“I don’t want to send our son to church to be brain-washed like those Stoddard kids!” our atheist friend said to his wife. He grew up in East Germany, and we had been church-planting in the former East for a few years by then. At first, I was offended that he would view the kids’ program at our church as brainwashing. But then, I couldn’t forget that he was probably taught Marx’s view of religion throughout his life:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. (Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
According to Marx, if people were to truly think for themselves, they’d detox themselves from using the addicting, mind-altering power of religion to numb their pain. But ironically, the effort in East Germany to systematically eradicate religion from society required a new form of brainwashing to inculcate its people with the socialist ideal. An atheistic society was forged, Christian holidays were renamed, and Christian rites such as baptisms, weddings, and confirmation were replaced with socialist ones.
The loss of individualism feared by my friend actually happened in East Germany under the guise of heralding Marxist equality. Socialist brainwashing appeared to be the only solution to the problems caused by Nazi brainwashing. Meanwhile, capitalism and individualism imposed a new and different tyranny of tolerance on the West, at the expense of individual opinion. As we can see, wherever we live, our thinking is a product of our culture, upbringing, and the political system to which we are subjected. Freedom of thought is perhaps an illusion, because we cannot ever think in a vacuum.
Can Our Brains Lead Us to Morality?
With reason as our guide, the so-called Enlightenment argued, we can all become moral, responsible, tolerant good citizens. The Enlightenment called people to trust Reason, and if we could all agree on what is reasonable, we could all live together with a certain set of commonly shared values.
But can logical deductions alone lead us to morality? Though our ability to reason comes from God, we can use this tool to selfish ends, rationalizing all sorts of immoral things by putting ourselves and our needs at the center of reality. This process happens to us as individuals but also to entire cultures and systems. Recently my husband and I visited the Wanssee Haus, a beautiful villa nestled in a rich neighborhood on the shores of Lake Wannsee. There, on January 2, 1942, over breakfast, the most powerful men in Germany master-minded the Endlösung, the final solution for the so-called problem of the Jews in Europe. They drew up an elaborate plan to deport thousands upon thousands to their deaths.
These well-educated men listened to Bach and Mozart but came up with the most morally abject plan of all history. Their “solution” seemed entirely reasonable to them at the time. They led a whole nation astray, and few had the courage to stand up against them. So is it possible for reason to run amok? Yes, according to history.
Do We Need Brain-Washing?
Through a superficial glance at history it becomes painfully clear that Reason alone cannot lead people to be good. Why? Because our ability to reason is radically flawed and limited in scope. Here in Germany we have the Holocaust as a glaring example. But it happens everywhere. Look at “wonderful” ideas such as the Crusades in Europe, the enslavement of Africans in America, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Rwandan genocide, or the recently uncovered North Korean atrocities. In the face of such a vast moral abyss, the doctrine of total depravity, though at first glance seemingly depressing, actually comforts me. It explains the human propensity toward evil. Human beings are not good at the core. If they were, how could we end up such a mess? Most people certainly aren’t as bad as they could be, but the fall affected our beings in their totality. Every aspect of who we are as humans is broken: our bodies, our emotions, our sexuality, and our thinking.
We put ourselves at the center of the universe and think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We become our own standard, make our own sense out of this world and only trust our own faulty thinking when it comes to making decisions. This process of neither trusting God nor honoring him in our thinking is foolishly self-centered and leads our hearts down the path to darkness (Rom. 1:21). Paul’s solution to this problem is recognizing that our minds are sinful and that the healing of our minds has to come from outside of us. The Holy Spirit must renew them (Rom. 12:2-3).
Paul does not tell us to stop testing, discerning, or judging soberly. But we must do these things in faith, and the outcome of our thinking should be understanding and embracing the will of God, which is good, acceptable, and perfect. If our thinking leads us down any other path, it is most likely self-absorbed and darkened. Our brains cannot lead us to morality, but God’s Spirit can!
So should I be offended if someone thinks church is brain-washing my kids? No, on the contrary! Maybe, next time, I can come up with better answer for my critics, not responding with arrogance but with the message of the gospel, namely that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
My kids’ brains desperately need washing, as does mine. My children were born with intrinsic self-absorption that, if left unchallenged, might lead them down dangerous paths, both for themselves and others around them. But Jesus—the Logos, Reason incarnate—is the only one who has ever thought all of God’s thoughts after him in a perfect way. Through his blameless life my kids will know what pleases God, and through his blood their minds can be cleansed. I pray that someday their minds will be so renewed that they will stand against some of the evils the world around them has embraced without a second thought.