learning the words: brainwashing

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Today’s guest post is from Jonny Scaramanga, who blogs about his journey out of fundamentalism and into atheism, as well as his experience with Accelerated Christian Education at Leaving Fundamentalism. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

I was so excited to read Samantha’s post on Learning the Words, because the way fundamentalism uses language to control believers’ thoughts is fascinating to me.

Robert Lifton was one of the first people to study victims of brainwashing by the communists in the Korean War. In his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Lifton gives eight criteria for thought reform (brainwashing to you and me). One of them is “loading the language”:

For an individual person, the effect of the language of ideological totalism can be summed up in one word: constriction. He is, so to speak, linguistically deprived; and since language is so central to all human experience, his capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely narrowed.

Reading this was a eureka moment for me, because I’d always thought that my Accelerated Christian Education experience was an Orwellian instance of words being redefined so that it was hard or impossible to question their doctrine. Lifton describes how totalist ways of thinking use “thought-terminating clichés… brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases.”  Simple labels are attached to something you like or dislike, and they are the start and finish of all thought on the subject.

Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), like a lot of Christian fundamentalism, redefines terms in black-and-white, so things are either absolutely good or absolutely bad. Then you can just stick a label on something, and end the discussion. Want someone to accept that a politician is bad? Just call them a liberal, and the argument is over.

Here are a few thought-terminating clichés from ACE:


  • Biblical
  • Christian
  • Believing
  • Faith
  • Conservative
  • Free enterprise
  • Absolutes


  • Liberal
  • Secular
  • Humanist
  • Atheist
  • Unbelieving
  • Socialist
  • Communist
  • Left-wing

Here’s how this plays out in practice. When teaching politics to children, ACE doesn’t give reasons why Medicare or social security are bad. It simply says they are liberal and socialist. Conversation over. Often, I never saw these words explicitly defined. They were just used in a negative context repeatedly until I learned that ‘liberal’ ideas are always bad. Some examples:

pornographers drug pushers humanists

Although [President Kennedy’s] New Frontier sounds good, it was as socialistic as the New Deal and the Fair Deal had been.

The year 1933 was a dark one in American history. In that year, President Roosevelt began introducing socialistic programs which now play such an important role in American politics, economics, religion, and education. In 1933, America began shifting from a nation whose philosophy was a conservative, God-fearing one to a nation whose philosophy was a liberal and socialistic one.

As Congress became more conservative, President Truman became more liberal. He supported labour unions and such socialistic programs as government aid to farmers, expanding social security, and providing federal housing aid. President Truman called his program the ‘Fair Deal’. To many American voters, the Fair Deal was only an extension of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and President Truman’s popularity dropped to its lowest point.

So if someone says, “Hey, maybe we could raise taxes!” the response is simply, “but Free Enterprise is Biblical. You wouldn’t question God’s Word, would you?”

If someone suggests that maybe Young Earth Creationism isn’t the best way to interpret the Bible, well, how dare they question Biblical absolutes with their unbelieving doubts.

If someone says, “Maybe we should use government to help the poor,” the response is “that’s how the liberals think!” Since liberal = bad, there’s no room for questioning. Thought is terminated.

If I could go back in time to reason with my 14-year-old self, I don’t know how I would even explain the views I have now. Most of the vocabulary that I could use just meant “evil” to me back then.


By depriving children of the language to question their political and religious ideology, Accelerated Christian Education indoctrinates them to believe that everything they disagree with is evil. As Robert Lifton notes, “these clichés become what Robert Weaver has called ‘ultimate terms’: either ‘god terms,’ representative of ultimate good, or ‘devil terms,’ representative of ultimate evil.”

What matters here is not whether you agree with ACE’s political views or not. What matters is that ACE stifles all debate and education by using language which demonizes all other opinions. It worked on me. When I left to go to a normal school, I told anyone who expressed sympathy for Tony Blair’s Labour party that they were Communists.

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  • Thought-terminating – that’s exactly what they are! All those words really just mean ‘evil’. Liberal isn’t a political stance but a rejection of god and truth… This makes the problems I have talking about my new beliefs make more sense, but now to turn this knowledge about how language is controlled into help for communicating…. Must think on this…

  • Truth.

