Cover image for Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom: Personal and Philosophical Essays Edited by Peter Caws and Stefani Jones

Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom

Personal and Philosophical Essays

Edited by Peter Caws and Stefani Jones


$78.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03679-3

$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03680-9

256 pages
6" × 9"

Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom

Personal and Philosophical Essays

Edited by Peter Caws and Stefani Jones

Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom is a creative compilation of essays that challenges the boundaries of philosophy by, in effect, initiating a serious dialogue with religion from the standpoint of a mostly secularist community through the medium of philosophical autobiography. These essays also challenge the meaning of religious indoctrination and examine the complex relation of religious life to cultural development.”


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The essays in Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom are the personal stories of philosophers who were brought up religiously and have broken free, in one way or another, from restraint and oppression. As trained philosophers, they are well equipped to reflect on and analyze their experiences. In this book, they offer not only stories of stress and liberation but ruminations on the moral issues that arise when parents and other caregivers, in seeking to do good by their children, sometimes end up doing real harm to their personal development and sense of autonomy as individuals.

In addition to the editors, the contributors are Raymond D. Bradley, Damien Alexander DuPont, Diane Enns, Paul H. Hirst, Amalia Jiva, Irfan Khawaja, Christine Overall, Tasia R. Persson, and Glen Pettigrove.

Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom is a creative compilation of essays that challenges the boundaries of philosophy by, in effect, initiating a serious dialogue with religion from the standpoint of a mostly secularist community through the medium of philosophical autobiography. These essays also challenge the meaning of religious indoctrination and examine the complex relation of religious life to cultural development.”
“[The essays in Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom] explore the ethics of responsible parenting and the demarcation of education from indoctrination, [and] are often insightful and worthy of careful study.”
“The stories [in Religious Upbringing and the Costs of Freedom] are full of interesting examples and vivid details. Every story is one of quality and depth.”

Peter Caws is University Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Human Sciences at George Washington University.

Stefani Jones earned her master’s degree in philosophy and doctorate in human sciences at George Washington University. She is now employed in the IT industry.



Introduction: The Indoctrination Project

Peter Caws and Stefani Jones

Part 1: Childhood Vulnerability and Internalized Belief

1. Indirect Indoctrination, Internalized Religion, and Parental Responsibility

Christine Overall

2. Religious Indoctrination and the Wish for the Irrevocable: Reflections on a Muslim Upbringing

Irfan Khawaja

3. From Fundamentalist to Freethinker (It All Began with Santa)

Raymond D. Bradley

4. Growing Up to Question Catholicism: Emotional Suffering, the Euthyphro, and the Life of the Mind

Damien Alexander Dupont

Part 2: Reconfiguring the Morality of Indoctrination

5. Biting into the Hermeneutical Apple: Biblical Literalism and the Lure of Uncertainty

Amalia Jiva

6. Autonomy and Indoctrination in Evangelical Christianity

Tasia Persson

7. Indoctrination, Autonomy, and Authenticity

Glen Pettigrove

Part 3: Embodiment, Family, and Conflict

8. From Revelation and Faith to Reason and Agnosticism

Paul H. Hirst

9. For the Love of Paradox: Mennonite Morality and Philosophy

Diane Enns

10. Finding My Voice

Stefani Jones

11. Tragedies of Belief

Peter Caws

About the Contributors



The Indoctrination Project

Peter Caws and Stefani Jones

The essays in this book belong to two genres at once: they are memoirs, and they are philosophical analyses; they tell stories, and they make arguments. The stories are personal, the arguments more general. Their authors have two things in common: they have been trained in philosophy, but they were brought up religiously, in various strict versions of more or less familiar doctrines: Baptist, Catholic, Mormon, Mennonite, and Muslim. Each of them has had to break free, in one way or another, from restraint and oppression. Each has come to a mature view that rejects some or all of the teachings that were imposed upon them as children.

