Book Review: Children, Religion, and the Ethics of Influence

Book Review: Children, Religion, and the Ethics of Influence, by John Tillson

London: Bloomsbury, 2019. 195 pp. £90 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-350-06679-3. £97.20 (ebook), ISBN: 978-1-350-06681-6.

Reviewed by David Lewin

In the first sentence of page one, Tillson clearly states the ‘primary question’ of this book: ‘how may we ethically influence children with respect to religions?’ As I will go on to discuss, the ‘how’ here is discussed primarily as an issue of justification: how is religious influence justified? To answer this question, Tillson proposes 7 sub-questions, which he addresses in chapters 2-8 and which contribute to answering the primary question. The sub-questions are:

  1. What are the sources of ethical responsibility?
  2. What is the most general content of ethical responsibility?
  3. In what respects are we apt to be formatively influenced?
  4. What means of formative influence are available?
  5. What ethical obligations and restrictions are there on the means by which and the ends towards which we formatively influence children?
  6. What is a religion?
  7. How rational is religious belief?

The final chapter then considers the implications of the foregoing discussions and draws together the argumentative threads to attempt to answer the primary question. Thus, the ‘argumentative strategy,’ as Tillson puts it, is clearly stated.

One might notice from the series of sub-questions that the issue of religion arrives rather late. This is significant as much of what Tillson has to say is, in fact, about general influence: its nature, purposes, and most importantly of all, its justification. In my view it is helpful to approach the question of religious influence by way of a discussion of general influence. But Tillson could have said more about the relation between the two and, in particular, what is distinctive and significant about specifically religious influence. Indeed, I wonder whether a thorough treatment of the ethics of influence in general would address – and potentially resolve – many of the problems raised in and by the text, and might also avoid some of the ‘undecidable’ problems and confusions peculiar to discussions of religion. By this I have in mind the fact that the nature of religion is complex and contested, and that the particular conception we have of religion often seems to reflect our own perspectives. If we could address the book’s guiding questions in terms of general influence and the many forms that influence can take (moral, aesthetic, political, intellectual and so on) then perhaps the questions of specifically religious influence would look rather different and would seem less urgent, a point I will further elaborate below.

Nevertheless, the question of specifically religious influence is central to the book. Tillson certainly attempts to be clear when defining religion as requiring belief in superbeings and submission to these beings as having rightful dominion (p. 164). As a reader I was left rather dissatisfied by this definition, but more importantly, the definition seems to be overtaken by a broader, and perhaps more powerful, notion of a ‘comprehensive doctrine.’ Indeed, on the last page of the book Tillson confesses that, in fact, the argument might be better framed in terms of the ethics of influence around ‘comprehensive doctrines.’ In other words, the key question could be: under what circumstances is influence of someone’s comprehensive doctrines defensible? For Tillson, religions themselves are comprehensive doctrines: ‘[r]eligions are doctrinally totalizing, that is to say that they are often close to a theory of everything…[r]eligions often have cosmological hypotheses, but they also make prescriptions and evaluations…[t]hey have readymade answers to lots of questions that are to be accepted wholesale’ (p. 168). It seems as though Tillson has in mind here something both ontological as well as ethical, and that the comprehensive nature of religion is defined by the fact that it gives answers to questions such as what is the reality like? and how should I live?

What happens if the reader takes issue with this characterisation of the nature of religion? This raises both empirical and theoretical questions: First, are the things that people call religions really as Tillson characterises them here? We could look at different objects that people call religions to see whether they have the appropriate characteristics (belief in superbeings etc.).  Second, we could ask whether we should characterise religions in this way. If common sense or ordinary language provides a list, what are we to make of marginal ‘religions’ (e.g. Jediism, Wicca, Marxism etc.)?

Raising such questions might invite accusations of intellectual dishonesty: don’t we know, broadly speaking, what we mean by religion? Isn’t common sense or ordinary language use sufficient here? There will be cases of what many people call ‘religions’ that look, prima facie, very much like Tillson’s characterisation: they appear to provide guidance to actions, and they appear to provide an account of what the world is like. The problem here could be that neither common sense nor ordinary language are reliable guides. That is to say, whose common sense or ordinary language do we rely on? I would suggest that the term religion is used by enough people, in sufficiently diverse ways around the world, to demonstrate that there are cases that fall outside of Tillson’s characterisation. Although an empirical question, this could lead us to ask: are those objects that fall outside this characterisation actually religions? Although Tillson is upfront with his definition, readers might wonder about which of the various possible characterisations account for most of the ‘religious’ phenomena of the world. Apart from the circularity of argument here, that we are depending on a preunderstanding of the very thing we seek to define, the problem with this approach is that we will tend to interpret the phenomena in the terms of our own (always circumscribed) experiences. We are, in other words, in a hermeneutic circle.

