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Sunday, June 04, 2006


Marty Lederman has a detailed, helpful post over at Balkinization, discussing the recent decision by a federal district judge in Iowa, "declaring unconstitutional the State of Iowa's establishment of a rehabilitation program operated in the state prison system by the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a substidiary of Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries."  (Marty's words).   Marty writes, quoting the court:

In the court's words, "state funds were used intentionally to indoctrinate Iowa inmates [within the state prison], by a non-profit religious service provider preferred by the state in its selection process, into a form of the Christian religion in the belief that the indoctrination, combined with the communal rehabilitation model, would be of some help in their rehabilitation." The funded program is faith-intensive, and fundamentally religious in nature: "The overtly religious atmosphere of the InnerChange program is not simply an overlay or a secondary effect of the program—it is the program. There are no separate educational and religious functions in the InnerChange program as there were in Agostini . . . . Here, every activity—worship services, revivals, community meetings, daily devotionals—is organized and developed by the InnerChange program and is designed to transform an individual spiritually. Even the otherwise traditional rehabilitation classes themselves . . . have been turned into classes intended to indoctrinate inmates into the Christian faith."

Now, both the trial-court judge, and Marty in his post, make extensive use of the term "indoctrination."  I wonder, what exactly is this word intended to communicate?  What does it communicate, about the motives and goals of the teachers participating in the InnerChange program, about the nature of religious belief and transformation,  about courts' understanding of what religion is, and about the disposition and goals of the participating inmates? 

My own view is that the Court in the late 1960s and early 1970s made use of "indoctrination" (and "sectarian") in an unfortunate way, that owed too much to Paul Blanshard- and Hugo Black-style anti-Catholicism (i.e., "our public schools educate children, and promote unity; the Catholic schools indoctrinate, and are divisive", etc., etc.).  To be clear, it is obvious that neither Marty nor the trial judge in Iowa intend this meaning.  Still, the question remains:  What is "indoctrination" and what is (or should be) the term's constitutional significance? 

What markers distinguish "indoctrination" from "conveying claims about the world that, the speaker hopes, will appeal to the hearer's reason and, perhaps, transform his or her thinking about the world"?  Is there a distinction between "teaching about religion" and "indoctrination"?  Coming at the matter in another way, in what sense is what was happening in the InnerChange program -- which aims, in a comprehensive way, to "transform an individual spiritually" -- "indoctrination"?  Notice that the court distinguishes explicitly between "educational" and "religious" functions, stating that "every activity" of InnerChange is, again, "designed to transform an individual spiritually."  I would have thought, though, that the line between "education" and "transform[ation]" was not so clear.

Now, none of this is to dispute the court's or Marty's conclusion that, given the relevant doctrines, texts, and precedents, the trial judge was correct in invalidating the InnerChange program.  I can think of many reasons why reasonable people of good will, including those who might well believe that religious transformation would be good for inmates and for "society", might nonetheless conclude that this program goes too far.  I'm not sure, though, how much work the word "indoctrination" should do in guiding us to this conclusion.

Posted by Rick Garnett on June 4, 2006 at 04:55 PM in Religion | Permalink


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Is it illegal in Australia to indoctrinate a person that results in severe levels of child abuse? Obviously the child abuse is illegal but who is to be held responsible for these acts if the perpetrator was indoctrinated to commit them.. What is the best source of legal information to obtain via online browsing??


Posted by: Aimee | Dec 27, 2006 7:21:25 AM

RG: What markers distinguish "indoctrination" from "conveying claims about the world that, the speaker hopes, will appeal to the hearer's reason and, perhaps, transform his or her thinking about the world"? Is there a distinction between "teaching about religion" and "indoctrination"?

my understanding is that faith-based belief systems somehow transcend reason. the InnerChange statement of faith quoted on p. 14 of the opinion in both name and content suggest a such a system. if this is not the case, then to fit your concept, at the least the program would need to be modified to constitute a reason-based dialogue about religious claims wherein no mystical, historically suspect, or otherwise irrationally (non-perjorative usage) argued aspects are admitted.

"teaching about" suggests a measure of objectivity if not neutrality - eg, comparative religious studies, history of islam, "three pillars of wisdom" - not presenting one religion as the one the students should adopt. to suggest that such a program is somehow akin to an english, philosophy, or history class wherein a teacher hopes that exposing a student to new information will "transform his or her thinking about the world" seems a stretch since the techniques and objectives are quite different.

like obscenity, you kind of know proselytizing when you see it even if you can't precisely define it, and the program described in the opinion are classic. so "indoctrination" seems if anything a pretty generous description. rather than bridling, I should think the appropriate response would be relief that an even more "perjorative" term wasn't used.

Posted by: ctw | Jun 5, 2006 2:51:58 AM

Is there a distinction between "teaching about religion" and "indoctrination"?

Well, that depends on your position on religion. If, as the court said, the goal was to "transform" people "spiritually," it's hard to interpret that as other than "convince them to adopt new religious beliefs." If you accept the claim that religion is inherently irrational/false (not an unreasonable claim to accept, surely), then by definition an attempt to "teach" someone religion in that fashion constitutes an attempt to induce them to adopt false beliefs. Hence, indoctrination.

Even if you don't believe that all religions are necessarily false, I think it's fair to describe deliberate inducing of religious beliefs as "indoctrination" when (a) the beliefs aren't based on any evidence, (b) the beliefs are hotly contested, (c) there are a multiplicity of competing belief systems, of which only one is taught, and (d) the learners aren't taught to criticize or question the beliefs taught.

Suppose it was the Church of Scientology running the program? Would you be more comfortable describing it as "indoctrination" there? If so, why?

How about the Nation of Islam?

How about the Communist Party?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 5, 2006 1:12:31 AM

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