Author Interview: John Tillson

Author Interview: John Tillson

John Tillson is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at Liverpool Hope University. His recent book, Children, Religion and the Ethics of Influence, is reviewed here

Questions: Naomi Hodgson

Why did you decide to write Children, Religion and the Ethics of Influence?

It has been said that that you need only ask a PhD student what they are writing about to see what unresolved issues they have. Perhaps that is true of the doctoral work which this book grew out of. I had a Catholic upbringing and attended religious schools from age 5 to 18. At primary school, I caused a scandal by asking a friend to sneak a prophylactic into school for me to see. Our teachers never told us about them. At exactly 3pm each day throughout secondary school, we would hear the deputy head saying over the PA system, ‘It is now the hour of Christ’s death, let us pause and reflect’. Later, I trained as a teacher of Religious Education and my first job was in a Catholic school. With all of this I was kind of curious as to what moral rights children might have over whether and how they were introduced to religions.


What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now?

The book argues that it is a significant moral wrong to initiate children into religious belief whether in the home or at school. This is important since parents still initiate their children into their religions and send them to schools which further serve this aim.   


What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?

I hope the book is read by religious education trainees and that it helps them to think critically about the subject’s raison d’être. I also hope that it is read by philosophers and educational theorists working in different areas (e.g. in mind, morality, epistemology, curriculum theory and educational aims), and receives sustained and serious critical attention from some of them. I think of the book’s argument as being highly modular, with parts that might be swapped out for more plausible alternatives while retaining a recognizable and attractive structure, and which might be repurposed to answer analogous questions. It would be lovely if some of those mentioned above engaged with it in this way. I’ll be happy if some of the novel formulations and considerations get incorporated into future work.


What’s your current project? What’s next?

Together with Winston C. Thompson, I am PI on an inter-disciplinary project entitled, Pedagogies of Punishment (a title which we have you [Naomi] to thank for). We have just seen through to publication a special of issue of Theory and Research in Education addressing a range of normative questions concerning the morality of punishing school children. Presently we are collating invited abstracts for a proposed volume and are co-authoring an article about which principles should guide and constrain school discipline. Readers may like to check out our blog series which features posts by Victor Tadros, George W Holden, Martha Minow and others on the project website (


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter?

Philosophy is the a priori study of the most general features of the world, with a view to systematically understanding how things are, and how things ought to be. Philosophy of education is interested in some subset of these questions which we find implicated in formulating an attempt to answer questions about education. I tend to start with relatively practical, particular questions (such as what we ought to tell children about something or whether we ought to treat them in some way), and find myself asking more general, theoretical questions (such as what religion or punishment are and what might make them valuable). Finding better ways of asking and answering these questions matters because it can help us to recognize and avoid moral and epistemic errors.