Some Stories about Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom

Review of
Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom: Personal and Philosophical Essays.
Edited by Peter Caws & Stefani Jones, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.

Many years ago Oxford philosopher, Richard Hare, suggested “that many of the dark places in ethics might be illuminated if philosophers would address themselves to considering the question, ‘How should I bring up my children?'” Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom represents an interesting and unique attempt to address this question. Eleven philosophers share stories of their religious upbringing, and then reflect on this and draw some moral lessons. Each of the philosophers was brought up religiously, though in varying degrees of narrowness and strictness – Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Mormon, Mennonite, and Muslim. Each of them also broke free, in one way or another, from the religious upbringing that was “imposed” on them as children.

Some of the stories are sad. A few of the contributors describe actually being beaten by their parents as they showed signs of growing apostasy (pp. 72, 201). The co-editors of this volume, one growing up in a family which belonged to the Exclusive Brethren, a nineteenth-century offshoot of the Church of England” (p. 214), and the other as a Mormon in Provo, Utah, each highlight the withholding of love and affection as a means of discouraging their growing skepticism about the religion into which they were nurtured (pp. 207, 210, 234). The path to freedom for many of the contributors to this volume was a long and painful process. A few of the stories in this anthology describe less severe religious upbringings, with less painful journeys to greater freedom. The journey of Glen Pettigrove, for example, “was not a sudden, acrimonious rejection of religion or even of Christianity,” but rather a gradual shift from a fundamentalist Wesleyan and Baptist upbringing, to a more liberal Presbyterianism (135-6). This shift was hardly noticed by most of those who were responsible for his upbringing, and when noticed, was met with a loving and supportive response. Interestingly, Pettigrove’s contribution to this anthology is the only one that gives “a qualified defense” of religious indoctrination (p. 136).

Nearly all of the essays use the term “religious indoctrination” to describe their upbringing. But what does this term mean? Sometimes indoctrination is described simply as the passing on of religious beliefs from parent to child, or from one generation to the next (p. 217). The editors consider such “limited indoctrination” as not necessarily posing a moral problem (p.4). But most of the essays consider any sort of indoctrination, however mild, to be morally blameworthy (cf. Hirst, p. 174). Tasia Persson even equates indoctrination with brainwashing (Ch. 6, p. 112). Another odd usage of the term is introduced by Irfan Khawaja, brought up as a Muslim, who talks about “self-indoctrination” (Ch. 2, pp. 27, 32).

Clearly there is some confusion surrounding the meaning of religious indoctrination, as the editors themselves admit in their introduction (p.3). It is unfortunate that nearly all of the writers completely ignore the extensive literature on the concept of indoctrination that has emerged over the years in the philosophy of education. (see, for example, my Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination, and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Co-published by Gracewing, Leominster, U.K.) 1993.) Only Glen Pettigrove’s essay draws on this literature, and in my opinion this essay gives the most insightful analysis of the meaning and moral assessment of indoctrination.

Though not always entirely consistent, several writers astutely point to a fundamental problem with viewing all indoctrination as morally blameworthy. Children are by their very nature dependant, vulnerable, and impressionable. Stefani Jones, draws on Simone de Beauvior, and her use of the term “impinging” to describe the influence of parents on children who are dependent and vulnerable (208). Such “parental impinging” is not only inevitable, but also “absolutely necessary” for a child’s healthy development towards maturity, according to Jones. Indeed, as various philosophers of education have argued, children need to grow up in a secure and stable primary culture in order to develop into autonomous individuals. And, as is conceded by Raymond Bradley, despite his objections to growing up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, it nonetheless “gave me something tough to chew on, something to cut my teeth on intellectually (p.50). So maybe a narrow religious upbringing is an asset rather than a liability. Initiation into a primary culture is not itself a rational process, as Pettigrove argues, drawing on Wittgenstein, Gadamer and Mead, and this does not make such initiation morally problematic (p. 143). Growth towards rational autonomy is necessarily parasitic on children first being initiated into particular language-games and traditions typically given to them by their parents. It is therefore wrongheaded to characterize such initiation as morally problematic, or to label it indoctrination, understood in a pejorative sense.

But we still need to distinguish between justified and unjustified ‘impinging’ in parent-child relationships. Jones goes on to argue that “the degree to which parental impinging is justifiable is directly correlated to whether or not the impinging is aimed towards opening future possibilities for children or shutting them off” (208; cf. Hirst pp.169-75). I would only add that this is a gradual process and that it must also include the gradual enabling of children to critically evaluate their past upbringing, and the increasing release of parental control so that children can exercise their growing autonomy. On this account, religious indoctrination, understood as a pejorative term, involves the failure of parents and their religious community to combine the initiation of their children into a religious tradition with encouraging and facilitating the growth of their children towards autonomy. Clearly, on this account, the sad stories referred to earlier are indeed cases of religious indoctrination, understood in its pejorative sense.

Another confusion in these essays concerns the status of children with regard to autonomy. Tasia Persson, for example, describes even the child as having a right to autonomy, or as reaching, at some point, a “minimal rational capacity” (pp. 121, 127; cf. 149, 209). But, children are simply not adults. Nor do they suddenly achieve a minimal level of autonomy. Children grow towards autonomy. Interestingly, Persson gets beyond the either-or characterization of childrens’ autonomy in her conclusion when she asks whether it is possible for evangelical parents to fulfill their obligations to nurture their children in the faith and at the same time to respect their autonomy. She answers this question in the affirmative, reminding evangelicals that in a biblical worldview, choice for God is intended to be a free one. Hence evangelical parents “would do well to ensure that their children are given the chance to make autonomous choices by allowing them to develop the capacity for rational decision-making” (p. 131). Here you have a developmental approach to autonomy, which makes it possible to parents to give their children a religious upbringing and at the same time to gradually free them to make up their own minds about the faith into which they were nurtured. On this account, some of the critiques of the religious upbringing the authors received are unjustified, or at least softened

Such a combination of nurturing faith and nurturing autonomy at the same time is indeed possible, and is perhaps more achievable than most of the contributors to the book under review acknowledge. This collection of essays would have been stronger if it would have included a few more stories that would have illustrated this possibility. In the Introduction, the editors claim that they selected “a good representation of the variety of personal experiences, philosophical analyses, and religious orientations we encountered” (p.3). I believe a few stories of religiously committed philosophers who retained the faith into which they were nurtured should have been included in this anthology. Occasionally I felt the contributors to this volume were a little too preoccupied with giving vent to all their objections to the religion within which they were brought up (e.g. Bradley, Ch.3). Several writers also hint at another question that could have received more attention (Overall p.22; Dupont, p.93; Enns, p. 184): Is growing up in a skeptical home or a liberal university environment indoctrinatory? Nevertheless, this volume is a valuable contribution to answering the question, “How should we bring up our children?” and should be of interest to philosophers and practitioners of education, teachers in religious education, ethicists, and scholars in the religious studies.

(A condensed version of this review was first published in Studies in Religion, June, 2013, 42:262-4)


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