Everyone has to come to terms with a few basic conditions: embodiment, family, sexuality, interpersonal relations, the expectation of death. Many people deal with these things in ways accepted uncritically from their cultures of origin and do not consider them exceptionally problematic or stressful. A small minority think seriously about them and come to conclusions at odds with the culture, adopting new ways of life accordingly, and many of these remain on good terms with the unthinkingly orthodox. But some of the orthodox who are fanatically attached to their principles insist on conformity, exacting penalties for thought or behavior outside cultural norms—in some cases extreme penalties, as, for example, death for women who offend the supposed honor of their faith or family by marrying outsiders. Groups whose members behave in this way have come to be called “high demand organizations.”

This clash of rebels and fanatics plays itself out continuously in less dramatic forms. Fierce Muslim youth in madrassas and ecstatic Christian youth in Sunday schools and summer Bible study camps help to keep ideological oppositions (and their deadly political consequences) alive, but we hear less about the independent young people who resist their indoctrination and break away. What enables them to see past the official stories and strike out for understandings of their own? What forms of coercion and rejection are they subjected to—how costly is the freedom they achieve in terms of family affection and social acceptance?

It is hard to get good evidence on these points. People do not advertise their histories, so it is not usually obvious which of us have passed this way. The editors of this book did not initially know this about each other. In the course of working together in the Ph.D. program in the Human Sciences at the George Washington University we discovered (in the context of a small reading group on feminist ethics) a community of personal interest in the fact that under different regimes, at different times, and in different places, we had been subjected to similar ordeals—the frequent and all too familiar ordeals of children brought up by stubbornly religious parents. We came respectively from the Exclusive Brethren in England in the 1930s and 1940s, and from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah in the 1970s and 1980s. It was not surprising that the dissertation topic we agreed on should reflect an interest in parental influences on the potential autonomy of their children.

When that work was finished and defended, we reopened a discussion that had begun along the way about the possibility of writing a joint article on the specific moral issues that arise when the convictions of one generation have a determining effect on the freedom of the next. But a scholarly article would capture only part of what concerned us; it would not convey a sense of the lived experience of indoctrination and of the work involved in achieving liberation from it. Here already our histories diverged, the details of the religious background and the reaction of the faithful to our apostasy (a term fraught with significance for believers) being quite different in the two cases. Mormons tend to be inclusive—those who lapse are still considered members and would no doubt be welcomed back at any time. But Exclusives are true to their name, and cut off those who lapse as rapidly and definitively as possible. So the vivid autobiographical parts of each story would not be easy to incorporate smoothly into the same text.

The project therefore remained tentative until it occurred to us that since presumably not too many people in the field were aware of our own intellectual origins, there were probably others out there of whose origins we and the rest of the profession were similarly unaware, even though they might have be as difficult and as interesting as ours. The idea of an article therefore metamorphosed into the idea of a book—this book.

Our suspicions about others having similar experiences were confirmed by the number of enthusiastic responses we received to our call for papers. There were not just a few people whose interest in philosophy helped them come to terms with their own childhood religious indoctrination, but dozens scattered around the world. And their personal stories differed, at times drastically. We eventually selected what we think to be a good representation of the variety of personal experiences, philosophical analyses, and religious orientations we encountered. The autobiographical components of the chapters reflect the nature of each writer’s childhood community of belief and the price that had to be paid to escape from it. Most, though not all, of these histories involved some degree of personal stress. The professional components look at the moral issues that arise when caregivers try to coerce the beliefs of those entrusted to them, particularly when this involves restricting opportunities for personal development, the withholding of love, and so on.

The testimonies and reflections collected here are diverse, but their common theme gives them a striking unity. Their importance goes far beyond the bounds of professional philosophy—the fates of nations hang on the conflicting views with which each new generation of citizens is indoctrinated. If the world is to be really free, the chains of belief that seem to descend inexorably from parents to children, from religious and political leaders to their followers, have to be broken—in our own culture no less than in alien ones. We want to draw attention, through concrete examples, to the moral responsibilities of those who influence the young—responsibilities not only to those who resist, but even more to those who do not. While our examples are drawn from contexts in which there are overt religious agendas, the issues they raise are no less important in education generally, with its burden of unstated ideological and even theological assumptions.

