination, we’re not talking about full-on conversion. A child can be very successfully indoctrinated with the seeds of conversion well before it formally happens. The elements and underpinnings of belief are what are far more important. To indoctrinate a child, adults simply need to bring that child into their overall worldview:
- Invisible beings, things, and places exist that people can’t detect through the use of their senses.
- After death, we still live on in some form.
- We will always need extra help in life that regular people can’t give us.
- There exist ways to discover truth outside of our senses and the scientific method.
- The bigger and more powerful someone is, the more they should be obeyed and believed.
- The Christian god will protect, love, and help his followers, but only if they are good. If they’re bad, they go to Hell to be tortured forever.
- (gestures at all that intensely sex-negative, gender-essentialist, and cisheteronormative programming that unfortunately infests evangelicalism)
- Life should be fair. Even if it takes decades, even if it happens after death, the scales eventually balance.
You can probably think of a lot more.
These elements of worldview lend themselves to Christian conversion and belief. They create a sort of mental tape-cassette recording that plays in children’s subconscious minds forever. They are the underpinnings of belief: the claims that prospective recruits must buy into for Christianity’s claims and threats to sound even remotely plausible.
Incidentally, they are also why it’s extremely difficult for Christians to recruit people from drastically different worldviews. The classic blog post a then-missionary wrote about “Rice Christians” explains the problem she had (emphases, as always, from the original):
I remember our first year on the field literally thinking, “No one is ever, ever going to come to faith in Christ, no matter how many years I spend here.”
I thought this because for the first time in my life, I was face-to-face with the realities that the story of Jesus was so completely other to the people I was living among. Buddhism and the East had painted such a vastly different framework than the one I was used to that I was at a loss as to how to even begin to communicate the gospel effectively.
She had to start at ground zero: learning her targets’ language, learning to cook like a native, and “building relationships” with the women in her new Southeast Asian homeland. In all of these efforts, her ultimate goal was teaching the people around her in Thailand to see the world as she did. She needed to do that before they could accept anything she had to sell. And it doesn’t sound like she succeeded very often, because our worldview is something we usually learn really young.
Telling a native Thai that if they don’t worship Jesus and obey Jesus’ rules they’ll go to Hell forever must sound a lot like me telling a farmer in Iowa that if he keeps using bigoted slurs he’ll go to Mordor after he dies and get reincarnated as an egg that hatches into an Orc so he can work in the Mines of Moria forever. There’s a lot of lore involved in either threat. And the target has to accept all of it before the threat gains teeth.
Not for nothing does Focus on the Family warn parents that if they miss that crucial indoctrination window, their kids might never grow up to become Christian adults.
How these underpinnings work well past the 4-14 Window
The one belief-element about life being fair might be the most important of all of ’em, for me at least. It took me literal decades after my deconversion to finally slash apart that mental tape. It finally broke the night I burst out at Mr. Captain, “But it’s not fair!” about something. I don’t even remember what it was, only that I was very deep in my feels about it (and that it had nothing to do with him).
My beloved husband immediately broke out laughing. Of course, he also immediately apologized when he saw my face and explained that he hadn’t realized I was serious. The damage was done, though—to that indoctrination point. The laughter of someone who’d never experienced the same indoctrination I had pulled me back. It made me examine, at last, where I’d gotten that idea.
Life itself had certainly never given me that idea. It had come from somewhere else. And it was not hard at all to trace its route all the way back to my Christian indoctrination. I still have a strong desire to work to make this world as fair as we can get it to be, of course, but that desire is leavened with my understanding that to some extent, it’ll always be somewhat unfair.
That kind of indoctrination is what Christians need to push into children before they’re old enough to know it’s bullshit. A child who understands healthy boundaries, the importance of consent and other human rights, the utter necessity of critical thinking, and the need to live in reality and not fantasy is not a child that will likely ever convert to a religion that stands for the opposite of all of these.
As we talk about the various tactics and programs that evangelicals have put into motion to capture the kids in the 4-14 Window these days, be thinking of how these tactics and programs seek to instill the underpinnings of belief into their targets.
Starting from the bottom: Evangelicals struggle with the word ‘indoctrination’
To begin our journey, we must establish what evangelicals even call what they’re doing. Once we get past all their self-congratulatory froufrou warbling about children’s ministry in general, we engage—as they must—with what exactly they’re doing to those little darlings in their care.