  • While I didn’t ever have ACE, I experienced a lot of what you’re referring to. Yes, when liberal is an inherently evil word, it’s difficult to converse logically and effectively about the differences between democratic and republican parties or any political views … or theology for that matter. Other words that gave a strictly negative connotation in my faith community growing up: liberal, feminist, mainline, progressive, socialist, secular, humanist, humanitarian (yes, even this!), psychiatric (at my college psychology and psychiatry were “at war with God’s Word”). I’m sure I could think of more if I tried, but you’re so right that poorly defining these words hampered my learning when I was trying to establish freedom of thought and truly examine what others believe.

    • Jules

      What was the reasoning behind psychiatry being evil?

      • There’s probably a variety of reasons for why some think psychology is evil. (If you have a different explanation, feel free to pitch in!)

        What I was taught is that psychology is based on the Theory of Evolution. Because the Theory of Evolution “only exists as a way to deny God,” that makes any science that “springs from it” automatically evil. This doesn’t make sense, but hey, what does in Fundyland?

        Another is that it’s supposedly based on the premise that man is “inherently good,” and the Bible says that just ain’t so. It goes against what the Bible “says” about man’s sin nature, so it’s evil.

        And the last one is that they argue that psychology just tries to justify sin problems (like alcoholism, they say). They argue that mental problems and addictions are the result of sin, not your brain. So, because it makes “sin ok,” it’s evil.

        • C

          Psychology and psychiatry were always called evil in my experience because to a fundamentalist:

          Sex is evil AND Freud talked about sex AND Freud founded modern psychiatry THEREFORE Psychiatry is evil.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        What was the reasoning behind psychiatry being evil?

        Ask Scientology.

  • Oh.

  • Excellent post, Jonny. The “thought terminating” or “conversation ending” words are a huge problem within Fundamentalism – and not just in politics. They work perfectly any time one wishes to assert that one is right, without actually having to think it though. “Biblical” is the worst of these, as you well know. Our way is “Biblical,” and those who dress differently or eat pork, or date, or let women have jobs outside the home are simply “unbiblical” and the conversation ends.

    I would like to point out, however, that the use of thought terminating terms in politics is hardly limited to the right. A quick perusal of my Facebook feed demonstrates this on a daily basis. It is so much easier to demonize our opponents than to actually engage in a rational discussion.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      I believe the Moonies coined the term “thoughtstopper”; when a Moonie encountered anything that might make him doubt Reverend Moon, he would repeat the thoughtstoppers (usually praise-phrases about Rev Moon) over and over in his mind until the thoughtstoppers crowded out the temptation to doubt.

      And years ago at a party, someone who’d worked Army Intel in Iraq related how in dealing with indig civilians (he didn’t specify friendlies, hostiles, or both), there was “only so far” you could reason with them. At some point, if you pushed too far, “the wall in their mind would slam down”, after which there was only “It Is Written! It Is Written! It Is Written! Al’lah’u Akbar! Al’lah’u Akbar! Al’lah’u Akbar!”

  • I know that this question is probably ridiculous, but can someone please explain to me where in the Bible it is written that “capitalism” is God’s economic theory of choice? I understand the point of this post. What I do not understand (and what I have never been able to understand) is when and how “secular” became equal to “socialist” and “biblical” became equal to “free market capitalism.” While I will acknowledge that my reading of the Bible is limited, I simply cannot swallow the notion that the Bible sets forth a godly theory of macroeconomics. Am I wrong about this?

    I understand that, for whatever reason, the economic conservative orthodoxy of free-market capitalism and the social conservative orthodoxy of biblical theology have become conflated. What I don’t understand is why. Do these people honestly believe that their God wants America to be a capitalist economy? Why does economic conservatism equal “god-fearing?”

    Because from my perspective, there are few things less god-fearing than an obsession with further disenfranchising the already poor and disenfranchised.

    • It’s not ridiculous, not at all.

      From what I was taught as a kid, there’s a few basic reasons why free-market capitalism is considered to be the most “biblical.”

      Reason #1): I was taught that free-market capitalism is an economic system that is based on man being a fallen creature. Greed is universal– a free market capitalism is kinda built on greed being a constant. They teach that supposedly, socialism has to assume that mankind is innately and basically good– that we’re not going to try to take advantage of each other, that we’re essentially altruistic. Since that is “obviously” not true, socialism is based on a “lie from the devil”– that man is good, and doesn’t need God.

