There’s a difference between being educated and being indoctrinated. According to our old friend John Loftus, the latter is what those brainwashing institutions also known as “Bible Colleges” do. Speaking of his own experience, he says, “When I went to Bible College I was not educated. I was indoctrinated. While other believers will protest that their Christian college was different, I wonder if that’s true.”
Even if you’ve been to Bible College and you’re pretty sure you got an education and not an indoctrination, be warned: Loftus doubts you. However, there is one place where John is prepared to say that indoctrinating isn’t going on – John Brown University. Over there, students are getting an education. What’s the difference there? What is Dan Lambert at John Brown U doing that counts as an education and stops the class from falling into an indoctrination setting. It’s elementary really:
He is using my book, WIBA [Why I became and Atheist], in several different teaching venues, including college/master’s level classes, and even at an adult study group for a church.
There are others, so I’m told. I would like to applaud them all for doing their very best to educate rather than indoctrinate their students. Some skeptics may claim they’re indoctrinating their students anyway, but this is the best we can expect of them. I don’t think the word “indoctrinate” can apply to doing what they’re doing, even if they are arguing against me in their classes. Could we really expect them to do differently?
Dan is using my book along with Antony Flew’s book There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Quite a contrast isn’t it? Maybe he considers me a “Notorious Atheist” too? 😉
Dan is forcing his students to think through my book. Some of them come from Bible thumping backgrounds and are a bit annoyed by it. At the end of his classes he schedules a conference call with me answering questions from his students. Many of them are a bit nervous about that part of the class because they picture themselves talking to Satan, or something like that. But afterward they realize I’m just a human being and even a bit funny. Most Christians stay inside the conclaves of church circles and never meet or talk with a known atheist. It’s eye-opening to them. They can no longer demonize me.
And there are the ingredients: “He is using my book,” as are others, thereby “doing their very best to educate rather than indoctrinate.” We can be sure that this is a real education because as John says, students have to “think through my book.” To top it off, students get a conference call with John Loftus himself.
OK, OK, enough. Yes I’m taking pot shots and no I’m not immune to a bit of cheap self-promotion myself. OK, so now that the scene has been set, describing what a real education looks like (namely, having to read Loftus’s book), why are Bible Colleges being raked over the coals as centres of indoctrination rather than education? What are they doing that is so terrible and different?
Loftus defends his initial claim – that Bible colleges indoctrinate, and that he doubts anyone who claims that their experience was different, by describing his own expreience at great Lakes Christian College as follows:
In Bible College, by contrast, I was never asked to read any atheist literature and the books we were required to read were on some sort of unwritten approved list. We read Christian books by Christian authors, some of which were written by our own (non)denominational authors. We were taught what to believe in my undergraduate years. Just coming out of High School we were taught the party line for the most part, or at least the classes I took from the professors there.
As I read through this description, two thoughts come to mind: Not true and not relevant.
Why would I think this is not relevant? Well, John doesn’t unpack much of this so I don’t know about any specific instances, but let’s imagine that everything he says here is totally true and applies to every aspect of a Bible college education. Now, consider a parallel:
In my university zoology class, by contrast, I was never asked to read any young earth creationist literature and the books we were required to read were on some sort of unwritten approved list. We read Darwinist books by Dawinist authors, some of which were written by our own university lecturers. We were taught what to believe in my undergraduate years. Just coming out of High School we were taught the party line for the most part, or at least the classes I took from the professors there.
I think any reader would grant that this scenario is true for many students who do go to university to study zoology. Is it indoctrination? Maybe in a way, given that students are going to these classes to be taught the scientific orthodoxy of the day. There’s not much wrong with this. When they’re more qualified themselves then of course they will be better equipped and will be welcome to challenge what other academics say on all sorts of issues. But there doesn’t seem to me to be anything pernicious about what is described here. Now of course, part of learning the scientific orthodoxy will involve learning about disagreements between one Darwinist and another over finer points – and something would be wrong if all such disagreements were eliminated, and only one view was presented on every single issue. But in general, students expect (and pay) to be taught from a particular perspective. So this type of “indoctrination” just isn’t relevant.
If a student were to go to university and study chemistry, we wouldn’t take seriously her complaint that she sat through hours of lectures and was not once encouraged to read the works of those who embrace metallurgy, and that nobody even so much as acknowledged the strength of the argument that you can turn lead into gold. That is just not the perspective one expects to be taught from in a chemistry class. So yes, what one is exposed to there is indoctrination in one limited sense of that word, since certain perspectives are just never presented, but it is frankly irrelevant that indoctrination of that sort goes on.
