learning the words: brainwashing

pocket watch

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.

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like