A hermeneutic view of education, and of understanding more generally, would not regard this circularity as a flaw, but as a conditioning feature of understanding itself. But what ought to follow is a hermeneutic approach that seeks to consider how our concepts are constructed and then to scrutinise the basis of those constructions. We must ask ourselves what structures the understanding (of religion); what assumptions do we make when we deploy terminology? These questions have great relevance to the way human phenomena (understandings, experiences, and practices) are interpreted as religious or not. For instance, those of us raised in the ‘Western European intellectual tradition’ (admittedly a very loose and problematic notion) tend to look for doctrines and belief as characteristic features of religious phenomena because that is how religions are framed in this intellectual tradition. From the perspective of hermeneutics, this notion of religion is interpreted as belonging to a particular tradition and we should take care not to universalise it. We may wish for some more general criteria, or some essential features, that allow us to say more systematically what to include or exclude from the category of religion. In general, my view is that we cannot expect to find essential features. The best we can hope for are some general features or, referencing Wittgenstein, family resemblances. What shows up as religious to us is not descriptively neutral, but reflective of our own perspective. In my own work I have tried to understand the relations between our general construction of religion within this ‘European intellectual tradition’ and how we construct the ‘problem’ of religion and education (Lewin 2016; Lewin 2017). This approach does not deny the diverse views of religion that exist, but seeks to contextualise them and develop some historical consciousness concerning our notions and how they are constructed in the image of our traditions and experiences. This goes some way to explain the fact that Western scholars of religion have sought to interpret other ‘religions’ in the terms of the key features with which they are familiar. An obvious example for educationalists (in Religious Education) is the way the categories of the ‘world religions paradigm’ in which the ‘big 5’ (or 6) religions are constructed for education, are derived from Western views of religious identity: we present religions in tabular form with each religion having to fit certain headings, e.g.: name of deity; founder; holy book; leadership; basic beliefs and so on (Cotter and Robertson 2016).

The point is that this view reflects a certain construction of religion and is not the only view of the matter. Consequent upon what might be called a ‘doctrinal’ view of religion we can observe the emergence of certain problems about how to reconcile religious influence with educational influence. In short, where religions are interpreted as doctrinal (about believing particular doctrines), we tend to worry about the problem of indoctrination. This doctrinal view of religion frames the interaction between religion and education in particular terms because doctrines are often understood to be mutually exclusive: to commit to Protestant Christian doctrine entails the rejection of Islamic, Hindu, or Catholic doctrine. This doctrinal and exclusivist view of religion is partial and many dimensions of religious experience and of religious life do not assume such a view of religion, or would take it to be a minor component of religious life (Lewin 2017). Whether or not one is persuaded that religion need not be exclusivist, or even doctrinal, the broader point here is that the way we construct religion has a significant bearing on the way the ‘problem’ of religion and education is constructed (see Strhan no date). Thus, it is the conditions of the debates within religion and education that interest me as much as their substance. So, what conditions Tillson’s argument? This is a hard question to answer directly and in detail, though I have already indicated that the notion of religion employed here is a product of a particular perspective.

Some of Tillson’s context seems evident in the notion of non-rational influence and concerns around indoctrination. In reference to (though not full agreement with) Michael Hand, R. S. Peters, and Stephen Law, Tillson seems to adopt a notion of indoctrination rooted in the idea of influence towards non-rational commitment to something (p. 88). However, I don’t see why we would use the term indoctrination for specifically non-rational forms of influence. I often influence my child without providing the reasons. I might give him reasons, but they may well not be my reasons. I might encourage him to do some colouring with a view to the development of fine motor skills or the formation of patience. I would not call this indoctrination even where I actively conceal my reasons from him while giving him reasons to satisfy him. Rather I would call this something like the pedagogical art.