While all our authors were brought up in religious familial or community contexts, the reactions of their coreligionists to their apostasies varied. For some, the break was painful and included varying degrees of estrangement from family. Others had the comparative luxury of calmly sorting through what is objectionable about inculcating a belief system and what is not. Their conclusions do not always agree. One source of disagreement is the concept of “indoctrination” itself. Is indoctrination necessarily coercive, or can it be benign? It seems inevitable that young children should be “indoctrinated” in the sense of being constrained to certain sorts of behavior, and beliefs about that behavior, while still too young to understand and appreciate the reasons why the behavior and the beliefs are desirable. But up to what age is it permissible to impose these things without explanation? or without consent? (note that explanation and consent do not necessarily come into play at the same age). Limited indoctrination does not necessarily pose a moral problem, provided that children are also taught the skills to critically examine the rules, principles, and beliefs that were indoctrinated and then encouraged to use those skills as soon as they are able to act responsibly on their own. Learning to act responsibly and autonomously has less to do with acquiring a belief system or framework than it has to do with developing the ability to decipher for oneself what one should do. Abuses of parental authority tend to result in diminished space for the child to practice freedom. When the initiative is not eventually handed over to the children, when indoctrination offers no space for them to become free and autonomous, parents are abusing their authority.

A central theme of this book, then, is an exploration into the ways that religious indoctrination interferes with a child’s discovery of freedom. It is through other people, most often parents, that children are first introduced to the world and are provided with or inhibited from access to it. Children are always born into specific situations, into particular social and cultural contexts with already established moral and value systems, within which they become adults. In coming to terms with their freedom, they need the opportunity to deconstruct these systems and then to reconstruct them in ways they can call their own. For them to have the best chances of developing the self-esteem and confidence required to strike out for an autonomous understanding takes parental recognition and support.

Young people who are not offered such recognition and support may find the strength to embark on this voyage alone, but they often bear emotional scars from abandoning internalized systems of belief and coming to terms with rejection from family and community. Several of our contributors fit this description. Their stories reveal that the costs of autonomy are lived both internally and externally—in psychological upheaval, and in estrangement from loved ones and the communities that provided their first introduction to the world. Others, though, while undergoing changes no less radical, went through the process with less overt interference from without. Our first chapter, by Christine Overall, represents such a case. It describes an upbringing in the Anglican Church in Canada—not a setting normally associated with rigidity in doctrine. But as the author points out, indoctrination can happen indirectly, simply from the immersion of an impressionable child in a culture of belief, even belief not especially strongly held by the adult members of the relevant community. It can take hold just as effectively, if the child is serious and thoughtful, as in more coercive cases, and getting free of it may be just as distressing and require just as much work (if less family trauma).

The second chapter, by Irfan Khawaja, echoes Overall’s experience in a starkly different cultural setting, that of a Sunni Muslim community in New Jersey. Rather than “indirect indoctrination,” Khawaja speaks of “self-indoctrination,” which follows again from the child’s immersion in a belief system, in this case an absolutist system that leaves virtually no room for nuance, let alone dissent. The apparently cast-iron completeness of the doctrine answers to a human “wish for the irrevocable,” so that lesser certainties seem unreal by comparison. Yet this unreality may in fact be the reality of the world we live in, which must be reappropriated by a process of “counter-indoctrination.”

Chapter 3 takes us to a Baptist childhood and upbringing in New Zealand. Raymond Bradley’s family came well connected in the Baptist hierarchy, from his missionary grandfather to the renowned theologian E. M. Blaiklock, an avuncular figure who eventually became an opponent in debate. Bradley’s evolution into a freethinker went through family violence to professional maturity, leaving him with the conviction, shared by many of our contributors, that fundamentalist belief is “the most dangerous phenomenon of our times.”