      Reason #2) There’s a few Bible verses that support capitalism, supposedly:

      II Thessalonians 3:10– “this we commanded you: that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” I was taught that this verse saved Plymouth colony– that, at first, they tried socialism, but it didn’t work out so well (starvation and stuff), so Governed Bradford used this verse to stop the men from the debtor’s prison from starving everyone out.

      Also, things like “go to the ant thou sluggard” and other Puritan work-ethic stuff.

      • This is just another way that I cannot wrap my mind around fundamentalist doctrine. It seems to me that if people really ARE fallen, then we want to repudiate our “fallen” nature by being good. And if socialism really is based upon “helping one another” and not being “greedy” (which aren’t virtues), then isn’t socialism a more godly economic system? How can an economic system that is built on a vice and a sin be a godly system?

        It’s not my intent to get you into a theological debate. I just find the whole thing so puzzling. I gave up on fundamentalist doctrine when I figured out (at about 12) that what true fundamentalist Christian doctrine meant was that someone who put his faith in Christ could commit murder, or rape, or any crime at all, and he would be admitted into heaven, whereas his murder victim who was an atheist would be denied entry. Even as a pre-teen, this made no sense to me. A God who rejects people for failing to follow him (no matter who they are) and who accepts people who believe in him (no matter how they behave) is a small god. How can I believe in an all powerful God when I can shove him into the tiniest little box I’ve ever known – he is no different from a jealous boyfriend, or a snotty cheerleader, excluding people from the good parties because they don’t revere her enough.

        A God that is truly great surely cannot really care what the tax rate on people making over 250K a year in America is. Can he?

        Anyway, I really enjoy your blog. You’re a very bright young woman.

        • From what I can tell, it’s about guilt by association. Atheism teaches that man is the ultimate source of Good, socialism depends on man being inherently Good, therefore socialism depends on atheism and denies Christianity. I’ve often seen it stated that socialism “would work just fine” if everyone involved was a “True Christian”.

          I think capitalism is valued not just because it is a counter to socialism, but even moreso because (as FI pointed out), “Go to the ant, thou sluggard.” Hard work pays off, yada yada, therefore capitalism.

          • C

            I also think that a lot of the ”capitalism is the only biblical economic system” ideology comes from pure habit. Fighting Marx and the ”godless commies” is tradition. I asked my farther once why ”we” didn’t liked Nelson Mandela, and he said Mandela was a communist.
            ”But what did he do that was so bad?” I asked.
            He couldn’t answer me.

    • notleia

      I’ve felt like beating my head against the wall for this same reason. I ran across it in what felt like a more blatantly illogical context.
      In my community, there’s a family going for a long-term mission trip to Africa, where the husband was going to teach agriculture at a dinky religious school. The curriculum is called “God’s Way for Farming” or some crap like that. It had some good stuff in there about composting and what-all, but it was all framed in “God gave us all we need for farming (and commercial farmers sacrifice babies to Satan for pesticides).”
      Don’t get me wrong, no-till and organic farming and suchlike has its merits, but what the hell does Protestantism have to do with crop yields and mildew infestations? I know from experience that the some of the nicest church-going people have some of the shittiest wheat, and it’s because they’re hobby farmers who don’t invest much in it, not because of God. /rant

    • I thought this was a recent thing that came about as the Southern Solution. The Mitt Romney pump and dump faction of the Republican party was too small to appeal to enough voters to win elections. The leaders of the religious right and the Wall Street leaders got together and crafted a deal. The leaders of the religious right would sell the trickle down fiscal agenda to evangelical and fundamentalist voters who sat captive in the pews. In exchange, the Wall Street types would push the country closer to being a Christian theocracy. Initially the Wall Street faction was able to humor the Religious Right by only paying lip service to their social conservative wish lists but over time the disgruntled Right demanded to see some actual changes.This was a backdoor business deal – a quid pro quo.

      I’m not from that world though, so I could be wrong. Being a callous Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ayn Rand capitalist meshes well with being judgmental of others. There is no need to be empathetic of people in tough situations if they deserve their predicament.