Some evangelicals seem completely at ease with the term indoctrination. The evangelical site Got Questions offers us an entire page detailing the importance of childhood indoctrination. They define the word, then insist that really, everyone in society who cares for children indoctrinates them somehow, right? Right?
The definition of indoctrination is “instruction in a body of doctrine or principles; the instillation of a partisan or ideological point of view.” Indoctrination is seen as the act of imparting facts as truth without imparting the ability to critically consider those facts. In this way, we all indoctrinate children. We present clothes for wearing, beds for sleeping, and toys for playing. Every society is built on a foundation of principles that allows its citizens to easily relate to each other and work together for common goals. Christian parents are no different.
But other evangelicals seem very leery of the word “indoctrination.” Over at Desiring God, Rowdy John Piper uses the term “indoctrination” only three times in his essay about it, and always in the context of “the state” doing it to TRUE CHRISTIANS™ children. It’s clear that Piper isn’t keen on connecting the word to what Christians do. Instead, he views it as something the ickie secular godless atheist satanic “state” does. And in his clear opinion, this “indoctrination” harms children and moves them further and further away from TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
His solutions are a laugh riot. First, he suggests families move to “freer countries.” Idiot doesn’t realize that the countries that come closest to his vision of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ are places like Saudi Arabia, Burma, and China! Too bad none of them are Christian, but he’ll feel right at home there! Second suggestion involves homeschooling, the insular, bubble-bound style that destroys children’s creativity and curiosity. Third is simply sending kids to regular schools, but making extra dextra sure they’re indoctrinated at home.
Speaking of indoctrination-focused homeschoolers, we have one of them insisting that everyone indoctrinates children. The writer there simply likes her indoctrination the best. The fact that she thinks that teaching children to think critically and demand real-world evidence for claims is a “bias” of “indoctrination” tells us all we need to know about her and her passel of miseducated kids. But her thinking sure tracks with an old Creationist site’s post claiming that evil secular schools indoctrinate children to trust the scientific method!
Watching evangelicals dance all around the truth as they discuss indoctrinating children
We’ve talked about the more focused proselytization that evangelicals do with their kids. Here, I’m talking more about how parents get the right worldview into them before conversion can even happen.
Once evangelicals get down to brass tacks, they seem perfectly content to indoctrinate children within that 4-14 Window. As usual, it’s rules for thee, never for me with them. They just aren’t thrilled with calling it indoctrination. So they evolved another word for it. Yes, everyone, we’re back to planting seeds, the roofies of the Jesus world! Once you search for planting seeds in children, you’ll find many thousands of hits on that subject.
One mommy blog site offers a mostly-meaningless listicle of ways to plant those roofies in children:
- Possessing spiritual seeds to sow (fill your cup first)
- Praying your child’s heart is “good soil”
- Make space and time to have age-appropriate spiritual conversations
- Introduce spiritual mentors to join in the work
That second one is advanced Christianese. It just means to talk to the ceiling very earnestly concerning a child’s future as a Christian and their current progress with conversion. And the fourth one means other Christians, not imaginary friends. At the end, she strongly advises that parents institute a regular (weekly, I’m guessing) “Family Devotional Time.”
Even as fervent as I was as a kid, I think I’d have rather played in traffic than enduring something like that. It sounds galactically cringey. The sheer out-of-context oogly-boogly weirdness would likely have deconverted me all by itself.
Someone at Bible Study Media offers her own listicle for planting seeds:
Emulate means that parents should give their kids a good example to follow. That means pretending to be totally 100% super-psyched and stoked for church each week and always following Christianity’s rules. (LOL nope!) And “equip” means preparing their now-fully-converted Christian kids to evangelize others.
I don’t know how anyone can take giga-huckster Lee Strobel seriously, but he’s got a listicle too. His starts with building a very strong emotional connection with one’s kids. If Christians are rightly skeeved out by him, Belief.net shilled a book a while ago with its own listicle. It’s not very different, though.
What children learn about Christianity’s worldview from their evangelical parents
Here’s another evangelical mommy blogger who has targeted her two-year-old toddler with pre-religious indoctrination. And it’s just chilling to see her lay the groundwork for completely fucking that kid up for years to come. Here are the tapes that she’s setting up in that kid’s head:
- Attribute all good things to your imaginary friend. Nothing can just be good because it is. It must be contextualized as something your imaginary friend did. (“Wow, J! Look at that pretty flower God made!” and “Boy, I’m glad God gave us this pretty day.”) Don’t ask about hurricanes and gruesome bacterial infections. The imaginary friend made those too, but Christians don’t like dwelling on that fact.