Chapter 4, the last in the first section of the book, begins with an account of growing up Catholic in the American Bible Belt. The Catholic Church had the kind of grip on Damien Dupont that Islam had on Irfan Khawaja, with some psychological complications that make his story compelling in a different way. But Dupont performs a similar deconstruction of the absolutist doctrines of the Church. He concludes that all indoctrination is abusive, particularly of vulnerable children. Indoctrination may occur in nonreligious contexts; this too is contingently abusive, but religious indoctrination is constitutively so.

The next three chapters take a gentler approach. Amalia Jiva (Chapter 5) was a Romanian Baptist who on resettlement in the United States found herself a student at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. She is critical of fundamentalist indoctrination and has rejected its literalism, but that rejection was experienced less as an opening out into freedom than as an introduction to a productive uncertainty, which she treasures. In Chapter 6 Tasia Persson, raised a conservative evangelical, undertakes a careful critique of the moral risks and consequences of indoctrination, and wonders whether evangelical parents might find ways of teaching their children that are not coercive and manipulative. And in Chapter 7 Glen Pettigrove, son of a Wesleyan pastor, describes a gradual and relatively stress-free transition from fundamentalism to a more liberal position, not involving the wholesale rejection of belief at which some of our contributors have arrived, and offers what he calls a “qualified defense of religious indoctrination,” which need not as he sees it involve coercion or irrationality, or be inconsistent with autonomy and authenticity. It becomes morally objectionable only when it compromises autonomy or violates trust. Pettigrove’s chapter takes a more benign view than that of some other chapters as to the possibility of avoiding these outcomes, and recommends a presumption of innocence with respect to indoctrination rather than one of suspicion.

The final section of the book comprises four accounts of upbringings in radically doctrinaire sects. Paul Hirst and Peter Caws come from different parts of England and different offshoots of the Plymouth Brethren, a loose grouping which was itself an offshoot from the Church of England in the 1830s—in Caws’s case the suburbs of London and the Taylorite Exclusive Brethren, in Hirst’s the industrial north and the Glanton Brethren (named for a village in Northumberland where a tempest in a doctrinal teapot led to a split in the Exclusives in 1908). Diane Enns grew up among Russian Mennonites in Ontario, and Stefani Jones as part of a Mormon family in Utah. In Chapter 8 Hirst recounts his spare, strict, and affectively bleak life as the child of an all too spiritual father and the opening up of perspective provided, among other things, by an exposure to mathematics and sex. But he was able to find his way to Cambridge and philosophy without making a complete break with his family—his slow, but final departure from belief tracked his career as a professional philosopher.

In Chapter 9 Enns describes the constricted life of immigrant fundamentalists, its grip on her—its inculcation of mistrust of the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of human life—but also its inconsistencies and moral flaws, and traces the path that led her to feminism and phenomenology. Jones too, in Chapter 10, comes to feminism, in part as a reaction to the situation of women in the Mormon Church, but helped by the liberating influence of some significant women with whom she was fortunate enough to study as an undergraduate. In her case the suppression of women’s voices leads her to stress the importance of finding her own. Finally in Chapter 11 Caws places his main emphasis on the doubly tragic conflict between a son who cannot maintain belief and parents who cannot imagine life or salvation without it.

These thumbnail sketches of the chapters that follow stress their diversity, but for the most part overlook an important component that in different forms is present in all. The authors, as remarked at the beginning, are professional philosophers, and each refers in one way or another to his or her intellectual formation, reading, and experiences of the academy. Some of them give striking insights into specific university settings, notably Paul Hirst’s account of the philosophical life of Oxford and Cambridge at critical moments in his history. And as professional philosophers most of them engage in serious conceptual and analytical work on the leading topics of the book—indoctrination itself and its moral status, freedom of thought and the human price it sometimes exacts. It can safely be said that none of them would be willing to go back to their points of departure; what they all would wish, we think, is that their experiences might serve as encouragement to others who may have to follow similar personal and philosophical trajectories.

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