Surely the same is true of a Bible college to some extent. A Bible College is a Christian college where Christians decide to go to gain a fuller knowledge of the Christian faith. I don’t think I can recall meeting a Christian who ever said “I do not know whether or not Christianity is true, so I will go to Bible College to get a fair hearing of both sides, and then make my mind up.” This is just not the purpose that Bible Colleges serve. People go there for all sorts of reasons: as part of their training to become Christian ministers, missionaries, counsellors, or perhaps (as was the case when I went to Bible College to do my undergrad studies) as a stepping stone towards a higher degree later. Within that setting, I know that the Bible College of New Zealand (now Laidlaw College) gave me an education. Yes, I thought some lecturers were biased, but there was nothing secretive about where they stood. Where issues came up on, say, the authorship or date of a particular book of the Bible, the text-critical issues connected to a given passage or any other issue over which disagreement arose, there was certainly no brushing over alternative perspectives from that of the lecturer, and differing views were permitted to speak for themselves. Of course, they could have said “and there’s this other perspective that the whole Bible is a pile of nonsense so the question we’re trying to address here is moot anyway,” but that would surely have been off topic.
Loftus basically acknowledges this. Someone in the comments section of his blog pointed out that when we study the holocaust, we don’t present and give equal weight to the holocaust denial perspective. Loftus agreed, on the grounds that the subject would be the study of the holocaust, not asking the question of whether it happened at all. Likewise, when wrestling with complex issues of authorship, dating and text criticism of ancient documents, it would be an unwarranted intrusion into the subject to stop and ask what those who think the Bible is pure fantasy and unworthy of our attention would have to say about the question. Instead we focused on the work of biblical scholars. That being said, there are some fairly extreme voices in the field of biblical scholarship who do embrace far out fringe views. Think of the Jesus Seminar or Bart Ehrman. Dr Ehrman hadn’t attained his current celebrity status when I was in Bible College, so it’s understandable that we didn’t consider his perspective, but we certainly were exposed to the voice of liberal scholarship.
So in general, a Bible College – a good one at any rate – will give an education. But what about one narrow part of the curriculum – apologetics classes? Will a Bible College give an education here, or just an indoctrination session? Before I answer that, let me describe an experience I had at University – a good experience for that matter. I was taught meta-ethics in a secular university by a lecturer (Charles Pigden) who regards an error theory of ethics (“nihilism”) to be correct. He told us right at the start of the course that he thought this. He presented the array of meta-ethical theories and did his best to explain why he thinks they are not true. He actually used his own textbook as the course text. When he got to the error theory, he presented it, defended it and told us that it is true.
And yet, this was not indoctrination. It was an education, and an extremely good one. All biases were confessed up front. Other views were described absolutely fairly and their defences were presented faithfully. The lecturer’s textbook faithfully represented opposing views and was well supported by quotations from proponents of those views.
The issue in deciding whether indoctrination is taking place surely cannot be reduced to the question of whether or not students are required to read through the textbook of everyone that the lecturer disagrees with. The issue seems to me to be simply one of fairness. Are the perspectives of others presented truthfully? Are they given a fair hearing, being presented in their best light? If the point of the class is to evaluate the strength of particular views, are students given the opportunity to offer defences or further criticisms of the view(s) in question? These, surely are the relevant questions. So the question is, is it really true that Bible Colleges never do this? Really? I say that this claim about indoctrination is generally untrue.
The only way for Loftus to make a case that the claim is true is by doing research. Check the curriculum of a decent number of Bible Colleges. Talk to students of their apologetics classes. Find out if what is happening is indoctrination or education. But Loftus has done none of this. Nor does he really need to, because surprisingly, after his sweeping claim that Bible Colleges don’t educate but indoctrinate, Loftus retracts! He says:
Great Lakes Christian College is different now as far as I can tell, given that I know some of the newer professors there. But at the time of my education (’73-’77) it was as I say. I wonder if this is changing among undergraduate evangelical colleges? It appears to be.
It appears to be? So now Bible Colleges do educate, and don’t indoctrinate? Why then the sweeping claim at the outset: “While other believers will protest that their Christian college was different, I wonder if that’s true.” Why say this if in fact he concedes that Evangelical colleges aren’t really like this?
Fortunately, the point can be detected. Basically, the salient claims in the blog post are:
1) Bible Colleges don’t educate, they indoctrinate, and I doubt any claim to the contrary
2) Some colleges use my book.
3) By the way, 1) isn’t really true.
Claim 3) cancels out claim 1). So the point of the blog boils down to:
Some colleges use my book.
Now John. If that’s all you wanted to say, nobody would have held it against you. 😉