A related problem of definition is how we might ever allow for ethically defensible influence in the terms that Tillson presents it. This brings us beyond the confines of specifically religious influence to ask about general influence. It is plausible to argue that, in fact, we influence each other all the time. Parents influence children, children influence parents. Teachers influence students and vice versa. Marketers influence consumers, doctors influence patients. Influence is more or less intentional or deliberate, and more or less rationally justified. I appreciate the emphasis on influence here as it so directly raises the question of the ethics of justification. In this sense, I find Tillson’s approach extremely engaging. One obvious criterion for determining the ethics of influence here will be the good of the influencee. Interestingly, Tillson chooses to define the concept of the good of the influencee with reference to acts that ‘brings us towards becoming like God’ (p. 29). If I have understood right, this apparent appeal to the theological tradition of becoming, or desiring to become, like God, in fact refers to a general conception of excellence or the good and so does not require one to believe in traditional theism. Nevertheless, what exactly does this reference to becoming God-like show? As suggested by both the theological tradition and the secularised form of Bildung, as expressed for example by Humboldt (Humboldt 1999), the concept of likeness to God is not clear cut, but a matter of some interpretation, even conflict. Such conflict might be resolved in different ways, but typically its resolution requires the expression of power and authority: the influencer is required to make a judgement concerning what ‘becoming like God’ looks like. The question of the authority to influence is at the heart of the justification for influence and so a more systematic treatment of this question would be welcome. This authority is related to a sincere intention for improving the influencee in some respect. This contrasts with the cigarette company that seeks to encourage smoking not for the good of the influencee, but for the good of the company and its shareholders. In general, the good of the influencee seems to justify considerable influence even where the child is unable to assess the nature or good of the influence itself. However, Tillson seems too committed to the idea that the influencee should be able to understand the nature of the influence.

For Tillson, the ethical problems come to the foreground where we seek to influence someone’s worldview without allowing the influencee to rationally scrutinise the influence. The characteristic feature of ethically defensible influence is that it should take ‘a basically rational form so far as that is practicable, but that non-rational means could be used where people, such as small children, are insufficiently rational to benefit from rational influence’ (p. 163). So Tillson acknowledges that non-rational forms of influence exist and are justifiable, but, apart from considering what is ‘comprehensive,’ Tillson does not seem to offer criteria for their justification, criteria that I suggest normally involve power and authority, as someone inevitably determines for someone else what the good looks like. It could be argued that rational means of influence will not be available if either: 1) the truth value of certain claims is unknown or 2) the influencee is unable to exercise rational evaluation of claims. As truth value can never be finally established, we are always speculating about what may be true without ever being able to know. The possibility of being wrong does not exclude the desire we have to exercise influence to the best of our intentions (I don’t know for sure if colouring in will help, but I encourage it with the hope that it will). So, Tillson rightly focuses on the desiderata that the influencee should, as far as possible, be able to exercise rational evaluation of claims. But again, what is overlooked here is the vast range of influences that simply cannot be rationally evaluated by the influencee. A child is inculcated into habits, ideas, dispositions, attitudes, skills, and desires from a very young age and it makes little sense to imagine that it would be preferable for all of these to be rationally evaluated. Where children are able to understand and accept the reasons for influence, they effectively give consent, and thus justification is given. It is precisely at the point where children cannot participate in the reasons the adult has for influence that makes the question of the justification of educational influence so worthwhile. Having said this, every idea, attitude, or disposition could, and probably should, find its point of alienation, or discontinuity, which might well involve a critical moment of rational interrogation. Thus the ‘first naïveté’ of our primary experiences and understandings of the world should go through a critical phase in which our initial worldview (e.g. beliefs about Santa or Christ) must either be abandoned as so much childishness, or perhaps reinterpreted in terms that acknowledge the reconfiguring power of the critical phase. Thus, we may (or may not) enter what Paul Ricoeur has called a post-critical second naïveté with respect to the religious traditions of our first formation (Ricoeur 1967).

In summary, although I am not convinced that attempts to influence someone (e.g. politically, aesthetically) involve less momentous (or comprehensive) influences than religious influences, this book provides a vital discussion of questions of influence and its justification. I wonder whether a thoroughgoing analysis of the question of non-rational influence would allow us to address these essential issues of influence and its justification without having to give (probably unsatisfactory) answers to the question: what is religion?


Cotter, C. & Robertson, D. G. (2016) (eds.). After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. (London: Routledge).

Humboldt, W. (1999) ‘Theory of Bildung’, Chapter 3, in Ian Westbury, Stefan Hopmann, Kurt Riquarts (eds.) Teaching As A Reflective Practice: The German Didaktik Tradition (London: Routledge).

Lewin, D. (2016) Educational Philosophy for a Post-secular Age (London: Routledge).

Lewin, D. (2017) ‘The Hermeneutics of Religious Understanding in a Postsecular Age’ Ethics and Education 12: 1, 73-83.

Ricoeur, P. (1967). The Symbolism of Evil, E. Buchanan, trans. (Boston: Beacon Press).

Strhan, A. (no date). Journal of Philosophy of Education.