The II. World War had ended only five years before I was born in western Germany. And already as a child I ‘knew’ who is good and who is bad and who is right and who is wrong: the Russians were bad and the Americans were good. The Roman Catholics were right and the Protestants were wrong and all others very wrong. For long I never questioned those axioms. They seemed to be fundamentals. Everyone around shared them. I never had seen a Russian, but surely they were not normal people like us Germans. They were terrifying. They had taken part of our country and could come for more. Whereas the Americans had sent us food and when their army convoys drove through our small town, the soldiers threw chewing gum and waved to us children. No doubt they were good.
When I grew up this mind set weakened but lingered. I still remember my first meeting with Russians: I was sitting in the foreigners’ office in Trichy in 1984. It was still the cold war era. On the same bench next to me two men were sitting. The officer said to them “She is German” and to me, “They are Russians”, and we immediately bent forward and stared at each other. Then we laughed. The barrier was broken.
Luckily I also managed to breach the other barrier that is more difficult to overcome because terrible punishment is threatened if one dares to ‘leave the true faith’ – the barrier that made Catholics, or at least Christians, right and others wrong. It was instilled very effectively from childhood. Whenever ‘Catholic Church’ was mentioned, and it was often mentioned, a long prefix went with it: “alleinseligmachende”. It meant that the Catholic Church alone is capable of saving one’s soul. And if one goes astray it held out the most horrific punishment that can be imagined: burning eternally in hellfire. An adult who has not been taught about eternal hell in childhood in all likelihood will not believe it exists. How could God be so cruel to let his children burn in hell for ever and ever? And that too on the basis of only one and possibly disadvantaged life? Even the most heartless parent would not wish such a fate for his disobedient offspring. Yet a child does not reason and believes what he is told and eternal hell appears real and terribly frightening for young minds.
I still remember that at the age of nine I had skipped Sunday Mass. Skipping Sunday Mass was at that time a cardinal sin with hell as punishment. How much I feared I could die before I had confessed my sin to the priest! I did not doubt that in that case I would go to hell.
Fortunately some of our nuns in boarding school were exceptionally hypocritical. That made it easier to get out of the mindset that only Catholics go to heaven and others go to hell. Further, the priest who was teaching religion was not convincing with his proof that ‘our’ God exists. I found, however, proof in physics: if this whole universe, we included, is basically one energy, then this all pervading energy must be God. A God that is for everyone, not just for Christians.
I share these personal details to show how easily children are influenced and in many cases for life. I had heard of ‘brainwashing’ already in primary school. The Russians were doing it, we were told. I imagined then that brains were actually washed. Later I realised that it was about repeating a falsehood till it is believed it to be true. I felt it was bad to do this to people, little realising that we too were brainwashed. We too were told falsehoods and made to believe them. Our whole society collaborated to impart certain views: Russians were bad. Heathens go to hell. God loves only Catholics. And we children believed it.
There is reassurance and a sense of strength in belonging to a big group of likeminded people and great danger – the danger that ‘others’ who don’t belong to one’s group are eyed suspiciously and even hatred for them can be easily whipped up. And when hate is whipped up, human values, love and kindness have no place anymore and the ugly face of mankind comes to the fore. It happened in Nazi Germany, it happened in communist countries and it happened in the numerous religious wars over the centuries and is still happening in the name of religion.
Strangely, religion, which is meant to connect us with God and make us virtuous, is the major cause of conflict in our world. Yet it may not appear so strange if one takes a closer look at the two big monotheistic religions: Christianity and Islam. Both religions claim that they alone are the ‘only true religion’ and that their God is ‘the only true God’ and everyone has to join them to be saved. Naturally, this is a recipe for conflict. These supremacy claims need to be examined and shown for what they are: claims that are neither based on reason, intuition, science or common sense, depending entirely on blind faith that is indoctrinated in childhood. Unless it is generally acknowledged (which actually should be easy because it makes sense) that there is truly only one ‘God’ or however one wants to call That to which we all (Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Atheists, etc.) owe our existence, there is little chance for humanity to live in peace.
It is natural to think that one’s religion is the best and there is nothing wrong in this attitude. Or else, why would one follow it? But does anyone own the Truth? Does Truth not own us? Is Truth not upholding all of us?
UNICEF and those in education would have a task cut out for them, if they were to take up the issue of brainwashing of children into hating the ‘other’. There is, however, one problem: are those in politics, education and religion and those working for UNICEF still afflicted from their own brainwashing as children? Do they still divide humanity into those who are good and those who are bad? Into those who are right and those who are wrong? Into those who go to heaven and those who go to hell? Or can they see that we all belong to one big family whose members are different in many aspects and carry different labels, yet nevertheless we all are siblings, permeated and animated by the same life force?
by Maria Wirth