      Could the 10% tithe have anything to do with it? If I were taking a 10% cut of the earnings of a group of people, I would be cracking the whip also and telling them to pull themselves together and get out there and make money.

    • Divizna

      I disagree with others. I think that this indeed stems perhaps not from the Bible but from the theological views of the churches. And on a deeper level, from the understanding of justice.
      Let me explain. I’ve noticed there are actually TWO basic concepts of justice. Maybe they have some proper terms – I started to call them positive justice and negative justice.
      Positive justice concentrates on fulfilling rights. In this concept, “just” means getting, and not being denied or robbed of, what you’re entitled to. Someone’s rights not being fulfilled is unjust.
      Negative justice covers punishment. Here, “just” means having to pay the full price. Someone getting away with a misdeed, or being given what they don’t deserve is unjust.
      Obviously, various schools of thought, ideologies, churches’ teachings, and people’s views emphasise these two concepts of justice in different ratios.
      Now imagine someone who’s always been presented the idea of justice in the sense of negative justice. The local church, of which his parents and all teachers are members, holds this teaching about the divine justice: there’s no such thing as a sin minor enough to be pardoned; everyone who does wrong will burn forever in hell. The absolute being, the etalon of good, has made it so, and it’s right and just that way. Unless this person challenges this deeply instilled mindset, he’s bound to understand justice as negative justice in non-religious matters, too. And capitalism is very just in the negative sense – it doesn’t let you get away with your errors, stumblings, inadequacies. So this person must see capitalism as a system of perfect good, while social security, which takes the punishment partially away, is deeply unjust in this point of view.
      Of course, people who (like me) lean heavily towards positive justice, will be banging their heads on the wall, because, well, in terms of positive justice, free market capitalism doesn’t look just at all.
      So I think it’s very logical and natural for the public opinion to favour free market in areas where evangelical churches are strong, and to favour social security in countries with lutheran tradition.

  • These rants have been therapeutic for me today, notleia. You bring up one of my biggest, biggest pet peeves “_________ God’s Way.” Insert the word of choice. Growing Kids God’s Way, Marriage God’s Way, Budgeting Your Finances God’s Way and now apparently God’s Way for Farming! Arrogance knows no bounds. It is the ultimate conversation terminator. How can you argue with anything that is “God’s way”? Even worse than “biblical.” Dibs on a new fundamentalist bestseller I shall call “Blogging God’s Way”–written under a pen name, of course, as they’d never accept my liberal feminist mainline therapy-receiving almost-socialist leanings now … lol.

  • Wow, this is a lot of comments already. Thank you everyone. Samantha, you’ve done a great job of building up an active and supportive community.

    Christine, I don’t have my ACE books here so this won’t be a verbatim quote, but in a Social Studies PACE they say that “The Lord Jesus, speaking in a parable, told us we should use what we have to earn a profit.”

    They go on to use the parable of the talents so show that God is pleased with people who make a profit, and angry at the lazy people who don’t.

    • Johnny, thank you for humoring me! But doesn’t the Lord – not speaking in parable, but using actual pretty clear words – also tell the rich guy to come back when he has given all his stuff to the poor?

      • Daz

        The usual answer I get, when I raise this, is that, yes charity is good, but it should be private, not forced by government.

      • There are many examples like this, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, speaking from my experience, the “free market capitalism is GOD’s WAY!” is so ingrained that even when I read passages like this, I was incapable of seeing it through any other lens.

  • Seriously word for word.

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  • Debate stifling, sloganistic thinking is infuriating! I can relate to a lot of that. Phrases like ‘Well that’s human wisdom’ or ‘You need to be selective about your sources of information’ were things I bought into for a long time. Now I’m embarrassed at some of the things I once believed. Prov 18:17 – Some genuinely good advice in the bible. Question everything.

    • I was raving about a “secular” book I’d read to a few friends (Vagina by Noami Wolf, it’s incredible), and talking about a few of the ideas that were really challenging for me, and the response I got? “Well, you know Samantha, you really need to practice discernment when you’re reading books like that.”


  • I pretty much agree with everything here. BUT, I’m wondering if you’re relying too much on the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or “linguistic relativity”, if you prefer) that controlling the words actively prevents people thinking against their ideology. There’s not much evidence to suggest that is definitely the case, and is why Orwell’s Newspeak concept almost certainly wouldn’t work in reality.