- Nothing you accomplish matters except in a Christian context. Whatever good you achieve or accomplish, it’s really your imaginary friend’s doing. You can’t do anything good in and of yourself, and working hard to achieve anything doesn’t matter because none of it’s your doing anyway. (“You run so fast! God did such a good job when He made you.”)
- You are a gross disgusting failure in your parents’ eyes and in their imaginary friend’s eyes. And that imaginary friend also considers your beloved mother a failure, too. (“I teach him God’s commands and what God expects. He fails. He is a sinner, and I tell him so; he’s a sinner just like his mommy.”)
- You must beg your imaginary friend for literally everything, even the things that any child should simply expect without ever having to ask for it, like safety from harm. Also, you must learn how to rationalize prayer so you can think of it as always-effective. (“J is learning to pray. I ask him to think of something he wants to thank God for, or I ask him if he wants to tell God something. His prayers usually go something like, “Thank you, God, for daddy. Amen!” (Then he announces, “We did it!” 🙂 ) I hope he is learning that we approach God any and all the time and also that God is the Giver of all the good gifts we receive — including (and especially) the gift of salvation.”)
- MIGHT MAKES RIGHT. Those in power do not need to explain themselves or make sense. They are simply to be obeyed. Here is how an authoritarian system works, minus the checks and balances that’d make it functional. (“Our son will tell you that God says to obey mommy and daddy. Oftentimes, when I correct him for not obeying me, he’ll say in a resigned way, “Because of God?” I tell him, “Yes, because God is in charge and that’s what God says.”) (Also: “We often tell our son the “why,” even though he doesn’t ask us “why?” yet. When I tell him not to hit his friends or to share toys, I put the onus on God and the Bible. God in His word says to be kind. God says to obey mommy.”)
In addition, the mother also recites Bible stories endlessly to her child in hopes of him memorizing them, and she immerses him in her church’s youth ministry program.
That poor kid. It’s all fun and games to him now, just as it was for me when I was learning very similar things as a Catholic child. But once he gets a bit older, I wonder if he’ll start reacting to things a bit more like I did.
Sidebar: The Faith Pool
We’ve talked before about the Faith Pool. This is how I conceptualize belief in any claim. In this metaphor, water pours into the pool from a number of faucets. It drains out at the bottom, as any pool does. The more important the belief is to the person holding it, the bigger and deeper their Faith Pool is, and the more faucets feed into it.
These faucets represent reasons to believe, while drains represent the erosion of belief. Once the pool goes empty, the belief dies away.
If the belief isn’t based in reality, then reality constantly contradicts the belief. Just walking around in the world offers these contradictions. So water is always draining away in the pool. That’s how it is with Christianity. None of a Christian’s faucets really represent real reasons to believe, either, because there are none.
(Captain Cassidy’s Law of Inverse Apologetics Effectiveness: The more impressed a fervent Christian is with a given apologist, the more ridiculously, hilariously, incompetent that apologist seems to non-Christians who can think critically. This law especially applies to C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller.)
But thanks to thousands of years of apologetics, folklore, and the constant honing of emotional manipulation tactics, the faith pool of a fervent Christian contains a number of faucets. These faucets do not represent factual reasons to believe. They simply represent reasons why this given Christian believes. They might include things like:
- Apologetics blahblah pulling the wool over their eyes
- Mistaken beliefs in the power of prayer, the existence of miracles, etc
- The mistaken belief that Jesus makes believers into better human beings
- Biblical and historical illiteracy leading to misplaced trust in the Bible’s inherent morality or it representing any kind of history
- Strong social ties to other Christians or to their church community
- Fear of Hell (or of Christian retaliation should news of disbelief get out)
- Fear of losing hope, the capacity to love, meaning in life, etc
- Affection for the version of Jesus they carry around in their own head (as opposed to the weird, inconsistent, vengeful, creepy apocalyptic nutjob appearing in the actual Gospels)
- Distrust or even fear of ex-Christians and/or atheists
- Fear of living without Jesus as a safety net, as inconsistent and unpredictable and unfair as he is
- Unwillingness to consider a non-supernatural label for their feelings of universal love and charity
Usually, if one faucet gets found to be invalid and turns off, the pool has enough other faucets running to more than compensate. Perhaps one of the believer’s leaders turns one of the other faucets on harder for a while, until the Faith Pool finds equilibrium again. But if faucets start getting turned off very quickly, one after the other, then the Pool might not recover.
That’s why it usually takes a lot for a fervent Christian to start really thinking about their beliefs.
The seeds and underpinnings of belief that we’re talking about today are faucets feeding the Faith Pool. Christian adults indoctrinate children in these underpinnings of belief in hopes that if nothing else, their general framework, their worldview, will hold them in place.
Planting seeds without any railings on the farm plot
I took all that shit so seriously as a child. I really truly believed that the trusted adults in my life would never lead me astray. So when I became a teenager, I began to plunge myself into more and more extremist Christian sects. Obviously, they were even more dysfunctionally authoritarian than my “home religion,” so to speak. But the tapes in my head were playing so loudly that I could hear nothing else.
I had to find TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Somewhere out there, they awaited me with open arms. They believed the whole gospel and practiced what they preached, which was the 1st-Century Original Christianity of my dreams. Jesus dwelt among them as they lived communally and shared everything they had with each other.
Most of all, I’d know I’d found my church home because they’d treat me with fairness and kindness. I’d never had a church like that before; at root, unfairness ruled them. Leaders gained power, it seemed, purely for the freedom it gave them from following all those rules.
And there was not one single thing any Christian adult in my life could say about my quest because it was, basically, the full flowering of all those seeds they’d planted years ago with their own hands.
They had wanted a young woman who was absolutely committed and fervent. And they sure got one, all right! But then that young woman assessed their own practice of Christianity as dry and stale, lifeless and bloodless and sterile and uninspiring, and she headed out in search of the real deal. Her tapes told her it was out there somewhere.
Sometimes, I wish I could have ten minutes alone with myself at 16. But I wonder if I’d have listened even to my older self. Chances are, I’d have just tried to evangelize her!
It took a lot of time and introspection, neither of which I really like, to start figuring out how I’d run right off the rails like that. Once I did, I felt angry for a while about the indoctrination I’d received. But I’ve mellowed since then. Most of these parents are winging it. Not one of our sources today really have any way to know that their approaches work. They have approaches they like, and they think these work. But nobody in the Christ-o-sphere has any idea how to operate in a post-Christian world.
But the 4-14 Window and all this maneuvering tells us one important thing about Christianity
Almost all of our sources talk about the importance of prayer to ensure the indoctrination of a child. They almost all cite tons of Bible verses they think support their suggestions, too.
But when we actually look at what they suggest, it all starts looking a lot like brainwashing.
Kids get hit with messaging they must accept, often starting as soon as they start to verbalize. Their parents tell them stories and express complete belief that those stories really happened, which means the child must believe that too. They read Bible verses and try to get their kids to memorize them to turn those verses into the bedrock of future belief. They sink their kids into Bible studies and programs and church attendance, all so they grow up absorbing this activity as the basis for life’s routines.
Very often nowadays, no evangelical kid’s upbringing is complete without a short-term mission trip to some impoverished but beautiful country full of picturesque children waiting to be taught about Jesus in a language they don’t even understand. These trips usually benefit precisely none of those children or their communities, but they do substitute for real charity work in that kid’s mind. #blessed #theychangedmemorethanIchangedthem #theyrebuiltthatchurchweworkedonafterweleft #butwhocares
And all of it makes me want to ask one question:
How can any of these Christian adults think for one second that a real live god animates the center of their religion?
Every single thing they do to indoctrinate their children looks exactly like what anybody would do to indoctrinate them to believe any other thing. The bullshit they spout about prayer is just lip service; they don’t need gods at all to indoctrinate kids.
There’s no room for a real god in all this very earthly, very human indoctrination. Christian adults know very well that being a Christian in adulthood has nothing to do with a real live god in any way. Instead, it’s simply the end result of careful worldview indoctrination in early childhood. If they’d been born to North Korean parents, they’d grow up to love their Dear Leaders. If they had been born to Muslim parents, they’d be fervent and observant Muslims. But instead, they were born to evangelicals, who indoctrinated them in the same exact way to hold their own worldview.
I do love to see what Christians, particularly evangelicals, tell us without words. This time around, they told us that they really don’t trust their god at all to magically keep their kids Christian. They have to help poor Jesus out a lot there! Otherwise, nothing about their religion really sounds appealing on its own merits. It has to be drilled into children while they’re far too young to really understand any of it, much less think critically about it.
There’s no god in Christianity doing anything for any of them.
And they know it.
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