    I would say that the twisting of words instead makes it very difficult for people of alternative views to actually converse with those who went through things like ACE. They’re changing the dialect they use so much that it becomes impossible to have a normal, productive conversation about things like “socialism” with those outside of “Christian” education. This is why you can still get through if you avoid those words and instead go straight in for what you mean – take the study that showed Americans had a socialist skew to their perception of wealth distribution, and would even prefer it to be even redistributed. That was taking the language out of the equation and just dealing with fairly robust observations instead, and so language was no longer a barrier. The result was that peoples’ actual ideology didn’t seem to reflect their word choices.

    So, in short, it’s less like their ideology is brainwashed into them by language, but that it just becomes impossible to talk about it and assess it with “outsiders”, leaving them in a very protected, unchallenged bubble.

    • I agree– the biggest problem is that words are so utterly and completely re-defined.

      In my case, though, avoiding words like “socialism” and “liberal” would not be enough. I was indoctrinated in so many aspects of economics, politics, and religion, that even if you avoided using the words, I’d still have the automatic negative reaction to what you were saying. No amount of conversation worked– I was taught to always be on the defensive. Always. It wasn’t until I spent a few years in grad school and actually started meeting people and treating them like they were human beings instead of ideological opponents that anything changed.

      There are many children, especially homeschooled kids, that went through an unbelievable amount of indoctrination in groups like Institute of Basic Life Principles (ATI) and TeenPact. In this type of environment, it goes so far beyond re-definitions.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        I agree– the biggest problem is that words are so utterly and completely re-defined.

        The principle of “redefinition into diabolical meanings”, My Dear Wormwood…

    • Thanks armandikov. That’s useful; I hadn’t come across the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity. I agree that it’s probably not credible to argue that people can’t question their beliefs just by redefining some words. But what you can do, I think, is make them feel something is evil without using any rational or logical argument.

      • It’s about controlling the terms so that you conjure up the right images when something is said. If you associate “atheist” with an image of Richard Dawkins eating a baby while raping a nun, then that’s always going to be in your mind whenever someone says “I’m an atheist” – no matter what they actually say. Getting out of that mentality is hard.

        Actually, the same thing happens with many atheists when they say “religion”, immediately assuming it’s all frothing-at-the-mouth fundamentalists when it really isn’t. It’s the human condition, really – this “brainwashing” from things like ACE or Ken Ham’s approach to preaching to children merely amplifies it. On the other hand, proper critical thinking tries to limit the damage it can do.

  • Excellent post; it does a good job of exposing the manipulation of words to promote biased conclusions in discussion instead of thinking. Using labels and code words is certainly easier than developing an argument.

    The words you mention are so filled with baggage. Of course, the same is true with other words used in religious conversation: God, Christ, Sin, and many more. I find it difficult to use them without each time clarifying the definition free of the baggage, so I usually avoid them and use another word.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      For essays about “manipulation of words to promote biased conclusions” and restrict thought, I recommend:
      1) the one Screwtape Letter dealing with redefining words into their “diabolical meanings” (My Dear Wormwood) and
      2) “The Principles of Newspeak” by G.Orwell (the appendix to 1984).

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  • Reblogged this on The Ramblings of a Young Atheist and commented:
    Blog Update: I’m still wrestling between fun and exam revision, so today I’m posting another ‘repost’ to keep you guys entertained as I ignore you for the sake of grades… 😛 // So, here’s Jonny Scaramanga of ‘Leaving Fundamentalism’ (guest posting for the ‘Defeating the Dragons’ blog) on the “thought-terminating clichés” his childhood ‘Accelerated Christian Education’ curriculum span with their divisive, Orwellian use of language. Enjoy. // Carnun 😛

  • this post i read recently (ya’ll may have seen it) gave an interesting insider’s perspective on brainwashing

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    WHERE did you get those creepy illustrations? Especially the second one (at the bottom) — that looked like Me when I was in high school! (And with a somewhat dumb-sounding voice on top of looks like that, I used to get beat up and threatened with gang rape.)

    • I believe they are from Accelerated Christian Education’s PACES curriculum.

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